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HIGGINS, DAVID, ship captain, merchant, colonizer, and office-holder; m. 6 June 1773 Elizabeth Prince at Boston, Massachusetts; d. April 1783 at Charlottetown, St John’s (Prince Edward) Island.

Nothing is known of David Higgins’ background or early life. He first appears in the 1760s as a ship captain in the Gulf of St Lawrence fishery. In 1767, with merchants Hutcheson Mure and Robert Cathcart, he drew Lot 59 on St John’s Island in the Board of Trade lottery. Two years later he went into partnership with James William Montgomery, lord advocate of Scotland. Their plan was to develop Lot 59, which fronted on Cardigan Bay, and Montgomery’s adjacent Lot 51 as a fishing, lumbering, and mercantile centre. Probably as a result of his connections with Montgomery, Higgins was appointed naval officer of the Island as well as one of the first members of its Council. He was also authorized by the Earl of Hillsborough, secretary of state for the American Colonies, to take over custody of stores and provisions ordered to Charlottetown in 1768 by Lieutenant Governor Michael Francklin of Nova Scotia as part of his abortive attempt to favour his friends and business associates.

Higgins arrived on the Island in September 1769 and reported to Whitehall that Governor Walter Patterson would be disappointed if he expected “good houses provisions many utensils boats &c” from the Nova Scotia effort, since the buildings were unfinished and uninhabitable, the provisions spoiled, the boats in bad repair, and the stores and tools badly rusted and useless. Montgomery had supplied Higgins with a shipload of trade goods to sell to prospective settlers and an open letter of credit to the prominent Boston merchant Job Prince, Higgins’ future father-in-law. Higgins had no trouble disposing of these goods and subsequent provisions obtained in New England, which helped keep many newcomers to the Island from starvation, but most of his dealings were solely on credit. Higgins kept a store at Georgetown, and on Lot 59 he built a sawmill and grist-mill, cleared 30 acres for St Andrew’s Farm, and settled 32 small tenants, including a dozen Acadian families familiar with the fishery. He sent 22 shiploads of timber to Britain in the early 1770s, but because of depressed prices the expenses of preparation and shipment were barely cleared. Higgins served as foreman of the Island’s first grand jury, and he was appointed a “Public Pass Officer” for Georgetown in 1771 to prevent unauthorized departures from the Island by indentured servants. He was himself dismissed from the Council in 1773 for being absent from its meetings without leave.

By 1774 Montgomery was appalled at the charges on him, which totalled nearly £4,000 without visible return, and that year he stopped payment on Higgins’ bills of exchange and called him home for an accounting. On his way Higgins stopped at Boston to convey to Job Prince his interest in Lot 59 (and the buildings on it, which belonged to Montgomery) in repayment of some of his debts. In Scotland, Montgomery could make little sense of his partner’s books, but he wrote off the debt in return for Higgins’ third of Lot 59 (whose sale to Prince he did not discover until after Higgins’ death), another third of Lot 59 and half of Lot 12, which Higgins had come to acquire, and a bond for £2,400. In return, Higgins became lessee from Montgomery of two-thirds of Lot 59, half of Lot 12, all of Lot 51, and Panmure Island for a yearly rental of £100, which was to rise ultimately to £300. Having already invested and lost his wife’s “little fortune” and having resided on the Island for five years “in not much better a state than slavery,” Higgins felt obliged to return there in the summer of 1775 with another load of trade goods and an elaborate outfit for distilling molasses. With these items, presumably obtained on credit, he hoped to use Three Rivers (the region around Georgetown) in a triangular trade with Britain and the West Indies in fish, timber, molasses, and trade goods. The American War of Independence ruined his plans. His vessel was taken by privateers on the voyage out and he was able to ransom himself and his cargo only at great expense. Although he saved the precious distilling equipment this time, it was carried off in American raids on Three Rivers later in the war.

In July 1779 Higgins was elected to the House of Assembly but he resigned in March 1780 after serving as speaker. He was still trying to stay in business in 1781, when he wrote Haldimand* offering to serve as his agent in the Gulf, but in 1782 he gave up and moved his family to Charlottetown, returning to Three Rivers in a schooner upon which he loaded everything movable for sale at the capital. Most of the Island’s officials helped Higgins in his distress by taking off his hands at bargain prices such items as doors, windows, and blacksmiths’ equipment, although according to one observer, “Non will confess any part of it.” As a final indignity, one “Mr Barry” (probably Captain Walter Berry) carried off Higgins’ wife. Overwhelmed by his debts and his “Wife defiling his Bed,” Higgins went on a four-month drinking-bout that culminated in a fatal fever in April 1783. Another of Montgomery’s agents, David Lawson*, undertook administration of the Higgins estate and gained custody of the account books which Island rumour held showed large debts owed by leading government officials, especially Attorney General Phillips Callbeck. Montgomery, the principal creditor, was never able to recover the books despite years of litigation.

David Higgins was one of the Island’s most active and enterprising early adventurers, and he helped many settlers. Lieutenant Governor Thomas Desbrisay* wrote at Higgins’ death that he was “a man that did more service to the Lower Class of People here, than all the officers of Government, put together.” But service did not pay bills or satisfy creditors. Most of the money involved did not belong to Higgins, and he died a virtual bankrupt, testimony to the problems of the early merchants of St John’s Island.

J. M. Bumsted

BL, Add. mss 21734, f.127. PRO, CO 226/1, f.55; 226/4, ff.1–2, 29–32, 119–21, 175–78. Scottish Record Office (Edinburgh), Montgomery estate papers in the muniments of Messrs. Blackwood and Smith, W.S., Peebles, Estate papers, GD293/2/78/23, 28, 30, 45, 47, 61; 293/2/79/1, 19, 46, 49, 51, 52. Brebner, Neutral Yankees (1969), 85–86. A. H. Clark, Three centuries and the Island: a historical geography of settlement and agriculture in Prince Edward Island, Canada (Toronto, 1959).

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Cite This Article

J. M. Bumsted, “HIGGINS, DAVID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/higgins_david_4E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/higgins_david_4E.html
Author of Article:   J. M. Bumsted
Title of Article:   HIGGINS, DAVID
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 26, 2023