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JOHNSTON (Johnstone), JAMES, merchant; b. c. 1724, probably at Stromness, in the Orkneys, Scotland; d. 8 April 1800 at Quebec.

James Johnston, whose origins and career before he came to Canada are unknown, arrived at Quebec during or soon after the conquest, probably to establish himself there as a merchant. On 22 June 1761 he rented a house on Rue des Pauvres for 1,000 livres a year, with the assurance that if the colony remained a British possession, he could purchase it for 12,000 livres, 3,000 in cash and the remainder in bills of exchange drawn on London. Although a Presbyterian, two months later he signed the petition requesting that John Brooke, the Anglican garrison chaplain, be named a missionary to Quebec. On 22 July 1762 Johnston went into partnership with another Scottish merchant, John Purss*, with whom he was to remain closely connected in both business and friendship until his death.

As a member of the British merchant community in the new colony Johnston joined in its political demands. In 1764 he was chosen foreman of the first grand jury by Williams Conyngham. An adversary of Governor Murray, Conyngham had succeeded in persuading the official responsible for appointments to the jury to entrust him with the task; according to the attorney general, George Suckling, the 14 British jurors he selected were “malcontents from not having been made magistrates and a few others whose want of understanding and whose situation in life rendered them [his] fit tools.” Johnston himself had been thwarted by the governor in his attempt to obtain a share of public property. The jury, most of whom were British merchants, opposed the ordinance of 17 Sept. 1764 which, it was thought, might well make the legal system costly, complicated, oppressive, and even unconstitutional since it allowed Catholics to act as jurors and lawyers in civil cases. During the assizes on 16 Oct. 1764 the Grand Jury proceeded, moreover, to make virulent denunciations of Governor Murray’s political, economic, and social policies. That year the Quebec merchants sent a petition demanding the governor’s recall, and Johnston was one of its signatories. In 1768, although deeming that Johnston had been “entering into Party against Mr. Murray with too much Warmth,” Guy Carleton* recommended him to Lord Shelburne, the secretary of state for the Southern Department, for a vacant seat on the Council at Quebec; he remarked that Johnston was “a Man of a very excellent Understanding, and likewise very fit.” Although he reiterated this recommendation the following year, it was not acted upon.

In 1767 Johnston, probably acting in the name of the firm of Johnston and Purss, and eight other shareholders took a lease on the Saint-Maurice ironworks; the two Scotsmen, however, parted with their shares to Christophe Pélissier some time before 1771. As early as 1770 at least, the firm of Johnston and Purss was conducting business from a rented site on the king’s wharf, adjoining the Cul-de-Sac in Quebec’s Lower Town. The two partners had good personal relations with various other Quebec merchants, including George Allsopp*, Jacob Jordan, and Adam Lymburner*. In addition John Johnston, one of James’s brothers, was their agent in London, and a young relative, David Geddes, represented them in the West Indies from 1772 on. At least during the 1780s Johnston and Purss engaged in the wheat trade, but a large share of their commerce with New York and the West Indies apparently consisted of a preparation called “essence of spruce for making beer,” the discovery of which they attributed to Johnston’s brother-in-law Henry Taylor, the owner of a Quebec distillery.

From 1784 Johnston, like most of the British merchants who had been silenced during the American revolution, began to attack the judicial system once more and again demanded a system of regulations more favourable to trade. Hence in November he signed a petition expressing these concerns and demanding a new constitution. He also supported Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton, who was favourable to the merchants’ demands, when he was recalled to England for having given the lease of the king’s posts to a group of his sympathizers in 1785. Two years later Johnston backed Chief Justice William Smith’s stand in favour of bringing the judicial system into line with that of England. Moreover in 1789, after the merchants’ spokesman in their protest against the administration of justice, Attorney General James Monk*, was dismissed for questioning the judges’ competence, Johnston was one of the merchants who assured him of their support.

Towards the end of the 1780s Johnston received tangible proof of the respect he had earned in the community. In 1787, in an ordinance providing for the construction of prisons and other public buildings, Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] appointed him one of the commissioners to draw up the plans and estimate costs for them, grant the contracts for land sales, and provide for the collection of the necessary taxes. Johnston did not, however, undertake these duties, since the application of the ordinance had been linked by the governor to approval by the British authorities and it never came into force. That year, when he was 63, he became an artillery captain in the British militia for the city and suburbs of Quebec, a post he retained until 1794, when he was promoted lieutenant-colonel. The firm of Johnston and Purss seems to have been only relatively prosperous during this period. Although it had an operating deficit of £756 in 1800, it owned real estate valued at £5,252 consisting of Johnston’s house and four others, ten warehouses, two wharfs, and a piece of land comprised of two building sites bought in 1782 in the parish of Beauport.

In the autumn of 1783 Johnston had married a young Scottish woman, Margaret Macnider, sister of the Quebec merchants Mathew and John* Macnider. The couple had two children, John Purss and Ann. Johnston, who had a strong feeling for family, maintained close ties with relatives in the Orkneys. Moreover, as guardian of his nephews John and Henry Taylor of Quebec, he sent the elder to England in 1779 “for the best school Education in England (at any Expence) preparative to his becoming in time a good man and a compleat Distiller.” To that end the young man was to study French, English, arithmetic, bookkeeping, geometry, trigonometry, natural sciences, and chemistry, but with the proviso that “none of his time be murdered in Latin or any other dead business Language.” In 1783 Henry followed his brother.

In November 1798 James Johnston made his will, and on 8 April 1800 he died at Quebec in his house on Rue Champlain. With his death the firm of Johnston and Purss was dissolved and its property holdings were divided by lot between his widow and children, who were still minors, on the one hand, and his former partner on the other.

André Bérubé

ANQ-Q, Greffe de M.-A. Berthelot d’Artigny, 17 août 1782; Greffe d’Alexandre Dumas, 2 août 1794, 9 sept. 1795; Greffe de J.-C. Panet, 22 juin 1761; Greffe de J.-A. Saillant, 4 avril 1771; Greffe de Charles Stewart, 17 juin 1793, 4 juin 1798; Greffe de Charles Voyer, 12, 16 mai, 8, 10 juin, 23 août 1800. Archives civiles, Québec, Testament olographe de James Johnston, 17 nov. 1798 [see P.-G. Roy, Inv. testaments, III, 64]. Orkney Archives, Orkney Library (Kirkwall, Scot.), D15/1/3; D15/3/1–3; D15/3/6; D15/3/10–11. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42], Q, 2, pp.233–49; 29, pp.534–39, 870–72; MG 23, GII, 19, 2, p.10; RG 4, A1, pp.6053–58. PRO, CO 42/28, ff.155–56; 42/29, f.31; 42/115, f.13. USPG, C/CAN/Que., I, 29 Aug. 1761. “Les dénombrements de Québec faits en 1792, 1795, 1798 et 1805 par le curé Joseph-Octave Plessis,” ANQ Rapport, 1948–49, 78, 80, 128, 131. Doc. relatifs à l’hist. constitutionnelle, 1759–91 (Shortt et Doughty; 1921), I, 187–91, 202–5. PAC Rapport, 1914–15, app.C, 205–7. Quebec Gazette, 22 Nov., 27 Dec. 1764, 29 Sept. 1766, 17 Dec. 1767, 3 Nov. 1785, 5, 26 July 1787, 11 Dec. 1788, 12 Nov. 1789, 28 Oct. 1790, 28 April, 16 June, 18 Aug. 1791, 28 Nov. 1793, 13 Feb., 3, 10, 24 July, 23 Oct. 1794, 11 June 1795, 29 June 1797, 16 July 1799, 10 April 1800, 14 May 1801, 5, 26 May 1803. Burt, Old prov. of Que. (1968), I, 99–100. Neatby, Administration of justice under Quebec Act, 344; Quebec, 37–38.

General Bibliography


André Bérubé, “JOHNSTON, JAMES (d. 1800),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_james_1800_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/johnston_james_1800_4E.html
Author of Article: André Bérubé
Title of Article: JOHNSTON, JAMES (d. 1800)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1979
Year of revision: 1979
Access Date: February 27, 2017