LAWSON, DAVID, farmer, land agent, and politician; b. c. 1720, probably near Muthill, Scotland; m. Ellen –, and they had five children; d. after 1803 on Prince Edward Island.
A Perthshire flax farmer, David Lawson was recommended in 1769 to Scotland’s lord advocate, James William Montgomery, to found and manage an agricultural settlement on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island. An agreement was reached whereby Lawson, financed by the lord advocate, would develop and oversee a flax farm on Montgomery’s Lot 34 in return for half the profits after seven years. Having recruited about 50 indentured servants in Perthshire, Lawson embarked with his family on the Falmouth and set sail from Greenock on 8 April 1770. After a long and difficult voyage – during which he was very sick – the Falmouth reached the Island early in June, anchoring first in Richmond (Malpeque) Bay and on the 8th in Stanhope Cove (Covehead Bay), where Lawson’s party was put ashore. There, having almost no food and no fresh water, they confronted a total wilderness. Expecting “better provisions than oatmeal and salt water” and shocked by the primeval conditions, the servants became restive and mutinous. Lawson spent most of the summer dealing with the discontent and attempting to clear land, obtain livestock, and manufacture farming equipment.
The process of clearing the forest went slowly. Not until 1772 did Lawson have sufficient land even to feed his people, let alone plant flax (they had, in the mean time, been supplied by Montgomery’s agent, David Higgins*). Misfortunes dogged the tiny settlement: during the first summer one servant was killed by a log he had felled, and two others drowned bringing in a cargo of rum; a dam and mill were twice destroyed by fire before 1777. At the very point, moreover, when the farm (called Stanhope after Montgomery’s Scottish estate) was becoming self-sufficient, the servants’ four-year indentures ran out. Most left the Island, but some took up farms on Lot 34 and weakened Lawson’s breeding herds by claiming the livestock they had been promised when signing their agreements in Scotland.
Nevertheless, within five years of his arrival Lawson had, by Island standards, a substantial farm in operation. He had become familiar with local agricultural conditions, grown some flax successfully, and sent soil samples home to Montgomery. He could not, however, demonstrate that his improvements were equal to the capital invested by Montgomery, much less that he was turning a profit. By the time his agreement with Montgomery expired, the disruption of communications caused by the American rebellion meant that he was not required to render an accounting; during the war his associate’s only attempt at contact was to send him in 1777 a power of attorney to manage all the Montgomery property and interests on the Island. In 1783 Lawson added an agency for General Henry Wood and George, Marquess Townshend, proprietors of Lot 56; that same year he became administrator of the bankrupt estate of David Higgins. During the 1770s Lawson had become active in Island politics. He was four times elected a member of the House of Assembly between 1773 and 1785, he and his sons-in-law, Cornelius Higgins and James Curtis, constituting a small Covehead group which loyally supported Governor Walter Patterson* in his struggles with the proprietors and the British government.
At the end of the war Montgomery attempted for several years, without success, to settle his accounts with Lawson and was finally forced in 1788 to send his son William* to the Island to obtain a detailed statement of affairs. Lawson procrastinated, and William eventually appeared without warning at the farm heading a party of assessors. Lawson was summarily evicted from Stanhope and replaced as agent. His problems stemmed from his initial unrealistic agreement with Montgomery: it had been foolhardy, to expect a farm carved out of the wilderness to show a profit within seven years. Montgomery nevertheless insisted on a strict accounting, with a complete evaluation of assets and a full record of expenditures. Years of pioneer hardship on the Island had convinced Lawson that his labour and that of his family had made far more of a contribution to Stanhope than the proprietor’s monetary investment, and he believed that an accounting such as Montgomery demanded would not reflect the value of their efforts. Moreover, he had kept no books or records, and during long periods of isolation from the outside world had been forced to support himself by whatever means were available; the evidence suggests he had become unable to distinguish what was rightfully Montgomery’s. For his part, Montgomery concluded that Lawson was merely attempting to maintain a newly acquired status as a country gentleman by overlooking his obligations to his employer.
Having appointed new agents in the persons of Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning and James Douglas, Montgomery continued to press Lawson for an accounting. Turning to the courts, in 1789 he sued Lawson as administrator of the estate of David Higgins, who had died heavily in debt to Montgomery and whose account-books Lawson had refused to give up. He was awarded £3,813 plus costs when Lawson failed to contest the action, and as a result of the decision he acquired Rustico Island, which Lawson had earlier obtained by grant from the government and which Montgomery now had sold at auction. In 1793 Lawson and Douglas agreed on mutually acceptable arbitrators – Fanning, Charles Lyons, and Joseph Robinson – and the business of Lawson’s accounts was finally settled. In making their decision the arbitrators not only examined Lawson’s management of Stanhope but undertook a new accounting of Higgins’s obligations to Montgomery. They awarded Montgomery £9,219 12s.2 1/2d., more than half of which was really Higgins’s debt assumed by Lawson as administrator of the estate.
Once having established the principle that even Islanders had to live up to contracts, Montgomery forgot the debt and ordered a regular allowance to be paid to the aged Lawson, who continued to live at Covehead with his children. His name disappears from the record after 1803.
PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll., Marquess of Townshend to –, 1783. SRO, GD293/2/78/9; 293/2/79/5, 27, 33, 38, 46; 293/2/80/21; 293/2/81/2. Univ. of B.C. Library (Vancouver), Special Coll. Division, Macmillan coll., James Montgomery to Edmund Fanning, 30 April 1798. [William Drummond], “Diary of William Drummond,” ed. David Weale, Island Magazine, no.2 (spring–summer 1977): 29. Royal Gazette and Miscellany of the Island of Saint John (Charlottetown), 29 July 1791. G. H. Kielly, History of Montgomery settlers and others at Stanhope–Covehead–Brackley Pt., 1770–1970 (Stanhope, P.E.I., 1970), 90–91. Bumsted, “Sir James Montgomery and P.E.I.,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 7, no.2: 76–102.