LITTLE, OTIS, lawyer, politician, military officer, king’s attorney; b. 29 Jan. 1711/12 at Marshfield, Massachusetts, son of Captain Isaac and Mary (Otis) Little; d. possibly 1754.

Otis Little’s parents came from two of the most important and rising families in southeastern Massachusetts. It was almost inevitable that he should attend Harvard College – an advantage his father had not enjoyed – and he received his ab in 1731 and his ma in 1734.

Little settled in Pembroke (near Marshfield) to practise law and married Elizabeth Howland of Bristol, Massachusetts (later Rhode Island), on 3 Oct. 1733. His wife’s family was Church of England, and Little joined St Michael’s Church in Bristol on Christmas Day, 1735, thus breaking with his family’s Pilgrim heritage. In 1736 he apparently visited Nova Scotia, for he was commissioned a justice of the peace for Annapolis Royal on 22 November of that year. Little was not a terribly successful lawyer, but he undoubtedly received some clients in Massachusetts on the strength of connections with his uncle James Otis Sr, considered by many the best trial lawyer in the province. These connections were probably necessary, since Little was sufficiently slapdash to be forced on one occasion to petition the Massachusetts General Court for re-entry of a suit in which he had failed to perform the paperwork properly.

Returning to Marshfield, Little won a seat in the General Court in the election of 1740, fought over the Massachusetts land bank. A subscriber to the bank – a private venture proposing to issue currency backed by mortgages on land – Little was part of a political upheaval in which rural voters turned out of office most opponents of the bank. In the General Court, where he served for five years, Little acted as liaison between the legislative leaders and the rural backbenchers. In return for his efforts in keeping the backbenchers in line, he eagerly sought and received patronage appointments from both the legislature and Governor William Shirley, the most remunerative being as deputy judge of the admiralty for the counties of Bristol and Plymouth in June 1740. In one legislative job, he displayed a venality that would later destroy him, submitting an outrageously high expense account which the governor and council had to cut drastically. He was clearly a man out to make his living from public life and connections, a practice less common and less acceptable in America than in England.

When trouble with France over Nova Scotia loomed in 1744, Little quickly recognized the possibilities for advancement. He was commissioned a major and at his own expense collected a company of volunteers in the summer of 1744 to help defend the beleaguered garrison at Annapolis Royal. As he was entering Annapolis Basin, Little was captured by the French. He was sent to Boston on parole in December and was exchanged in July 1745, a few weeks after the reduction of Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). He and his company were engaged in clean-up operations and the occupation of the Annapolis fortress until relieved in May 1746. He then left for London with official papers from Governor Shirley and letters of introduction to important people in England – the one from merchant Thomas Hancock warning, “As to Mr. Little’s circumstances they are unknown to me, be cautious not to go too far.”

Little was seeking employment in London, as well as the permanent rank of major and reimbursement for military expenditures made by himself and the New England colonies. His principal efforts were devoted to two projects: one to put British North America on a hard money basis, and the other the settlement of Nova Scotia. Despite previous support for the land bank and his connections with Governor Shirley, who sought compromise on the currency issue, Little lobbied in England for the most fiscally conservative of New England merchants. In 1748 he submitted a memorial to the Lords of the Treasury which not only asked that any reimbursement for the Louisbourg expedition be used to retire paper money, but sought parliamentary action both to end future colonial currency emissions and to provide the Louisbourg funds in special coinage which would become a distinctive American currency.

About the same time, Little produced a tract promoting Nova Scotia settlement, The state of trade in the northern colonies considered. (Despite frequent attributions, Little is not the author of another work of 1748, A geographical history of Nova Scotia.) In The state of trade, he countered the argument that northern colonies were least useful to the mother country since they were least profitable, insisting that further settlement with the British and foreign Protestants in the north would enlarge the market for British goods and better enable the colonists to pay for them. He also denied vigorously that the colonies might become independent, concluding: “Upon the whole, nothing can, nor ever will, prevail upon them to attempt, or think of a State of Independence, whilst they enjoy the Freedom of English Subjects under so happy a Constitution.” Little’s was the only tract of this period which attempted to relate the settlement of Nova Scotia to the larger questions of colonial economic patterns and British imperial policy. As for Nova Scotia, Little waxed lyrical about its resources: “It is obvious from this Account, which is far from being exaggerated, that no Country is better calculated to yield an early Support to its infant Colonies, with more Certainty and less labour, and affording them in the mean time, a comfortable subsistence.” He warned of the danger of “French Bigots” (the Acadians) living in Nova Scotia, but believed that Protestant immigration, not expulsion of the Acadians, would deal with this problem. As he admitted himself later, he regarded Cape Breton as a lost cause since it was soon to be restored to the French. But Nova Scotia might provide a “chance to get some Employment: if not I shall (like many other faithful Servants of the Government) have my Labor for my pains.”

Nova Scotia did provide employment. Little headed there in April 1749 with the fleet of Governor Edward Cornwallis*; he was listed as captain in an independent company and was accompanied by ten male and six female servants as befitted the “Surveyor-General of Nova Scotia.” To that appointment Little soon added others. On 15 July 1749 he was appointed commissary of the stores and provisions of the new Halifax settlement. After admission to the bar of Nova Scotia on 3 Feb. 1749/50, he became advocate general in the Vice-Admiralty Court and by 11 Oct. 1750 was “acting as Kings Attorney.” Unfortunately, his style of living apparently exceeded his income, and he began to take chances. Though his venality was not excessive by 18th-century standards, an overbearing and pretentious manner probably did not help make him popular with the administration of the province. He was suspended from his commissary position in 1751 for irregularities in the books, and possibly for selling supplies directly to settlers on his own account. On 3 April 1753 he was charged before the governor and council with accepting money (£5 in advance and £5 later) as an attorney from the wife of a man he was prosecuting as king’s attorney. The council found the charge “as fully proved as the nature of the case would admit,” stripped Little of his positions and forbad him “to plead in General Court except in such cases which shall be appealed from the judgement of the Inferior Court in which he was concerned.” Unable to support himself and pressed by creditors, Little liquidated his assets (including a share in John Bushell’s “Press and printing business” which produced the Halifax Gazette) and in 1754 disappeared into the West Indies; he died there or on the way.

Otis Little’s problem was that his pretensions and ambitions outstripped his capabilities. He was too obviously self-serving and apparently incapable of rendering sufficient real value to permit his failings to be overlooked or excused by those who employed him.

J. M. Bumsted

John Carter Brown Library (Providence, R.I.), Otis Little, “Proposals for a new currency in America” (autographed ms copy). “Mass. Archives,” VI, 572a, 573, 575; XVIII, 189; XX, 321, 344, 357; XXXI, 408, 447; XLI, 595; XLII, 88, 89; XLVI, 123, CXIV, 444. Mass. Hist. Soc., John Davis coll., Winslow papers, Mascarene family papers. PANS, RG 1, 164/1, p.21; RG 3, Minutes of Nova Scotia Council, 11, 15 Oct. 1750; 4, 5, 6 Dec. 1752; Vertical ms file, Otis Little documents. Suffolk County Court House (Boston, Mass.), Court files, no.66530. Boston Post-Boy, 10 Dec. 1744. Boston Weekly News-Letter, 7 July 1743, 1 June 1749. The Law papers: correspondence and documents during Jonathan Laws governorship of the colony of Connecticut, 1741–1750 (3v., Conn. Hist. Soc. Coll., XI, XIII, XV, Hartford, 1907–14), III, 186. Otis Little, The state of trade in the northern colonies considered; with an account of their produce, and a particular description of Nova Scotia (London, 1748; repr., Boston, 1749). N.SArchives, I, 539; II, 177. PRO, Acts of P.C., Col., unbound papers, 273. Shipton, Sibley’s Harvard graduates, IX, 60–64. John Doull, Sketches of attorney generals of Nova Scotia, 1750–1926 (Halifax, 1964), 1–3. Robert Zemsky, Merchants, farmers, and river gods; an essay on eighteenth-century American politics (Boston, 1971), 190–91, 282–83.

Cite This Article

J. M. Bumsted, “LITTLE, OTIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 23, 2024,

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:

Author of Article:   J. M. Bumsted
Title of Article:   LITTLE, OTIS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   1974
Access Date:   July 23, 2024