MERRITT, NEHEMIAH, businessman and jp; b. 1 Dec. 1770 in Rye, N.Y., fifth son of Thomas Merritt and Amy Purdy; m. 29 Jan. 1802 Isabella Milby of Shelburne, N.S.; d. 25 May 1842 in Saint John, N.B.
The Merritt family were loyalists of modest circumstances who left Westchester County, N.Y., following the American revolution. Young Nehemiah went to Parrtown (Saint John) in 1783 with his parents and adult brothers. By the time he reached his mid 20s himself several members of his family had left the city, notably his brother Thomas.
Merritt began his career as a fisherman and was admitted a freeman fisherman of the city of Saint John in 1795. He gradually moved from the retailing of fish to the function of general merchant, working for a time in partnership with Gregory VanHorne. By middle age he had been admitted to the inner circle of the city’s merchant élite. He owned his own wharf in Saint John Harbour – and was one of the first merchants permitted to extend his wharf past the low-water line – participated in the marine carrying trades and in the purchase and sale of ships, and in 1820 was among the 20 men who successfully petitioned for the creation of the Bank of New Brunswick. Merritt shared in the expanding timber trade of the 1820s and 1830s. By 1837 his was one of the principal private accounts handled by the bank. Four years later his firm was operating four vessels totalling nearly 1,600 tons, and the editor of the Morning News, George Edward Fenety*, included it in a list of companies involved in the processing of timber at Carleton (Saint John). In addition Merritt served as a director of the Bank of New Brunswick, the New Brunswick Fire Insurance Company, the New Brunswick Mining Company, and the Saint John Mechanics’ Whale Fishing Company and acted as president of the Saint John Marine Insurance Company. At the time of his death he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Saint John.
Despite the influential role that Merritt played in the business community, he always remained on the margin in terms of social recognition of his prominence. As late as 1829 he served as a grand juror, a position usually reserved for lesser merchants on the rise and for respectable master tradesmen. He was appointed a port warden of Saint John that year but was denied the coveted honour of being named a magistrate of the county and city of Saint John until 1834. He was 64 years old before he attained this sign of gentility.
Merritt remained active well into old age. In 1835 he was part of the consortium that proposed to build a bridge over the Saint John River near the Reversing Falls. Five years later he was one of a group of merchants who participated in the tariff debate on the side of local flour millers. He died at his residence in Saint John on 25 May 1842. A freemason, he had been a member of the Church of England.
Apart from the considerable investment he had in his firm, Merritt left an estate valued at more than £40,000. He had invested heavily in city bonds and by 1842 had been the city’s largest private creditor, holding more than £8,000 of the civic debt. Most of the remainder of his estate was invested in real estate. He owned 12 lots and houses in Saint John and 17 acres of prime development land around the city, another 1,100 acres in the Saint John River valley, 800 acres in Nova Scotia, more than 3,300 acres in Northumberland and Norfolk counties, Upper Canada, three New York City houses, and farms at Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Pembroke, Maine. His will provided a life interest in the family home and £300 a year to his widow. The remainder of the estate was divided in roughly equal proportions among three sons and a daughter.
N.B. Museum, Bank of New Brunswick, ledger, 1837–38; Saint John, “Register of voters,” 1785–1860. PANB, RG 2, RS8, magistrates, Saint John, 1834; RG 4, RS24, S45-P54, S53-P142; RG 7, RS71, B6: 131–43. N.B., House of Assembly, Journal, 1842, app.: cclvii–cclxxii. A schedule of the real estate belonging to the mayor, aldermen and commonalty of the city of Saint John . . . January, 1842 (Saint John, N.B., 1849; copy at PANB). Morning News (Saint John), 28 April 1841. New-Brunswick Courier, 18 March 1815; 8 April 1820; 14 March, 6 June 1829; 28 May 1842. W. F. Bunting, History of St. John’s Lodge, F. & A. M. of Saint John, New Brunswick, together with sketches of all masonic bodies in New Brunswick from A.D. 1784 to A.D. 1894 (Saint John, 1895).