MERRITT, THOMAS, army and militia officer and office holder; b. 28 Oct. 1759 in Bedford, N.Y., son of Thomas Merritt and Amy Purdy; brother of Nehemiah; m. 27 July 1781 Mary Hamilton in Charleston, S.C., and they had one son and five daughters; d. 12 May 1842 in St Catharines, Upper Canada.
In his memoirs, Thomas Merritt stated that he was “educated at Harwood [Harvard?] College for a Physician.” When the American Revolutionary War broke out his father remained loyal to the crown and moved his family to New York City. On 1 May 1778, perhaps through the influence of his father, Merritt obtained a cornetcy in Emmerich’s Chasseurs, subsequently transferring to the Queen’s Rangers under John Graves Simcoe*. Merritt spent the war fighting in the southern colonies, and Simcoe was impressed with the young officer. On one occasion Merritt was captured and crammed “with about Twenty others . . . in a small nasty dark place, made of logs, called a Bull pen.” He immediately organized his fellow prisoners, led them in a successful escape, and brought the party 50 miles to British-controlled territory. Offered a lieutenancy in another corps as a reward, Merritt declined, to Simcoe’s great relief.
In 1782 Merritt and his bride followed the British army to New York. The next year they accompanied the Queen’s Rangers and most of the Merritt family to New Brunswick, where Merritt tried to live the life of a retired officer after he was placed on half pay in October. In March 1790 the couple appears to have been in Bedford, N.Y. Merritt was soon tempted to join his old commander in Upper Canada. He travelled in 1794 to Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), where Simcoe “gave him so great encouragement” that he brought his family and settled on Twelve Mile Creek, near present-day St Catharines.
The Merritts seem to have adapted to the routine of pioneer life and became pillars of the community on the Niagara peninsula. Simcoe assigned Merritt 2,000 acres in the western part of the province and made grants to all his children, and in 1798 Merritt successfully petitioned for two town lots in Newark. Late that year he received the appointment of deputy surveyor of the king’s woods, and on 5 Oct. 1803 he became sheriff of the Niagara District. Merritt’s prominence was also reflected by his presence on the executive of the local agricultural society. Despite evidence that he was never a good farmer or businessman, he and his family appear to have lived comfortably.
With the outbreak of war between Britain and the United States in 1812, Merritt was appointed major commandant of a troop of militia cavalry named the Niagara Light Dragoons. During the battle of Queenston Heights, Merritt appears to have served Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe* well after the death of Sir Isaac Brock*. He later accepted part of the blame for the lack of preparedness on the heights, telling a family friend that no sentry had been posted because “they thought the Devil himself could not get up there.” Three days after the battle Merritt was a pallbearer at Brock’s funeral.
From that point Merritt, while retaining nominal command of the dragoons, increasingly left active command to his son, William Hamilton*. He was ill in October 1813 and unable to retreat with the British army from Four Mile Creek to Burlington Heights (Hamilton) [see John Vincent]. As a result, he was taken prisoner to Fort George, near Niagara (Niagara on-the-Lake), by the traitor Joseph Willcocks* and held for a short time. It is not clear whether his house was burned when Niagara was destroyed by the Americans in December, but he did suffer some damages. In July 1814 Merritt had to oversee the executions of convicted traitors ordered by the “Bloody Assize” [see Jacob Overholser*]. His son felt that this experience affected him profoundly and perhaps caused him to retire prematurely from official duties. Nevertheless, Merritt remained sheriff until January 1820.
In the years following the war Merritt’s shortcomings as a farmer appear to have got him into some difficulty, and it was only through his son’s financial acumen that his affairs were put on a solid footing. By the 1820s Merritt was in retirement, but he continued to be amused by the “daily routine of life” and “‘a choice selection of friends.” He “spends his time at the corner or spreading the news,” wrote his daughter-in-law. Merritt took particular pleasure in parties. On the occasion of his 76th birthday a family friend commented that he “got through dinner about 6 in the evening danced and played cards till 10 next day.” At his burial another friend remarked that “there was a Grate many People more than I evere See at any Funeral before.”
Thomas Merritt is a good example of an Upper Canadian loyalist from a reasonably prosperous background who, thanks to his connections and perseverance, attained a position of some prominence in his new land. His experiences as a young subaltern hardly fitted him for the offices to which he was appointed, but in his old age he was one of the most popular citizens in St Catharines.
AO, MS 74. PAC, MG 24, E1; K2. Doc. hist. of campaign upon Niagara frontier (Cruikshank). G.B., WO, Army list. Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving). C. J. Ingles, The Queen’s Rangers in the Revolutionary War, ed. H. M. Jackson (n.p., 1956).