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NEILSON, SAMUEL, printer, journalist, and publisher; b. 8 Feb. 1800 at Quebec, eldest son of John Neilson and Marie-Ursule Hubert; m. first 14 June 1831 Margaret McSkimming at Quebec; m. secondly 28 May 1835 Catherine James in New York; d. there 17 June 1837.

Samuel Neilson attended Daniel Wilkie*’s grammar school at Quebec and received a sound education there. His father removed him in order to have him finish his studies in Scotland, and in July 1816 the two sailed for Europe. After a short stay in Paris, Samuel settled in Glasgow, where he registered in a college on Richmond Street run by Dr William Chrystal. He spent three years there, studying Greek, Latin, philosophy, mathematics, and science. In the summer holidays he took special courses in bookkeeping, drawing, architecture, botany, and French. He also passed pleasant weeks at Gatehouse-of-Fleet with his paternal grandmother, his uncle William, and his aunts Isabel and Janet. Upon completing his studies in rhetoric and the two philosophy classes, he was awarded an ma in 1819.

Neilson returned to Quebec that summer and immediately went to work for his father, who was proprietor of the Quebec Gazette and of the biggest shop for printing, bookbinding, books, and office supplies in Lower Canada and who also held the office of king’s printer. He had been elected member of the House of Assembly for Quebec in 1818, and there was some concern that difficulties, if not a conflict of interest, might arise from his holding the two offices at once. To avoid such a situation, he handed his printing enterprise over on 29 April 1822 to a company formed by his son Samuel and William Cowan. The partners received respectively two-thirds and one-third of the business.

The plan to unite Upper and Lower Canada was at the heart of political debate in the summer of 1822, and John Neilson sided wholeheartedly with the Canadian party. Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay] was displeased, and offered John Charlton Fisher the position of publisher of the Quebec Gazette. Because Fisher was unable to come to an agreement with Samuel Neilson, the governor decided to strip Samuel of the commission as king’s printer that he had granted him. On 22 Oct. 1823 he conferred it on Fisher, who also received authorization to bring out the Quebec Gazette, published by authority.

In January 1828 John Neilson went to London with Denis-Benjamin Viger* and Austin Cuvillier to put the Canadian case against Dalhousie’s maladministration. Dalhousie lost all sense of proportion and abused his prerogatives by taking severe measures against some justices of the peace and militia officers, and by arresting journalists for venturing to publish accounts of the mass meetings then being held. As a result Samuel was arrested four times, charged with libel, and released on bail. These difficulties occurred during his father’s absence, but he did not lose his calm and maintained a dignified tone in his articles in the Quebec Gazette. Dalhousie was recalled in 1828, and Sir James Kempt*, who succeeded him, dropped the charges.

Founded in 1764 by William Brown* and Thomas Gilmore*, the Quebec Gazette had always been bilingual and since 1818 had appeared twice a week. In May 1831 Jean-Baptiste Fréchette and Étienne Parent* resumed publication of Le Canadien and a year later they turned it into a thrice-weekly paper. Doubtless spurred by the success of his competitors, Neilson altered his newspaper in April 1832, publishing two editions three times a week, one in English and the other in French. The change amounted to producing a daily paper and imposed an almost superhuman task upon Neilson. Some time later a calamitous cholera epidemic struck the town of Quebec, claiming thousands of victims. Those who could, left for the countryside, and John Neilson retired with his family to their farm at Cap-Rouge. But Samuel remained at the head of the paper, never absent for even a day from the shop on Rue de la Montagne (Côte de la Montagne), imperturbable, and temperate in the pages of the Gazette as well as in the short notes he penned to his father. One can readily imagine how overworked he was during this period.

In 1833 Samuel returned to the British Isles. He spent several months resting in Ireland, went to Scotland, and got as far as London. From there he wrote to tell his father that he intended taking up residence in Europe. He returned to Quebec, however, and did not end his partnership with William Cowan until 30 April 1836. On 31 May he turned the business over to his brother William, and in July he made his father his attorney. He was ill, and after he had consulted Quebec physicians Thomas Fargues and James Douglas*, he left for Europe in July, stopping at Saratoga Springs and New York to seek the opinion of other doctors. In November 1836 he sailed for Madeira and the Mediterranean, where he spent the winter. He was back in New York on 16 June 1837 and died of tuberculosis the following day in the quarantine station of that city.

Samuel Neilson’s destiny was tragic. The favourite son of his father, whose intelligence and good sense he had inherited, he was utterly devoted to his work and was still making plans in the autumn of 1836 for improving the newspaper and printing-shop. A keen observer of men and politics, he was also a talented writer and possessed real aptitude for drawing and painting, as his unpublished accounts of trips to the Saguenay and Madeira demonstrate. He was a reserved man and seems to have been an enigma to his close relatives. For example, none of his family is listed in the entry for his first marriage in the register of St Andrew’s Church. His wife died a year or two later, and his second marriage took place in New York in 1835. Samuel Neilson was one of the most gifted young men of his generation. His untimely death together with his father’s dominating personality kept him from fulfilling his early promise.

Claude Galarneau

Samuel Neilson’s unpublished narratives of his voyages, which he wrote on his return from the Saguenay and from Madeira, are at PAC, MG 24, B1, 19: 4 and 42: 2157–348 respectively. The PAC also holds important materials on Neilson and his family in the same collection: MG 24, B1, 19: 8; 24: 585; 36: 242–572; 38: 1038–45; 40: 1452–87; 42: 1736–2038.

ANQ-Q, CE1-66, 16 févr. 1800, 14 juin 1831; CN1-116, 29 avril 1822; 22 avril, 7, 31 mai, 11 juill. 1836. F.-X. Garneau, Voyage en Angleterre et en France dans les années 1831, 1832 et 1833 (Québec, 1855), 236–37. Le Canadien, juin 1837. La Minerve, juin 1837. Quebec Gazette, April–May 1822, April–September 1832, April–May 1836, June–August 1837. Quebec Mercury, June 1837. Beaulieu et Hamelin, La presse québécoise. F.-J. Audet, “John Neilson,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 22 (1928), sect.i: 81–97. Ignotus [Thomas Chapais], “Le monument Wolfe et Montcalm à Québec,” BRH, 5 (1899): 305–9. Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, 21 June 1939.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Claude Galarneau, “NEILSON, SAMUEL (1800-37),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/neilson_samuel_1800_37_7E.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/neilson_samuel_1800_37_7E.html
Author of Article:   Claude Galarneau
Title of Article:   NEILSON, SAMUEL (1800-37)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   October 2, 2023