NUGENT, JOHN, journalist and U.S. government agent; b. in 1821 ? in County Galway, Ireland; d. 29 March 1880 in San Leandro, California.
John Nugent’s parents brought him to the United States at an early age. In the 1840s he served in Washington as correspondent for the New York Herald. At the decade’s end he travelled overland to California, and in 1851 became owner-editor of the San Francisco Herald. In 1856 he opposed the re-establishment of the Vigilance Committee, a business-supported, extra-legal organization for the preservation of law and order. His failure to support it was an unpopular move which led to his newspaper’s collapse. It was a blow from which his career never recovered. He continued in journalism, however, and five years later he was Democratic runner-up in an election for the U.S. Senate. He tried, unsuccessfully, to re-establish the Herald in 1868 and, toward the end of the 1870s, worked on his memoirs.
In 1858 President James Buchanan, anxious to determine in what way the recently discovered Fraser River gold-fields affected American interests in the northwest and how Americans were being treated, appointed Nugent, whom he had known in Washington in the 1840s, special agent to New Caledonia (British Columbia). He was to report on the mining operations, assist American citizens, ascertain their number, discover whether they were subject to discrimination, and report what new settlements had been formed in adjacent American territories and what lines of communication existed between them and the British territories to the north. His instructions suggest an interest on the part of the United States government not only in determining whether the rights of American citizens were in need of protection but also in knowing how closely linked to the United States the gold-fields were. Nugent was in British territory from 20 September to 17 November. His first days there revealed no tension between Americans and British. Indeed, many of the restrictions on trade and the movement of personnel up the Fraser, which had concerned Americans and their government, had been removed.
Nugent had, however, a falling-out with Governor James Douglas over the treatment of American citizens in the courts, and in a farewell speech to an audience of Americans in Victoria, he suggested that if the rights of American citizens in the area were ever in jeopardy, the American government would not hesitate to intervene. This provocative utterance reflected Nugent’s own interest in the annexation of Vancouver Island and New Caledonia, which he thought would, in the course of time, naturally occur. The British ambassador at Washington reported, however, that the attitude of the American government had been quite correct. Nugent’s visit did not have much of an impact on Victoria, and such bitterness as it did arouse was directed at him personally and not at the government he represented.
Daily Bee (Sacramento, Cal.), 24 Dec. 1884. H. H. Bancroft, Popular tribunals (San Francisco, Cal., 1887). Ormsby, British Columbia. R. L. Reid, “John Nugent: the impertinent envoy,” BCHQ, VIII (1944), 53–76.