PETTIT (Petit), NATHANIEL, office holder and politician; b. 12 June 1724 in Sussex County, N.J., son of Nathaniel Pettit and Elizabeth Heath; m. 26 Feb. 1747 Margaret McFarland, and they had one son and six daughters; d. 9 March 1803 in Ancaster, Upper Canada.
Nathaniel Pettit’s forebears emigrated in 1630 from Essex, England, to the area around Boston, Mass. The family eventually dispersed, some members settling in New Jersey where in Sussex County Nathaniel achieved financial security and legal prominence prior to the American revolution. He owned two valuable mills and in 1766 was appointed judge in the county Court of Common Pleas. In 1768 his personal standing in the community rose further with his election as one of the two members returned for the county to the provincial legislature. But his success, at a time when officials appointed by Britain came to be feared and distrusted, ultimately worked against him.
Initially Pettit was sympathetic to colonial grievances; in 1774 he was appointed at a county meeting to a ten-man committee to oppose taxation without representation and to support the suspension of imports from Britain. But on 12 Jan. 1776 he was brought before the provincial committee of safety for refusing to pay taxes levied by the revolutionary congress. He was fined and stripped of his judicial appointment, which precipitated an open declaration of his loyalty. Approaching his mid fifties, he was not physically able to join a loyalist corps, but with the aid of a former fellow member of the legislature, Joseph Barton, in late 1776 he raised a battalion of 500 men. Pettit, “lame and infirm,” remained in Sussex County where his assistance to “the friends of Government . . . exposed him to the worst treatment” from the rebels. Imprisoned from 4 April 1777 to 28 May 1778, he obtained his liberty only by paying heavy fines and taking out large bonds for his future behaviour. Pettit estimated these losses “at a very moderate computation” to be in excess of £1,000. Moreover, when he left the United States he had to sell his mills and lands for less than half their value. Although he pressed his “well attested” case before the loyalist claims commission, it “was attended with no effect.” With several friends he left his home and arrived in the Niagara area of Quebec in 1787 “to solicit a settlement where he may enjoy that Liberty and comfort so amply secured by the British constitution.” He received a grant of 700 acres, and in 1794 another 1,300. His lands were located in Saltfleet, Grimsby (North and South Grimsby), Burford, Ancaster, and Aldborough townships.
On 24 July 1788 Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] established four new administrative districts in what was to become Upper Canada. The chief institutions in the new districts were the land board and the Court of Common Pleas; Pettit’s appointment to both on 24 Oct. 1788 in the Nassau District reflected his pre-revolutionary prominence. He served on the land board with John Butler*, Robert Hamilton, Benjamin Pawling, and John Warren, and also was a member of its successor, the land board of Lincoln County, established on 20 Oct. 1792. The other officials sitting on the district court were Hamilton, Pawling, and Peter Ten Broeck. The board settled matters of land title and the court handled questions of debt. Neither concern was crucial to Pettit’s interests and his attendance was sporadic: he was present at only 9 of 36 sessions of the land board between 26 Oct. 1789 and March 1792 and 4 of 23 sessions of the court between 28 Oct. 1788 and 10 April 1794. The court was abolished by act of the provincial legislature in July 1794 and the land board by order in council the following November. Pettit was a justice of the peace from 19 June 1789; his last commission was dated 1 April 1803, several weeks after his death. He was named to the first Heir and Devisee Commission for the Home District on 19 Oct. 1797 and reappointed on 21 July 1800 for Lincoln County. He did not attend any of the three meetings between 1 Oct. 1800 and his death.
Pettit’s stature is perhaps best reflected by Dorchester’s recommendation of him on 15 March 1790, on the advice of Sir John Johnson*, as one of eight legislative councillors for the intended province of Upper Canada. Of those commissioned on 12 July 1792, five were selected from this 1790 list. For whatever reason, possibly because of advanced age, Pettit was rejected on the suggestion of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. However, on 27 Aug. 1792 he was elected for the riding of Durham, York, and 1st Lincoln to the first parliament of the new province. The records for this period are fragmentary and it is not known how he participated in the affairs of the assembly. He was succeeded in the second parliament by Richard Beasley*.
Pettit did not live long enough to accumulate much more than the land he had been granted. In fact, between 1800 and 1802 he sold off substantial portions of it, mostly to his sons-in-law. In his will he left the remainder to his five surviving daughters and £80 to his son-in-law Lawrence Lawrason, a successful London merchant. In some ways the British government had compensated Pettit for his losses; however, his advancing years did not allow him to rebuild his life to its former eminence.
AO, MU 2100, 1798, no.1, Robert Hamilton to Nathaniel Pettit, 31 Oct. 1797; RG 1, A-I-6: 1010–11; A-II-5, 1, Niagara District reports, 1800–3; C-I-9, 1; C-IV, Ancaster Township; Grimsby Township, concessions 1 and 2, lot 9; Saltfleet Township, concession 1, lot 9; concession 2, lots 5–6. Brant Land Registry Office (Brantford, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Burford Township: f.147 (mfm. at AO, GS 1822). MTL, U.C., Court of Common Pleas, Nassau District, minutes. Niagara North Land Registry Office (St Catharines, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Grimsby Township: ff.8, 18 (mfm. at AO, GS 1914). PAC, MG 23, HII, 18 (photocopies); RG 1, L3, 418: P misc., 1800–56/95–96; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: ff.249–50, 402, 407, 410, 412, 535, 631. Wentworth Land Registry Office (Hamilton, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Ancaster Township: ff.190, 235, 270 (mfm. at AO, GS 1395). “Board of land office, District of Hesse,” AO Report, 1905: 132, 211. “United Empire Loyalists: enquiry into losses and services,” AO Report, 1904: 982. Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank), 1: 10–11; 4: 347–49. “Loyalist and pioneer families of West Lincoln, 1783–1833,” comp. R. J. Powell, Annals of the Forty ([Grimsby, Ont.]), no.7 (1956). Pearl Wilson, “Nathaniel Pettit,” OH, 32 (1937): 192–202.
© 1983–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
In collaboration with Bruce A. Parker, “PETTIT, NATHANIEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pettit_nathaniel_5E.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:
|Author of Article:||In collaboration with Bruce A. Parker|
|Title of Article:||PETTIT, NATHANIEL|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 24, 2023|