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PURSS, JOHN, businessman, militia officer, and office holder; b. 12 Dec. 1732 in Elgin, Scotland, son of Alexander Purse, a tailor, and Isabel Blenshel; d. unmarried 8 April 1803 at Quebec, Lower Canada.

John Purss came to Quebec at the time of the conquest. In July 1762 he went into partnership as a merchant with another Scot, James Johnston*. In the late 1760s their firm was buying and selling furs, seal oil, and the products of the Saint-Maurice ironworks. They had been in partnership since 1765 with Jean-Baptiste Bouchette to exploit a trading post and a fishery, probably in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and they had bought a share in the lease of the ironworks in 1767. In 1770 Purss and his partner obtained a 30-year lease on the King’s Wharf for 5 shillings annually. This wharf was proving too expensive for the government to maintain but was indispensable for merchants at Quebec; consequently Governor Guy Carleton had suggested in 1768 that it be rented out, with the lessee assuming responsibility for keeping it in good condition.

During the 1780s the firm of Johnston and Purss ran a distillery with Henry Taylor, who was Johnston’s brother-in-law and a distiller. The business, which occupied a two-storey house on Rue Champlain, was a fairly large undertaking, with four stills, four big copper boilers, and eight evaporation tubs. Here an “essence of spruce for making beer” that had been discovered by Taylor and that was exported to New York and the West Indies was prepared. However, like similar establishments in the colony, the enterprise mainly produced regular beer; other alcoholic beverages manufactured were of a poor quality because of a lack of ingredients and experience alike. The two partners also each held 2 of the 48 shares in the Dorchester Bridge, which had been built at Quebec in 1789 [see David Lynd].

At the end of the 1780s and in the following decade Johnston and Purss leased out some houses they owned on Rue Champlain, Rue du Palais, Rue Sous-le-Fort, and Rue de la Montagne for between £30 and £150 a year, and rented out space on the King’s Wharf as well. In April 1789 they sold a lot and stone house on Rue des Pauvres (Côte du Palais) to the merchant Mathew Macnider, Johnston’s brother-in-law, for £450. In April 1792 Johnston and Purss let their holdings in the Dorchester Bridge go to William Grant (1744–1805) for £20 per share. In the course of the 1790s they borrowed about £1,400 from Peter Stuart and Jacques Dénéchaud, the executor of Barthélemy Cotton*. In 1798 they had to sell the distillery at the demand of the widow of Taylor.

Johnston’s death on 8 April 1800 brought about the dissolution of the firm of Johnston and Purss. This solid business partnership had also been a close friendship, and the real estate was therefore divided equally between Purss on one hand and Johnston’s widow, the former Margaret Macnider, and children on the other, neither of the joint heirs having the right, however, to sell any property without the other’s consent. Moreover, because of the many years the company had been in existence, the confidence the widow had in him, and the great esteem he had for his partner, Purss cancelled the debt of £2,311 1s. 1 1/2d. that Johnston owed him. Before Johnston died, he and Purss had sought renewal of their lease on the King’s Wharf, which was due to expire in 1800. They appear to have obtained at least part of the wharf, since Purss complained the following year of encroachments on the King’s Wharf; another part had been rented by the government to Alexander Munn. In the period 1800–2 Purss let a number of properties go. In 1800, in conjunction with Margaret Johnston, he sold the house and lot on Rue de la Montagne for £350. The following year, to honour his debt to the Cotton estate he sold some land with a house on Rue Sous-le-Fort for £800. A few days later he sold a waterfront lot and a wharf in Lower Town and also a lot with a house for a total of £1,700. Lastly, in March 1802 he advertised in the Quebec Gazette the auction of a house that had belonged to the firm of Johnston and Purss at Beauport, near Quebec. On the other hand, in January 1803 he received 200 acres in Granby Township and as much again in Milton Township.

At various points in his career Purss joined other merchants of the colony in political and business demands. In 1764 he was one of a group seeking Governor Murray*’s recall, and two years later he signed the address of welcome to his replacement, Lieutenant Governor Carleton. In 1784 he put his name to a petition for repeal of the Quebec Act and the granting of an assembly, habeas corpus, and trial by jury in civil cases. Ten years later, against the background of war between Great Britain and revolutionary France [see Robert Prescott], he joined an association founded in June 1794 to support the British government in Lower Canada, and signed the declaration of loyalty to the 1791 constitution. He had subscribed to an agreement on the value of gold currency in 1772. In 1790 he endorsed proposals for the creation of a non-sectarian university in the province, and in 1791 supported demands for the elimination of the seigneurial right of lods et ventes; that year as well he signed a petition concerning a bill dealing with guardians and trustees.

Like his partner Purss took part in the town’s public life. With John Jones, among others, he played an important part in the beginnings of the Quebec Fire Society, of which he was the treasurer in at least 1786 and 1790. This society, which was founded in 1765, offered its members fire insurance of a kind, organized popular subscriptions to help victims, collaborated with the justices of the peace and army officers in preventing fires, and went into action when conflagrations broke out. In 1790 the Fire Society owned five of the twelve fire pumps at Quebec, the army had four, and Johnston and Purss had at least one. Purss was commissioned lieutenant in the Quebec Battalion of British Militia in 1787, and probably in 1799 was promoted captain. In addition he served as assessor for the town and suburbs of Quebec in 1797.

Purss died on 8 April 1803. In his handwritten will, which was drawn up on 4 Dec. 1802, he had named his friend the Presbyterian minister Alexander Spark, his cousin James Tullok, and merchant John Munro, all of the town, as his executors. Except for the furniture and household effects, which were bequeathed to Margaret Johnston, Purss gave all his assets to relatives, most of whom lived in Great Britain. On 30 April 1803 Mrs Johnston bought virtually all of his estate for £3,500 sterling, a sum that was paid to his heirs.

André Bérubé

AC, Québec, Testament olographe de John Purss, 14 April 1803 (see P.-G. Roy, Inv. testaments, 3: 119). ANQ-Q, CE1-66, 12 April 1803; CN1-83, 17 nov. 1786, 23 avril 1791, 7 avril 1792; CN1-92, 9 sept. 1795, 27 juill. 1797, 29 août 1798; CN1-200, 9 sept. 1782; CN1-202, 26 oct. 1763, 30 août 1765; CN1-205, 14 mars 1778; 22 avril, 18 oct. 1784; CN1-224, 19 juin 1789, 17 juin 1791; CN1-230, 12 juin 1795, 19 mai 1797, 13 févr. 1799, 3 août 1802; CN1-248, 7 janv. 1763; CN1-256, 3 Feb., 12 March, 14 July 1787; 23 April, 18 Dec. 1789; 20 April 1790; 23 April 1795; 27 Feb. 1796; 10 Oct. 1797; 4 June 1798; 2 Sept. 1799; CN1-284, 8, 10 juin, 19 août 1800; 9 mars, 14 avril 1801; 14, 30 avril 1803; CN1-285, 3, 9 déc. 1801. Orkney Arch., Orkney Library (Kirkwall, Scot.), D15/1/3. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 69: 326–31. PRO, CO 42/15: f.13 (mfm. at PAC). Docs. relating to constitutional hist., 1759–91 (Shortt and Doughty; 1918), 1: 212–16, 232–35. Quebec Gazette, 29 Sept. 1766; 18 June 1772; 14 June, 26 July 1787; 21 Jan., 4 Nov. 1790; 28 April, 16 June 1791; 3, 10 July 1794; 5 Jan. 1797; 22 March 1798; 4 March 1802; 14 April 1803. “Habitants de la ville de Québec, 1770–1771,” F.-J. Audet, compil., BRH, 27 (1921): 218. E. H. Dahl et al., La ville de Québec, 1800–1850: un inventaire de cartes et plans (Ottawa, 1975), 63, 67. Langelier, Liste des terrains concédés, 1757. “Papiers d’État,” PAC, Rapport, 1890: 208. “Papiers d’État – Bas-Canada,” PAC Rapport, 1891: 114; 1892: 157, 163, 178, 196; 1893: 53. Quebec almanac, 1787: 47; 1799: 99; 1800: 103; 1801: 102. F.-X. Chouinard et Antonio Drolet, La ville de Québec, histoire municipale (3v., Québec, 1963–67), 2: 57. Mildred Morgan, “The office of receiver general and its tenure by deputy in the province of Quebec, 1763–1791” ([ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal], 1937), 79–80. Ruddel, “Quebec City, 1765–1831,” 309–11, 313–14, 542, 603. D. C. Cargill, “John Purse, merchant in Quebec in 1794,” Scottish Genealogist (December 1966): 33–34. Philéas Gagnon, “Le premier pont sur la rivière Saint-Charles,” BRH, 4 (1898): 55.

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André Bérubé, “PURSS, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/purss_john_5E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/purss_john_5E.html
Author of Article:   André Bérubé
Title of Article:   PURSS, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 18, 2024