ROBERTSON (Robinson), WILLIAM, merchant, judge, office holder, politician, and militia officer; b. c. 1760 in Scotland; m. first 26 Jan. 1798 Cornelia Eleanor Brooks in New York City, and they had one daughter; m. secondly 18 March 1803 Jane Ogilvy, née Dunlop, mother of John Ogilvy; d. 13 Dec. 1806 in London, England.
William Robertson settled at Detroit (Mich.) in 1782. His brother Samuel, who died that same year, had been a ship’s captain there since 1774. William served as clerk to Samuel’s father-in-law, John Askin, and became his partner on 1 July 1784. Robertson was paid £600 yearly for “conducting the business” until it dissolved on 22 Aug. 1787. He rose rapidly in the southwest fur trade, for which, in 1788, he estimated the value of pelts to be £150,000 to £200,000 annually. Articulate and thoughtful, Robertson was, with Askin and Alexander Grant, one of the leading merchants in the area and by 1788 he had emerged as the principal spokesman of that group.
In July 1788 Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] established four new administrative districts in western Quebec. Robertson’s local prominence was reflected in his appointment to both the Court of Common Pleas and the land board of the District of Hesse. He approved of the former as vital to a commercial society “to protect their Property and redress their wrongs” but opposed the choice of judges, including himself. Because the “Professions of Judge and Merchant combined in the same person are wholly incompatible” and since the main business of the court would be the settlement of debt, he argued the need for a judge “professionally acquainted with the Law.” Robertson therefore resigned and carried to Quebec a memorial signed by himself and 33 other merchants. There, on 24 October, he testified before a committee of the Legislative Council. As a result of its favourable report on the petition, William Dummer Powell* became the sole judge of the district. Robertson apparently saw no conflict of interest in his nomination to the land board in 1789 and attended every meeting to the end of August 1790. Despite subsequent non-attendance, he was reappointed in May 1791 and the following year he was named to the board’s successor, the land board of the counties of Essex and Kent.
His stature was such that in March 1790 Robertson was recommended by Sir John Johnson* for seats on the executive and legislative councils of the proposed new province of Upper Canada. He was appointed to the former on 9 July 1792 and the latter three days later. Although Lieutenant Governor Simcoe thought him “a person of very good manners & good sense,” he worried about Robertson’s ability to devote the time necessary to his new duties. For whatever reason, by 4 November Robertson had resigned both offices.
Robertson’s pre-eminence was based on his success as a merchant but little is known of this aspect of his life, especially his major concern – the fur trade out of Detroit. Kinship played a significant role in establishing his business connections. From the outset he was linked to the Askin network through his brother Samuel’s widow, Catherine Askin. In 1785 she married Robert Hamilton, the leading merchant in the Niagara area; Robertson acted as his financier, supplier, patron, and customer. A younger brother, David, had joined Robertson in Detroit by 1790, and in July that year they entered into a partnership, which also included James MacDonell, Robertson’s clerk since 1785. MacDonell withdrew in September and David exercised control during William’s absence in London, England, between 1791 and 1795. In 1793 the British Treasury awarded Alexander Davison* the contract to supply the troops in the Canadas. He in turn nominated the Montreal merchant John Gray* and the Quebec partnership of Monro and Bell as his Lower Canadian agents. Richard Cartwright, Hamilton, Askin, and David Robertson then received an exclusive sub-contract to victual the Upper Canadian garrisons between 1793 and 1795 after furious lobbying in London by Robertson and Isaac Todd. Prior to his return in 1795 Robertson entered a new partnership with Askin. That same year he dissolved the partnership with his brother and concluded two new ones with Askin and others for speculation in land. He was given power of attorney in the second indenture, known as the Cuyahoga Purchase, but did not act long in this capacity. In the fall of 1795 he travelled to Philadelphia, Pa, and on his return settled at Montreal. There he acted on Askin’s behalf with local merchants and continued to maintain his own business. In 1797, for instance, he supplied the garrison at Amherstburg, Upper Canada, with over 2,000 bushels of Indian corn. Also in this period he and Askin owned a salt spring. In May 1801 he was back at Detroit, presumably to recover the “great amount of my outstanding debts in this quarter.”
The death of his wife in 1800 had left Robertson “inconsolable” and the following year he moved to London. Shunning friends, he became an alcoholic; reports filtered back to the Canadas of a life spent in “continual debauch.” But a nephew dismissed the rumours as exaggerated and hoped for the reform of his drinking habits through the good influence of his second wife. The marriage did not last long; the couple separated in August 1803, Robertson citing as cause “her insupportable extravagance.” Hearsay continued unabated. Hamilton thought him “Lost to every sence of Shame, his Conduct would disgrace the lowest Member of the lowest class of Society.” Todd was even harsher, labelling him “a Sot & blackguard . . . infamous as a Liar & Rogue.” Only Askin retained any charitable impulses towards “an honest worthy friendly good man” overtaken by fever or drink.
Prior to leaving Detroit in 1791 Robertson had supported the local Church of England clergyman and served as a militia officer. Described by Peter Russell as a “genteel Sensible Scotsman,” he possessed a keen mind often at variance with the prevailing opinions of his class. Unlike most merchants he supported the division of the old province of Quebec. While in England in the early 1790s he took a fervent interest in the war against revolutionary France, lamenting “that for the good of one another mankind are to cut one anothers throats . . . to a mind possessed by humanity the prospect of carnage is truely afflicting!” He was dispirited by the spectacle of “Europe deluged with human blood, torn to its foundation, & every kingdom in it on the point of political dissolution, from the unthinking conduct of kings, priests, ministers & people.” Friends reacted to his views with a mixture of shock, rebuke, and even threats.
In the last years of his life Robertson spoke little of his Canadian career. His affairs here were superintended by his nephews. On occasion, perhaps spurred by the pressure of creditors, he wrote a letter complaining of outstanding debts and from 1804 to 1806 he dunned Hamilton. A wealthy man at his death, he left £500 apiece to his two nephews and placed the remainder of his estate in trust for his daughter. In 1820 the value of his land alone was reckoned in excess of £54,000.
There is a pathos to Robertson’s life. His natural business acumen and intellect marked him for success. His graciousness of manner and soundness of judgement made him a good friend and worthy counsel. If Robertson was unusual, it was for the delicacy of his sensibilities: the death of a loved one revealed his tragic vulnerability and plunged him into a despair from which he never recovered.