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ROSS, JAMES, Presbyterian minister, editor, and educator; b. 28 July 1811 at West River, Pictou County, N.S., son of the Reverend Duncan Ross* and Isabella Creelman; m. 27 Sept. 1838 Isabella, daughter of William Matheson, and they had a number of children; d. 15 March 1886 at Dartmouth, N.S.

James Ross and his wife-to-be attended the same school on the lower end of the East River, in Pictou County. He graduated from Dr Thomas McCulloch*’s academy at Pictou, received a teaching licence on 12 Oct. 1831, and accepted a “lucrative” position at the Westmorland County Grammar School in Sackville, N.B. After his father’s death, James responded to a call from his congregation and was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry at West River on 3 Nov. 1835. He was paid £150 a year in cash and produce, and his congregation numbered over 175 families. Ross also operated a large farm at West River, edited, probably in 1842–43, the Presbyterian Banner (which merged with the Mechanic and Farmer in 1843 to become the Eastern Chronicle), served as synod clerk from 30 July 1839 to 25 June 1847, and taught divinity classes in Princetown (Malpeque), P.E.I., in 1846.

With the Reverend William McCulloch, son of Thomas McCulloch, Ross laid the strategy which led to the founding of a Presbyterian theological seminary at West River for the training of a local ministry. On 22 July 1846, two years before the seminary was officially opened, Ross was elected professor of biblical literature, and in July 1848 he accepted the additional post of professor of philosophy. The seminary, under the auspices of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia and housed in the ill-ventilated Temperance Hall above the schoolhouse in West River, received its first 12 students on 9 Nov. 1848. Ross taught at the seminary until 1858 at a salary of £175 per year, part of which was paid by a bequest from his mother-in-law’s estate. To lighten his burden, Ross’s congregation in West River was halved in 1848, and he dissolved his pastoral connections in 1851. The inadequate quarters of the seminary led to a fierce battle over the choice of a new location until 1856 when Truro was selected as the site. This controversy and a bitter rupture within his former congregation contributed to a breakdown of Ross’s health in 1857, but when the seminary opened in its incomplete building in Truro on 1 Sept. 1858 he was able to resume teaching.

The union in 1860 of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia and the Free Church of Nova Scotia caused a renewal of discussions about resuscitating Dalhousie College in Halifax, which had operated from 1838 to 1845 but had since been dormant. Urged on by George Monro Grant*, one of the first graduates of the West River seminary, on 29 April 1863 Charles Tupper* and Joseph Howe* got a bill to reorganize and refinance Dalhousie passed in the assembly. Ross’s seminary classes were transferred from Truro to Dalhousie’s dilapidated building on the parade ground at Halifax, and on 19 Oct. 1863 Ross was named president of the revived college. When it opened on 10 Nov. 1863 the college had 60 students and six faculty: Ross and William McCulloch, whose salaries were paid by the Presbyterian Church, Charles Macdonald*, paid by the Free Church, and the Reverend William Lyall, George Lawson*, and John Johnson, paid by Dalhousie. Ross initially reported “violent opposition” to the college among Presbyterians, but this evaporated during 1864 in the face of attacks by the Baptist partisans of Acadia College in Wolfville, N.S. By a vote of 30 to 14 the Nova Scotia assembly rejected on 29 March 1864 a bill which would have killed Dalhousie. In April Ross received an honorary degree from Queen’s, the Presbyterian college in Kingston, Canada West.

During Ross’s 22-year presidency enrolment tripled, the faculty increased to 21, and medical and law schools were established. The first ba was awarded in 1866, ma in 1869, phd in 1872, bsc in 1880, and llb in 1885. But success had not come easily. Professors competed with the “noisome invisible” odours of janitorial cooking in the basement and the decomposing cadavers used by anatomy classes in the attic; the recess of the “rising savages of Halifax,” as Ross characterized the students of the nearby National School, rendered lectures inaudible; and military bands even had the pernicious habit of practising under the classroom windows. Financially Dalhousie faced a constant struggle. The initial commitment of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia to pay its appointees was no doubt partly met by a $35,000 bequest to the church from Ross’s father-in-law. By 1871 the college’s position was portrayed as “extraordinary and humiliating.” On 9 Oct. 1878 the Reverend John Forrest*, brother-in-law of George Munro*, was named to the board of governors. Within a year Munro, a native of Pictou County and a New York publisher, began contributions to Dalhousie of a size unprecedented in British North America to that time. These grants, totalling some $350,000, assured the future of the university.

Students expressed mixed opinions of Ross as a teacher, and Sir William Young, chairman of the board of governors, stated in 1878 when he tried unsuccessfully to arrange Ross’s retirement that “the health and bodily strength of the Principal are so much shaken to incapacitate him from the efficient teaching of his classes.” This illness might explain why many students felt Charles Macdonald was the de facto university principal. In fairness it should be remembered that Ross had lost his wife and a daughter between 1875 and 1878.

Ross resigned as president on 1 May 1885 and was succeeded by John Forrest. He retired to his Dartmouth home, Morven, where he died on 15 March 1886. At his burial at Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax, almost the entire student body of the university was present.

Allan C. Dunlop

Dalhousie Univ. Arch., MS 2–8, J. A. Bell, “Dalhousie College and University.” PANS, Vert. file, Genealogy – Tattrie family, Gordon Haliburton, “The Tattrie family of River John (1752–1952) . . .” (typescript, 1953). E. A. Betts, Pine Hill Divinity Hall, 1820–1970; a history (Truro, N.S., 1970). D. C. Harvey, An introduction to the history of Dalhousie University (Halifax, 1938). G. [G.] Patterson, Studies in Nova Scotian history (Halifax, 1940), 100–6. William Verwolf, “The West River Presbyterian Seminary,” Addresses at the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the arrival in Nova Scotia of RevJames Drummond MacGregor, D.D . . . , ed. Frank Baird (Toronto, 1937), 249–59. Dalhousie Gazette (Halifax), 12 Jan. 1903.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Allan C. Dunlop, “ROSS, JAMES (1811-86),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ross_james_1811_86_11E.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/ross_james_1811_86_11E.html
Author of Article:   Allan C. Dunlop
Title of Article:   ROSS, JAMES (1811-86)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   November 29, 2023