RYERSE (Ryerson), SAMUEL, army officer, miller, office holder, judge, and militia officer; b. 1752 in Saddle River Township, N.J., son of Luke (Luyckes) Ryerse (Ryerson) and Johanna Van der Hoff, m. first Elizabeth Colwell, and they had four children, of whom a son and a daughter survived infancy; m. secondly 22 Jan. 1784 Sarah Davenport, née Underhill, and they had ten children, of whom two sons and one daughter survived infancy; d. 12 June 1812 in Port Ryerse, Upper Canada.
Samuel Ryerse’s forebears emigrated from Holland to America in the mid 17th century. They later moved to what became Bergen County, N.J., where young Samuel was raised and presumably educated. According to one family historian, on the outbreak of the American revolution Ryerse was imprisoned for his loyalty. He later escaped and joined the loyalist forces along with his younger brother Joseph. Samuel became a captain in the New Jersey Volunteers on 25 March 1777. During the next two years he played a conspicuous role in raids into his native province from New York City. On one occasion a rebel newspaper lauded his efforts to prevent plundering by his men and judged him to be “actuated by principles of honour and humanity.” Early in 1779 his lands were confiscated and sold.
In the autumn of that year Ryerse was recruited by Major Patrick Ferguson to join an élite force for service in a campaign the following spring against Charleston, S.C. Later Ferguson’s force was badly beaten, on 7 Oct. 1780, at the battle of Kings Mountain. Ryerse was wounded in the left hand and wrist and ultimately lost “the ring finger and in great measure the use of my hand.” He was taken prisoner and paroled the following February. Of his treatment by the rebels, he wrote to an unknown correspondent: “You would hardly believe it possible that any of the human species could be possessed of so much barbarity. If you will call to mind the most horrid cruelties that have ever been affected by savages you will then in some measure be able to judge what we have seen and suffered.” Following his release, he returned to New York City where he rejoined his old unit.
At the conclusion of the war, Ryerse went on half pay. Up to this point he had almost consistently spelt his name Ryerson (on occasion he used Ryerse). Now he began to sign Ryerse. The change has often been ascribed to a clerical error on the army rolls that necessitated his adopting the variant in order to obtain his pay. The most recent study indicates that this interpretation cannot be sustained and suggests that Ryerse probably used the variant to distinguish himself from the rebel branch of his family. His brother Joseph, however, continued to use Ryerson.
The New Jersey Volunteers left New York City in September 1783, arriving in what is now the province of New Brunswick the following month. Ryerse and others in his battalion refused to settle on their designated block of land, the most remote spot then surveyed on the Saint John River. Instead he apparently squatted in the vicinity of St Anne’s Point (Fredericton) until June 1784. In 1784 he repeatedly petitioned Governor Thomas Carleton for land in Sunbury County. Finally, in December 1786, he received 600 acres on the south bank of the Little River where he farmed and pressed, unsuccessfully, for compensation for his wartime losses. His brother Joseph, who had come with him to New Brunswick, received 400 acres at the same site.
Ryerse was not happy in New Brunswick, “being disappointed both in [its] soil and climate, finding it to be sterile and uncongenial.” His wife, too, was unhappy away from her native city of New York. Thus he sold his land and by early 1793 had taken up residence in Brooklyn, N.Y. He then had four children by his second marriage; within eight weeks of his arrival, all had died. In April he returned to New Jersey and purchased land in Morris County, but animosity lingering from the revolution prompted him to seek land in Upper Canada. In the summer of 1794 he travelled to Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), where he met with Lieutenant Governor Simcoe. Ryerse decided to move yet again and returned to the province with his family in the summer of 1795.
Simcoe was struck by Ryerse’s “private character and fidelity to the King.” Certain that the foundations of loyalty and adherence to the British constitution could be instilled in the population by force of example, Simcoe sought permission from the authorities in Great Britain to extend the boundaries of the settlement at Long Point, Norfolk County, to include Ryerse and others. Moreover, the lieutenant governor went out of his way to enhance Ryerse’s status with land and offices. On 1 July 1796 he was named a justice of the peace; he was reappointed continuously until his death. On 15 July the Executive Council granted him the 3,000 acres his military rank entitled him to, and he located them in Norfolk County. He settled at the mouth of Young Creek in Woodhouse Township; there he built a sawmill and a grist-mill which formed the nucleus of the village of Port Ryerse. Unlike the former, the latter mill proved unprofitable; it was burned on 14 May 1814 by a party of American marauders including Abraham Markle*. Before his departure from Upper Canada, Simcoe had directed that Ryerse “may be placed at the head” of the militia with the rank of major at least. In the event, on 17 July 1797, Ryerse received the most important local office, that of county lieutenant [see Hazelton Spencer], and was commissioned colonel of the 1st Norfolk Militia.
Ryerse was the pre-eminent office holder in the area and played a leading role in the administrative and military affairs of the increasingly populous eastern portion of the Western District. With the formation of the London District on 1 Jan. 1800, he was appointed the first district court judge and, presumably, the first surrogate court judge as well. The following month he became, with Thomas Welch and Thomas Hornor*, a commissioner of the Court of King’s Bench. In August he was included as one of three commissioners responsible for administering the oath of allegiance to individuals claiming land in the district. He performed his duties assiduously. Until June 1803, for instance, he attended and chaired all but one meeting of the Court of Quarter Sessions. Other lesser offices followed: road commissioner in March 1805, trustee of the district school in 1807, and judge of the Court of Requests in 1807, and again in 1809.
Samuel Ryerse was thus part of a regional élite based on office-holding and dominated by the local assemblyman, Surveyor General David William Smith*. Smith had close ties with the powerful merchants of the Niagara peninsula such as Robert Hamilton. But that interest did not prevent Ryerse in 1800 from heading a petition from 105 inhabitants of Norfolk County protesting “as monopolous and oppressive” the proposed bill to allow Hamilton and his partners to make improvements to the Niagara portage and pay for them by increased freight charges. Late in 1803 Smith decided not to stand for re-election in the riding of Norfolk, Oxford and Middlesex. The resulting power vacuum led to a bitter contest between rival factions.
Ryerse decided to stand, and his candidacy was opposed by Benajah Mallory*. In late May 1804 Lord Selkirk [Douglas] observed that the electioneering “seems here to go on with no small sharpness.” In spite of the support of fellow office holders such as Welch, Ryerse was defeated 166 votes to 77. Buoyed by this success his rivals called for the removal of Ryerse and others from office. Tension between the two groups heightened and in January 1805 several shots were fired at Mallory’s home. He charged that the attempted assassination was the work of either Ryerse or John Backhouse. Ryerse, in turn, claimed the accusation was part of a conspiracy against him. Several months later the conflict was taken up in the Court of Quarter Sessions and resulted in a welter of charges and counter-charges. Office holders such as Ryerse and Welch characterized their opponents as a Methodist faction motivated by sedition. Indeed, in February 1806, Ryerse petitioned the House of Assembly to declare Mallory ineligible to sit in parliament, “having . . . been a preacher and teacher of the Religious Society or Sect called Methodists.” Ryerse’s counsel subpoenaed several witnesses who refused to appear; thus one year later the petition was dismissed, on the motion of Solicitor General D’Arcy Boulton*, for lack of evidence.
In 1809 the deputy paymaster general suspended Ryerse’s half pay because he held government appointments. Ryerse notified Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore*’s office that he would have to obtain a certificate indicating he had received no remuneration from those offices or ask to “be removed from [them] . . . immediately . . . as they have never paid me for the loss of my time and the Stationary that I have used on Public Business.” Apparently the matter was not resolved in Ryerse’s favour; in a letter dated 24 Feb. 1810 he wrote, “Some Embarrassments that I have Unluckily got into with respect to my half Pay have obliged me to resign my Several Provincial Appointments. . . .”
Even after his retirement Ryerse retained a concern for public affairs: He had, as he told Chief Justice Thomas Scott* in 1810, “the good of the Country and the Prosperity of the Province equally at heart in a private Capacity.” Ryerse was disturbed about the qualifications of certain men recommended for local office. Few were fit for the situations and some were “Unfriendly” to the Gore administration. He dismissed Duncan McCall* as a trader who occasionally resided in the United States. Moreover, he had been seen in a tavern “deeply Engaged in a game of Chance (throwing Dice and pitching Dollars) which would Seem to indicate a partiality for low Company.” He considered Abraham A. Rapelje a better candidate for office but noted, “He has no landed Property nor any fixed residence, and during Judge [Robert Thorpe*’s] residence in this Country was a Strong Advocate of his politiks. . . .”
More than two years after his retirement Samuel Ryerse died of tuberculosis. He had been many things in his life: a soldier, a freemason, a farmer, and a miller. But his enduring reputation was based on his prominence as an office holder. Simcoe had hoped that the principles Ryerse personified – staunch loyalism, toryism, and adherence to the Church of England – would be emulated. As the election of 1804 proved, however, these qualities could not win him the support of the majority of settlers in Norfolk, who were overwhelmingly Methodist and non-loyalist American.
© 1983–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Daniel J. Brock, “RYERSE, SAMUEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ryerse_samuel_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:||Daniel J. Brock|
|Title of Article:||RYERSE, SAMUEL|
|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 27, 2023|