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SAYER, JOHN (also written Sayers and Sayre, but he signed Sayer), fur trader; b. c. 1750; d. 2 Oct. 1818 in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Lower Canada.

John Sayer first appeared in the fur trade in the late 1770s when he became active in the Fond du Lac district south and west of Lake Superior. He was apparently one of the earliest traders working out of Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.) to winter at Lac de la Sangsue (Leech Lake, Minn.). In 1780 Sayer was the Michilimackinac agent for Montreal merchant Joseph Howard* and was granted a licence to send up one canoe to Michilimackinac. That year, upon returning to Lac de la Sangsue for the winter, he found that most of the Ojibwas with whom he had formerly traded had died of smallpox. During the same year he joined with other Michilimackinac merchants in protesting the interference of government officials in the fur trade.

By 1784, following the American revolution, the number of traders around Michilimackinac had grown so alarmingly that Sayer and other merchants formed a committee to regulate the market. The next year, perhaps in response to the recent emergence of the North West Company, Sayer entered an agreement organizing the General Company of Lake Superior and the South (also known as the General Society) [see Étienne-Charles Campion*]. Because of his previous experience he was appointed to direct the company’s operations in the region south and west of Lake Superior. The pressure of competition and an unpredictable market in the late 1780s, probably combined with the failure of the General Company by 1788, induced Sayer to engage in successive one-year trading alliances with Jean-Baptiste Perrault*, Jean-Baptiste Cadot, and others. In 1789 and 1790 Sayer wintered on the Fond du Lac River (St Louis River, Minn.) under these agreements.

About 1791, apparently having dissolved his long affiliation with Howard, Sayer formed John Sayer and Company and became an agent of the NWC at Sault Ste Marie (Mich.). Two years later he engaged Perrault to build Fort St Louis (Superior, Wis.), the NWC’s Fond du Lac district headquarters, and on 12 Sept. 1793 arrived there with his native family to take charge. From then until the summer of 1805 he travelled widely in the region under his command, wintering at Lac de la Sangsue, White Oak Point (near Deer River, Minn.), Upper Red Cedar Lake (Cass Lake, Minn.), Pembina (N.Dak.), and on two tributaries of the St Croix River, the Yellow (Wis.) and Snake (Mine.) rivers. In late April 1798 David Thompson* described him as “poor in flesh” from his winter’s subsistence on wild rice and maple sugar at Upper Red Cedar Lake. Sayer’s summers were customarily divided between the annual rendezvous, held until 1802 at Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) and subsequently at Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.), and business at his district headquarters. His chief competitors were the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a post at Pembina, and the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company).

John Sayer and Company seems to have been dissolved about 1797, and the following year Sayer was listed as a partner in the NWC. On 5 July 1802 he signed an agreement which extended the coalition of partners and gave him two shares. Following the merger of the New North West Company with the NWC in 1805, Sayer signed a document expanding the NWC from 92 to 100 shares, and apparently that year he took his allotted “rotation,” or furlough, to Lower Canada, where he traded for the NWC at the Lac des Chats post (near Quyon) on the Ottawa River. In 1807, having been charged by Duncan McGillivray with “former irregularities,” he was forced to retire from active partnership. The following year Sayer acquired a farm of some 1,000 acres in Onslow Township on Lac des Chats in exchange for one of his company shares. In 1809 he sold this estate to Duncan Cameron* and became a resident of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, selling his second NWC share in 1810 to McTavish, McGillivrays and Company. Though subsequently elected to the Beaver Club, Sayer appears not to have attended any meetings.

With his native wife Obemau-unoqua (possibly known as Nancy) Sayer had at least three sons, Pierre-Guillaume*, John Charles, and Henry. The members of his immediate family whom he listed in his will, however, were his wife Elizabeth McPherson and his natural children Margaret, Henry (who may have been Obemau-unoqua’s son), and James.

Douglas A. Birk

ANQ-M, CM1, John Sayer, 15 June 1819; CN1-185, 27 June 1810. Minn. Hist. Soc. (St Paul), D. A. Birk, “John Sayer and Fond du Lac fur trade: the history, ecology and archeology of an 1804–1805 North West Company wintering post site (21-PN-11) and its relation to the fur trade in the western Lake Superior region” (1974); Morrison (Allan) papers, Allan Morrison, “History of the fur trade.” PAC, MG 19, C1, 12; 17. [This item consists of a journal and some accounts, now identified as Sayer’s by the PAC, although the journal has been erroneously attributed to Thomas Connor in Five fur traders of the northwest . . . , ed. C. M. Gates ([Minneapolis, Minn.], 1933; [2nd ed.], St Paul, 1965).  d.a.b.] Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 1: 395. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace), 109–10, 207, 247–48, 497. Mackenzie, Journals and letters (Lamb), 480, 484. Mich. Pioneer Coll., 10 (1886): 421; 37 (1909–10): 426, 536–37, 537n., 555–57, 568–69, 575. New light on early hist. of greater north-west (Coues), 1: 225n.; 2: 1011. [David Thompson], David Thompsons narrative, 1784–1812, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962), 203–5. Wis., State Hist. Soc., Coll., 19 (1910): 173–74, 181, 238. W. E. Stevens, “The northwest fur trade, 1763–1800,” Univ. of Ill. Studies in the Social Sciences (Urbana), 14 (1926), no.3: 135–37.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Douglas A. Birk, “SAYER, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sayer_john_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sayer_john_5E.html
Author of Article:   Douglas A. Birk
Title of Article:   SAYER, 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:   February 26, 2024