SIMONDS, JAMES, businessman, jp, judge, office holder, and politician; b. 10 Dec. 1735 in Haverhill, Mass., son of Nathan Simonds and Sarah Hazen; m. 9 Nov. 1767 Hannah Peabody, and they had 14 children including Charles* and Richard*; d. 20 Feb. 1831 in Portland (Saint John), N.B.
James Simonds was one of the many younger sons of Massachusetts freeholders who came of age in the mid 18th century just as the supply of arable virgin land in the western part of the colony was becoming depleted. Divided among several heirs the Simonds patrimony could provide an adequate living for none. Following service in the Seven Years’ War, during which he participated in James Abercromby*’s assault on Fort Carillon (near Ticonderoga, N.Y.) in 1758, Simonds determined to move to Nova Scotia in response to Governor Charles Lawrence*’s invitation. After careful examination of potential areas of settlement, he chose land at the mouth of the Saint John River in an area soon to be known as Portland Point. Promised by the government that a 5,000-acre grant would be forthcoming, Simonds, his brother Richard, and Captain Francis Peabody moved to the new location in 1762. It is difficult to imagine an economically more advantageous grant in the colony. The estuary provided a sheltered deep-water harbour containing one of the finest salmon and alewife fisheries on the Atlantic coast. The limestone outcrop at Portland offered the possibility of an extensive supply of lime. On the east side of the harbour was a 2,000-acre salt-marsh capable of providing an immense supply of hay. The Saint John valley itself, embracing some 26,000 square miles, was home to the Malecite Indians, who maintained a modest trade in furs with European factors.
Simonds came to Portland Point with the intention of becoming a businessman rather than a farmer. He began by exploiting the fishery and shipping the product to his cousin William Hazen*, a small merchant of Newburyport, Mass. Recognizing the commercial possibilities of the Saint John area and needing capital to exploit them, Simonds and Hazen formed a partnership with a kinsman, Samuel Blodget, a substantial Boston merchant engaged in the West Indies trade. Ownership of the new firm was split four ways: Simonds, Hazen, and Blodget each received a quarter share; the remaining quarter was divided among Richard Simonds, James White (another of Hazen’s cousins), and Robert Peaslie (Hazen’s brother-in-law). The three junior partners joined Simonds on the Saint John while Hazen handled the distribution of goods in Massachusetts and Blodget remained the sedentary partner. In February 1764 Simonds received from the Nova Scotia government a licence to occupy the lands at Portland Point together with a licence to carry on fishing and to burn lime. On 1 March the new partnership came into effect. Subsequently the firm was to obtain large grants at the mouth of the river.
Simonds and White brought 30 men to Portland in 1764, including lime burners, fishermen, coopers, and other tradesmen needed for the prosecution of the several businesses in which they were soon involved. Simonds was an aggressive entrepreneur: he created trading arrangements with his own employees, the garrison at nearby Fort Frederick, the Saint John valley Indians, and the New England settlers at Maugerville, in addition to maintaining an extensive trade in fish, furs, lime, and lumber products with Massachusetts. Between 1764 and 1774 the firm employed 17 vessels in its service, and Simonds dispatched to his partners some £30,000 worth of furs and fish, 2,540 hogsheads of lime, 1,171 barrels of castor, and many thousands of clapboards and barrel staves. In 1764 the partners joined the Saint John River Society, also known as the Canada Company, which included such influential figures as Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts and Colonel Frederick Haldimand*, and through this means shared proprietorship of an additional 400,000 acres of land in the Saint John valley [see Beamsley Perkins Glasier*].
In 1765 Richard Simonds was killed by Indians, Peaslie left the partnership, and Hazen associated Leonard Jarvis in his share of the company. The following year Hazen and Jarvis bought out Blodget for £2,215. The firm was then reorganized. Under a new arrangement in 1767 Hazen and Jarvis acquired a half interest in the firm, Simonds received a third, and James White was left with the remainder. In addition, all of the lands held individually by the partners in Nova Scotia, with the exception of Simonds’s grant at Maugerville, were made part of the firm. That same year Simonds married Francis Peabody’s daughter Hannah and by this act further strengthened his connection to James White, who had married Hannah’s sister. He had bought Peabody’s house at Portland Point in 1766 and he was to live there until 1778.
As the oldest resident and principal landowner in the area Simonds came to play a significant civil role in the Saint John valley in the late 1760s. Most of the garrison was withdrawn from Fort Frederick in 1768 and Simonds was left in charge of the few remaining soldiers with responsibility for maintaining the peace. At different times he occupied the offices of magistrate, judge of probate, registrar of deeds, and deputy collector of customs for Sunbury County, which embraced most of the territory that later became New Brunswick. In 1773 he was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly in the place of Israel Perley*. He took his seat in October 1774 and continued to represent the county until 1782.
The firm’s decline began with the onset of the American revolution. Hazen came to Portland in 1775 and, Leonard Jarvis having left the company, Samuel Jarvis was engaged to transact the Massachusetts side of the business. Jarvis soon had difficulty filling orders for the Saint John and the Portland partners began to trade directly with the West Indies. Fort Frederick was attacked and taken by the rebels that summer, and in September Simonds sailed to Windsor, N.S., seeking help from the government but to no avail. In May 1776 the Maugerville settlers issued a statement of support for the revolution [see Seth Noble*]; when it was circulated in the Saint John valley, Simonds, Hazen, and White refused to sign it. Some months later Jonathan Eddy* came through Portland on his way to attack Fort Cumberland (near Sackville, N.B.), and in 1777 John Allan* arrested Hazen and White during his unsuccessful expedition to the Saint John. By 1778 all trade was at a standstill. Simonds decided to abandon the business. He moved inland to his farm at Lower Maugerville (Sheffield) and took no further part in the firm. In 1780 he offered to sell to Hazen and White his interest in all of the lands at the river’s mouth. Given the uncertainties of the time, the partners refused the offer.
Hazen and White proceeded to establish contacts with business and political interests in Halifax, Michael Francklin* among them, and were soon involved in the masting trade. As the war drew to its end and the transfer of the loyal refugees and regiments to Nova Scotia appeared imminent, the two active partners turned their attention once again to Portland. James White displaced Simonds as deputy collector of customs, and Hazen became commissary to the garrison. The partners’ lands at Portland comprised two large grants which they believed included all the land north of what became Union Street, Saint John, to the Kennebecasis River, east to the Great Marsh, and south to Red Head, as well as the Portland Point and Indiantown areas in the west. Prior to 1778 the partners had fulfilled the conditions of their grants by building roads, grist-mills, and wharfs and by attracting 30 families of settlers. When Hazen and White had the land surveyed in 1784 it was discovered that most of the Great Marsh lay outside the grants. Hazen and White then induced an old Seven Years’ War officer, Lieutenant William Graves, to file on the marsh as part of his military service grant. Using their influence with Halifax officials, the two partners procured the grant for Graves, who in return for a small commission conveyed the land to them.
The loyalists’ arrival in 1783 transformed what had been a wilderness settlement of 30 or 40 families and a small British garrison into the commercial hub around which the new colony of New Brunswick was structured. While perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 loyalists passed through Saint John in 1783–84, the resident population probably comprised about 5,000 people, mostly settled in the area that became the city of Saint John in 1785. The firm of Simonds, Hazen, and White controlled the north shore of the inner harbour of Saint John, and the Portland Point buildings, mills, and wharfs became the most valuable assets in the colony. Since the company’s lands restricted the main city to a 600-acre peninsula, the partners anticipated reaping a rich reward by setting up streets in neighbouring Portland and selling town lots to loyalists. Having acquired control of the Great Marsh, Hazen and White, in 1785, attempted to purchase all rights in the firm from Simonds for £3,000. He refused the offer and the following year asked for a settlement of the affairs of the company. There was no response from the other partners and Simonds wrote again outlining nine proposals for the division. Among other things he suggested that he receive one-third of the lands and rents belonging to the firm as well as all buildings which he had constructed. Negotiations broke down over Simonds’s claim to a share in the Great Marsh under the terms of the partnership agreement of 1767. Attempts by William Pagan* and others to arbitrate this particular dispute broke down in 1791 and the case was argued in the Court of Chancery between 1808 and 1810, when Hazen and White were forced to pay Simonds £1,312. Apart from this issue the division of the firm’s assets had been accomplished without difficulty. Each partner gained exclusive title to large grants of land. Simonds and Hazen were the major beneficiaries and after 1800 the two men lived on the rents received from their extensive urban and suburban holdings. Through no act of their own, Simonds and Hazen had been transformed from minor New England traders to wealthy landed gentry in a new British colony.
Simonds and his wife had 14 living children between 1768 and 1792, a number of them born in Maugerville. The family’s exile in the interior of the province for some years was an important element in determining its status and the role it came to play in a loyalist-dominated society. Hazen, operating among the leading loyalists of Saint John after 1783, shortly began the process of contracting advantageous alliances through the marriage of his young adult children with prominent loyalists. He became a member of the Council for New Brunswick and the Hazens rapidly moved to the heart of the loyalist functionary aristocracy. In the case of the Simonds family the process was delayed by a full generation. When the Simonds children married, early in the 19th century, they took young second-generation loyalists as their consorts.
Yet, this later social integration is deceiving. The loyalist arrival was, if anything, a more difficult transformation for Simonds than the revolution. He had lived in the isolation of Portland Point and Maugerville for more than 20 years and had few connections and no influence with a new social and political order that had its metropolitan focus in England rather than New England. Though he had repudiated the rebel cause, Simonds now found that he had much more in common with the “old inhabitants” than with the high-status victims of the war. Indicative of this community of feeling was his continued residence at Maugerville. In 1785, in the first elections for the New Brunswick House of Assembly, he ran in Sunbury County on behalf of the old inhabitants. He was defeated by the loyalist ticket. He moved to Saint John a few years later and in 1795 was elected to the assembly for Saint John County and City. There he supported the popular opposition to the Council, headed by James Glenie*, and participated in the movement to secure the assembly’s control of appropriations. The radicals were able to withhold the vote of supply between 1795 and 1799. In the end, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton* and the Council agreed to demands that appropriation be contained in the supply bill and that the appropriation name the persons to perform the service and the remuneration allowed. James Simonds was a House of Commons man; though he never took a position as extreme as that of Glenie, he none the less remained in opposition throughout his career in the assembly. He retired from public life in 1802. The disfavour in which he was held by the élite was reflected in the fact that he held no public office in the gift of the New Brunswick government until his appointment to the magistracy in 1816 when he was 80.
Simonds lived to a great age. There is little evidence of his involvement in the business life of Saint John after 1810 – it seems that the family’s affairs were handled by his eldest son, Charles – but his interests continued to prosper and his property to appreciate with the growth of the city. Though it is difficult to evaluate suburban and commercial real estate which was never sold, it is very possible that the Haverhill pioneer’s estate was worth $1,000,000 at the time of his death.
[The most valuable source for the study of Simonds’s life and career to 1785 is the collection of letters written by Simonds and White while at Saint John between 1764 and 1785 and published as “Letters written at Saint John by James Simonds, A.D. 1764–1785,” “Selections from the papers and correspondence of James White, esquire, A.D. 1762–1783,” and “The James White papers continued, A.D. 1781–1788,” ed. W. O. Raymond, N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., 1 (1894–97), no.2: 160–86; no.3: 306–40; and 2 (1899–1905), no.4: 30–72. Material on the activities of the Simonds, Hazen, and White firm is also found in the Hazen family papers and the James White papers at the N.B. Museum. There is a fine study of Simonds’s business activities by R. C. Campbell, “Simonds, Hazen and White: a study of a New Brunswick firm in the commercial world of the eighteenth century” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Saint John, 1970). Other accounts are found in W. O. Raymond’s The River Saint John: its physical features, legends and history from 1604 to 1784, ed. J. C. Webster ([2nd ed.], Sackville, N.B., 1943; repr. 1950) and in his articles on “Incidents in the early history of St. John,” Acadiensis (Saint John), 1 (1901): 82–86, 151–56. t.w.a.]
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Cite This Article
T. W. Acheson, “SIMONDS, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/simonds_james_6E.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:||T. W. Acheson|
|Title of Article:||SIMONDS, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||May 30, 2023|