WILLIAMS, JAMES, land agent and office holder; b. in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland; m. secondly Elizabeth Stewart on Prince Edward Island, and they had two sons and two daughters; fl. 1803–15.
Although a detailed biographical background for James Williams survives on Prince Edward Island, little of it can be substantiated. According to this tradition – no doubt originally an oral one – Williams was a native of Kirkcudbright, apprenticed to a tailor, who ran away to serve with a Highland regiment, first in Ireland and then in Canada. According to Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, however, Williams was a Kirkcudbrightshire man who had worked for his family for many years. Whatever the case, Williams had somehow acquired a knowledge of Gaelic and sufficient business experience to prompt Selkirk to employ him in 1802 as an agent for his projected settlements in North America. When early in 1803 Selkirk acquired lands on Prince Edward Island upon which to place 800 Highland emigrants, Williams was placed in charge of the operation. He was not initially expected to depart for North America with the settlers, his first wife being seriously ill with consumption, but he was nevertheless on board the Oughton, which reached the Island on 27 Aug. 1803 with a group of Roman Catholic passengers from North and South Uist. The Polly and Selkirk’s ship, the Dykes, bringing Presbyterian settlers from the Isle of Skye, had arrived some weeks earlier.
Selkirk remained on the Island only long enough to see that his settlers were disembarked and that the process of land allocation had begun on his properties in the Orwell Bay–Pinette River region. Departing then for Upper Canada, he left detailed instructions for Williams to implement over the autumn and winter. Even before his departure, however, hostility between Williams and Dr Angus McAulay*, who with his son had recruited most of the emigrants, was evident, and several confrontations were to occur during Selkirk’s absence. McAulay accused Williams of not working hard enough to build houses before winter or to obtain provisions. He also complained of unfairness in the allocation of land, and objected to the easy familiarity between Williams and the official class of the colony. Williams, he maintained, spent most of the winter in Charlottetown and left supervision of the settlement at Belfast to another Kirkcudbright man, who “behaved with insolence.” Selkirk was forced to forbid Williams to involve himself in local politics by running for the House of Assembly, although after his return to the Island in September 1804 he was prepared to countenance an appointment to the Council (which, however, was never made). In October, having again left detailed instructions with his agent, Selkirk sailed for home. He would not return to his settlement.
As was typically the case with his North American agents, Selkirk expected far too much from Williams. Accustomed to loyal and dependable Scottish estate managers who knew their place and remained in it, Selkirk was never able to adjust his thinking to conditions in North America, where – especially in his prolonged absence an ocean away – his agents were regarded as important men in their own right and came to behave accordingly. Almost inevitably they acquired their own interests and pretensions, and began to ignore the interests of the employer upon whom their position ultimately depended. The political ambitions of Williams were symptomatic of the problem, which Selkirk was unable to resolve at any of his settlements.
In the first years of his Island agency, Williams apparently was active on Selkirk’s behalf. He sought a market for the settlement’s anticipated produce in Newfoundland, even buying a schooner for the trade, and successfully established additional emigrants sent by his employer. He also began to build a sawmill at Pinette, intended to cut 600,000 board feet of timber per year. But despite continual drawing of cash upon Selkirk’s account, he failed to report to his employer, who by July 1806 was understandably worried about the progress of his settlement. Writing that month to James Stewart, whom he had met in Halifax, N.S., in 1804, Selkirk was not certain Williams had turned “rogue,” but he felt there was enough evidence to fit with numerous instances of the “malignant effect of the American climate on . . . honesty.” At the same time he advised Williams to allow Stewart to examine the books in Halifax, to report to Stewart monthly, and to clear all bills of exchange with him. In the event, however, Williams managed to defer the ordered visit to Nova Scotia.
Selkirk was soon to be further alarmed by the report of a Nova Scotia attorney, John Fraser, whom Stewart sent to the Island to investigate in late October 1806. That Williams had supposedly received a good deal of money in cash and produce, and that the mill had plainly “turned out to good advantage,” cast considerable suspicion on his continued failure to communicate with an employer who had thus far received no return from his lands. Selkirk was now convinced of the need to send a confidential agent to the Island, and the news that his sister Helen’s young son Basil Hall had been stationed at Halifax under Sir George Cranfield Berkeley provided him with his man. Hall visited the Island late in 1807, his mother subsequently complaining to a friend that he was not suited to the business: “You see he has mismanaged matters in the first outset, for by blabbing his intentions all over Halifax, openly before he set out, he infallibly spread the report of himself. . . .” If young Hall’s lack of circumspection helped prevent him from getting to the bottom of the affair, his visit nevertheless led Williams to send Selkirk a letter “written under . . . much emotion.” Vigorously defending himself against the suspicion of fraud, Williams insisted that he had worked hard on Selkirk’s behalf, and denied that the sawmill had been profitable, although much effort and money had been expended upon it. “Your Lordship must not expect every twenty shillings your Agent receives will produce the same to you.” Williams here referred to the fact that payment was often in kind, and the produce hard to market, but his employer could have been pardoned for thinking in other terms.
Nevertheless, James Stewart was well pleased with the effect of Hall’s visit and, as a result of his recommendation and a further letter from Williams, Selkirk accepted his agent’s explanations. Williams was to return to Britain to justify his conduct in person – as he himself had insisted must be done – but not until he had accommodated another party of Highlanders coming to the Island in 1808. It soon became clear, however, that Williams was unwilling to return to Britain or to keep in touch. By the end of 1809 Selkirk was again in despair.
With Napoleon’s blockade of the Baltic ports in 1807 the opening of the colonial timber trade had begun in earnest. Prince Edward Island was one of the first areas to be exploited, and the increased prices of lumber brought many adventurers to the colony. In January 1809 Williams informed Selkirk that he had leased the sawmill and the timber rights on lots 10, 58, 60, and 62 to a William Spraggon, whose references seemed adequate. James Stewart was not impressed with the lessee’s line of credit, however, and when Selkirk checked with Spraggon’s London bankers they refused to honour any bills of exchange. Moreover, the earl’s lawyer informed him that, because of the manner of framing the contract, Spraggon fulfilled its terms by paying bills drawn in London, honoured or not. Whether Williams had been duped or was a party to the business was not at all clear.
Late in 1809 Selkirk wrote a lengthy letter to Captain John Macdonald of Glenaladale, rehearsing his dealings with Williams and requesting the old Highlander’s assistance. There were large arrears of advances to settlers, as well as returns from sales of land, to be accounted for; although Selkirk was not certain that Williams was cheating him, he could no longer leave a man in charge who so neglected making reports and had disobeyed a positive order to present his accounts. By this point Selkirk had given up on the Island and was not prepared to replace Williams, preferring if possible to sell his holdings. A separate letter to Williams informed him that he was under MacDonald’s supervision.
In the spring of 1810 Captain John wrote reassuringly to Selkirk of Williams’s performance, but his assessment was likely based more on old acquaintance and approval of Williams’s politics than on any investigation of the situation, for he was permanently confined to his house. By this time Williams had been absorbed into the “old party”: he had married into the family of the former chief justice, Peter Stewart, had become friendly with Chief Justice Caesar Colclough*, and in 1810 was elected sheriff to the complaints of the Loyal Electors, among them Angus McAulay. MacDonald had long been an enemy of the Stewart clique, but his dislike of the Loyal Electors had apparently buried old antagonisms. Political overtones were endemic in all Island dealings and help explain why active proprietors such as Selkirk were seldom well served.
In June 1810 Williams indicated his intention of returning to Britain in six weeks (although “the extreme perturbation of mind I labour under rather retards my movements”); two months later he explained that a serious illness made it impossible for him to consider the trip. That illness did not, however, prevent him from becoming embroiled, early the following year, in a heated dispute with Angus McAulay over the building of a road through the Selkirk lands. While Williams and McAulay were publicly jousting, Selkirk was attempting to sort out the affairs of the Island, on both a public and a private level. The two, of course, were inextricably intertwined. In 1810 Selkirk had led the successful efforts of the Island’s proprietors to have Charles Stewart appointed attorney general instead of James Bardin Palmer*, leader of the Loyal Electors, and he had temporarily turned his Island affairs over to Stewart until a permanent arrangement could be made. The immediate issues were recovering assets from Spraggon and getting an accounting from Williams. In August 1811 Stewart reported that he was taking legal action against Spraggon; but he complained that he could not hope to succeed against the timber merchant, who had initiated a counter suit in the Court of Chancery, as long as Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres*, who was closely allied with Palmer, remained lieutenant governor.
As for Williams, he had attempted in the summer of 1811 to sell nearly 500 tons of pine timber from Selkirk’s lots, perhaps in anticipation of his return home. Yet his enemies charged that he was “notoriously known to be in embarrassed circumstances,” and even Charles Stewart, who was a friend, had later to admit that Williams was anxious neither to leave the Island nor to turn over papers relating to the Selkirk estates. His failure to provide documentation made it difficult for Stewart to defend Selkirk in the Chancery suit, where Spraggon and his lawyer, William Roubel*, tried to sequester Selkirk’s lands for failure to answer the plaintiff’s charges. The legal issue, Palmer later insisted, was whether Williams could speak for Selkirk. The court decided that Selkirk must appear personally, a principle that penalized absentee proprietors, whose agents could dispose of their assets but not recover them.
Stewart’s death in 1813 forced Selkirk to employ the new attorney general, William Johnston*, as his legal counsel in the maze of Island litigation. The sketchiness of the court records and the loss of many Selkirk papers make it impossible to follow all the litigation through to its conclusion. But late in 1813 Johnston was representing Selkirk before the Court of Chancery in an action to recover the estate papers from Williams (who was appointed inspector of emigrants that same year). This case dragged on through 1814 and 1815. Ultimately, on 22 May 1815, the court ordered an attachment on Williams. It was never served, probably because Williams had left the Island – according to local tradition for Louisiana.
Not only was Selkirk unable to recover his papers from Williams, but his agent had decamped owing him considerable money. It is not clear exactly when Williams had turned “rogue,” but in the end he fulfilled his employer’s worst suspicions and left the Selkirk property on the Island in complete disarray. Neither Selkirk nor his executors succeeded in sorting out the confusion.
PAC, MG 19, El, ser.1, 37: 14190–92; 39; 50: 19123–44 (transcripts). PAPEI, Acc. 2849, Palmer family papers, nos. 14, 129; RG 6, Supreme Court, case papers, 1812, King v. Williams; RS2, Chancery Court, Minutes, 1813–19; James Williams, advertisement, Pinette sawmill, 9 Feb. 1811. Private arch., J. D. Bates (Anton’s Hill, Berkshire, Eng.), Hall of Dunglass family letters, Lady Hall to Jean, Lady Hunter, 3 Jan. 1808 (photocopies at National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh). PRO, CO 226/28: 7–23. Douglas, Lord Selkirk’s diary (White); Observations on the present state of the Highlands of Scotland, with a view of the causes and probable consequences of emigration (London, 1805; repr. New York, 1969), 177–98. Weekly Recorder of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown), 18 June 1811, 25 Nov. 1813. Andrew Macphail, “The history of Prince Edward Island,” Canada and its prov. (Shortt and Doughty), 13: 355–56. M. A. Macqueen, Skye pioneers and ‘the Island’ ([Winnipeg, 1929]), 12. J. M. Bumsted, “Settlement by chance: Lord Selkirk and Prince Edward Island,” CHR, 59 (1978): 170–88. G. F. Owen, “The voyage of the Polly,” reprinted in Archibald Irwin, “Lord Selkirk’s settlers in Prince Edward Island,” Prince Edward Island Magazine (Charlottetown), 4 (1902–3): 421–25; 5 (1904–5): 29–33, 137–40.
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Cite This Article
J. M. Bumsted, “WILLIAMS, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/williams_james_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:||J. M. Bumsted|
|Title of Article:||WILLIAMS, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|