WINNIETT, JAMES, army officer, Indian Department official, office holder, and jp; b. c. 1777; d. 13 Aug. 1849 near Brantford, Upper Canada.

James Winniett was a career army officer who joined the 68th Foot in 1795 at the age of 18. He spent the next 34 years with the regiment, during which he was present at 13 Peninsular War engagements and rose to major. Sent to British North America at the end of the Napoleonic period, the 68th served in the garrison at Drummond Island (Mich.); Winniett was in charge of arrangements for the visit there by Governor Charles Lennox*, 4th Duke of Richmond and Lennox, in the summer of 1819. Later he was posted for various periods at Kingston, York (Toronto), and Quebec. By the late 1820s the regiment formed part of the Montreal garrison. Winniett sold his commission in August 1829 and moved to York County, Upper Canada. He applied for land in January 1830 and was given the first of several grants which by his death totalled 900 acres.

Settling near Brantford in 1830, Winniett spent the next two years as a middle-aged country squire. Like many other retired military men, he sought a government appointment; he had evidently been led to expect one through his contacts with the Upper Canadian administration. The sudden death in 1832 of John Brant [Tekarihogen*], superintendent of the Six Nations, provided a convenient opening. In November Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne* commissioned Winniett a superintendent in the Indian Department “to be stationed at the Grand River and to inspect occasionally the Indian Establishments in Upper Canada.” He suggested that the position would not be an easy one. Factionalism among the Six Nations, mismanagement of Indian lands, and problems with white squatters were frustrating the government’s hopes for quick results from the policy of assimilation. Winniett was ordered to evict squatters, to cooperate with missionaries, and to tighten up the superintendency’s organization.

Land disputes were particularly acrimonious in the Grand River community because of the complexities arising from the original grant of 1784 and the subsequent sale or lease of large blocks by Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*]. Squatters, who had no legal arrangements with anyone, were numerous. Timber thefts were common, and Winniett eventually sought extra help to minimize losses. Marcus Blair of Hamilton was made senior deputy surveyor of woods and forests on the Grand River, assisted by Charles Bain. Blair possessed an argumentative personality and was not entirely happy with departmental policies and the use of Indian constables. “I certainly can not by any means agree that any Indian should at his pleasure take my duty out of my hands,” he complained to Winniett. The relationship between the two men was often tense.

In 1834 Winniett was president of the Grand River Navigation Company, a position which reflected the fact that the Six Nations owned 25 per cent of its shares. The investment decision, which had been made with the approval of Colborne and without the formal consent of the Indians, proved to be a great mistake, and one that Winniett’s presence on the board of directors could not alleviate. The men who actually ran the company, William Hamilton Merritt* and David Thompson, managed the situation so that the Indians were obliged to sink more and more money into the scheme in order to save their original investment. Eventually they owned more than 80 per cent of the unprofitable enterprise. Winniett meanwhile had requested and received permission from the Indian Department to resign from the board.

Winniett’s administrative performance as superintendent of the Six Nations was sometimes less than adequate. In 1836, for example, the schedules for annual Indian presents permitted the ordering of extra equipment. He failed to take advantage of this opportunity until reminded to do so by Chief Superintendent James Givins. At other times he misplaced departmental paperwork. Colborne had held out the possibility of Winniett’s succeeding the elderly Givins but, unfortunately for Winniett, Colborne left office before the change could be made. His successor, Sir Francis Bond Head*, was aware of the situation; none the less he appointed Samuel Peters Jarvis* to the post in 1837. Indeed, when a general overhaul of government was planned in the late 1830s, Winniett was one of those officials slated for early retirement, probably because of his mediocre administrative abilities. This attempt to dismiss him embittered Winniett. Only a strong personal appeal – and the loyalty to the crown of the Six Nations during the troubles of 1837–38 – prevented his removal. When the royal commission of 1842–44 established by Governor Sir Charles Bagot to investigate the Indian Department completed its work, Winniett was finally retired. David Thorburn of Queenston assumed some of his duties in mid 1844 and succeeded him as superintendent a year later.

Winniett continued to live in the Brantford area. He had acted as a collector of tolls on the Grand River and as a justice of the peace, and likely went on doing so after his retirement. His obituary in the Hamilton Spectator, and Journal of Commerce described him as a man “respected by all around him.” Little is known of his family life. A daughter married Brantford doctor Robert Coucher. In his will Winniett left £200 for the education and support of Francis Alexander Atkins of Brantford Township, possibly an illegitimate son.

James Winniett’s career was scarcely a remarkable one. He was typical of many retired military men who held minor offices in Upper Canada during the decades surrounding the political union of 1841. The course of his life does throw some light, however, on the difficulties of local Indian administration, on the nature of political patronage, and on the composition of local social élites in the period.

Douglas Leighton

AO, RG 1, A-VII; RG 22, ser.155. PAC, MG 9, D7, 40, vol.8, file 36; MG 24, A25, 2; RG 1, E3, 52, 102; L1, 33: 116; L3, 148: Canada Company, pp.32b–c, 41h; 531: W16/15; 541: W6/21; RG 5, B9, 1–2, 4, 71; RG 8, I (C ser.), 142, 363, 965; RG 10, A1, 121–22; A6, 718–19; B8, 628; CI, 6, vols. 803, pts.i–ii, 806. Globe, 21 Aug. 1849. Hamilton Spectator, and Journal of Commerce (Hamilton, [Ont.]), 22 Aug. 1849. J. D. Leighton, “The development of federal Indian policy in Canada, 1840–1849” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1975). B. E. Hill, “The Grand River Navigation Company and the Six Nations Indians,” OH, 63 (1971): 31–40.

Cite This Article

Douglas Leighton, “WINNIETT, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 25, 2024,

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:   Douglas Leighton
Title of Article:   WINNIETT, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   July 25, 2024