Life In Niagara: The Servos Family Enterprises (Analysis)

A Primary Source Analysis of the Servos Mill Accounts 1785-1816: Part 2

To read Part 1, click here. To recap, this blog post is based on the contents of Account Books I-IV and the Personal Account Book of Daniel Servos in the Servos Mill Records (1785-1826) collection found in the Archives of Ontario.

“Account Book Volume I 1785-1795″. Index. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario


What drove Niagara’s Loyalist Era economy?”


In reading these sources, I will identify (5) main points concerning what drove Niagara’s Loyalist era economy.

  • 1. Niagara was operating a debt-based economy.

One constant throughout these records is the fact that the people who owed the Servos mills money could take 5 or more years to make their payments. For example, in 1785 Henry Young was charged £1-13-0 New York Currency (NYC) for Servos’ services of grinding wheat into 50 lb of flour but Young did not make a payment until July 2, 1790.

“Account Book Volume I 1785-1795″. No. 26. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario

This pattern occurs throughout the accounts, with men and women piling up debts and not paying them off until much later. What has been extremely frustrating to me is the fact that there was often no record when, how, or if these debts were paid. The Credits section on the right hand page, which is typically meant to show payments by the customer, is often left blank or incomplete. This makes it difficult to figure out the patterns of local exchange since we don’t always know how people paid for the services that Daniel Servos provided in milling their flour and lumber. Since many of the Loyalists in Niagara came in groups from the colonies and knew each other previously, this would have made it easier to trust one another. In fact, 54% of the settlers in Upper Canada were originally from Tryon county in New York, and thus the Servos brothers would have known and trusted many of the people in the Niagara community. [1] While they had moved to a new part of the world, they were not completely isolated.

  • 2. People cared about building wealth, not gathering income.

Other historians have made this argument before, and it is quite evident in the Servos accounts. Canadian historian Douglas McCalla argues that the economy of Upper Canada in the late 18th century was not a subsistence economy. A subsistence economy is not based on money, but is a system “in which buying and selling are absent or rudimentary though barter may occur, and which commonly provides a minimal standard of living.” [2] McCalla says this is so because of the high levels of immigration, the region’s ability to survive substantial fluctuations in wheat prices, to produce commodities on a regular basis and to adapt to market concerns. [3] The Servos accounts confirm that the Niagara region was definitely functioning beyond mere subsistence.

So how did settlers in the Niagara region envision growing and prospering? Because the Servos family and other labourers operated in debt for so much of their lives, they were motivated to work towards building capital assets over a long period of time, rather than accumulating income. This meant stability for the future despite market fluctuations of staple exports. We also know that cash was scarce at this time, so debts were usually repaid via barter or personal labour. This is not to say that there was no money to be found… in fact, most Loyalists acquired money from the British government approximately 5-10 years after the war, helping them invest in capital projects like building mills, houses, shops, etc. [4] This included money from war loss claims, officer’s half pay, and annual salaries of Indian Department officers. However, Daniel Servos did not receive his war loss claims payout or his half pay for his wartime duties in the Indian Department until 1788, and his parcels of land in Niagara township were not officially granted until the 1790s. This made the first 5 years in Niagara very difficult for him as a middling-status miller, until he acquired some of this cash and started investing it in building small-scale commercial enterprises.

Daniel Servos’ farm with 50 cleared acres was one of the Niagara settlement’s top producers of wheat in 1787. [5] He also milled flour and timber for the people of Niagara from the King’s Mills, which were the first mills to ever be built in the region, and built a second set of mills by 1791 after the old ones had been destroyed. He built a shop and exchanged goods such as tobacco, rum, cloth, & dinnerware for his work in milling wheat and timber, acquiring such goods via wholesale markets. He rented his teams of horses and oxen to people to carry loads away from the mills, and he rented land to people for animals to pasture. He operated a blacksmith shop, and built items like sleighs, ploughs and farm implements. He made bags and shirts, meaning he provided weaving and sewing services as well. These were clearly all family ventures. Although it is not stated outright in the accounts, it can be inferred that his wife and children participated in this work and were vital to the family’s success.

Charges made to Street & Butler for sewing services in June & July of 1784. “Account Book Volume I 1785-1795″. No. 6. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario
  • 3. Flour sales were one of the main drivers of Niagara’s early economy.

Flour was not the sole driver, but it was definitely a driver. In the first 10-15 years of settlement, flour exports from the Niagara region were insubstantial. Production was erratic due to bad weather, poor roads and communication. Excess flour produced in Niagara was sent to the local military garrisons such as Fort Erie, Fort Chippewa, Fort George, and Fort Niagara. The British government would pay high prices for Niagara produce in an attempt to aid the local economy in these nascent years. The American garrisons also provided a small market for flour, specifically Fort Niagara in 1797 which was the first summer that the Fort was in the hands of the Americans, being given to them by the British in the 1796 Jay Treaty. The third market that was not advantageous until at least 1800 was the Lower Canadian market. In the early 1800s the Niagara region became very involved in the export of this commodity, aided by [6]:
a. lower shipping costs
b. British crop failures
c. high flour prices in Quebec.

I looked for these market trends in the Servos accounts, and saw that they established a partnership in the late 1790s with William and James Crooks, lining up exactly with the Lower Canadian market trend. The Crooks brothers imported goods into Niagara and exported products such as flour, timber, potash, and furs from Niagara and beyond. Their partners in Montreal were Auldjo & Maitland, who were connected to manufacturers in London. [7] In the early 1800s, Servos’ relationship with the Crooks brothers proved advantageous as he sold flour to them in large quantities. Niagara’s settlers depended on merchant relationships to connect them with these external markets.

The Servos accounts also reveal major fluctuations in wheat prices from 1784-1816. At this time millers would normally take 1/12th of the quantity of flour milled as payment for their services, but Servos instead charges a fixed rate of anywhere between 2-7 pence per 1lb of flour he milled. The currency being used here was the standard “pound, shilling, pence (£sd)” system used by Britain where there were 12 pence in a shilling, and 20 shillings in a pound. Therefore, if we assume that this 2-7 pence/lb is 1/12th of what the total quantity of milled flour was worth, we can estimate that the government price of flour fluctuated between 2-7 shillings/lb during these years. These estimates line up with the rise and fall in national wheat prices that McCalla records in his research.

Douglas McCalla, “The “Loyalist” Economy of Upper Canada, 1784-1806,” Social History 16 no. 32, 1983, 288.

As we see in the graph above, a downturn in flour prices around 1800 incentivised Niagara farmers and millers to send their flour to the Lower Canadian markets which were buying for more than double what British purchasing agents were offering in Niagara. There are two major spikes in Servos’ price for milling flour, from 1788-1790, and from 1795-1799. Alternatively, Servos was charging low prices from 1792-1794, and from 1802-1804.

If we think back to my post on Upper Canadian wheat sales in 1797-1799 based on the Russell accounts, recall that the government was irritated with the farmers and merchants in Upper Canada for selling their flour to the Americans who were offering a price 5 – 10 shillings higher than the British. In March of 1798, Niagara merchants were making demands of up to 31.5 shillings per counterweight (1 cwt = 112 lbs), and British purchasing agent John McGill felt this was outrageously high [8]. Instead, he sent cheap flour from Quebec to the British garrisons near Niagara, forcing Niagara merchants to sell for less, fearing they might not otherwise sell it at all. McGill only paid between 20 – 22.5 shillings/cwt for Niagara’s flour in 1798. The table below shows all of the prices listed in the Russell accounts.

Flour Purchase Prices 1797-1799
DatePrice (Shillings per Cwt)LocationCountry
Servos Milling Prices 1797-1799
DatePrice (Shillings per Cwt)LocationCountry
1798-04-1540.3Niagara British

If we compare the British accounts to the Servos accounts, we see that in 1798 Daniel Servos was charging his customers 40-45 shillings per cwt. for milling their wheat into flour. After the flour was milled, it was packaged in bags or barrels. Servos charged 9 pence per empty bag, which is equal to three quarters of a shilling. [9] Prices around 40-45 shillings are some of the highest amounts Servos ever charged his customers, and it looks like farmers were only getting half of that back from the government. This means that they could not turn much of a profit on flour sales, even in years with the highest government purchasing prices.

Before 1800, the flour could then be:
1. Taken back by the customer for their own consumption, or for them to sell.
2. Sold directly to someone else. For example, Robert Hamilton paid for 300 lbs. (or 3 cwt.) of flour to go to John Hainer on April 14, 1787. In this way, the mill also acted as a grain distribution centre.

Account with Robert Hamilton, April 14, 1787. “Account Book Volume I 1785-1795″. No. 47. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario

After 1800, Servos’ partnership with William & James Crooks steadily grew. Flour was transported by land to the brothers’ storehouses at the site of present-day Fort Mississauga, about four miles east of the Servos mills, or it was loaded onto their vessel at the Four Mile Pond and sent from there down the St. Lawrence to the Quebec markets.

Account with Wm. & J. Crooks. Charges for transport of flour to their vessels in April, 1801. “Account Book Volume 3 1798-1816”. No. 27. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario
  • 4. Labour and goods in Niagara were expensive.

Since Niagara was so far from the ocean, it makes sense that imported goods cost more, due to the price of transportation. To acquire enough money or credit to pay for these goods, the price of produce in Niagara had to be a higher as well. Comparing the prices of a few commodities that appear regularly in the Servos accounts, we can see the relative value of these goods. Here are the average yearly prices on a few commodities over two decades.

Price of Goods in Niagara
ItemUnit (shillings)1787 Price1797 Price1806 Price
Flourper cwt. (112 lbs.) 32.83824
Wheatper bushel8107
Cornper bushel1085
Branper bushel422
Oats per bushel654
Tobaccoper pound455
Rumper gallon162420
Oxper oneN/A300280
Pigper oneN/A50N/A
Calfper oneN/A24N/A
Shoesone pair of men’s41014

These numbers show a decrease in the price of grains such as wheat, corn, bran and oats by the mid 1800s. The market trends that affected the sale of flour, such as lower shipping costs and higher prices in Quebec had the same affect on the sale of these commodities. After 1800, Servos sold grains in larger quantities to the Crooks brothers to send to Lower Canada so they could take advantage of this market.

Account with Wm. & J. Crooks. Charges to the customer for various items 1808-1810. “Account Book Volume 3 1798-1816”. No. 114. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario

The accounts also show how important animals were for the survival of a family farm. A yoke of oxen cost around 600 shillings, which is equal to £30. Teams of oxen were used by Servos to transport goods by land across Niagara, often to merchants located along the Niagara River. The loss of cattle or horses in peak season, especially before 1800, was a great impediment to any family’s development.

The price of labour is more difficult to chart because it relies on multiple factors such as the type of work, gender of the labourer, their skill level, if they required lodging, or what season they were in. Here are a few examples of labour that appear in the Servos accounts:

YearType of LabourPrice (Shillings)Unit
1784Making a fine shirt10per shirt
1784Making a calico shirt4per shirt
1786Unspecified work4per day
1791Cutting wood4per day
1791Transporting corn12per day
1791Work in the shop6per day
1794Thrashing wheat4per day
1801Work at the sawmill4per day
1803Splitting rails62per 1000 rails
1803Unspecified work3per day
1805Making a long coat24per coat
1806Cradling oats6per day
1806Carding wool 80per cwt
1807Work in hay8per day
1807Work on the roads6per day
1808Unspecified work6per day
1808Weaving linen1per yard
1808Cradling wheat8per day

Putting this data into a line graph will not tell us much about the price of labour over time because each type of work is different. However, what this data does show is that working could earn someone between 3-12 shillings per day. Usually, Servos records men and women working for a few days or weeks in a row, doing so to pay off the debts that they owed him. Having a large family helped to divide these types of labour in the colonial period. When Daniel Servos took over operation of the King’s Mills in 1785, he had a wife and three children under the age of 12, so it was a while before he was able to rely on his family for help. However, I have read a story online by a local woman that a black man named Robert Jupiter worked with Servos, and it is unknown whether he was slave or free at this time. He is buried in a little cemetery next to the Four Mile Creek. I did not see this full name anywhere in the Servos accounts, so I do not know what to make of their relationship. However, I have seen at least three references to a “Bob” which could very likely be Jupiter.

Account with William Claus. Mention of a delivery to Claus by “Bobb the Negro”. “Account Book Volume 2 1797”. No. 2. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario

It also helped to have a variety of skills, to work hard, and to work smart. By working smart, I mean that new settlers seemed to invest in equipment and machinery to make their work more efficient. In 1785 Servos made two sleighs and a plough. In 1804 he sold part of a stove for £2-8s. In 1805 he sold a packing machine for £5-12s.

What all of this tells us is that Niagara’s Loyalist era economy depended on local exchange, labour, and investments. Yes, Niagara’s entrance into the Lower Canadian market after 1800 shows that economic development still required external inputs in the form of British government expenditures, commercial credit from merchant firms in Montreal, and export earnings, BUT external forces were not enough to establish successful farms and businesses in Niagara. People like the Servos family invested external funds into building capital in the form of mills, blacksmith shops, roads, etc., and they created links between neighbours through local exchange. The Servos accounts support McCalla’s arguments about the importance of household production for economic development in the Loyalist era.

  •  5. The days before the arrival of Governor Simcoe in 1792 could be exploited to the people’s advantage.

It can be argued that since Daniel Servos took more chances under an absent government, this allowed him to establish a solid foundation of enterprises for his family to build on throughout the next few decades. So what are the steps that Daniel Servos took to determine success in his enterprises? What “chances” did he take?

He ignored government regulations on the building of mills, erecting a saw and grist mill on lands in 1791 that were technically not yet owned by him. In fact, four of the six mills on the Four Mile Creek in 1792 were not authorized by the government, who had been contending with settlers over the last ten years in an attempt to establish a seigneurial system wherein settlers could not legally own the mills on their land. [10] Servos also dammed a section of the Four Mile creek, cutting a passage of water through properties he did not own, without asking permission to alter the landscape. I see this as a reflection of the republican lifestyle he had growing up in Tryon county, believing in inherent principles of individual liberty. No doubt he was also frustrated by the British government’s inability to keep their word; the lands reserved for the crown between Lake Ontario and the first survey line were meant for the building of mills for the settlement, but the government did not make this a priority. Many other sources show frustration from settlers in the 1780s over the fact that they could not construct these facilities without the proper equipment, constantly waiting for supplies from Quebec. Servos felt that an “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission” approach was his best option, for the good of his family and the people of Niagara.

By 1792, Daniel Servos had built a new house on the west side of the Four Mile Creek, nearer to his new mills. He and his family operated the mills, tannery, store, weaving facility, and blacksmith shop. A potash works was added later, and by 1799 another potash works was begun on the Fifteen Mile Creek. In 1797 he acquired legal title to the mills he constructed. Entrepreneurial activities like these were key for success in Niagara’s Loyalist era economy. His legacy left throughout the 19th century reflect the initial choices he made in the Loyalist era.

Notes to Conclude with:

1) It was not loyalism or patriotism that motivated Daniel Servos in his business dealings. He was worried about survival, about establishing a good life and thriving businesses for his family. He disregarded many British mill regulations, fought against land ownership laws throughout the 1790s, and demanded high prices for his services. We could assume that his children carried these same values, but his eldest son John Dease Servos mysteriously wrote “God save the King” four different times in one of the volumes. He would have been in his early twenties. Why did he do this? Perhaps being raised and educated in Upper Canada would have made him subject to patriotism more than it did his father who had been raised in a different environment.

2) There seems to be a disconnect between the elite operating the Niagara portage (Robert Hamilton), and the middling folk operating small businesses on their own property. Distance was not an issue, as Hamilton lived in Queenston which was not far from the Servos mills, yet the two don’t really cross paths more than once or twice in these accounts. The Crooks brothers were middle men for many people in Niagara, reaching between the Niagara River and Ancaster, operating a distribution business that connected the people to external markets. Hamilton was part of a much larger system that reached beyond Niagara into the continental interior, but he too had merchant shops in the region that allowed him to trade with locals. The Servos-Crooks connection shows us that elite merchants did not have a monopoly on Niagara’s exports. Instead, farmers and millers were able to make choices about who they wanted to partner with.

[1] J. Anthony Doyle, “Loyalism, Patronage, and Enterprise: The Servos Family in British North America 1726-1942,” PhD diss., (McMaster University, 2006), 10.
[2] Webster’s Definition.
[3] Douglas McCalla, “The “Loyalist” Economy of Upper Canada, 1784-1806,” Social History 16 no. 32, 1983, 303.
[4] Doyle, “Loyalism, Patronage, and Enterprise,” 222.
[5] Ibid., 183.
[6] Bruce Wilson, The Enterprises of Robert Hamilton: a study of wealth and influence in early Upper Canada, 1776-1812, (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1983), 83.
[7] Doyle, “Loyalism, Patronage, and Enterprise,” 196.
[8] Compiled by E. A. Cruikshank, and Andrew F. Hunter, The Correspondence of the Honourable Peter Russell : With Allied Documents Relating to His Administration of the Government of Upper Canada during the Official Term of Lieut.-Governor J. G. Simcoe, While on Leave of Absence, Volume Two, (The Ontario Historical Society, 1932), 126.
[9] Charges made to Street & Butler for sewing services in June & July of 1784. “Account Book Volume I 1785-1795″. No. 6. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario.
[10] Doyle, “Loyalism, Patronage, and Enterprise,” 278.

2 Replies to “Life In Niagara: The Servos Family Enterprises (Analysis)”

  1. Hi Jessica. I work with a Dalhousie University and Heritage Canada curriculum design and website project, “A Black People’s History of Canada,” based out of Halifax, but I conduct research for the team in St. Catharines. Like you, I finished my master’s in 2020, mine in social anthropology and Canadian Black history, and I am also researching the 1850 -1950 businesses district in St. Catharines, from a cultural standpoint, which will also be valuable data for my PhD work starting in September at York/Ryerson. I grew up here, and I recently saw your comment on the Vintage St. Catharines Facebook page and thought I’d give you a shot out. I wish you great success on your research!

    1. Hi Wade, thanks very much for reaching out! Your work sounds very interesting – definitely an area deserving of more research! I’m actually doing some research right now on a St. Catharines-based project in the same time period you’re looking at, but more on the animal/environmental history side of things. Perhaps if I run into any roadblocks, I’ll send you an email and we can compare notes? All the best in September to you as well!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.