Life in Niagara: The Servos Family Enterprises (Intro)

A Primary Source Analysis of the Servos Mill Accounts 1785-1816: Part 1

I’m back! Since my last post, I’ve been working with a quite a few more primary sources, and I’d like to give an update on one particular collection of accounts that deal with an area of what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, near the mouth of the Four Mile Creek. This collection I’m referring to are the milling records of the Servos family.

Background

The last blog post I wrote was based on a collection of writings by the Hon. Peter Russell, looking specifically at the supply of the British garrisons in Upper Canada in the mid-late 1790s and how communities like Niagara were involved. The Servos collection is quite different and allows for more of a “bottom-up” approach towards this part of Niagara’s history. The Servos collection exists as one of the best kept collections of early Loyalist records in the Niagara region. The Niagara Historical Society Museum holds 544 archival items and 309 artifacts relating to multiple generations of the Servos family here in Niagara! [1] Brothers Daniel and Jacob Servos and their families came to Niagara in 1785 as some of the area’s very first farmers and millers. During the American Revolution the Servos family lived in Tryon County in New York, eventually becoming divided in loyalties and the brothers forced to relocate.

So how did they come to settle in Niagara?

In May of 1781 the British government purchased from the Chippewa and Mississauga peoples a strip of land on the west bank of the Niagara River four miles wide and stretching from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. The intention was to have a few families settle there and farm the land to provide for the growing refugee population at Fort Niagara. The very first saw and grist mills dubbed the “King’s Mills” were built in 1783 under the supervision of Lt. David Brass at the mouth of the Four Mile Creek on the east bank, and Daniel Servos was appointed official mill operator in 1785. These mills were destroyed by a freschet in 1790 and Servos built a second set of mills on the west side of the Four Mile Creek in 1791.

To better understand the area we are talking about here, take a look at the images below. Figure 1 is an historical map of Niagara Township circa 1784, courtesy of Brock University’s historical map collection. In Figure 2, I’ve added highlighted the land belonging to Daniel Servos (green) and Jacob Servos (yellow), and mapped the locations of the two mill sites in question (blue). I’ve also made the historical map semi-transparent so that you can see it georeferenced on the present day map of Niagara-on-the-Lake, making it easier to understand the Servos family properties in a modern day context.

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)
“Niagara Township, plan A.” (1784) Historical Maps of Niagara. Brock University Map, Data & GIS Library.
Figure 2

Method

Fortunately, some record of the Servos mills still exist today and make great sources for studying economic activity on a rural scale in Niagara’s pioneering society. I had first heard about the Servos account books from the helpful ladies at the Friend’s of Lincoln’s History archives in Vineland. They kindly offered me a digital copy of Servos Mill Account Book Volume I 1785-1795, however, the pages are quite dark and difficult to read. A week later, I went to the Archives of Ontario (AO) at York University in Toronto and made my own digital copy of this account book. The original microfilms at the AO are still difficult to read, but I did manage to make lighter copies.

At this point I realized there was more than one account book in existence, so I ended up copying five of the account books from the microfilm reel, omitting only Vol V because the dates 1824-1826 are not relevant to my time period. This blog post is based on the contents of Account Books I-IV and the Personal Account Book of Daniel Servos. Being one of the most complete existing sets of late 18th century Niagara business records, my hope was that these volumes could tell us more about what drove Niagara’s economy in the Loyalist Era.

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

As I worked my way through these account books I collected the following:

  1. QUANTITATIVE INFORMATION. I entered statistical information into an Excel spreadsheet so I can later use that data for visualizations. This includes the names of specific accounts, dates of transactions, commodities purchased and sold, quantities, units, prices, currency, and forms of labour.
  2. QUALITATIVE INFORMATION. I considered questions like:
    a. What do these accounts reveal about the types of people farming in Niagara (class, gender, ethnicity) and how they each contributed to the early economy?
    b. What did the building of capital assets look like during these first few decades?
    c. What was the reaction to market price fluctuations in commodities like wheat?
    d. Were business transactions driven by internal or external economic factors?
    e. Do we see any political motivations within business transactions?
    f. Do we see evidence of British paternalism?
    g. What was the relationship like between farmers/millers and larger merchant enterprises?

Question

Every so often I need to re-focus and think back to this over-arching thesis question: “What drove Niagara’s Loyalist Era economy?”

Analysis

I will post the results of my primary source analysis over the next few days. I still need to fine-tune a few notes before releasing them publicly. Besides, this blog post is already long enough! Stay tuned…

Sources:
[1] J. Anthony Doyle, “Loyalism, Patronage, and Enterprise: The Servos Family in British North America 1726-1942,” PhD diss., (McMaster University, 2006), iv.

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