Primary Source Analysis: Learning about Wheat, Peas & Corn in 1790’s Niagara

It’s been a while since my last post! I just thought I’d share some insight on a primary source collection that I’ve been working through lately, and what its been teaching me about Niagara’s Loyalist-era economy. Upon suggestion by my supervisor, I have been reading through some of the personal correspondence of the Hon. Peter Russell as compiled in three volumes by E. A. Cruikshank and A. F. Hunter for the Ontario Historical Society in the 1930s. These papers reflect a period of Russell’s life when he was appointed to fill in for Upper Canadian Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe during a leave of absence in the late 1790s. The province of Upper Canada only becoming established in 1791, this was an important position still in its infancy. These volumes contain not only the correspondence of Peter Russell, but also letters that reflect the workings of the British administration in the early days of this colonial province. This means that letters from people like Joseph Brant, Governor Simcoe, John MacDonnell, and even Minutes of the Executive Council are included. While the sources themselves reflect a host of topics, primarily discussions surrounding land purchases and the relationship between the British administration and the people of the Six Nations, there is still much that can be gleaned from conversations about economic policies and matters of military supply.

These writings reflect crop growth and the distribution of wheat, peas and corn in the late 1790s, routes of transport via crude roadways and the Great Lakes network, relationships between farmers, merchants and administrators in Upper Canada, and their interactions with Americans in new neighbouring states. This information can be used to either support or contradict arguments from historians like Harold Innis, who believed that at this time the trade of furs & timber and exports of wheat & flour were fundamental to the growth of the province of Ontario, and Canada as a whole. It does the same for arguments from more recent historians like Douglas McCalla, who believes that the primary sources we draw from can change the way we understand this part of our nation’s history. He states: “the vast majority of the settlers, who actually made the new economy, necessarily invested their lives and funds into smaller projects ad specific places. When we look at the economy from their perspective, most of the patterns, timing, and momentum of development are not explained by the staples approach or the specific political events that it highlighted.” [1] Considering Peter Russell’s elevated position, are these sources more likely to support an Innisian thesis? How might the authors’ decisions about what letters to include or exclude in these volumes affect how we interpret these years in Canada’s history? These were just some of the questions I had in approaching these documents.

So, do you want to keep reading?

Just Kidding…

What I learned from these letters:

  1. The British government’s paternal relationship with Niagara farmers is a complicated one. When incentivising settlers to come to Upper Canada from the former American colonies, the British had to make a lot of concessions that did not necessarily help them financially, but was worth it because it meant they were getting the people they wanted for this new province. In the 1790s the government financed and built storehouses and wharfs in Queenston, Chippewa and Fort Erie for the purpose of bettering the Niagara River Portage route, they provided the majority of vessels used in shipping across the Great Lakes, they continued to buy the local produce from Niagara farmers despite the low quality, erratic supply & high prices being demanded, AND they even would pay for the cost of transport! [2]

    However, there are clear moments of frustration with Niagara farmers in the late 1790s. John McGill who was the purchasing agent for the Province of Upper Canada reveals these issues in his letters. In the spring of 1798, McGill anticipated not being able to fill the quota of flour he was required to purchase for the army storehouses in Upper Canada. In a letter from March, he wrote to James Green, Military Secretary in Quebec, estimating he would not get more than 1000-1200 barrels of flour from the Midland & Eastern districts, which was much less than he had received from those areas in previous years. [3] This was not because of any crop shortage; in fact the Niagara peninsula had actually produced a good crop that year. The reason for this low estimate was because the farmers expected to get a price for the flour that McGill felt was way too high. The price is not specified, but that same month he mentioned getting an proposal from Detroit farmers of thirty-one shillings and six pence Canada Currency per counterweight in barrels, and this being outrageously high. McGill’s suggestion to rectify this Niagara issue was for Green to order “a few hundred Barrels or even a few Bateau loads of Flour” [4] to be shipped to Kingston from the Commissary General in Quebec, being convinced that “it would have a very good effect not only in preventing a rise in the price of this Article, but likewise induce the Farmer to bring forward his Store in proper time.” [5] Two months later, McGill ordered 50 barrels of flour at twenty-two shillings per cwt. to be delivered to Fort George. As it turns out, McGill’s idea to flood the market with cheaper flour from Lachine was successful in forcing the hand of the farmers to sell their produce at a lower price, for fear of not being able to sell it at all if there was going to be other flour available. McGill wrote to Green that after getting word in April about the expected arrival of this flour, he made the news public in Niagara and “in a day or two afterwards declared that I would not give more than Twenty shillings per cwt., cask included. 296,800 pounds of flour have since been purchased on those terms, with 637 Bushels of Pease at five shillings a Bushel in Barrels, the whole to be delivered to His Majesty’s Magazines in Kingston on or before July 1.” McGill still expected to receive even more flour than this.

Thus, these letters show the complicated relationships between administrative and military bodies, merchants and farmers. While the British administrations were paternalistic, the middle men like McGill and Green were constantly struggling with how to profit in their individual roles. Roadblocks resulting from the growing pains of this new society are evident in McGill’s DCB biography where we read:

“he was often frustrated by a jurisdictional quarrel between the civil authority of the lieutenant governor in Upper Canada and the military authority of the commander-in-chief at Quebec, a quarrel which also raised similar if lesser difficulties for the surveyor general and the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs. McGill was held accountable to the commissary general at Quebec, John Craigie*, although he and Simcoe had expected otherwise. Contracts to supply troops in the upper province were awarded over his head from Quebec, and he was ordered to limit his purchases to requisitions sent from there. Worse, his complaint about the profiteering of merchants and about irregularities in supplies from Lower Canada finally drew the rebuke from the commander-in-chief, Lord Dorchester [Carleton*], “that anything further on that head is unnecessary.” Simcoe protested in vain that McGill was being reduced to “a public Accountant without Power.”

The primary sources in these volumes sources show us that policies towards Niagara farmers, and high-level visions for the purpose and future of Upper Canada were not black and white. Administrators often disagreed with one another and the paternalism that Niagara farmers enjoyed was inconsistent.

2. Another important theme in these letters is that there were evolving relationships between farmers in the Niagara region and the Americans in New York. Historian Alan Taylor argues that late Loyalists, or those who came to Upper Canada after 1792, were often viewed with suspicion by the United Empire Loyalists who came over in the previous decade, immediately after the end of the American Revolution. [6] The reason for this is because many UELs felt that the latent ideas of republicanism that late Loyalists had grown used to in the spirit of the American Revolution impacted how they thought about relationships between governments and their people. As Taylor puts it: “Americans looked to a republic to safeguard their liberal aspirations. To their north, the British designed Upper Canada to discourage such aspirations- except within narrow bounds carefully patrolled by executive power.” [7] So what do these primary sources tell us? Well, these documents seem to suggest that the farmers were not totally loyal to the British government, supporting Taylor’s arguments.

In the spring of 1797, McGill complained that the farmers in Niagara were selling their flour and peas directly to the Americans at Fort Niagara who offered much higher prices. This was the first summer that the Fort was in the hands of the Americans, being given to them in the 1796 Jay Treaty. This was the first time the British had to deal with this new economic threat and McGill was not impressed that the farmers were choosing money over loyalty. In one conversation from May of 1797, McGill wrote to Green: “The Farmers in these settlements have been exceedingly backward in bringing forward their produce.”[8] Similar issues were taking place in the Western districts as Fort Detroit and Fort Mackinac went to the Americans in the same Treaty. There are a few reasons that these farmers give for why they are selling to Americans before their own countrymen. One argument was that there were not enough small boats available to take the wheat to mills, and then to the merchants like Robert Hamilton in Queenston or Richard Cartwright in Kingston. They also argued that the existing mills were in a poor state of repair and many of them were not running at that time due to lack of water. One final big argument was that the rumours of impending war between the French and the United States in the late 1790s would induce people to move from the States to Upper Canada, meaning extra demand and consequently they could rise the price of their wheat, peas and corn.

Despite the continual support of the British government, the Niagara farmers seemed to leave for greener pastures the moment they saw the opportunity. In the short run, the choice to supply American garrisons instead of British ones makes some sense; poor roads made it difficult for farmers to store, process, and transport their produce, while the Americans organized their own system of collection of produce and paid the farmers well. This cut McGill out of the picture, as well as merchants like Robert Hamilton who could not hope to compete with American prices for Niagara’s local produce. Alan Taylor believes that [Governor] “Simcoe had been only half successful in recruiting Upper Canada’s settlers. He had enticed families who did not particularly care for the republic, but he had not attracted people who cared deeply for the empire.” [9] The minimal taxation and easy access to land that these settlers enjoyed was expected to be met with a level of subordination to their provincial government, but this clearly was not the case in 1797. However, since McGill only refers to the “farmers” in Niagara as a whole, it is still possible that some of the early farmers were the ones selling to McGill, and it was only the later loyalist farmers who had arrived after 1792 that were selling to the Americans. A further investigation of primary sources on the local level will be necessary for understanding more specifically these divided loyalties.

3. A final important theme in these primary sources is that they support McCalla’s arguments about regional production being vital to economic development of Canada as a whole. I still need more data in order to fully prove this point, but the stats for 1796-1799 as shown in these letters already reveal that production for initial consumption was crucial in Niagara. This argument is made in opposition to the Innisian staples thesis that states the importance of the eastward movement of staple exports like furs, timber and flour. In February of 1798, McGill complained that there would not be enough flour to supply the garrisons by July 1 that summer because “The Quantity of Wheat in the settlement I am informed is considerable, and were it not for the stills, which consumes much of this article, there is great reason to believe, that the supplies required for the use of Government might be obtained upon more reasonable terms.” [10] Whisky as a popular commodity was driving up the price of flour in the region, showing the importance of settlers, as McCalla says, “investing their lives and funds in smaller projects and specific places.” [11] Similarly, in March of 1798 McGill estimated how much flour he had left over to give to the Upper Canadian garrisons, after “reserving what may be sufficient for the consumption of the Inhabitants in the settlements at, above, and below Kingston.” What exactly was the amount of produce being reserved here in McGill’s mind? Whatever the percentage of wheat being consumed in Niagara and Upper Canada, Niagara’s export to markets in Lower Canada in these years do not seem to be as big of a priority as was supplying the more local garrisons in Upper Canada (and New York). This then contradicts Innis’ idea that staple exports to larger markets out of the interior were the main facilitators of economic development. The decision of local farmers to sell to the American forts in 1797 also shows a powerful human agency, separate from the control of the British administration.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Stay tuned for more primary source analyses. Thanks for reading!

Sources:
[1] Douglas McCalla, “The Ontario Economy in the Long Run,” Ontario History 90 no. 2 (1998), 97.
[2] Bruce Wilson, The Enterprises of Robert Hamilton: a study of wealth and influence in early Upper Canada, 1776-1812, (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1983), 76-78.
[3] 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), 127.
[4] Ibid., 126.
[5] Ibid., 127.
[6] Alan Taylor, “The Late Loyalists: Northern Reflections of the Early American Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 27, no. 1 (Spring, 2007), 19.
[7] Ibid., 2.
[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 One, (The Ontario Historical Society, 1932), 175.
[9] Taylor, “The Late Loyalists: Northern Reflections of the Early American Republic,” 29.
[10] Cruikshank and Hunter, The Correspondence of the Honourable Peter Russell Volume Two, 100.
[11] McCalla, “The Ontario Economy in the Long Run,” 2.

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