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d. 13 April 1813 in Delaware Township, Upper Canada


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BETHUNE, DONALD, shipowner, lawyer, and politician; b. 11 July 1802 in Williamstown, Charlottenburg Township, Upper Canada, youngest of nine children of the Reverend John Bethune* and Véronique Waddin; d. 19 June 1869 at Toronto, Ont.

Donald Bethune’s early education was obtained at the grammar school of his brother John* in Augusta Township and at John Strachan’s school in Cornwall. Another of Donald’s brothers, Alexander Neil Bethune*, was Strachan’s protégé. At age 14 Donald began articling in law under the prominent Brockville lawyer and politician, Jonas Jones*, and in 1823 was called to the bar of Upper Canada. In 1826 he was appointed commissioner of customs for the Midland District and between 1826 and 1835 he was twice appointed judge of the Bathurst District Court and once of the Prince Edward District Court. In Kingston, where he had settled in 1824, competition between lawyers was rigorous. Of necessity Bethune began to diversify his interests. He became involved in local banking politics and ran as an independent conservative in the 1828 House of Assembly elections, defeating the influential incumbent Christopher Hagerman*. His two years in the assembly were undistinguished and he in turn was defeated by Hagerman in 1830.

While continuing his association with the Kingston branch of the Bank of Upper Canada, as both a local director and solicitor, Bethune began to dabble in the shipping and forwarding business. Business contacts for these activities were provided by his brothers, and by his father-in-law, Peter Smith, an early settler and notable businessman of Kingston, whose daughter Janet (Jennet) Bethune had married in 1826. Bethune launched his first steamboat in 1833. The pattern of his initial experience was to be repeated throughout his career as an owner of steamboats on Lake Ontario. He quickly ran out of cash as did his brothers, James Gray and Norman, with whom he had close financial dealings. Their conduct aroused the ire of the cautious William Allan*, president of the Bank of Upper Canada, who wrote to John Macaulay* in 1833: “I am perfectly sick of . . . hearing of the many traffics and speculations entered into as long as they can draw Dft. [drafts] or get Notes discounted at the Bank.” It was beyond his comprehension that Donald Bethune could “ask for time and indulgence” and that he was involved “in business as much out of the way of what he ought to be . . . in [as this]. . . .” If Allan ever confronted Bethune with this advice, it was ignored.

Bethune’s headquarters were at Cobourg between 1840 and 1843. Attempting to capitalize on his prestige as lieutenant-colonel of militia in the Cobourg area during the rebellion and border problems of 1837–40, Bethune ran as an independent conservative in Northumberland South in the election of 1841. Branded a “troublesome person” by Sir George Arthur* because of his challenge to Hagerman and his business dealings, and because he was considered a follower of Sir Allan MacNab, Bethune did not receive the backing of influential Toronto Tories and was defeated by George Morss Boswell.

He then devoted himself to his shipping interests. Awarded the government contract for mail delivery in 1840, he quickly arranged route and rate agreements with potential competitors such as John Hamilton*, Hugh Richardson, Thomas Dick*, and Andrew Heron, and between 1840 and 1842 purchased five steamers from the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company. Liberal credit was extended to Bethune by William Cayley*, then president of the dock company, by the Bank of Upper Canada of which Cayley was a director, and by the Commercial Bank of the Midland District. In 1842, Bethune had an interest in, if not sole ownership of, at least ten Lake Ontario steamboats.

Bethune moved his operations to Toronto after 1843. Aspiring to monopoly, he was faced with only one major competitor by 1846 – Hugh Richardson of Toronto, owner of three vessels. Price-cutting ensued and as a shrewd observer, John Elmsley, put it, “Bethune and Richardson I look upon as gone loons . . . they are now running against each other to their mutual destruction.” When Richardson declared bankruptcy in the summer of 1846, Bethune probably anticipated no financial difficulties. But by 1845 he had already severely overextended his credit, and the purchase of one or more of Richardson’s boats in 1847 sealed his fate. Desperate, he mortgaged boats in favour of his major creditor, the Bank of Upper Canada. His wife’s uncle, John David Smith, endorsed for him a note for £16,000 which both he and Bethune ultimately failed to meet. Bethune raised rates for the transport of goods and passengers, and even ran unsuccessfully for the assembly in Toronto in 1847 on a platform decrying the lack of protection for the merchants of Canada’s inland seas. All his measures failed. Beset by the recession of 1848, new competition, decaying equipment, and a debt to the Bank of Upper Canada exceeding £30,000, as well as innumerable debts to merchants along the shores of Lake Ontario, Bethune’s business collapsed late in 1848. Sued for non-payment of debts, he was forced to hand over his boats to the sheriff of York for public auction. The bank, however, could not afford to let Bethune go under and therefore leased the mortgaged boats to him. By 1851, despite rate agreements with competitors, Bethune was again bankrupt. In 1853 he left for England with £4,000 of company funds, and by 1855 all of his boats had been sold. Bethune returned to Canada in 1858 after what he probably hoped would be the last suit concerning his bankruptcy. To his chagrin he was forced by the master in chancery to assume liability for part of his debts. He settled in Port Hope and resumed the practice of law. Two pieces of evidence indicate that he had attained some degree of prosperity by 1864: he was being bothered by old creditors for repayment of debts and his prowess as a lawyer was recognized by his being named qc.

Donald Bethune’s business activities had no permanent results for Upper Canada. Yet his career is important as a significant example of the reckless promotion characteristic of both water and rail transportation. Banking methods were loose and credit was easy; owners and operators were often prepared to seek profits at the expense of customers and creditors. Bethune’s career accurately reflects the expansive tempo of the times.

Peter Baskerville

MTCL, William Allan papers. PAO, Macaulay (John) papers; Robinson (John Beverley) papers. PAC, MG 24, A40, 13; D24; RG 1, E3, 52; RG 5, A1, 210; RG 68, 1, General index, 1651–1841. QUA, Thomas Kirkpatrick papers, letterbooks, 6, p.20; James Sutherland papers. UTL-TF, ms Coll. 56, ms Coll. 78. Arthur papers (Sanderson), III, 175. British Colonist (Toronto), 1845–52. Cobourg Star (Cobourg, [Ont.]), 1839–41. Examiner (Toronto), 1845–52. Globe, 1845–52. Journal of Education for Ont., XXII (1869), 104. E. E. Horsey, Kingston, a century ago; issued to commemorate the centennial of Kingston’s incorporation (Kingston, Ont., 1938). S. F. Wise, “Tory factionalism: Kingston elections and Upper Canadian politics, 1820–1836,” OH, LVII (1965), 205–25. A. H. Young, “The Bethunes,” OH, XXVII (1931), 553–74.

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Cite This Article

Peter Baskerville, “BETHUNE, DONALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 13, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bethune_donald_9E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bethune_donald_9E.html
Author of Article:   Peter Baskerville
Title of Article:   BETHUNE, DONALD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   April 13, 2024