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BURN, WILLIAM, land agent; b. August 1758 in Beanley, England; d. 15 Sept. 1804 in Baldoon, Upper Canada.

Son of a Northumberland farmer, William Burn went to his mother’s native Scotland to become a sheep farmer at Kirkland, near Kirkcudbright, apparently as a tenant on property acquired by the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas]. Burn had a local reputation for reliability and good management of his flock and, when in 1802 Selkirk began to project a settlement in Upper Canada, Burn was hired in June at £80 per annum as one of the earl’s first assistants. Although Selkirk had by this time been discouraged by government from his original plan to transport and settle Irish emigrants in British North America, he sent Burn to Ireland in the summer of 1802 to recruit 100 labourers for a proposed sheep farm in Upper Canada to be connected with a settlement of Highland Scots. For reasons which are not clear only about a dozen Irishmen were signed on, to embark at Tobermory with some breeding sheep in a ship chartered by Selkirk.

As so often happened, Selkirk’s carefully coordinated plans were soon in ruins. The Bess proved unseaworthy, and Burn himself had second thoughts about leaving for America (he was obviously under considerable pressure to remain from a Miss Bacon to whom he was “pledged”). He finally agreed to go for one winter to “set things agoing.” The delay forced the earl to revise his original plans and Burn was sent directly from Liverpool to New York City without Irishmen or sheep in order to take over the flock already collected at White Creek, near Cambridge, in upstate New York. Burn departed on 2 October, arrived in New York City on 10 December, and left a week later with Alexander Brown, an experienced Scots shepherd sent out with his dogs by Selkirk. They reached White Creek on 24 Dec. 1802 and wintered in the area.

In the spring of 1803 Burn learned that Miss Bacon, whom he had expected to join him, found family circumstances “make it necessary she should remain near them.” This news changed his plans, and he plunged energetically into his new assignment without further thought of his engagement or of an immediate return to Scotland. By this time Selkirk had been forced to alter the destination of his emigrants, now overwhelmingly Scottish, from Upper Canada to Prince Edward Island, and Burn was instructed to keep the flock in New York for the summer. Not until June was Selkirk able to send an impatient and increasingly uncomfortable Burn further instructions. The earl now had the crown’s promise of a land grant of his choice in southwestern Upper Canada. Burn was to scout the country between the Niagara and Detroit rivers for a proper location for both a settlement and a sheep farm, on which Selkirk intended to build up a flock of 1,000 first-class breeding ewes. In a subsequent letter from Prince Edward Island, he instructed Burn to tour the northern United States with an eye for attractive sheep breeds and local sheep-rearing practices, but Burn was never able to make this trip.

Burn left White Creek for Queenston, Upper Canada, in early September 1803 and spent the autumn with a surveyor exploring lands on Lake Erie and the Thames River. After consulting with the earl about land and sheep in December 1803 at York (Toronto), he set off for the Thames; Selkirk joined him there briefly in late January 1804. Burn carefully surveyed the Chenal Écarté area on the northeast corner of Lake St Clair, where Selkirk had decided to locate the settlement he would call Baldoon after the ancestral lands his family had been forced to sell in 1793. Burn returned to Queenston in February only to be ordered by Selkirk from Albany to proceed immediately to Baldoon to clear land and sow Indian corn, potatoes, and timothy in anticipation of the earl’s arrival there around 1 May. With ten oxen Burn departed on 4 April, reaching Baldoon on 9 May. He hired local labour and began to clear and to plant, noting in his journal little of importance until Selkirk’s arrival on 8 June with “2 Gentelmen or sumthing like Gentelmen” – Sheriff Alexander McDonell* (Collachie) and a Dr Shaw. It is difficult to determine whether Burn was more upset by the fact that the large number of menservants in the party put a strain on the settlement’s limited sleeping accommodation, or by the earl’s failure to order a day’s drinking to celebrate his arrival. Moreover, it became clear that Burn would no longer be in charge, but would probably have to work under McDonell’s supervision, for Selkirk had offered the sheriff the appointment as his agent in Upper Canada.

During the summer of 1804 increasing quantities of local grain whisky were shipped to Baldoon, and Burn and his men fell victim to what Selkirk in a different context described as the “malignant effect of the American climate”; adjustment to the new environment produced terrible emotional difficulties and men turned to the readily available alcohol for relief. By the end of August the small party was ravaged by fever, probably malarial in origin – Baldoon was located on marshland ideal for sheep pasturage but also for breeding mosquitoes. The major party of 101 Highlanders finally arrived on 5 September in the midst of an epidemic. Their high rate of mortality was probably a result of diseases contracted on their long journey to Baldoon, but Burn died on 15 September after two weeks of a fever acquired locally. McDonell later blamed Burn’s demise as much on “the effects of excessive intemperance” as on “the prevailing fever,” and the two factors undoubtedly worked together. Certainly eight barrels containing 39 gallons each of whisky had been consumed at Baldoon since July. The settlement lacked winter provisions and the housing Selkirk had ordered constructed; and Burn’s books and papers were in complete disarray. Selkirk was never able to put Burn’s affairs sufficiently in order to determine whether his aged mother in Scotland was entitled to any back pay.

William Burn was not a success in North America. His failure illustrates the problems of immigrants in coming to terms with new conditions, and the difficulties of outside entrepreneurs such as Lord Selkirk in obtaining dependable assistants to execute their plans.

J. M. Bumsted

PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1, 37: 14190–92, 14207, 14230, 14233–34, 14253–57, 14262–63, 14266–68, 14272–75, 14278–81, 14301, 14308–23; 39: 14908–13 (transcripts); MG 24, 18, I, 1: 18–19; 9: 2–4. Douglas, Lord Selkirks diary (White), 326. J. M. Bumsted, “Settlement by chance: Lord Selkirk and Prince Edward Island,” CHR, 59 (1978): 170–88. F. C. Hamil and T. [S. E.] Jones, “Lord Selkirk’s work in Upper Canada: the story of Baldoon,” OH, 57 (1965): 1–12. B. A. Parker, “Thomas Clark: his business relationship with Lord Selkirk,” Beaver, outfit 310 (autumn 1979): 50–58.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. M. Bumsted, “BURN, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burn_william_5E.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/burn_william_5E.html
Author of Article:   J. M. Bumsted
Title of Article:   BURN, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   September 30, 2023