CHRISTIE, ALEXANDER JAMES, doctor, newspaperman, writer, businessman, jp, notary, and office holder; b. 1787 and baptized 14 October in the parish of Fyvie, Scotland, son of the Reverend Alexander Christie, dean of Aberdeen; m. Jane Turner, and they had at least three children, including Alexander, an engineer and bridge builder; d. 13 Nov. 1843 at Bytown (Ottawa), and was buried at Glencairn, his farm in March Township, Upper Canada.
Alexander James Christie is commonly referred to as Dr Christie in earlier biographical accounts and in references to his activities as a resident of the Montreal and Bytown areas. He did indeed practise medicine and maintained a life-long interest in medical matters, but whether or not he was a fully qualified physician is not certain. He studied mathematics at Marischal College, Aberdeen, for two years and is reputed to have studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh later, but there is no firm documentation to indicate that he took a degree. He is said to have practised in the north of Scotland and, in applying in 1827 to Dr James Forbes, head of the army medical department for Upper Canada, to serve as surgeon on the Rideau Canal during its construction, he stated that he had practised as a doctor in the British navy for several years. As a man of considerable learning and wide-ranging interests, Christie probably also did some teaching in Scotland but, as with so many other aspects of his early life, the record is not precise.
The course of Christie’s life becomes clearer with his immigration to Lower Canada in May 1817. He probably came at the invitation of his brother-in-law, Thomas Andrew Turner, who found him a house and medical practice in Dorchester (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu). Christie obtained a licence to practise in Lower Canada on 22 July, but political and literary interests soon led him in another direction. In September 1818 he became editor and part-owner, with William Gray, of the Montreal Herald, a venture that did not end happily. Gray ended Christie’s tenure as editor on 20 Feb. 1821 and the termination was announced in the Herald the following day. The dismissal followed Christie’s arrest for indebtedness and he was subsequently imprisoned for “above three tedious months.” In a later statement on the events, Christie alleged that his bankruptcy and arrest were engineered by Gray, who proceeded illegally to dissolve the partnership between them. The statement also alleged that Christie had been obliged to perform duties not properly his according to the terms of the partnership and that because of these and other matters Gray owed him more than £2,000. At least one deponent, William Langhorne, another Herald employee, supported Christie in his contentions, but, whatever the truth of the matter, Christie’s days with the Herald were over.
This early stage of Christie’s years in Canada reveals all the basic characteristics of his subsequent life, for his political views, his pursuit of medical practice, his literary interests, and his involvement in public affairs and offices, all facets of his activity in Lower Canada, were sustained during his long-time residence in Bytown. In political opinions, he was conservative and imperialist. That is, he was content with the current administration, opposed to reformers such as Robert Gourlay*, and very suspicious of American intentions toward British North America. In the pages of the Herald and in letters to Britain, he observed the high degree of unity amongst Americans where their national interest was concerned and warned that their resources and skills were being directed to the building of a powerful navy and military facilities in the Lake Champlain area, which evidenced their intense aversion to all things British.
For these reasons Christie immediately became and remained an advocate of appropriate Canadian responses. He urged the building of strong fortifications at strategic points along the St Lawrence, the construction and improvement of canals and water-ways, and the union of the Canadas with the capital located in an easily defensible location. He therefore energetically supported the building of the Rideau Canal, for both military and economic reasons, and the location of the capital at Bytown (one of his principal platforms when he later became editor and proprietor of the weekly Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser)
Christie’s view of an editor’s function was that he should be wonderfully objective and eclectic because he managed a chronicle of the times. In September 1818, in the Herald, he defined a newspaper as “the Epitome which registers the transactions of the great and the little. . . . A newspaper in fact should reflect . . . the image of the people’s feelings; it should echo the general voice; it should promulgate the best principles; it should advocate the best interests.” As the editor of the Herald, and then of the Montreal Gazette (March 1824 to August 1825) and the Bytown Gazette (1836 to 1843), he did report and comment on a wide range of affairs of state, economics, American conduct, and social problems, but like other editors he also revealed his hobby-horses as an opponent of the reformers and of William Lyon Mackenzie* (with whom he had been briefly on friendly terms when Mackenzie wrote for the Herald in 1820), as a supporter of Sir Francis Bond Head*, and as a proponent of the union of the Canadas so that French power would be decreased if not destroyed.
A medical man, Christie was certainly interested in the well-being of others. In his early days in Montreal he was active in the establishment of the Montreal General Hospital and he also served as secretary to the Emigrant Society of Montreal. The latter activity led him to seek land for a place of reception for immigrants and to write his own guide, The emigrant’s assistant: or remarks on the agricultural interest of the Canadas (Montreal, 1821). Being a newcomer himself, Christie gathered information for his book by writing letters to men of experience throughout the two provinces and, presenting “truth . . . in a plain and homely dress,” he produced chapters on the story of settlement in the Canadas and the best way for emigrants to facilitate settlement, followed by a résumé of the history and political structure of Upper and Lower Canada, and chapters on land tenure, divisions of land, how to obtain land, and how to clear it. Apparently Christie intended to, produce a second volume of the work, largely statistical, but there is no evidence that he ever did.
The book together with his editorship made him part of a small literary group based in Montreal. He seems to have been on good terms with Samuel Hull Wilcocke*, editor of the Scribbler, a journal of invective and satire. Wilcocke wrote to Christie several times and appears to have sided with him in his struggle with Gray. He also reviewed The emigrant’s assistant favourably in the Scribbler. David Chisholme, a fellow Scot, was also on good terms with Christie initially, asking him to contribute to the pages of the Canadian Magazine and Literary Repository, of which he was editor in 1823, but the two became editorial competitors and exchanged insults when, in 1824, Chisholme became editor of the Herald and of a new journal, the Canadian Review and Literary and Historical Journal. Christie, who had left Montreal in 1821, had been lured back by an offer of £200 a year to become editor of the Gazette and the Canadian Magazine from March 1824 until mid 1825. Christie and Chisholme were in agreement on literary matters, however. Both encouraged indigenous literary compositions and advocated a literature that would focus on “real occurrences or tangible objects.” Both discouraged the over-use of “the machinery of poetry” and the delineation of “imaginary beings from fairy land.” Like Chisholme, Christie also took the occasion of the inception of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec in 1824 to examine the role that such organizations might play in fostering the advancement of culture in a new society.
Christie left Montreal again in the summer of 1825 and returned to March Township, where he had moved with his wife and children in the summer of 1821. The family had settled first on land Christie owned on the 7th concession but, when it proved not very productive, they relocated in 1822 to a lot on the lst concession. Here Christie built Glencairn and established a farm, which was managed by his son Thomas. In 1827 Christie, probably seeking more town activity, moved to a site which is now at the corner of Wellington and Lyon in Ottawa. In the mid 1830s he built a house on Sparks Street, with his printing offices on an adjacent property.
In addition to trying farming, Christie practised medicine, retailed various merchandise, and served as an officer of the Hull Mining Company. From September 1826 to April 1827 he had a temporary appointment as a medical attendant to the Rideau Canal workers, and through most of the rest of 1827 he served in an unofficial capacity, keeping, as he always did, detailed records of his activities. Although he applied to Lieutenant-Colonel John By, to James Forbes, inspector of military hospitals for the province, and to Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay], he was unable to gain a permanent official position with the canal project, apparently because he was a civilian. In March 1830 he was appointed coroner for the Bathurst District (renewed in 1836 and 1839). It was not Christie’s first public office. He had served as a magistrate in Bytown and was always public-spirited, being prominent in the building of St Mary’s Church (Anglican), on land owned by his friend Hamnett Kirkes Pinhey*, and delivering the welcoming address to Lord Dalhousie when he visited the district in September 1826. In January 1834 Christie became an agent for the issuing of marriage licences and in September 1835 he was proclaimed public notary by Sir John Colborne*. He was secretary of the Bathurst Agricultural Society and the Ottawa Lumber Association in 1836 and the following year he served briefly as township clerk.
As coroner, Christie became secretary to the board of health and had to contend with the cholera crisis of 1832. He tried to isolate Bytown in June by preventing the Shannon and other traffic from proceeding to the town, but, although the commander of the Shannon complied, cholera did reach Bytown and by 12 July there had been three deaths. Christie’s treatment for cholera was a mixture of soft maple charcoal, hog’s lard, and maple sugar. He kept financial records of the measures taken in Bytown: in 1832 the cost of building and supplying a hospital for treatment was more than £115, and in 1834, when the disease broke out again, £123 was expended.
From 9 June 1836 until his death Christie edited the Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser. Earlier that year he had purchased the press of James Johnston following the early demise of Johnston’s Bytown Independent, and Farmer’s Advocate. His new position did not disturb Christie’s efforts to gain government appointments or his determination to remain active in political affairs. In 1832 he had assisted Pinhey in the by-election for Carleton County. The bitter nature of the campaign can be seen in a satirical verse account published that year, The Carleton election ; or, the tale of a Bytown ram ; an epic poem, in ten cantos, sometimes attributed to Christie. Desire for public office and political involvement were both connected to his being prominent in petitioning for the formation in 1838 of the Dalhousie District out of parts of the old Bathurst, Johnstown, and Ottawa districts.
In late 1840 Christie was nominated to stand for election in March 1841 to the Legislative Assembly of the newly united Canadas, but he was persuaded to withdraw, along with James Johnston and Robert Shirreff, in favour of Stewart Derbishire*, a Montreal editor and friend to Lord Sydenham [Thomson] who was parachuted into the riding by the governor. In May 1842, chiefly through the efforts of Derbishire, now a member of the assembly, Christie was rewarded with the office of clerk of the peace for the newly proclaimed Dalhousie District.
Although Christie had claimed illness was his reason for resigning his candidacy in the election of 1841, he remained active as an editor. He apparently fell seriously ill early in November 1843 and he died on the 13th. His newspaper was maintained by the family for a short time and was then sold.
Alexander Christie’s significance derives from his status as a lively and controversial journalist and as a chronicler of the times. He was a keeper of records and journals that contain valuable detail on local history and on economic and social conditions. His journal of “Medical and Chirurgical Observations” shows his own continuing medical education as well as the nature of medical practice in a frontier area, and his letters and travel journals delineate agricultural and human resources along the Rideau Canal and in the Ottawa valley. A notebook of natural philosophy reveals his extensive curiosity concerning the physical sciences.
AO, MU 934–44. McGill Univ. Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books and Special Coll., ms coll., CH202.S180. Ottawa, Hist. Soc., Bytown Museum and Arch. (Ottawa), JCHR. PAC, MG 24, B1; 19, 1–8; 1102; MG 30, D1, 8. Canadian Magazine and Literary Repository (Montreal), 1 (July–December 1823)–4 (January–June 1825). Canadian Rev. and Literary and Hist. Journal (Montreal), no.1 (July 1824)–no.3 (March 1825). The search for English-Canadian literature: an anthology of critical articles from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ed. C. [P. A.] Ballstadt (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1975). Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser, 9 June 1836–16 Nov. 1843. Montreal Gazette, March 1824–September 1825. Montreal Herald, September 1818–February 1821. Scribbler (Montreal), 1821–22. C. P. A. Ballstadt, “The quest for Canadian identity in pre-confederation English-Canadian literary criticism” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1959). W. P. Lett, Recollections of old Bytown, ed. Edwin Welch (Ottawa, 1979). H. [J. W.] Walker and Olive [Moffatt] Walker, Carleton saga (Ottawa, 1968). C. C. J. Bond, “Alexander James Christie, Bytown pioneer: his life and times, 1787–1843,” OH, 56 (1964): 17–36. H. P. Hill, “The Bytown Gazette, a pioneer newspaper,” OH, 27 (1931): 407–23. M. L. MacDonald, “Some notes on the Montreal literary scene in the mid–1820’s,” Canadian Poetry (London), no.5 (fall–winter 1979): 29–40.