CLARK (Clarke), THOMAS, businessman, militia officer, jp, politician, and office holder; b. in Scotland, probably in Dumfriesshire, son of Samuel Clark; m. 30 March 1809 Mary Margaret Kerr, daughter of Robert Kerr; they had no children; d. 6 Oct. 1835 in Niagara Falls, Upper Canada.
Thomas Clark arrived in Upper Canada in 1791 to work for his cousin Robert Hamilton*. The Queenston magnate was impressed with his young charge, reporting to Clark’s father in 1792: “I have found him possessed of Attention & Assiduity in my Business, & I’m convinced that he has Abilities & Morals to Conduct with success his own, as soon as he shall find it convenient to embark on his own Account. No Country perhaps in the world furnishes better prospects for young men with Moderate Views than the one we are now in.” In 1794, armed with his employer’s recommendations, Clark travelled to Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) “to look around,” but found the northwest fur trade, by that time in decline, not to his liking. Two years later he opened a shop at Queenston and shortly after formed a partnership with Samuel Street*. Hamilton, who held the contracts for portaging army and fur-trade goods around the falls at Niagara, assured the prosperity of the new partnership by sharing a portion of the contracts.
Early in 1799 Clark applied to the British military for permission to erect storage and portaging facilities along the Niagara River. The same year he built a wharf and storehouse at Queenston at the enormous cost of $3,000. He also owned similar facilities at Chippawa and Fort Erie. At the end of the year Street left the partnership and in 1800 Clark founded a new firm, Thomas Clark and Company, with Robert Nichol, another Old World acquaintance and member of Hamilton’s network. The partners traded in flour and other commodities throughout 1802 and 1803 with John Askin* among others. On 22 Oct. 1803 Nichol announced to Askin that the enterprise “had not been beneficial” to either partner and had been dissolved; he and Clark had, however, parted as friends.
Clark’s ventures in land speculation were modest by comparison with some by his relatives, notably Hamilton. In 1806 he purchased block 4 of the Six Nations’ Grand River lands. He sold the southern part to Robert Addison in 1808 and the remainder during the 1830s. Before 1809 Clark had acquired 1,900 acres in the Niagara peninsula. In 1811 he bought block 1 in partnership with his cousin William Dickson*; five years later Clark formally transferred these lands to Dickson.
About 1808 or 1809 Clark entered a second partnership with Street. Abandoning the forwarding trade, the partners undertook large-scale flour-milling at complexes on the Niagara River: first the Falls Mills which Street had acquired in 1807 and later the Bridgewater Mills. After Hamilton’s death in 1809, Clark, as an executor, assumed much of the responsibility for the financial well-being of the Hamilton children and the management of the estate. That same year he made an agreement with the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas*] to act as business agent for the ill-fated Baldoon settlement. Clark’s biggest problem was rectifying the financial mismanagement of the chief agent, Alexander McDonell* (Collachie). By the time he took over in 1810, there was little he could do other than suggest selling livestock in hopes of recovering some of the investment.
The War of 1812 was an interruption in Clark’s business affairs. Afterwards, in 1816, he observed of his cousin Robert Dickson’s activities: “[He] has made a great deal of noise & horror in the country . . . but has forgot the money – which is a much better standbye than either hard Knocks or Glory.” Yet Clark himself, although always mindful of money, had, as lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd Lincoln Militia, served with distinction. One of the major militia commanders on the Niagara frontier, he saw action at Queenston Heights on 13 Oct. 1812 and again the following month at Frenchman Creek. On both occasions he was mentioned in dispatches. In June 1813 he was present for the American surrender at Beaver Dams (Thorold) and participated in the raids on Fort Schlosser (Niagara Falls), N.Y., and Black Rock (Buffalo) in July. Partly as a consequence of a slight wound received in the latter engagement, he left the province late in 1813 for Scotland, returning in mid 1814. After the war he was one of the commissioners for assessing war losses in the Niagara District. He was also one of the commissioners selected to erect a monument at Queenston Heights to Major-General Sir Isaac Brock*.
Clark and Street lost both their mills to the torches of the Americans in July 1814. Only the Falls Mills were later rebuilt, but the partners continued to dominate milling in the region. The profits were reinvested in stocks, debentures, and land. Money-lending, on both a small and a large scale, was one of their most profitable activities. In 1821, for instance, the firm loaned the government £20,000 to pay arrears due on the pensions for militia veterans of the war. In 1832 Receiver General John Henry Dunn* held two bonds in favour of Clark totalling £10,000. On his own, Clark was not a major speculator in lands; he seems to have owned about 5,000 acres but he held another 55,000 owned jointly with Street.
During his partnership with Street, Clark also conducted separate business ventures on his own behalf. For instance, he participated in a four-way, long-term agreement with John Jacob Astor of New York and some of his associates for the sale and shipment of flour. Sales were conducted in Montreal, New York, and Jamaica; Clark’s share of the profits on one transaction was a substantial $15,500. He also continued his association with Selkirk, advising on and outfitting the expedition to Red River in 1816, and handling the disposition of Selkirk’s Grand River lands.
Clark was a sceptical individual with a clear, if narrow, definition of his goals in life. Of politics he wrote, “Ever since my arrival in Upper Canada, I have had nothing but turmoil and trouble, that is, with public affairs . . . [politics is] a troublesome task without any emolument. It is an honourable trade, yet I wish I were quit of it, as I have many private concerns to attend to which are of more consequence to me.” Unlike his partner, however, Clark was willing, albeit grudgingly, to take part in politics after the war. He had previously held minor offices: justice of the peace from 1800 and trustee of the district grammar school from 1808. As a reward for his military service and partially in recognition of his wealth and prominence, he became a member of the Legislative Council on 16 Nov. 1815. The council was an important bastion of large landholders and merchants and, not surprisingly, the major events of his political career frequently involved issues that could have affected his landholdings or business dealings.
One of the first issues of major dispute concerned the dissatisfaction of the Niagara élite with the government’s decision to bar Americans from owning land. This measure was forcibly opposed by Clark and William Dickson in the council and Nichol in the assembly. The issue was taken up by Robert Gourlay*, whose wife was a cousin of Clark’s and who had come to the province in 1817 in an attempt to recoup his fortune. His hope of borrowing money from Clark was dashed by the latter’s explanation that his wealth was tied up in land, the market for which had been depressed owing to the government’s policy of excluding American settlers. Gourlay’s address to resident landowners embodying 31 questions elicited a favourable response from Clark who in November 1817 added his name to the signatures of notables requesting a township meeting to prepare answers to Gourlay’s questions. When, however, Gourlay fell from grace the following year as a result of his attacks upon the administration in his second address, Clark moved quickly to distance himself. On 20 April he read an address to the inhabitants of Stamford Township in which he attacked Gourlay as a malcontent who had misinterpreted his own complaints against the government (Gourlay had claimed that his second address had been not only inspired but also approved by Clark and Dickson).
A related concern was a dispute over policies on land taxation which followed shortly after the Gourlay agitation. Several attempts to tax the province’s wild, or uncultivated, lands – usually held by speculators who were often non-residents of the district in which the lands were located – had been blocked by vested interests within the council. But in 1819, and again five years later, new acts, passed by the House of Assembly, supported by Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland*, and approved by Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst, forced the council’s compliance in the matter. Speculators such as Clark were to pay the taxes or they would lose their lands by public auction after arrears for eight years. When in 1828 the assembly considered revising the act, Clark and others lobbied furiously for relief. Appearing before a house committee, he argued adamantly that it was unfair to tax all land equally regardless of its value or location. In spite of such strenuous opposition, the act was not rescinded, although its terms were modified somewhat in deference to the critics. In 1830 the first sales of tax-delinquent lands occurred, and large speculators took advantage of yet another opportunity for investment; thus, contrary to the act’s intent, the land was not brought under cultivation but was purchased by men such as Clark, Dickson, and Street.
Although Clark courted official disfavour by his persistent opposition to policies which he perceived as harmful to his commercial self-interest, such as tax on wild land, he performed useful public service in instances where his own welfare and government policy coincided. In 1821, for instance, he was appointed one of the commissioners to negotiate a new revenue-sharing agreement with Lower Canada. In council, he was most concerned with advancements in transportation. He understood, no doubt, that improvement of internal navigation between the upper and lower provinces would ultimately benefit merchants operating on a large scale. In 1818 he served with James Crooks* and others on the joint provincial committee studying the improvement of navigation along the St Lawrence River; the commissioners called for a system of locks and canals which would be equal in dimension to those of New York State. Several years later he served on the commission superintending the construction of a canal linking Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour) and Lake Ontario. In 1825 he chaired a meeting convened to defray the expense of a survey for the best canal route between Montreal and Prescott to admit lake-size vessels. He was also interested in schemes of a more local nature such as the Grand River Navigation Company and the Erie and Ontario Railroad.
Clark began his career in Upper Canada with nothing more than a family introduction to Robert Hamilton. His success in business stemmed from a combination of hard work, determination, and perseverance with foresight and solid business sense. These qualities made him one of the most important and wealthiest merchants in Upper Canada; upon his death, William Lyon Mackenzie* estimated the value of his estate at £100,000. Clark’s correspondence indicates a continuing use of family networks through to the 1830s. On his estate overlooking the falls at Niagara, Clark lived as a gentleman in his 40-room house, Clark Hill (later the estate of Sir Harry Oakes*), with his wife and servants, and in his leisure he enjoyed playing cards with other members of Upper Canada’s élite.
AO, ms 500. MTL, E. W. Banting coll., Samuel Street papers. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 318: 499; MG 19, E1; MG 23, K16; MG 24, I8, ser.I; I26; I137; RG 1, E3, 32; RG 8, I (C ser.), 272: 21–22. QUA, Richard Cartwright papers, letter-books, Cartwright to Clark and Street, 4 May 1798 (mfm. at AO). UWOL, Regional Coll., James Hamilton papers. “Additional correspondence of Robert Nichol,” ed. E. A. Cruikshank, OH, 26 (1930):45–51, 59. Doc. hist. of campaign upon Niagara frontier (Cruikshank), vols.1–3. R. F. Gourlay, The banished Briton and Neptunian: being a record of the life, writings, principles and projects of Robert Gourlay . . . (Boston, 1843); General introduction to “Statistical account of Upper Canada . . . ,” in connection with a reform of the corn laws (London, 1822). John Askin papers (Quaife). “The journals of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada . . . ,” AO Report, 1910, 1915. “The probated wills of men prominent in the public affairs of early Upper Canada,” ed. A. F. Hunter, OH, 23 (1926): 328–59. Statistical account of U.C. (Gourlay). Valley of Six Nations (Johnston). Gleaner, and Niagara Newspaper, 1 May, 10, 24 Sept. 1824. St. Catharines Journal, and Welland Canal, (Niagara District,) General Advertiser (St Catharines, [Ont.]), 15 July 1841. Cowdell Gates, Land policies of U. C. E. A. Cruikshank, A memoir of Colonel the Honourable James Kerby, his life in letters (Welland, Ont., 1931), 12–16. Aileen Dunham, Political unrest in Upper Canada, 1815–1836 (London, 1927; repr. Toronto, 1963). Wilson, Enterprises of Robert Hamilton. G. C. Patterson, “Land settlement in Upper Canada, 1783–1840,” AO Report, 1920.
© 1987–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Bruce A. Parker and Bruce G. Wilson, “CLARK, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/clark_thomas_6E.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:
|Author of Article:||Bruce A. Parker and Bruce G. Wilson|
|Title of Article:||CLARK, THOMAS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 5, 2023|