CURTIS, JAMES, merchant, politician, office holder, judge, and land agent; d. 19 Nov. 1819 at his farm, Poplar Grove, Covehead, P.E.I.
Little is known of James Curtis’s background before his arrival on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island around 1770 as footman to Phillips Callbeck*. He did not long remain in that menial capacity, but served successively as clerk to Callbeck and to David Higgins*. Higgins, in partnership with Scotland’s lord advocate, James William Montgomery, was attempting to establish a settlement at Three Rivers (the region around Georgetown). After leaving Higgins, Curtis removed to the Montgomery settlement on Lot 34, which was under the supervision of David Lawson, setting up in Covehead as a “petty trader” and storekeeper. In 1779 he was elected to the House of Assembly.
Curtis first came to prominence in 1781, when as deputy provost marshal he personally handled the auction of the proprietorial lots sold by order of the Council some time between 13 and 15 November of that year [see Walter Patterson*]. With David Lawson’s assistance he managed in 1783 to obtain credit from the Glasgow merchant Patrick Colquhoun for fishing equipment and sundries to be sold at his store, although by Lawson’s own account Curtis was already £6,000 in debt. At about this time Curtis married Lawson’s daughter Elizabeth and became an integral part of the Covehead faction, which supported Governor Patterson in his efforts to prevent the sales of 1781 from being overturned by the proprietors and the British government. Curtis was elected to the House of Assembly in 1784 as a Patterson adherent, and he won again in 1785 after a bitter contest between the governor’s followers and the supporters of Chief Justice Peter Stewart and the former lieutenant governor, Thomas Desbrisay.
Soon after Edmund Fanning managed to secure his position as lieutenant governor of the Island in 1787, another election was called, in which “Captain Fletcher’s list” of Patterson supporters, Curtis among them, was victorious. Because the sheriff refused to make the return for the election, citing violence at the Charlottetown poll, writs for a second election were immediately issued, and Curtis was again successful. He served as secretary of the Board of Resident Proprietors and Agents, which Patterson organized in 1787 to fight the Fanning régime, and was subsequently dismissed by Fanning from his post as storekeeper to the disbanded troops and loyalists on the Island for misappropriation of funds. In 1789, during the visit of Bishop Charles Inglis, Curtis was accused of spreading the rumour that tithes for the Church of England were about to be introduced on the Island.
In 1791, when merchant-proprietors John Cambridge, John Hill*, and William Bowley charged Fanning and his chief officers with malfeasance in a suit before the Privy Council in London, Curtis helped collect the local evidence against the administration. The following year he went to England with a petition from many inhabitants condemning the lieutenant governor, but the Privy Council ignored it and, in fact, completely exonerated Fanning and the other defendants. Like so many Patterson supporters, however, Curtis eventually made his peace with Fanning, and he became, in the words of Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale, a “chief understrapper” for the new administration, much as he had been for the old one.
In a by-election held in 1797 Curtis was again returned to the assembly and three years later, although without legal background or training, he was appointed an assistant judge of the Supreme Court. According to Island gossip, “the night before his promotion he slept in a Stable at Charlottetown.” From the time of his appointment until the arrival of Chief Justice Thomas Cochrane in 1801, Curtis tried most of the cases heard before the court, since Chief Justice Stewart was often indisposed (and finally resigned late in 1800) and fellow assistant judge Robert Gray* seldom attended. Curtis was active in the assembly as well: in 1797 he served on the legislative committee that censured MacDonald, and in the same year he chaired the committee whose investigation of the land situation led the assembly to petition the British government for escheat of proprietorial holdings. He was easily re-elected to the assembly in 1803 as a “friend of the people.” From 1801 to 1805 and from 1813 to 1817 he served as speaker of the house.
In the 1800s Curtis was running a ship’s-chandler shop at Rustico, but he increasingly acquired agencies from absentee proprietors. He began by representing Ann Callbeck, Phillips’s widow, and in 1804 succeeded James Douglas as agent for the Montgomery interests. The latter agency undoubtedly gave him particular satisfaction, for his father-in-law had been summarily dismissed by the Montgomerys as agent in 1788 and had spent his last years living with Curtis in semi-disgrace. Unlike Douglas, Curtis was not a particularly active agent.
One of Curtis’s final acts of public importance was to testify against lawyer William Roubel* in 1812, his evidence forming part of the documentation used to disbar Roubel. Along with fellow judges Caesar Colclough* and Robert Gray, he had been heavily criticized for his involvement in party politics by Roubel and other members of the Loyal Electors led by James Bardin Palmer*. The following year Roubel prosecuted Curtis for perjury, but his suit before the Privy Council was unsuccessful.
James Curtis died in November 1819, survived only by his wife. His career was typical of those of many minor political figures on the Island who helped to maintain a high level of political conflict in the early days of its history.
PAC, MG 11, [CO 226] Prince Edward Island A, 17: 335–37; 27: 236–39; MG 23, E5, 1. PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith-Alley coll., James Curtis, “Extracts of examinations upon oath before the House of Assembly regarding the sales of the lots,” April 1786. PRO, CO 226/11; 226/13. SRO, GD293/2/17/9; 293/2/78/28, 43; 293/2/80/17. [John MacDonald?], Remarks on the conduct of the governor and Council of the Island of St. John’s, in passing an act of assembly in April of 1786 to conform the sales of the lands in 1781 . . . (n.p., ). Prince Edward Island Gazette (Charlottetown), 20 Nov. 1819. Royal American Gazette, and Weekly Intelligencer of the Island of Saint John (Charlottetown), 29 Sept. 1787. MacNutt, “Farming’s regime on P.E.I,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 1, no.1: 45–49.