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DUNCAN, RICHARD, army officer, merchant, judge, and office holder; b. in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England, son of John Duncan and Maria March; m. October 1784 Mary Wright in Montreal, Que., and they had one son and one daughter; d. February 1819 near Schenectady, N.Y.

Richard Duncan came to America in 1755 with his father, a lieutenant in Thomas Gage*’s 44th Foot, and in 1758 he himself was commissioned ensign and quartermaster in the regiment. At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War he left the army and joined his father, now an Indian trader, at Schenectady. Between 1761 and 1766 on his own and in various partnerships with merchants such as James Sterling*, John Porteous, James Phyn, and Alexander Ellice, John Duncan had established posts at Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.), Detroit (Mich.), and Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.). He also founded the firm which on his retirement in 1767 became Phyn, Ellice and Company. Richard rejoined the army in 1765 as an ensign in the 55th Foot but, after brief service in Ireland, he returned in 1768 to aid his father, who had experienced financial difficulties. By the time of the American revolution the Duncans had acquired extensive landholdings but had also accumulated a joint debt of £3,000.

Though his family remained in Schenectady throughout the revolution Duncan was an active loyalist. In June 1776 he assisted Adjutant General Allan Maclean*’s escape to Canada and the following year he joined John Burgoyne*’s army at Saratoga (Schuylerville, N.Y.). After the surrender on 17 October, Duncan travelled to the province of Quebec where he was commissioned captain in the first battalion of Sir John Johnson*’s King’s Royal Regiment of New York. At the conclusion of the war he went on half pay and settled at Rapid du Plat (Mariatown, Ont.). For his services he and his family received large quantities of land, to which he added more by purchase.

Duncan enjoyed the continuing support of Johnson, the most influential man in the new western settlements, and was rewarded in other ways as well. On 24 July 1788 Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] organized four new administrative districts in what was to become Upper Canada and Duncan, along with such other local notables as John McDonell (Aberchalder) and John Munro*, reaped the benefits. He was appointed to the magistracy, the Court of Common Pleas, and the land board of the Luneburg District, and he attended the meetings of all three institutions regularly until the autumn of 1791. That year his father died and he returned to Schenectady to handle “the wreck of an estate left under the greatest embarrassment.” In 1792 his local and provincial prominence was recognized when he was made lieutenant of the county of Dundas [see Hazelton Spencer] and one of the nine original legislative councillors. Five years later he became a member of the district Heir and Devisee Commission.

From 1791 until 1805 Duncan spent most of his time in New York though he carried out the duties of his Upper Canadian offices intermittently for a number of years. He made his first appearance in the council on 17 June 1793. Of the ten sessions before his removal for non-attendance in 1805, he attended only four. His participation was negligible and his effectiveness limited to a minor piece of legislation in 1798 establishing the boundaries of Eastern District townships. Speculating in land was Duncan’s major concern in Upper Canada during the 1790s. Like many of the loyalist officers in the district he took advantage of the township grants proclaimed by Lieutenant Governor Simcoe in 1792. With associates such as Peter Drummond, Munro, and particularly Thomas Fraser*, in 1793 he received seven townships. When in 1796 the government considered taking action against Duncan and his associates for non-fulfilment of their settlement obligations, he attempted to fend off the threat. The spokesman of the group, Duncan tried on 2 July to enlist Surveyor General David William Smith* as a silent partner but failed. Eight days later he wrote to Smith again, concerned that he had given “some offence to the Governor.” Indeed, he had thought that Simcoe’s favourable response to “some hints” he had offered on the subject of the townships would have resulted in the Executive Council complying “with our wishes.” Having been unsuccessful in deterring the administration, Duncan sought compensation of 10,000 acres per proprietor, but when the township grants were rescinded in 1797 he and his partners received only 1,200 acres apiece.

Duncan does not seem to have lived in Upper Canada at all after 1809 or 1810, though he had intended to return permanently and wished to resume his seat on the council. He remained at his father’s former home, the Hermitage, near Schenectady until his death.

J. K. Johnson

AO, RG 1, A-I-6: 347–48, 792–95, 1937–39. PAC, MG 9, D8, 8 (transcript; mfm. at AO); RG 1, L3, 149: D1/62; 150: D3/7, 84; RG 5, A1: 2202, 2272, 3405, 3477, 4195; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. PRO, AO 12/32; AO 13, bundle 12. Corr. of LieutGovernor Simcoe (Cruikshank), 1: 10–11, 88–90, 147–48. “District of Luneburg: Court of Common Pleas,” AO Report, 1917: 353–451. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1928: 44, 117, 160. Johnson papers (Sullivan et al.), 4: 237, 266; 5: 11, 47, 163; 7: 457; 10: 569–70. “The journals of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada . . . ,” AO Report, 1910: 21, 28–29, 58–59, 133–37, 205. NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), 7: 502, 508. Osgoode, “Letters” (Colgate), OH, 46: 88. “U. C. land book B,” AO Report, 1930: 2–4. “U.C. land book C,” AO Report, 1930: 174; 1931: 44. “U.C. land book D,” AO Report, 1931: 168, 172. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology, 33. G.B., WO, Army list, 1759, 1766. J. S. Carter, The story of Dundas . . . (Iroquois, Ont., 1905; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973), 449–63. Duncan Fraser, William Fraser, senior, U.E., and his descendants in Fulton County, New York, and Grenville County, Ontario (Johnstown, N.Y., 1964), 12. Gates, Land policies of U.C., 40–41. R. H. Fleming, “Phyn, Ellice and Company of Schenectady,” Contributions to Canadian Economics (Toronto), 4 (1932): 8–11.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. K. Johnson, “DUNCAN, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 20, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/duncan_richard_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/duncan_richard_5E.html
Author of Article: J. K. Johnson
Title of Article: DUNCAN, RICHARD
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: August 20, 2014