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FORSYTH, JOHN, businessman, militia officer, jp, and politician; baptized 8 Dec. 1762 in Huntly, Scotland, son of William Forsyth and Jean Phyn; d. 27 Dec. 1837 in London.

A nephew of James Phyn, who was a partner with Alexander Ellice* in Phyn, Ellice and Company of London, John Forsyth immigrated to the province of Quebec, probably in 1779, to work in that firm’s Montreal office, which became Robert Ellice and Company. His brother Thomas was already employed there, and subsequently became a partner. Another brother, Joseph*, settled in Kingston, Upper Canada, ten years later and did business with Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis, successor firm to Phyn, Ellice and Company, through their Montreal branch. Following Robert Ellice*’s death in 1790 John Forsyth joined Thomas and their cousin John Richardson* in the Montreal partnership, and the company became Forsyth, Richardson and Company; Richardson immediately established his dominance. Alexander Thain would become a partner by the spring of 1816, when Thomas Forsyth retired.

Forsyth, Richardson expanded the forwarding activities of Robert Ellice and Company, operating in part through agents such as Richard Cartwright* in Kingston, Robert Hamilton* at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), and John Askin* in Detroit. Much of this business was for the fur trade. Initially operating south and west from Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.), Forsyth, Richardson increasingly shifted its activities to the northwest, where the North West Company was seeking to establish a monopoly. In 1792 Forsyth, Richardson forced its way into the NWC but received only 2 of the 46 shares into which that copartnership was divided. Feeling its interest too small, Forsyth, Richardson left in 1795 and again traded in competition with the NWC. In 1798 it formed the nucleus of the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), founded to compete with the NWC [see John Ogilvy*]. Reorganized and expanded in 1800 with the introduction of Alexander Mackenzie* and others, the New North West Company was, nevertheless, taken over by its more experienced rival in 1804 and Forsyth, Richardson played a leading role that year in evaluating its assets. Meanwhile, still operating south and west from Michilimackinac, Forsyth, Richardson was a major element in the formation of the Michilimackinac Company in 1806 [see John Ogilvy] and of the Montreal Michilimackinac Company in 1811. Although Richardson seems to have been most prominent in these developments, Forsyth was an active participant. Having travelled into the fur trade country for the first time in 1793, he had been accepted into the Beaver Club with Richardson in 1807.

Forsyth, Richardson’s operations were not limited to the fur trade. In the early 1790s the firm was involved in the ill-starred Montreal Distillery Company [see Thomas McCord*]. It also dealt in real estate in Upper and Lower Canada and manifested interest in early plans to form the Lower Canada Land Company about 1825 [see William Bowman Felton]. As well it engaged in other activities commonly conducted by Lower Canadian enterprises of the time. Through its connection with Phyn, Ellices, and Inglis it served as an agent for British merchants with Canadian business; as assignee in 1814 for the estate of Hoyle, Henderson, and Gibb of Quebec and Montreal, for example, Forsyth handled a claim from London wholesalers of more than £40,000. In December 1805 Forsyth, Richardson had received power of attorney from the executors of Alexander Ellice’s will, and ten years later Forsyth was an executor of the will of James Dunlop*, a leading Montreal businessman.

Above all, however, Forsyth, Richardson was a major importer of a wide variety of merchandise for Upper Canadian wholesalers and retailers and a leading exporter of Upper Canadian produce and semi-processed goods. Imports included wines, spirits from Britain, sugar from Barbados, tea from Canton (People’s Republic of China), and manufactures such as iron, steel, linen, clothing, and hardware. Exports were largely of beef, pork, fish, flour, oats, peas, staves, and horses to Barbados and wheat, deals, and staves to Greenock, Scotland. To help carry on this trade, in 1793 Forsyth, Richardson purchased a share in the Lady Dorchester, a 120-ton vessel serving on Lake Ontario, in which Cartwright, Hamilton, and Todd, McGill and Company of Montreal [see Isaac Todd*] were the principal partners. The group commissioned construction of one vessel, the Governor Simcoe, the same year and of another in 1794. Naturally interested in improving the navigability of the upper St Lawrence River, Forsyth was, with François Desrivières*, among 14 businessmen who in 1818 petitioned for the right to dig a canal around the Sainte-Marie current and the Lachine rapids. The following year he promoted sales of shares in the newly chartered Company of Proprietors of the Lachine Canal. He was a member of the Montreal Harbour Commission in 1824–25; it recommended major improvements and the establishment of an independent corporation to manage harbour affairs. In 1830 Forsyth was a shareholder in the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company, which had been formed that year. He had been one of 12 businessmen who, in October 1823, had planned a turnpike road from Montreal to Longue-Pointe (Montreal).

Forsyth, Richardson also took a leading part in improving financial conditions affecting trade in the colony. Forsyth played a supporting role in Richardson’s abortive effort to establish the Canada Banking Company in 1792. He was among the founders, with Richardson, of the Bank of Montreal in 1817, and their firm, as well as Forsyth and Richardson individually, subscribed the maximum permissible 20 shares each. Forsyth served as a director of the bank from 1817 to 1820 and as vice-president in 1825–26. Following the bankruptcy in late 1825 of Simon McGillivray, of whom the bank, thanks to its president, Samuel Gerrard*, had become a major creditor, Forsyth supported before the board of the bank a settlement proposed by Richardson and Gerrard, who were McGillivray’s trustees. In an ensuing major controversy over the financial administration of the bank, Forsyth was part of the “old guard” of former fur-trade merchants who vainly supported Gerrard’s continuance as president. Forsyth had also been a founding shareholder of the Montreal Fire Insurance Company in 1818.

In the course of the daily administration of his firm, Forsyth kept abreast of affairs in Montreal, Chambly, Kingston, and other places where it did business, endorsing or protesting notes issued by traders, agents, retailers, innkeepers, and tradesmen. He occasionally, perhaps often, went into the field. In February 1817, for example, he travelled by sleigh to the customs post at Fort Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu). Smuggling was rampant in the area, and the 19th Light Dragoons had been deployed at the border to check it. On his return Forsyth passed through La Prairie in the night, and on three different occasions he was challenged and told to stop. For whatever reason, he chose to speed on, and on the third occasion, according to the Montreal Gazette, “a Dragoon fired and wounded him in the arm.”

From the 1790s at least, Forsyth was part of the social circuit on which the upper echelon of the Montreal business community prided itself. Anglican bishop Jacob Mountain* dined in a large company at Forsyth’s home in July 1794. “The house itself is elegant, and the dinner splendid,” he recorded. “People here are fond of good living and take care to want no luxury.” Forsyth’s political and social views and activities were representative of those of the most prominent business figures in Montreal. In the 1790s he had welcomed into his home refugees from the French revolution. He was commissioned an ensign in the Montreal Battalion of British Militia in 1797, and he reached the rank of captain in Montreal’s 1st Militia Battalion in early 1812. His company formed part of the Montreal Incorporated Volunteers in 1812–13, and he was later granted land for his services during the War of 1812. Promoted major in the 1st battalion in 1821, he became lieutenant-colonel of the Royal Montreal Cavalry in June 1828. Meanwhile he had been commissioned a justice of the peace in 1821. He became a life governor of the Montreal General Hospital, which, founded in 1819, was a favourite project of the business community. Diligent in support of Richardson during the founding of the Montreal Committee of Trade in 1822, he was elected its first chairman but declined the honour and was replaced by Thomas Blackwood. On the whole, however, Forsyth’s social and public involvement was restrained for a businessman of his rank; he was for example largely inactive in the affairs of his church, the Scotch Presbyterian Church, later known as St Gabriel Street Church.

Forsyth was not as active as Richardson in the turbulent politics of Lower Canada. He was, nevertheless, a steady supporter of the English party and of the policies of the colonial executive. In May 1824 he was vice-president of a dinner held on behalf of Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay], and in 1827 he chaired a public dinner, attended by more than 200 people, which Dalhousie considered “a plain declaration of . . . their avowed approbation of my conduct.” The same year Dalhousie made Forsyth and Richardson patrons of a subscription campaign in Montreal for the erection at Quebec of a monument to James Wolfe* and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm*. In July 1827 Forsyth was appointed to the Legislative Council on Dalhousie’s recommendation. However, unlike many prominent businessmen, and most notably his partner, Forsyth was not offered, or did not accept, any great number of government appointments. In 1824 he was named to the Board of Examiners of Applicants to be Inspectors of Pot and Pearl Ashes, and nine years later he received a commission of oyer and terminer and general jail delivery.

On 29 March 1798, in St Andrew’s Church at Quebec, Forsyth had married Margaret Grant, daughter of the prominent Quebec merchant Charles Grant; three important business colleagues witnessed the ceremony – William Grant*, Robert Lester*, and John Blackwood*. Forsyth and his wife had two sons and a daughter, all of whom married within Forsyth’s business circle: William (who later added Grant to his family name) married a daughter of Joseph Forsyth; John Blackwood married a daughter of Samuel Gerrard; and Jane Prescott married a son of John Gregory, a former colleague of Forsyth in the NWC and a fellow member of the Beaver Club. A nephew, James Bell Forsyth*, represented Forsyth, Richardson at Quebec, in association with William Walker, from 1821.

Richardson died in May 1831, and for a time Forsyth carried on. In August he informed London businessman Edward Ellice* that he was “on the best of terms” with Governor Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer] and “an intimate and old friend” of Aylmer’s civil secretary, John Baskerville Glegg, and he offered to use these advantages to promote the development of Ellice’s seigneury of Villechauve, more commonly known as Beauharnois, the management of which Forsyth, Richardson had long supervised. Forsyth spent his last years in Britain, possibly in London, where he died in 1837. Forsyth, Richardson and Company survived until 1847 when it and Forsyth, Walker and Company were dissolved.

Much more discreet in business, politics, and society than his domineering partner, John Forsyth seems to have taken responsibility for the efficient daily functioning of Forsyth, Richardson and Company, and by doing so to have freed Richardson for an active public life and to have ensured the prosperity and prestige of the commercial house that was to a large extent Richardson’s power base in Lower Canadian politics. It may be speculated as well that Forsyth’s less strongly anti-Canadian attitudes had a moderating effect on the political views of his impulsive and forceful associate.

Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky

ANQ-Q, CE1-66, 29 mars 1798. GRO (Edinburgh), Aberdeen, reg. of births and baptisms, 8 Dec. 1762. Montreal Business Hist. Project, Extracts and digests of Montreal notarial arch., Henry Griffin, nos.3410, 4387, 4477, 6063, 6099, 6125, 6522. PAC, MG 24, A2: 1060–65, 1099–100, 1936–46, 1978–81; L3: 8838–39, 9159–61, 25025–38; MG 30, D1, 13: 89–107; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. QUA, 2199c, letter-books, Richard Cartwright to Forsyth, Richardson and Company, 6 Aug., 16 Oct. 1799; 11, 17 Sept. 1800. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson). Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank). John Askin papers (Quaife), 2: 444–45. Jacob Mountain, “From Quebec to Niagara in 1794; a diary of Bishop Jacob Mountain,” ed. A. R. Kelly, ANQ Rapport, 1959–60: 121–65. Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw), 3: 119. John Richardson, “The John Richardson letters,” ed. E. A. Cruikshank, OH, 6 (1905): 20–36. Select documents in Canadian economic history, ed. H. A. Innis and A. R. M. Lower (2v., Toronto, 1929–33), 2: 324. Montreal Gazette, 13 March 1838. Quebec Commercial List, 23 May 1825. Quebec Gazette, 4 July 1792; 10 Oct. 1793; 30 Jan. 1794; 30 April 1812; 14 Sept. 1815; 11 July 1816; 5 Oct., 7 Dec. 1818; 12 July, 5 Aug. 1819; 2 May, 23 Oct. 1821; 24 April, 17 July, 21 Aug., 13 Oct. 1823; 17 May 1824. Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving), 164. Quebec almanac, 1798: 106; 1810: 58. F. W. Terrill, A chronology of Montreal and of Canada from A.D. 1752 to A.D. 1893 . . . (Montreal, 1893). Wallace, Macmillan dict. Creighton, Empire of St. Lawrence. G. C. Davidson, The North West Company (Berkeley, Calif., 1918; repr. New York, 1967). Denison, Canada’s first bank. Innis, Fur trade in Canada (1962). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59). G. J. J. Tulchinsky, “The construction of the first Lachine Canal, 1815–1826” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1960), 39. Wallot, Un Québec qui bougeait, 304. B. G. Wilson, Enterprises of Robert Hamilton. R. H. Fleming, “The origin of ‘Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company,’” CHR, 9 (1928): 137–55. “Origins of the Montreal Board of Trade,” Journal of Commerce (Gardenvale, Que.), 2nd ser., 55 (April 1927): 28–29. Adam Shortt, “The Hon. John Richardson,” Canadian Bankers’ Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 29 (1921–22): 17–27. W. S. Wallace, “Forsyth, Richardson and Company in the fur trade,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 34 (1940), sect.ii: 187–94.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky, “FORSYTH, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 15, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forsyth_john_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forsyth_john_7E.html
Author of Article: Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky
Title of Article: FORSYTH, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: September 15, 2014