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HAMILTON, GEORGE, businessman, office holder, militia officer, jp, and judge; b. 13 April 1781 in Hamwood (Republic of Ireland), third son of Charles Hamilton, businessman, and Elizabeth Chetwood; d 7 Jan. 1839 at Hawkesbury, Upper Canada, and was buried near St Andrews (Saint-André-Est, Que.).

George Hamilton’s family was of Lowland Scots origin but had taken up estates in Ireland. In the early 19th century, operating largely out of Liverpool, it was involved in the Baltic timber and Madeira wine trades, no doubt among others. Probably in 1804, but certainly by June 1806, George had arrived at Quebec to establish a branch of the family operations. In 1808 he was selling Madeira wines received via Liverpool, and by May 1809 he had taken his brother William into partnership. Until at least 1811 the firm of George and William Hamilton operated as “Auctioneers & Brokers,” selling everything from nails to silk parasols in its rooms in Upper Town.

After 1807 the Liverpool Hamiltons were briefly cut off from their Baltic timber supplies by Napoleon’s continental blockade. Lured by lucrative British Admiralty contracts for naval stores, they followed the example set early in the decade by Henry Usborne and transferred at least part of their timber operations to the Canadas, where the Admiralty generated war business worth £2,500,000 in 1809 alone. On 31 Aug. 1809 George and William Hamilton took a 21-year lease on a lot and beach at the mouth of the Rivière Chaudière in Lower Canada from the seigneur of Lauzon, Henry Caldwell*. The firm immediately announced its readiness to receive rafts of timber and staves at “New Liverpool Cove.” In addition to exporting timber, in part in ships they had built at New Liverpool, the Hamiltons sold it at Quebec to the growing shipbuilding industry. In March and April 1810 their firm became the representative on the St Lawrence of the underwriters of London, Liverpool, Dundee, and Aberdeen; as such it was empowered to take charge of distressed or wrecked vessels not represented by an authorized insurance agent in Lower Canada.

In 1809 two up-country lumberers, Thomas Mears and David Pattee*, had contracted to supply timber to the Hamiltons. To finance operations Mears and Pattee received advances against delivery. They became unable to fulfill their obligations, however, and by October 1811 the Hamiltons had seized their only tangible asset, a deal mill at Hawkesbury. William moved to Hawkesbury to take charge of the mill and of the lumbering operations, which were carried out largely along the Rideau River. Shortly after he took over, a fire wiped out the mill and its stock of wood, but, deciding to exploit a recent doubling of the British duty on Baltic timber, the Hamiltons rebuilt on an expanded scale despite disruption of the export trade caused by the War of 1812. Remaining at Quebec, George was responsible for negotiating timber sales and securing Admiralty contracts; during the summer of 1813 he disposed of more than 300,000 cubic feet of timber, staves, and deals on the Quebec market. From May to December 1815 the Hamiltons operated with a third partner, George Davies, as “Hamilton’s and Davies.” In March 1816 New Liverpool Cove, which by then included a house, wharf, building slips, workshop, forge, “steam house,” warehouse, and workmen’s lodgings, was put up for sale or let from 1 May. However, the Hamiltons carried on as George and William Hamilton until the end of 1816, when the company was dissolved following William’s retirement.

Backed by the prestige of the Liverpool firm, George had been welcomed quickly into upper-class Quebec society. By early 1807 he was already among the 21 leading merchants and office holders of conservative convictions who constituted the exclusive Barons’ Club; others were Caldwell, Herman Witsius Ryland, George Heriot, and Thomas Dunn*. From 1807 to 1815 Hamilton was successively treasurer and steward of the Quebec Races which, through meets, sought to improve the quality of horses in the colony as well as to provide entertainment; he either bred or imported horses for sale. During the War of 1812 he was a lieutenant in Quebec’s 3rd Militia Battalion, and then aide-major and finally major under Caldwell in the 2nd Lotbinière battalion. In 1814 he received a commission of the peace for Quebec. On 18 March 1816, at 34, he married before the Anglican bishop of Quebec, Jacob Mountain*, Susannah Christiana Craigie, 17-year-old daughter of the late executive councillor John Craigie*; they would have at least seven, and possibly ten, children.

The newly-weds were soon transported from the gaity of Quebec society to the sombre bush of the Ottawa valley. On William’s retirement George was joined in the business by his brothers Robert and John. Robert managed marketing in Liverpool while John moved in at New Liverpool; George took his experience to Hawkesbury. The mill-site, at the head of the Long Sault Rapids, was ideal. It was within easy reach of the timber stands on the Ottawa River and its tributaries. The rapids provided ample power and an obstacle to the rafting of timber to market at Quebec; lumberers unwilling to break up and then rebuild their rafts sold them to Hamilton. Finally, the Ottawa valley was opening up, and settlers were happy to sell logs from their lands in return for merchandise from the store that Hamilton had the astuteness to build. Unlike other up-country lumberers, Hamilton, as part of an integrated company, could avoid the costs and delays occasioned by middlemen at Quebec and in England. The Hawkesbury operation grew; by 1818 it employed 80 men, a large number for the time, and in 1822 it reportedly ran 40 saws.

To achieve these results Hamilton had to adapt to conditions governing the timber trade in the valley: he employed both strong-arm tactics and political pressure, no doubt exploiting his contacts at Quebec. His position and basis of power in valley society were established between 1816 and 1823. In March 1816 he was appointed a justice of the peace and a judge of the newly created Ottawa District Court of Upper Canada; in August 1818 he was named with George Garden* and Joseph Papineau a commissioner for the improvement of water communications between Lower and Upper Canada on the St Lawrence and Ottawa rivers; in April 1822 he was made, with Joel Stone*, a commissioner in the Ottawa District under the Alien Act; in June he received a commission of dedimus potestatem and became lieutenant-colonel of the Prescott Reserve Militia of Upper Canada; and by January 1823 he was one of three school commissioners for the Ottawa District.

Hamilton had sought to use his position to promote social order and prosperity in the valley, in part through the creation of large, stable lumbering enterprises, of which his would be one. His model of local leadership was the English squire, but he found himself surrounded at Hawkesbury by an American community which, in addition to supplying strong competition in business, was to his mind the source of seditious democratic ideas in the region. Among its leaders were Mears and Pattee, whom Hamilton had put out of business only temporarily. Mears, who was competing successfully with Hamilton for timber, was the district sheriff; Pattee was a justice of the peace and a judge of the Surrogate Court. Made vulnerable by the expense of rebuilding the mill after the fire of 1812, which had been of suspicious origins, Hamilton indulged in violent means to meet competition from Mears.

Conflict between the Hamilton and Mears factions intensified from 1819 when the executive government of Lower Canada, pressed for revenues as a result of a long-standing conflict with the House of Assembly [see George Ramsay], began to enforce crown timber rights more stringently. The timber industry in the valley had been stimulated in the early years by cutting on crown lands under Admiralty contract, the timber there being reserved exclusively for naval stores. Following the war the trade had shifted to supplying domestic needs in the colonies and Britain. In the wilderness, far from the eyes of government officials, the reservation of timber on crown lands for naval purposes went largely ignored. Some timber, known to have been taken by trespass, had been seized, but the trade had become so important to the colonial economy that enforcement of crown rights had been half-hearted. From 1819, however, rafts were seized more frequently; they were then sold, usually back to their original owners, and the proceeds deposited in the crown revenues. In order to compete Hamilton had engaged in illegal cutting on crown lands, and he feared denunciation by Mears.

The Upper Canadian elections of 1820 pitted the Hamilton and Mears factions against each other in the united counties of Prescott and Russell. The contest, dirty and violent, ultimately ended with the House of Assembly declaring Pattee the victor over William Hamilton, returned from England apparently to represent the firm’s interests politically. Efforts by George Hamilton to besmirch Pattee with an old charge of forgery and counterfeiting had failed, and rejection of the charge by the Executive Council of Upper Canada constituted a chastening rebuff to Hamilton. Moreover, since 1819 he had been obliged to reduce his illegal cutting on crown lands lest he be arraigned in his own court.

Hamilton’s misfortunes were not at an end. The brothers’ precarious finances were dealt a stunning blow when the British wood market took a severe downturn in 1821. Their operations were financed through a firm called Robert Hamilton, Brothers and Company, the contact with Liverpool bankers being provided by Robert. He, however, fell deeply into debt to Gillespie, Moffatt and Company of Montreal [see George Moffatt*], to which he was obliged to give a lien on the Hawkesbury works, and his death the following year probably impaired the brothers’ ability to finance their debts and operations. In March 1823 New Liverpool Cove (three houses, more than 450 acres of land, 11 acres of beaches, as well as wharfs and other buildings) and the Hawkesbury installations (200 acres of land, two sawmills and a grist-mill, three barns, a forge, a bake-house, stores, and houses for the workmen) were advertised for sale on 1 November. In May the assets of the Hamiltons’ firm were assigned to its creditors, represented by the merchants Henry McKenzie* and George Auldjo of Montreal and Mathew Bell of Quebec. A reorganization, probably to obtain financing, had brought a new partner to Quebec, Abraham Gibson – the firm becoming Hamilton and Gibson – and apparently sent John to Liverpool. This partnership ended in July, but a loan was found in Britain at the eleventh hour and sale of the Hamiltons’ business narrowly avoided. Still, it would seem, misfortune dogged George Hamilton; within a short space of time in 1822–23, according to the Reverend Joseph Abbott*, not only did John die but George’s house at Hawkesbury, with all its contents, burned to the ground, and while he and his family were descending the Ottawa to Montreal their canoe overturned in rapids and his three young children drowned.

Strong-willed and resilient, Hamilton set about rebuilding his business. Reconstruction was hampered by legal complications over John’s estate. Yet, thanks to a recovery of the timber market, Hamilton was able to expand; by 1825 the number of his employees, reduced to 50 or 60 in 1822, had risen to 200. The settlement of John’s estate permitted Hamilton to reorganize on solid ground, and in 1830 he took into partnership a trusted employee and veteran of battles with the Mears faction, Charles Adamson Low. Together they built a business that by 1835 was marketing annually some 11,500,000 board feet of pine from three locations and was valued at £66,000. This expansion made the firm of Hamilton and Low one of the three largest deal manufacturers in the Canadas, and its mills rivalled those of the Montmorency and Etchemin rivers near Quebec [see Henry Caldwell; Peter Patterson*], producing nearly one-half of the deals exported from the Ottawa valley.

No longer with his back to the wall after 1823, Hamilton reassessed the conduct of the timber trade and the conditions governing it. While maintaining his strategy of promoting social order and large companies, he adjusted his tactics. He now eschewed violence as contributing to instability in the trade – already high because of constantly fluctuating market conditions – and ultimately to the bankruptcy of legitimate lumberers. Thus he was shocked at the implication of his fellow lumberers in the Shiner riots of the 1830s [see Peter Aylen*], although, imbued as he was with the Scots-Irish disdain for his fellow countrymen, he had no other objection to this ethnic conflict between Irish Catholic and Canadian labourers.

Hamilton turned increasingly to his influence in government to promote his ends, but he seems to have preferred not to sit in the legislature of either Upper or Lower Canada. Most notably he sought to regularize the harvesting of timber on crown lands. Though he had felt obliged to participate in illegal cutting, he had never accepted the situation. That the very basis of the industry resided in an unlawful activity, he perceived, resulted in instability. The illegal cutting encouraged small entrepreneurs to undertake operations at will, thus contributing to reckless overproduction and breeding violence as producers rushed to cut the best timber; although hardly a forest conservationist, unlike most of his contemporaries Hamilton sensed the limits of the Ottawa valley forest and the necessity for administering it carefully. Finally, enforcement of crown timber rights from 1819, if more stringent, was nevertheless capricious, and the uncertainty it bred had a deleterious effect on the trade in general. With other large operators, therefore, Hamilton urged the governments of Upper and Lower Canada to make a satisfactory provision for pursuit of the trade. Either crown timber lands must be alienated to private ownership or licences given for cutting on them. There was general agreement among lumberers that the latter system would be preferable since it would permit operators of all sizes to function without immobilizing capital in land purchases. Hamilton foresaw that it would enable big firms to obtain licences on large areas, or limits, which could then be used as collateral for borrowing in Montreal, Quebec, and Britain. Furthermore, the grouping of several limits would permit integrated operations such as his own to work more efficiently.

The executive governments of Upper and Lower Canada, motivated by the lure of stable revenues from licences, responded favourably. In 1826 regulations were introduced that permitted the cutting of timber on crown lands by licence in return for fees determined by auction [see Charles Shirreff]. Surveyors general of woods were appointed: John Davidson, a former business agent of Hamilton, for Lower Canada in 1826 and Peter Robinson for Upper Canada in 1827. In 1828 Hamilton himself was made a collector of fees on the Rivière Rouge, Lower Canada, where he obtained licences on much of the timber land. However, the new system, and subsequent modifications to it, was geared more to generating revenues for the colonial executives than to providing a framework for cutting on crown lands. Hamilton became a prominent critic of it, arguing that it permitted men of no means to enter the trade, and thereby destroyed the market, the quality of the product, and the stability of revenues for legitimate lumberers. He proposed regulations of his own, which included a down payment on fees in order to discourage speculation on cutting privileges and to put the trade into the “Hands of Capitalists.” About 1832, with the support of Charles Shirreff, crown timber agent at Bytown (Ottawa), Hamilton persuaded Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer], governor of Lower Canada, to adopt his system. It was followed in a slightly modified form in Upper Canada.

Having won a political victory at Quebec for large firms, Hamilton then led them in a struggle with small operators for control of the limits themselves. The principal battlefield was the Gatineau valley. The largest tributary of the Ottawa below the Chaudière Falls, the Rivière Gatineau had become the centre of the timber industry in the Ottawa system by the late 1820s. To control the Gatineau an association of large limit-holders, which included Peter Aylen, Philemon Wright and Sons, and Hamilton and Low, was formed around 1830 to obtain cutting rights and improve transportation on the river; it succeeded on both counts, and by late 1832 had expended £2,000 on improvements. During the winter of 1831–32 the associates discovered that a number of small operators such as Nicholas Sparks*, non-members of the association, were cutting along the river without licence but with the complicity of Shirreff. Complaints to the Crown Lands Department of Lower Canada and to the crown having produced no results, Hamilton appealed to other Lower Canadian officials, with whom he had cultivated excellent relations. With the aid of John Davidson, who had become assistant to the commissioner of crown lands in Lower Canada, Hamilton drafted a petition to Aylmer requesting reservation of the Gatineau limits to the associates on fair and rational terms. Private lobbying produced results: in November 1832 an order in council granted to them what became known as the Gatineau privilege. It gave the associated firms, except Hamilton and Low, the exclusive right for two years to take out red pine timber to a limit of 2,000 pieces a year and permitted Hamilton and Low to cut a maximum of 12,000 saw-logs. Nomination of Hamilton as superintendent of the river was withdrawn after vociferous complaints by Shirreff that it eroded his rights.

The Gatineau privilege produced an immediate uproar in Bytown and the lower Ottawa valley; amid rumours of imminent violence on the Gatineau, a commission of inquiry was appointed. It endorsed the Gatineau privilege, reproducing from Hamilton’s petition to Aylmer the arguments in favour of large firms and invoking the associates’ investments in improvements as justifications. Despite disputes among the associates, which degenerated into violence in 1841, the privilege would be renewed repeatedly until 1843, and Hamilton and Low was even able to obtain a similar arrangement for itself on the Rouge.

Protected through the Gatineau and Rouge privileges from the competition of numerous small entrepreneurs, and owning privately timber tracts in Plantagenet, Clarence, and Cumberland townships in Upper Canada, Hamilton and Low continued to expand rapidly its production of deals and timber; by 1839 the firm was employing “several hundred” men a year. Hamilton remained an active proponent of big enterprise, political leadership oriented to economic development, and firm social controls in the Ottawa valley. An avid follower of political events in both British North America and the mother country, he was, like his colleagues in the trade, a constant exponent of toryism and the needs of the empire. The rebellions of 1837–38 offered him the opportunity to rally his militia companies in support of British authority. However, a trip made in bitter weather in early December 1838 to review a reserve company at Plantagenet resulted in a severe cold, to which he succumbed in January 1839. He bequeathed the business to his sons Robert and George, who, later joined by their brother John*, carried it on.

With Philemon Wright, who died just six months after him, George Hamilton was among the first of the great timber barons who played an important part in the public life of British North America in the 19th century. At his worst he was headstrong and opinionated, an inveterate tory of undemocratic principles and élitist sensibilities, prepared even to overstep the law in order to get his way. At his best he brought to the crude and brutal frontier that was the Ottawa valley in the early years of the timber trade a rare politeness of manners and generosity of spirit. Significantly, Hamilton was a gifted businessman and lobbyist. He bent his energy, determination, and influence to building an important firm in a fundamental sector of the colonial economy and to bringing a modicum of stability to a trade plagued by the fluctuating markets and the repeated spates of oversupply that generate the boom-and-bust syndrome of staple-producing colonies. Perhaps inevitably, however, he came to equate the welfare of his own firm with the well-being of the timber trade generally.

Robert Peter Gillis

[The author wishes to thank S. J. Gillis who made available the results of her research on the lumber trade, without which this biography could not have been written.  r.p.g.]

ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 18 mars 1816; CN1-262, 31 août 1809; E21/1863, 1870, 1873. AO, MU 1199, letter-book no.2; RG 22, ser.155. AUM, P 58, U, George Hamilton to James Stuart, 5 Feb. 1813; Hamilton to William Johnson, 23 May 1814; George and William Hamilton to Michael O’Sullivan, n.d. PAC, MG 24, D7; RG 1, E3, 61: 49, 53–63; RG 5, A1: 23247–48, 25157–59, 39235–38, 68315–18; RG 9, I, B5, 6; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 70, 139, 194, 212, 299, 345, 426, 445, 637. L.C., Legislative Council, Journals, 1836, app.C. Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser, 16 Jan. 1839. Quebec Gazette, 17 May 1804; 29 May 1806; 20 May, 2 July 1807; 7 July, 8, 15 Sept. 1808; 18 May, 10, 31 Aug., 23 Nov. 1809; 10, 17 May, 14, 21 June, 12 July, 9, 16, 23 Aug., 6 Sept., 18 Oct., 22 Nov. 1810; 3 Jan., 28 March, 25 April, 16 May, 11 July, 10 Oct. 1811; 23, 30 April 1812; 17, 24 June 1813; 27 April 1815; 18 April, 16 May 1816; 4, 16 Jan. 1817; 2 Sept. 1822; 31 July, 4, 18 Sept., 6 Nov. 1823. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology (1967). H. J. Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians. Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving). Quebec almanac, 1815: 85. M. S. Cross, “The dark druidical groves: the lumber community and the commercial frontier in British North America, to 1854” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1968). S. J. Gillis, The timber trade in the Ottawa valley, 1806–54 (Parks Canada, National Parks and Hist. Sites Branch, Manuscript report, no.153, Ottawa, 1975). W. D. Lighthall, “English settlement in Quebec,” Canada and its provinces; a history of the Canadian people and their institutions . . . , ed. Adam Shortt and A. G. Doughty (23v., Toronto, 1913–17), 15: 160–61. A. R. M. Lower, “Lumbering in eastern Canada: a study in economic and social history” (phd thesis, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Mass., 1928); The North American assault on the Canadian forest (New York, 1938; repr. 1968). Ignotus [Thomas Chapais], “Le club des Barons,” BRH, 4 (1898): 251–52.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert Peter Gillis, “HAMILTON, GEORGE (1781-1839),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hamilton_george_1781_1839_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hamilton_george_1781_1839_7E.html
Author of Article: Robert Peter Gillis
Title of Article: HAMILTON, GEORGE (1781-1839)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: November 23, 2014