HUNTER, PETER (baptized Patrick), army officer and colonial administrator; baptized 11 July 1746 in Longforgan, Scotland, son of John Hunter of Knap and Euphemia Jack; d. 21 Aug. 1805 at Quebec, Lower Canada.
Peter Hunter belonged to a family of landed gentry in Perthshire. In January 1767 he purchased an ensign’s commission in the 2nd battalion of the 1st Foot. He was promoted lieutenant in 1770, served in Minorca from 1771 to 1775, and had become a captain when the regiment returned to England. Commissioned major in 1779 in the 92nd Foot, he went with it to the West Indies the following year. By the end of 1781 he had transferred to the 1st battalion of the 60th. In November 1782 he was promoted to the army rank of lieutenant-colonel (he received the regimental rank in 1787).
Hunter’s unit was posted to Halifax, N.S., in 1786 and the next year he assumed command of the 4th battalion. Early in 1788 he became commander of the western posts of Quebec, with his headquarters at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). Responding to the still prevalent effects of a partial famine in 1787, he authorized immediate distribution of provisions from the commissary without waiting for orders from Quebec. Within a few years rumours were circulating that the men in charge of the distribution, Robert Hamilton and John Butler*, had profited by his charity. The military efficiency Hunter displayed at this time, as well as the local suspicion aroused, were to be characteristic of his future administration in Upper Canada.
In 1789 Hunter went to England on leave. Despite the request of Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] for his return to Quebec, that October he was appointed temporary superintendent of the settlement which became known as British Honduras (Belize). This post, which he would hold until March 1791, was to give him his only experience of civil government before he went to Upper Canada. He handled problems in an authoritarian manner, which the complex situation in Honduras perhaps required and with which its elected magistrates complied; Upper Canada was to provide a different context for governing. After his return to England, Hunter obtained the army rank of colonel in 1793; he then served as a general officer on the Continent in 1794–95 and in the Caribbean in 1795–96. Following the Irish rebellion of 1798, he became military governor of County Wexford, where he pursued a moderate policy.
On 10 April 1799 Hunter was appointed lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, succeeding Simcoe, and commander of the forces in the two Canadas with the local rank of lieutenant-general. He arrived at Quebec on 13 June. His civil responsibilities – and those of his counterpart in Lower Canada, Robert Shore Milnes* – were almost immediately increased. The governor-in-chief, Robert Prescott, sailed for home on 29 July and thereafter took no part in government, although he retained his office until 1807. In August 1800 Hunter’s military superior, the Duke of Kent [Edward Augustus], also returned to England, leaving Hunter with sole responsibility for the troops in the Canadas. He was promoted full lieutenant-general in April 1802 and, in June 1804, was made colonel of the 9th Foot.
The military situation was, in fact, Hunter’s first concern. In August–September he had made a brief visit to Upper Canada, but had then returned to Quebec to devote his attention to military affairs. His assessment of his command was to remain unaltered over the next six years. He argued that the regular troops at his disposal – 1,528 in Lower Canada and only 696 in Upper Canada – were insufficient in number even for peace-time needs. Moreover, the provincial unit, the Royal Canadian Volunteer Regiment, was under strength and Hunter saw little hope of rectifying the situation. The quality of the troops was also a matter of concern, with poor discipline and desertions plaguing both British and local units. Hunter’s protests against the state of his command were, however, partly formal in nature: he himself recognized that the main theatre of operations during the Napoleonic Wars was elsewhere. Although his civil administration was occasionally troubled by rumours of revolutionary conspiracies, he was to report no serious threats to the Canadas.
Hunter’s early dispatches from Upper Canada reflected his superiors’ expectation that he could manage his unwieldy appointments. The express purpose of his visit in 1799 had been to set up a means of carrying on government during his necessary absences. The visit confirmed assumptions that his presence would be required only while the legislature was in session and that a standing committee of the Executive Council could handle the administration while he was elsewhere. Hunter’s proposal for a committee had the approval of the Home secretary, the Duke of Portland. The former administrator, Peter Russell, and judge William Dummer Powell* would have preferred the more usual procedure of appointing an administrator; Hunter, however, informed the Executive Council in 1799 that he must have sole authority to govern the province “upon the principles which his own judgement suggests and for which alone he can consent to be responsible.” He instructed the committee to correspond with him and empowered it to conduct routine business during his absence.
The committee consisted of Russell, Æneas Shaw, and John Elmsley, who was replaced in 1802 by Henry Allcock. The three original members had the authority to call in a fourth (they usually turned to John McGill*) if one of them were going to be absent. McGill became a regular member in 1802 and Attorney General Thomas Scott* joined later. Although he had no formal place in the government, Hunter’s secretary, James Green*, was involved in much of its operation and acted as a liaison with the council when the lieutenant governor was in York (Toronto) and with the committee when he was away. Hunter’s favoured advisers, and the ones whose careers he tried hardest to promote, were those willing to devote long hours to administrative problems: Allcock, who became more influential than Elmsley even before the latter left for Lower Canada; McGill, whose competence increasingly won Hunter’s respect; and Scott.
From 1800 until 1802 Hunter’s practice was to attend the spring meeting of parliament in York and then to return to Quebec, where, occasional visits to the upper province aside, he spent the rest of the year. In the winter of 1802–3 he began to spend more time in Upper Canada. Thereafter he met the legislature between January and March, and remained in the province for the greater part of the year. The reasons for Hunter’s new schedule lay in York rather than in Quebec and went beyond his publicly stated desire to accommodate members of the legislature who preferred a winter to a spring meeting. His private correspondence of February 1802 mentions two problems which likely led to this change. In the first place, he learned from Scott that internal conflicts had developed within the executive. Secondly, a public agitation over certain aspects of land policy had been initiated by discontented individuals, in particular Joseph-Geneviève Puisaye*, Comte de Puisaye, and Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea]. The latter concern was especially pressing; opposition of this sort was new to the province and the change in Hunter’s schedule was a tacit acknowledgement that administration could no longer be left, for the most part, to others.
Hunter’s subsequent career in Upper Canada has received harsh treatment from historians. Often the lieutenant governor has been judged by the criticisms his administration engendered. He arrived in Upper Canada, however, with little experience of colonies that prized British institutions and had elected assemblies. He was something of a martinet, impatient, and used to resolving problems in a military manner. As Isaac Todd observed, “Genl Hunter is verry exact and wishes all under him to be so.” But if his difficulties were in part due to temper and tactlessness – his “brutality of manners was proverbial throughout the whole army” – they were also the result of his attempt to bring order and dispatch into the machinery of government and, particularly, into the land-granting system.
Land granting was a primary function of the Executive Council. More important, the acquisition of land touched the immediate interests of all orders of society. Hunter identified two basic problems: first, the lack of systematic government policy designed to encourage the orderly settlement of the province and, secondly, the inability of government officials to carry out the work of the council in an efficient manner. Any attempt to implement reforms in an area of vital concern to society as a whole was bound to meet resistance and generate discontent. Yet Hunter pushed ahead, undeterred by the potential for discord.
His efforts to limit large speculation in land ran into immediate difficulties, partly because so many speculators had influential connections in England. Developers such as the Comte de Puisaye, the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas], Richard Beasley*, and William Berczy were a constant source of trouble. On the other hand, the successful settlements associated with Thomas Talbot* and Alexander McDonell* had their origins during Hunter’s administration. At another level, Hunter tried to avoid opening new townships until those already established were filled. The policy was not unreasonable but it was frustrated by a general reluctance to settle the surveyed eastern sections of the province, which had much poorer land than the western regions. To bring a measure of efficiency to the administration of land granting he made laudable efforts to increase clerical staff and to regularize office hours and procedures. Similarly he brought to imperial attention the physical difficulties of operating the legislature out of a two-room building that doubled as a church, and the inconvenience of forcing officials to keep their papers in, and run their offices from, private homes.
In two key areas Hunter pressed his reforms forward with a determination that caused him much unpopularity and left a legacy of bitterness that came to the fore in the administrations of his successors, Alexander Grant and Francis Gore*. Hunter loathed incompetence and laziness. Just as men such as Allcock and McGill were marked by favour for their ability and industry, officials such as William Jarvis, the provincial secretary, and John Small*, the clerk of the Executive Council, were singled out for their lack-lustre performance of their duties. Jarvis, for instance, had a backlog of land patents waiting to clear his office. The consequent delays were vexatious for settlers and led to frequent reprimands of the provincial secretary. Hunter pushed him to issue more patents. Jarvis, however, had every reason to drag his feet, since the fees he was authorized to charge did not cover his expenses and he lost money on every transaction. As part of his investigation of the land-granting system Hunter initiated a review of the existing fee structure. In 1804 a new schedule implemented a scale of higher fees for government officials to charge for their services. Yet such was Hunter’s antagonism toward the provincial secretary that during discussions of the revised schedule he overrode his council’s advice to compensate Jarvis for his losses, in spite of the apparent justice of his claim. Thus a reform that was intended to improve the efficiency of officials by adequately rewarding their efforts produced only antagonism in one instance.
Not only Jarvis was irritated by the new schedule. The higher fees had the unpopular effect of increasing the costs for all who applied for land. Similarly, Hunter’s initiatives to control free grants (grants on which no fees were payable) touched all who had not yet taken up the land they were entitled to claim as loyalists or as military settlers. McGill, in his capacity as inspector general of public accounts (a new post established by Hunter in 1801 to parallel the inspector generalship of Lower Canada), conducted a thorough investigation into individual claims to loyalist status. As a result of his findings, between 1802 and 1804 Hunter struck more than 900 names off the list of those eligible for free grants. At the same time, he tried to impose a time-limit on the validity of all claims on the government by male loyalists (females were exempted). His proclamation of December 1802 bluntly stated that there would be no recourse for claimants who failed to appear before the commissions sitting at eight different centres across the province. For having “so grossly neglected their own Interest,” they would lose legal title forever. No other issue generated such outraged protests. The parliamentary opposition associated with William Weekes and Robert Thorpe* seized upon it after Hunter’s death, and in 1806 the time-limits were removed.
There was more to Hunter’s concern for efficient administration than a desire for regularity in process. According to Thorpe, who gave no source for his claim, Hunter sent almost £30,000 to England during his period as lieutenant governor. Thorpe characterized Hunter’s attitude toward fees as one of “rapaciousness, to accumulate money by grants of land was all he thought of.” At issue was not the number of grants issued but rather the number of patents completed. The fees of government officers, including the governor, were calculated upon the latter only. Gore, who initially defended Hunter against the charges, later considered his predecessor’s actions in pushing through so many patents a “very unusual” method of collecting for himself revenue that was more properly due his successor. Gore compared Hunter’s fees between 1 July 1802 and 30 June 1805 with his own fees for a three-year period. The results were interesting: Hunter had collected £4,393 whereas Gore only managed £1,870. Hunter’s private agents, Lester and Morrogh [see Robert Lester], recorded remittances totalling more than £3,400 that were made to Hunter’s personal account for a 17-month period in 1804 and 1805. If this sum was typical, Hunter turned a tidy profit, though far less than Thorpe claimed for him.
Hunter’s dissatisfaction with the administrative practices in Upper Canada was paralleled by a bleak assessment of colonial society as a whole. He had little hope for the colonies as a school for the professions. Just as he regretted the inexperience of provincial army officers, which in his view accounted for the ill discipline of the Canadian volunteers, so he deplored the standards of the legal profession. Although he failed in the end to carry the case with the law officers of the crown, Hunter strongly supported Allcock’s arguments for establishing a court of chancery in Upper Canada. His assumption was, however, that such a court would be staffed from England: local lawyers had no experience of equity courts and some had no formal training of any sort. Again, although he worked hard in 1803 to secure money for building Anglican churches in the province, he looked only to an English clergy to minister to the colonial outpost.
Hunter’s rather severe outlook was lightened by his appreciation of the colony’s commercial potential. In the area of trade Hunter even used his military authority to forward the commercial policies of his civil administration. Major public works were the responsibility of the Royal Engineers and the lieutenant governor worked closely with Gother Mann*, the commanding engineer at Quebec, to improve the internal transportation network of the Canadas. Hunter gave first priority to the St Lawrence River system, which had received little attention since the first locks were built between 1779 and 1783. Although Hunter and Mann had only occasional success in gaining approval for purely military construction, they fared better when they could point to the additional benefit of possible commercial use. On his own authority Hunter approved an immediate start on essential repairs to the locks in 1801. The following year Mann began work on a new canal to be cut at Mille Roches and the Cascades (near Île des Cascades), Lower Canada, at an estimated cost of £2,583. Mann judged the various improvements made under Hunter sufficient to accommodate the larger barges operating on the St Lawrence since 1783. Ambitious Upper Canadian merchants such as Richard Cartwright hoped for more, but they were perhaps partly mollified when Hunter revived the regulations concerning river traffic that Lord Dorchester had introduced in 1795. Instead of returning empty from Upper Canada to Montreal, crown vessels were allowed to accept goods owned by private merchants at a modest cost to the shippers.
When no military justification existed to use the engineers, Hunter, particularly in 1804, urged the legislature of Upper Canada to undertake road building. He presided over the completion of the Danforth Road and the opening of the first section of road in the Talbot settlement. Although he recognized that the province could not afford substantial improvements on its own, he believed that revenues could be increased. With his support, legislation was passed establishing ports of entry and providing for collection of duty on goods entering the province from the United States [see Colin McNabb].
Hunter was particularly interested in mercantile policy. As commander-in-chief he concerned himself directly with the large purchases of provisions made by the commissariat. Provisioning the British army was already a mainstay of merchants in both Upper and Lower Canada. Hunter encouraged the commissariat to buy as much as possible from them, and under his direction the quantity of flour and peas purchased in the two provinces increased substantially. He also used the commissariat to expand and diversify the economy of Upper Canada. In 1800 merchants there began for the first time to ship wheat and flour to wholesalers in the lower province [see Joseph Forsyth]. In a directive of 1803 Hunter tried to open a new line of trade by ordering Commissary General John Craigie to buy in the upper province as much flour as possible for use in Lower Canada. The army had bought flour in Upper Canada since the 1780s, but during Hunter’s administration the commissariat also purchased salt pork and fresh beef, usually through McGill in his capacity as agent for purchases.
By 1803 Hunter’s superiors in Great Britain had advanced well beyond his comparatively cautious support of the provisioning trade in the Canadas. They looked to the saving in transportation costs if the Canadas could supply food for the troops throughout British North America and possibly even for those in the West Indies. Local opinion supplied Hunter with the corrective to any undue optimism. Lieutenant-General Henry Bowyer, commander of the forces in Nova Scotia, requested provisions from Hunter in Quebec rather than from his usual suppliers in the United States with poor grace and only because he was ordered to do so. He doubted that Hunter could spare anything but flour, pointed out the problems of delivery in the absence of regular shipping from Quebec to Halifax, and questioned whether, even if flour were sent, it would match the American product in quality or price. Cartwright and Hamilton, Hunter’s chief advisers on questions of commerce, counselled him to hold back, citing in particular the immaturity of Upper Canada’s agriculture. They welcomed the prospect of a certain market for the surplus produce of farmers but cautioned that, in the absence of such a market in the past, the province could not immediately assure supply. In fact, with respect to beef and pork, Cartwright stated bluntly that the Canadas were “at present far from being equal” to the supplying of its own demands. He concluded therefore that too much should not be attempted for fear of jeopardizing future orders by failure. Under Hunter, the commissariat gave steady support of merchants selling Canadian produce, but always with reference to supply and always with a sufficient surplus in hand to guard against disappointment.
Although Cartwright and Hamilton approved Hunter’s exertions, he received little credit outside the small circle they represented. Moreover his efforts contributed to the jealousy and resentment felt by those whose careers he did not promote. Hunter championed the merchant community because he felt comfortable with the methods of businessmen and because he supported their aspirations for the province. He made no secret of whom he favoured and, after his death, McGill described him as “my much lamented Patron.” Those outside this charmed circle saw with Thorpe a “Shopkeeper Aristocracy” of “scotch Pedlars” who had long “irritated & oppressed the people.” The benefits to individual farmers and to small traders were in the future and could not be appreciated immediately. Hunter received no more praise in the province for his interest in fostering economic growth than he did for trying to introduce the best business methods to the administration of government offices.
Contemporary criticism of Hunter was inspired as much by his style of governing as by his policies, and the tone of the criticism has largely been taken over by historians. Certainly Hunter’s autocratic manner was more suited to a regiment or even a large family business. His brusqueness was probably temperamental; however, it was no doubt exacerbated by poor health. By 1799 he was suffering from stomach ailments characterized by dysentery and biliousness In addition he was plagued by gout. He had none of the arts or graces that enable power to be used, and decisions to be made, without giving offence. With the exception of Scott and his aide-de-camp, Major William Samuel Curry, few people penetrated Hunter’s stiff and unapproachable manner, let alone established an informal relationship with him. On a personal level, Hunter’s black-and-white view of humanity led naturally to favouritism. Most of the men he promoted were able, but many government officials believed their own advancement had been blocked by his obvious dislike of them.
When Hunter died unexpectedly in August 1805 he left a province beset with problems. After his death the House of Assembly broke out in an uproar. According to his successor, Alexander Grant, the session of 1806 was spent “vomiting grievance and Complaints Against the Administration of General Hunter and plaguing me, and his favoureds.” The loudest complaints concerned his disregard of the assembly’s claim to initiate money bills. From 1803 on, Hunter had had certain expenses paid from revenues raised by the house, without its prior approval. It is probably a mark of his formidable presence that when he subsequently submitted the accounts, they were approved without protest.
How far can Hunter be held responsible for the outbreak of parliamentary opposition, usually associated with Weekes, Thorpe, and Joseph Willcocks, after his death? The discontent that Thorpe uncovered on the western circuit and in the Niagara peninsula in 1806 was caused more by regional resentments and inequalities than by the governor’s personality or policies. Yet, there was substance to Thorpe’s claim that Hunter had treated the people of the province like soldiers, by which he meant without consideration. Loyalists, American settlers, assemblymen: many groups emerged from his term of office more conscious of themselves as distinct interest groups, and more willing to pursue and protect their interests in the realm of politics. Hunter’s attempted administrative reforms were necessary. “The wonder . . . is,” as Cartwright put it, “that such culpable negligence should be tolerated so long.” But these initiatives went against the grain of Upper Canadian society: too many groups and too many people were affected. As a result, the province became more polarized and the potential for opposition to government increased.
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Cite This Article
In collaboration, “HUNTER, PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hunter_peter_5E.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:||In collaboration|
|Title of Article:||HUNTER, PETER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 24, 2023|