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KEEN, WILLIAM, merchant, justice of the peace; d. 29 Sept. 1754 at St John’s, Nfld.

A native of Boston, Massachusetts, William Keen went to Newfoundland in 1704 to act as agent for New England merchants involved in the supply trade. After 1713 he commenced trading on his own account. As one of the first men to exploit the salmon fishery along the old French shore north of Cape Bonavista, he was a powerful force in the extension of English settlement into that area. By 1740 he was carrying on a considerable trade to New England, Britain, and southern Europe, exchanging fish – and possibly furs – for provisions and manufactured goods. At the time of his death he possessed extensive property in St John’s, Harbour Grace, and Greenspond.

Keen is remembered, however, not for commercial acumen, but as a key figure in the development of justice in Newfoundland. By 1699 the British government had decided to allow limited settlement in Newfoundland, without encouraging its expansion. A rudimentary legal system was created which vested all power in the “fishing Admirals,” who migrated annually to Newfoundland during the fishing season, with a power of appeal to the equally transitory naval convoy commanders who escorted the fishing fleet from Europe. The theory behind this system was that fixed government would inevitably encourage an increase in fixed settlement and destroy the migratory “nursery of seamen” so vital to England’s Royal Navy. This rudimentary justice was probably inefficient and corrupt even when the fishing admirals were visiting Newfoundland, but when convoy and fishing ships left the island at the end of the fishing season, there was no established judiciary for the winter inhabitants. Under the system, all men accused of capital crimes were to be transported, with two witnesses, to England for trial. Not surprisingly, few men were ever accused of capital crime, and from 1715 onwards the “respectable” portion of the Newfoundland residents began to agitate for a judicial system that would protect their lives and property from lawless servants and “masterless men” during the winter.

Many naval convoy commanders, distrusting the fishing admirals and detesting lawlessness, sympathized with the need for a more permanent judicial system, and in 1718 one of them, Commodore Thomas Scott, recommended that “winter justices” be appointed annually to serve until the fleet returned the following year. His first suggestion for magistrate was William Keen who “tho a native of New England seem[s] concerned for the prosperity of the fishery . . . and has spirit enough.” The Board of Trade refused to change their policy but in 1720 the murder of a prominent planter, Thomas Ford, created a new crisis. Keen apprehended the suspects, and sent them with witnesses to England in one of his ships, at his own expense, but pointed out that the cost discouraged “respectable” inhabitants from apprehending criminals. A petition of the planters of Petty Harbour asked that winter justices be appointed and that “encouragement be given to such usefull and able men as Mr. Keen.” The Board of Trade again refused to take action. In the winter of 1723–24 the planters of St John’s, in some desperation, formed themselves, for their mutual protection, into a Lockian “society” [see John Jago*] which, though it soon collapsed, once more demonstrated to the authorities that a growing population would inevitably require a formal year-round legal system. Keen sent a capital criminal for trial in England again in 1728, and noted that malcontents, knowing their chances of conviction were remote, were growing daily more insolent and the “sober inhabitants” would soon be forced to leave the country.

Keen’s attempts were now greatly aided by the reports and arguments of Lord Vere Beauclerk, the convoy commander in 1728, who was distressed by lawlessness in St John’s and by the inefficiency of the fishing admirals. Above all he felt that only permanent civilian magistrates could control the depredations committed by Samuel Gledhill*, garrison commander at Placentia. When he left Newfoundland in the fall Beauclerk appointed Keen to report on any lawless occurrences. Keen duly wrote several letters urging that magistrates be appointed, and offering himself as a candidate. In 1729 the English government admitted the need for justice by issuing an order in council which turned the naval convoy commander into a “governor” (though still migratory) and by sanctioning the establishment of “winter” justices of the peace who were to act only when the fishing admirals were absent and hear only petty criminal offences. William Keen was one of the first magistrates appointed, and he retained the position almost annually until his death.

In fact the first “governor,” Captain Henry Osborn*, encouraged the magistrates to hear cases on a year-round basis, and also to settle civil disputes. Until 1732 there were many conflicts between the new justices and the fishing admirals. The latter had legality on their side, but the magistrates had the active support of the governors, such as George Clinton, and the passive acquiescence of the English authorities. By 1735 the migratory merchants, some of whom were staying on through the winter, either themselves became the magistrates, or controlled those who were appointed, and they ceased to oppose the innovation. Keen, as the leader of those who had urged a magistracy, now became the leading figure in Newfoundland. Successive governors, appointed only for a year or two and spending only a few months on the island, relied heavily upon him for advice and assistance, and Keen was able to monopolize whatever meagre official positions were created during his lifetime, becoming commissary of the vice-admiralty court in 1736, naval officer for St John’s in 1742, and Newfoundland prize officer in 1744. He was often criticized for his conduct as a magistrate, as in 1753 when Christopher Aldridge Jr, commander of the St John’s garrison, charged that Keen had jailed some of his soldiers without trial. His mercantile contemporaries characterized him as a man who used his official influence for private advancement and gain and was “carefull to keep in with the Commodores.” Though there is little doubt that he took whatever advantages came from his position, it is difficult to see that any man of this age would have acted differently.

The order in council of 1729 had created a resident judiciary in Newfoundland, but the trial of capital crimes was still reserved for English courts. During the 1730s successive governors, such as Fitzroy Henry Lee, urged that a court of oyer and terminer be established in Newfoundland, and in 1737 the Board of Trade almost decided to initiate one. No action was taken, however, and the war of 1740–48 forced both naval governors and English authorities to turn their attention elsewhere. In 1750 another order in council provided that the justices of the peace in St John’s might act as commissioners of oyer and terminer in all cases except treason, although they could only sit during the presence of the governor. William Keen was the first commissioner to be appointed.

Ironically one of the first cases of murder to be tried by the new court was that of Keen himself, committed by soldiers and fishermen in the course of robbery in September 1754. Four of the nine persons implicated in the murder were subsequently hanged; the remainder were reprieved. Keen’s son, William, inherited his father’s business and his position as a magistrate, but was eclipsed in political influence by another New England immigrant, Michael Gill*. By 1760 he had moved to Teignmouth, Devonshire, England, and the centre of his Newfoundland commerce shifted north to Greenspond. The Keen plantations in St John’s and Harbour Grace remained, however, in the family’s possession until 1839.

Keith Matthews

Dorset County Record Office (Dorchester, Eng.), doc. 2694 (account of the life of John Masters, 1687–1755, n.d. [probably between 1755 and 1770]). PAC, MG 18, F23, F24. PRO, Adm. 1/3738, 1/3881; CO 194/7, ff.21–23; 194/8; 194/9; 194/12; 194/13, ff.164–68; CSP, Col., 1717–18; 1728–29; 1730; JTP, 1708/9–1714/15; 1754–1758. Coll. de manuscrits relatifs à la N.-F., II, 538–39. Newfoundlander (St John’s), June 1839.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Keith Matthews, “KEEN, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/keen_william_3E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/keen_william_3E.html
Author of Article:   Keith Matthews
Title of Article:   KEEN, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   1974
Access Date:   May 21, 2024