McCORMICK, WILLIAM, politician, militia officer, businessman, office holder, jp, and author; b. 30 May 1784, probably in the Ohio country, eldest child of Alexander McCormick and Elizabeth Turner; m. 29 Jan. 1809 Mary Cornwall in Colchester Township, Upper Canada, and they had 13 children, one of whom died in infancy; d. 18 Feb. 1840 on Pelee Island, Upper Canada.
During the American Revolutionary War, William McCormick’s father, a fur trader in the Ohio country, served with Captain Henry Bird’s expedition against Kentucky and also with Captain William Caldwell* of Butler’s Rangers. After the war he appears in records as a resident of Detroit but he also operated a trading post at the rapids of the Miamis River (Maumee, Ohio). When his post was destroyed during the battle of Fallen Timbers [see Michikinakoua*] in August 1794, he moved to Upper Canada, settling first in Malden Township and then in Colchester Township. As the eldest son William became responsible for the family at his father’s death in 1803. Six years later he strengthened his position in the county by marrying a daughter of John Cornwall, loyalist, prominent landowner, and former member of the House of Assembly. McCormick’s own political ambitions soon flourished and in May 1812 he was elected to the assembly for Essex County. He was re-elected in 1816 and again in 1820. As an assemblyman, he tried unsuccessfully for some time to have the county seat moved from Sandwich (Windsor) to Amherstburg.
During the War of 1812 McCormick had seen action with the 1st Essex Militia, initially as a lieutenant and then as a captain; he was present at the attacks in 1813 on Frenchtown (Monroe, Mich.) and on Fort Meigs (near Perrysburg), Ohio. His service in the war ended with his capture in late 1813 or January 1814. After the return of peace, McCormick secured a contract to supply pork to Fort Malden (Amherstburg). To carry it out, he leased Pelee Island from Alexander McKee and, with a partner, raised several hundred pigs there. Another of his enterprises was a general store in Colchester which was in operation by at least 1821. He also enjoyed success in acquiring offices. In 1815 he was appointed the deputy collector of customs at Amherstburg, in 1816 a magistrate, and in 1821 the deputy postmaster in Colchester. As well, he remained active in the militia and in 1816 was appointed to the Board of Militia Pensions for the Western District. In 1820, along with the Reverend Richard Pollard*, McCormick was instrumental in the building of Christ Church in Colchester.
McCormick’s financial position improved markedly around 1819 as a result of an inheritance of some £10,000 from an Irish uncle. He used his new source of wealth to add to the land which he had already acquired. In addition to Pelee Island, the lease of which he bought in 1823, he made large property investments on the mainland; from 1820 to 1824 he purchased 1,290 acres and held a mortgage on over 700 more. After 1825, however, he began to sell more land than he purchased – mainly to finance activities on the island – and at his death he held less than 300 acres on the mainland. His land speculation was profitable: in the period from 1820 to 1839 he realized £2,770 from land which had cost him roughly £900.
To settle the estate of his Irish uncle McCormick was required to travel to England and Ireland in 1823. While in London, as part of a campaign to promote agriculture in the Western District, he sent a memorial to the House of Commons advocating an imperial preference on tobacco, a crop in which some Upper Canadian landowners saw considerable potential and on which McCormick relied for his cash income. To attract settlers to the district, he prepared a sketch of the area and distributed it in Ireland; this account remains the most extended contemporary discussion of conditions in the Western District. He returned to Upper Canada in 1825.
When McCormick had leased Pelee Island in 1815, title was in doubt because the Indian title had never been extinguished. Both his lease from McKee and his subsequent purchase of the lease, therefore, were of dubious legality. That said, McCormick was fully convinced that he was the rightful lessee, and from the mid 1820s he made the island the focus of his activities. He helped promote the construction of a lighthouse in 1833; the following April he was appointed lighthouse-keeper, and in the summer he moved his family to the island. In the mid 1830s he entered into an agreement with a contractor from Ohio to erect a sawmill which would produce cedar ties for a railway under construction in that state. He also obtained a contract to supply cedar posts for Fort Malden. This appropriation for his own use of the island’s red cedar created animosity. One person complained to the government that McCormick was acting illegally since the island still belonged to the crown, but the commissioner of crown lands decided in McCormick’s favour. The issue of title, however, remained unsettled until 1866, when the government issued an order-in-council confirming title in the McCormicks.
McCormick’s life was seriously disrupted in February 1838 when a group of Patriots crossed the ice from Ohio and occupied the island. He and his family fled to the mainland and a detachment of British troops forced the invaders to withdraw. Two years later McCormick died on Pelee Island. By his will he attempted an equitable division of the island among his family. He also stipulated that none of his children, or their heirs, was to dispose of any land until at least the third generation “unless it be to a coheir and of the name of McCormick.” His wishes were soon contravened by his eldest son, who appropriated much of the valuable timber land for himself and who sold land to people from Ohio.
William McCormick’s account of the Western District, prepared in 1824 for distribution in Ireland, is preserved in AO, Hiram Walker Hist. Museum coll., 20-135 (G. F. Macdonald papers). It has been published as A sketch of the Western District of Upper Canada, being the southern extremity of that interesting province, ed. R. A. Douglas (Windsor, Ont., 1980).
AO, Hiram Walker Hist. Museum coll., 20-148; Land record index; RG 1, A-1-6: 13710–11. DPL, Burton Hist. Coll., William McCormick papers. PAC, MG 19, A3; RG 1, L3, 307A: Mc20/147; 337: M11/50; 338: M11/254; 341: M12/203, 241; 377: M misc. 3, 1802–65/3; RG 5, A1; RG 8, I (C ser.), 1219; RG 9, I, B1. Joseph Delafield, The unfortified boundary: a diary of the first survey of the Canadian boundary line from St. Regis to the Lake of the Woods . . . , ed. Robert McElroy and Thomas Riggs (New York, 1943). John Askin papers (Quaife), vol.1. F. C. Hamil, The valley of the lower Thames, 1640 to 1850 (Toronto, 1951; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1973). Marion McCormick Hooper, Pelee Island, then and now ([Scudder, Ont., 1967?]). K. M. J. McKenna, “The impact of the Upper Canadian rebellion on life in Essex County, Ontario, 1837–42” (Parks Canada, National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch, Microfiche report ser., no.187, Ottawa, 1985). G. E. Reaman, A history of agriculture in Ontario (2v., [Toronto, 1970]). Thaddeus Smith, Point au Pelee Island: a historical sketch of and an account of the McCormick family, who were the first white owners on the island (Amherstburg, Ont., 1899).