McGILL, JOHN, army officer, office holder, and politician; b. March 1752 in Auckland, Wigton, Scotland; m. Catherine Crookshank; no surviving issue; d. 31 Dec. 1834 in Toronto, Upper Canada.
John McGill emigrated to Virginia in 1773. When the American revolution began he joined the short-lived Loyal Virginians as a lieutenant, then late in 1777 transferred to the Queen’s Rangers, in which corps he served as adjutant and was taken prisoner along with his commander, John Graves Simcoe*. He was promoted captain before the surrender at Yorktown, Va. After the war he settled in Parrtown (Saint John, N.B.), although he was perhaps at Quebec in 1788–89 as assistant to the commissary general. One of the first two captains proposed by Simcoe for the second Queen’s Rangers in Upper Canada, he preferred the administrative post of military commissary. Setting out in February 1792 with Æneas Shaw* by the Témiscouata route to join Simcoe at Quebec, he accidentally injured his leg so badly that he periodically thereafter found it painful to walk or ride. He saw no regimental service in Upper Canada; when the Rangers mustered at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) against an anticipated American invasion in September 1794, his duty was to escort Simcoe’s family to safety at Quebec. Eventually, on 27 April 1805, he was appointed the last lieutenant of the county of York, remaining so until his death, but reforms accompanying a new militia act of 1808 virtually ended the military duties of that office.
The first military list of Upper Canada named him as commissary of stores and provisions at a captain’s salary. Early in 1796 he combined that office with the new civilian post of provincial agent for purchases, his brother-in-law George Crookshank* becoming his deputy as commissary. In the intervening four years he was often frustrated by a jurisdictional quarrel between the civil authority of the lieutenant governor in Upper Canada and the military authority of the commander-in-chief at Quebec, a quarrel which also raised similar if lesser difficulties for the surveyor general and the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs. McGill was held accountable to the commissary general at Quebec, John Craigie*, although he and Simcoe had expected otherwise. Contracts to supply troops in the upper province were awarded over his head from Quebec, and he was ordered to limit his purchases to requisitions sent from there. Worse, his complaint about the profiteering of merchants and about irregularities in supplies from Lower Canada finally drew the rebuke from the commander-in-chief, Lord Dorchester [Carleton*], “that anything further on that head is unnecessary.” Simcoe protested in vain that McGill was being reduced to “a public Accountant without Power.” In order to perform his duties and to meet Simcoe’s wishes, McGill regularly exceeded his authority as commissary: he continued at York (Toronto) the practice established at Newark of supplying civilians from military stores and he drew on the military budget for workmen and materials for civil works at York. The problem of jurisdiction was not solved merely by giving McGill civil authority. Administrator Peter Russell* was left with no instructions when Simcoe returned to England, and a new commander-in-chief, Robert Prescott*, thought in 1798 that military supplies could be bought without an Upper Canadian agent, “at less Expence to the Public, and with less trouble to myself.” Since McGill was now a civil agent, Prescott cut off his military allowances and refused to accept many of the requisitions by which McGill continued to supply civilian contractors and settlers from military stores. The commander-in-chief did however make one concession: from late in 1798 he regularly sent McGill’s military instructions through the lieutenant governor’s office.
McGill had been disappointed in the hope that his new civil status would enable him to control the price and quantity of local supplies for the troops and government in Upper Canada. His reforms in purchasing, recommended by Simcoe but vetoed by Dorchester, were a failure when he finally introduced them in March 1796: merchants refused to make tenders on his terms, and farmers would not reveal how much wheat they had in store. The surplus of flour he managed to accumulate in a new depot at York was more than matched by a shortage – equal to the rations of 100 men for 236 days – produced at Niagara by the failure of local contractors. At Kingston Richard Cartwright*, “the only holder,” set the price. Farmers there sold to the American rather than the provincial government. After the bad crops of 1796–97 McGill found Detroit merchants selling flour from Lower Canada to the United States army. Before local shortages eased in the following year, however, McGill was established as an energetic and efficient purchasing agent, as well as a careful public accountant. He even kept track of the minor indulgences he was ordered to make to his fellow officials at York, such as the issue of building materials to Shaw or the use of government oxen by John Elmsley*. His civil appointment had in fact recognized the range of government business that he had already begun to conduct, especially the erection of public buildings at York and arrangements for the construction of Yonge and Dundas streets. Indeed, if the label “founder of York” were applied to the man who did most of the work, it would go to John McGill.
On 2 March 1796 McGill was appointed to the Executive Council along with the surveyor general, David William Smith*. Simcoe had begun recommending him more than two years earlier and in 1795 gave the pressing reason that there were too few councillors: “the sickness of a Single Member stops the whole Business of the Province.” Since the receiver general, Peter Russell, was already a member, the effect was to put the heads of the three main executive departments together on the council for the first time, just when its business was rapidly increasing. McGill had to wait until 8 Oct. 1808 to become a regular salaried member, because the civil establishment allowed only five; but well before that he had risen above the status of Simcoe’s most efficient protégé. Sensible, assiduous, and apparently indifferent to the animosities among his colleagues, he was by the end of 1801 a regular member of the council’s standing committee. A new lieutenant governor, Peter Hunter*, had set up the committee to conduct business during his frequent absences, but even when in York he did not himself regularly attend the council. The committee therefore bore the brunt of routine business and of enforcing Hunter’s measures for administrative reform. Although Chief Justice Henry Allcock* was no doubt its dominating personality, McGill seems to have been its work-horse, one of the “few Scotch instruments” on whom (according to Robert Thorpe*’s accusation) Hunter relied too much. With Allcock’s departure in September 1804, the arrival of an able attorney general, Thomas Scott, in the following April, and Hunter’s death four months later, the working style of the council changed. McGill remained a faithful attender for some years, but his influence and then his health declined. He resigned on 13 Aug. 1818.
He remained until his death on the Legislative Council, to which he had been appointed on 10 June 1797. He had been one of its officials, the master in chancery, since 22 May 1793 and did not relinquish that office until some time in 1803. He was a less regular attender on this council, at first perhaps because being agent for purchases often took him away from York.
On 1 July 1801 McGill exchanged the agency for a more sedentary but equally onerous post, the inspector generalship of public accounts. The office, which became the ministry of finance in 1859, was a new one, created at Hunter’s instigation because the province had no effective system of audit. Russell, the only auditor general ever commissioned for Upper Canada (10 Aug. 1794), had never developed the office. McGill’s new post replaced it. Having set up a provincial system of audit and presided over it for nearly 12 years, McGill changed offices again. In his last administrative appointment, he took over the receiver generalship on an acting commission (5 Oct. 1813 to 2 Dec. 1819). He was succeeded, this time only briefly, by his brother-in-law George Crookshank. Beginning as the provinces chief purchasing agent, he ended as its chief financial officer.
If McGill’s duties were always unspectacular, their importance and their growth were in sharp contrast to his formal salary. When he made up his final accounts as agent for purchases, the Treasury had cleared bills from his office of more than £27,000 sterling. As acting receiver general he dispersed from £63,000 to £91,000 a year. The highest combination of stipends that he ever drew was £350 a year, with no share in land granting fees. Add that as agent for purchases and as inspector general until 1803 he had to be paid from contingency funds because his offices were not included in the civil establishment, that for 14 years he served as agent or as executive councillor with no salary, and that he never received a full commission as receiver general. The £200 pension he received in 1822 seems rather grudging recognition of vital services long and competently performed.
In the rewards anticipated by Upper Canadian officials, however, salary did not count for much. Land granting fees (to which McGill had access only when he became acting receiver general) might be of consequence. Social prestige and land were the main objects to which officials looked. McGill did not move in the highest society of York officialdom. No lieutenant governor after Simcoe, for example, is reported to have dined at his house. McGill lived among the “gentry” north of the town, but he visited with his wife’s relations the Crookshanks and Macaulays or with other Scots such as the Beikies, none of them officials of his own rank and some of them merchants. His Presbyterianism seems to have been no disadvantage, although John Strachan* complained of it: it did not prevent him from joining Anglicans on a committee to sponsor a church at York. Nor did he dissent from the toryism of his fellow officials. The only public questions on which he recorded a strongly independent view were the size of a government grant for district grammar schools, on which he suggested spending up to £7,000 more than anyone else on the Executive Council, and a conflict of interest which he saw in borrowing by York magistrates under the Market Square Act. The skills he exercised on behalf of government were essentially those of a merchant and accountant, skills undervalued by officers with aristocratic pretensions. He continued to be known as “Commissary McGill” long after his seat on both councils entitled him to the prefix “Honourable.”
Yet McGill prospered in Upper Canada. As a half-pay captain he was entitled to 3,000 acres of land and as an executive councillor to 5,000 more. Before he had taken up the second allowance the rule was changed, on 1 July 1799, to give councillors 6,000 acres “including former grants.” His actual grants fell between the old and the new rules, at 7,509 acres. He can hardly be said to have abused the system, but he was adept at getting the most out of it. He obtained land in good locations, he exchanged bad lands for good, and he knew when to sell. He had 850 acres in York Township, including the 100-acre park lot where he usually lived. It was far enough from the town to be a refuge for the family when the Americans occupied York in 1813, but urban growth made it worth £12,000 when it was finally sold in 1855. Its value had been reckoned at £150 in 1799. He also had 400 acres in Scarborough, 1,000 in Whitby, 1,259 in Clarke (which he got in exchange for 1,000 acres in West Flamborough), and 3,000 in Oxford North townships. Except for the Oxford and some of the York lands, he had sold it all by 1831, mostly after 1817 and in lots of 200 acres.
He did not limit his financial skills to government service. He acted as agent to collect the fees of absent officials. In a province with no banking system, credit was arranged by personal notes, which were usually discounted on acceptance and were discounted less if presented or endorsed by someone known to be of substance. McGill was used enough to giving credit on this system to doubt the need for the Bank of Upper Canada in 1821. He nevertheless subscribed to its founding, “more than was perhaps prudent,” he thought. His suspicions of the new credit system were confirmed when the bank refused a note he had endorsed in 1831. By then he was winding up his affairs. If he had not been “very ricth” in 1819, as his employee James Laidlaw thought, his will, dated 8 Nov. 1834, disposed of a considerable fortune in lands and investments. With no living children and his wife dead since 1819, he left his estate to Peter McCutcheon, his nephew, a Montreal merchant who had just become president of the Bank of Montreal. He made it a condition that McCutcheon assume the surname McGill*.
McGill could ensure that his name would be carried on, but not that his career would be remembered. The Correspondent and Advocate (Toronto) of 1 Jan. 1835 noted his death as that of “an old Pensioner on his Majesty’s Government.” Peter McGill’s reply, though detailed, did not rescue his uncle from obscurity. John McGill may however have been as indifferent to fame as he was to high social position; the solid rewards he found in Upper Canada were surely those he valued most.
[Beyond the brief notes in W. J. Rattray, The Scot in British North America (4v., Toronto, 1880–84), and Lorenzo Sabine, The American loyalists, or biographical sketches of adherents to the British crown in the war of the revolution. . . . (Boston, 1847), there are no useful secondary accounts of McGill’s career. His personal papers (MTL, John McGill papers, and a second group of his papers in the Henry Scadding coll.) relate chiefly to the conduct of his various offices. They supplement government departmental records, of which the most informative are PRO, CO 42, the minutes of the Executive Council of Upper Canada (PAC, RG 1, E1), and some Audit Office papers (PRO, AO 1, bundles 2038–40, and AO 2, bundle 142). Most of what is known about his personal life comes from scattered references in the papers of his contemporaries: the Samuel Peters Jarvis papers at the MTL; and, at the AO, the Crookshank–Lambert papers (ms 6), Macaulay papers (ms 78), Russell family papers (ms 75), and Simcoe papers (ms 517). The printed selections from the last two collections, Corr. of Hon. Peter Russell (Cruikshank and Hunter) and Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank), are helpful for his early career, as is Gwillim, Diary of Mrs. Simcoe (Robertson; 1934). Two other collections of documents, Town of York, 1793–1815 and 1815–34 (Firth) and Strachan, Letter book (Spragge), are less rich but contain later material. An obituary notice by his nephew appeared in the Patriot (Toronto), 20 Jan. 1835. s.r.m.]
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Cite This Article
S. R. Mealing, “McGILL, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcgill_john_6E.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:||S. R. Mealing|
|Title of Article:||McGILL, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||March 31, 2023|