MORRIS, JAMES RAINSTORPE, public servant; baptized 20 May 1750 in Hopkinton, Mass., youngest son of Charles Morris* and Mary Read; m. Susannah —, and they had one son, the father of Maria Frances Ann Morris*, and one daughter; d. 29 Oct. 1809 on Sable Island, N.S., where he had served as first superintendent of the life-saving station.
Unlike his brother Charles, James Rainstorpe Morris has been largely unknown. The son of the first surveyor general of Nova Scotia, he served in the Royal Navy for 14 years. Exactly when he came to the province is not known, although his daughter was born in 1772 in Halifax, near where he and his family were living in 1801. That year Morris emerged from obscurity with the founding of the life-saving station on Sable Island. Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth had considered establishing such a post at the notorious graveyard of ships and men 100 miles off the Nova Scotia coast after a vessel carrying Prince Edward Augustus’s military equipment had foundered there in 1797, and in 1798 he had commissioned Andrew and William Miller keepers of the island in what proved to be an abortive attempt to establish a settlement. Nothing daunted, two years later Wentworth tried to interest the British government in supplying funds and equipment for a life-saving station, and in 1801 he sent one Seth Coleman to the island to report on the possibilities for permanent habitation. That June the House of Assembly voted to provide up to £600 for starting a settlement, and five commissioners including Morris’s brother Charles, William Forsyth, and Michael Wallace* were appointed to handle the details of the project. The commissioners initially tried to persuade family men to settle permanently on the island without government aid, but they eventually had to agree to wages and support. One of the applicants was James Morris.
In their report to Wentworth recommending Morris, the commissioners described him as active, resolute, and resourceful. His naval service had provided him with practical experience, and he was “much noted for his enterprise and uncommon mechanical genius,” especially in “Nautical affairs.” Morris accordingly received an appointment as superintendent of the island, and had his authority confirmed by the act of the legislature that established the station. He was also commissioned a magistrate and revenue officer for the island during his residence there.
The very full instructions Morris received from the lieutenant governor made him responsible for the behaviour of everybody on the island and also for the enforcement of all rules and regulations for the humane service. He was instructed to permit no persons other than those employed under him or with a licence from the lieutenant governor to settle on the island, and he was to take command of all persons shipwrecked there. In addition, he was given directions as to the disposal of goods saved from shipwrecks, instructed to explore the island, and ordered to keep a journal of all events. Although it was originally intended to have three families on the island, for financial reasons the first establishment consisted only of Morris, his family, and a staff of three men and a boy; another man, found on Sable with his family, also became part of Morris’s group. Two houses, one of them temporary, were constructed, and livestock and provisions were put ashore. A flagstaff was erected at either end of the island for signalling ships in fine weather, and a cannon had been emplaced for giving warning in foggy or stormy weather. Rockets were to have supplemented the cannon, but were unavailable. On 13 Oct. 1801, the landing of equipment completed, the Sable residents were left to their own devices. Their duty was to aid castaways; their problem was to survive the winter. The first season provided the crucial test of the enterprise. Against all odds, the station succeeded, and Morris was able to report in March 1802 that the entire crew of a shipwrecked vessel had been saved. That spring he went to Halifax and added oral comments to the elaborate written reports he submitted to the commissioners. He also signed an agreement with the commissioners to remain on the island for another year.
Morris’s superintendency continued until his death, and throughout it people and property were continually saved. A committee of the assembly stated in 1804 that in less than three years the station had been the means of rescuing 41 persons and about £2,300 worth of goods. The service suffered, however, from a chronic lack of resources. The money voted by the legislature was usually insufficient, and Wentworth tried in vain several times to interest the British government in contributing towards the costs and equipment of the station. In 1806, for example, Morris was ordered to send his son and another man away because there was not enough money for wages. The island’s inhabitants experienced difficulties other than pecuniary ones. Morris thought at first that the settlers could live fairly comfortably by exploiting the resources of the island, but attempts to grow food were generally disappointing. Moreover, the shortage of funds meant that during the early years of the establishment no more than six months’ provisions could be sent at one time, and visits of supply ships were often erratic. Thus in November 1803 Morris informed Wentworth that since no goods had reached the island his family would have insufficient clothing and would suffer by spring. The same letter also mentioned large numbers of rats and mice, as many as 15 to 20 being caught nightly in one trap. Nevertheless, the establishment continued, even if it did not expand significantly. A report of 1808 noted that there were two stations, each with a house, flagstaff, and signal gun.
Another factor beyond Morris’s control, poor health, limited his contribution during his last years. Always responsive to the call of duty, he returned from a convalescent stay on the mainland on 29 Oct. 1809, but died the same day, His son took the body to the Country Harbour area, where the family owned land, and Morris returned to obscurity, his burial place unknown. The Sable Island establishment remained at about the same size until the 1830s, and in 1867 it became the responsibility of the dominion government. James Morris had been its founder in the field and he supervised its critical embryo period. He began the life-saving service that was to become world-renowned, and he began it well. He died in this service.
[The library of the Mass. Hist. Soc. holds a manuscript attributed to James Rainstorpe Morris entitled “A journal kept on the Isle of Sable, Oct. 6, 1801, to June 1, 1804” (there is a gap for the period between 28 May and 1 Aug. 1802). A copy of the entries for October 1801–May 1802 is available in PRO, CO 217/76: ff.288–366. Both documents are contemporary manuscripts but in my opinion are not Morris’s own work. The handwriting bears a close resemblance to that in letters signed by Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth, which suggests that the original journal was copied over by clerks in his employ. The Mass. Hist. Soc. holds a second manuscript attributed to Morris: “Remarks and observations on the Isle of Sable, 1801–1804.” This report was sent to England along with the journal, and there is thus a copy in PRO, CO 217/76: ff.367–420. As with the journal, this document appears to me to be a copy, but there are drawings included which complicate the issue. l.c.]
PANS, MG 1, 544; 676, no.6; RG 1, 53; 172: 110–11; 424, nos.1–71; 425, no.1. PRO, CO 217/75–76. “[Papers relating to Sable Island],” PAC Report, 1895: 84–93. Vital records of Hopkinton, Mass., to the year 1850 (Boston, 1911). L. G. Campbell, “History of Sable Island before confederation”
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Cite This Article
In collaboration with Lyall Campbell, “MORRIS, JAMES RAINSTORPE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/morris_james_rainstorpe_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 with Lyall Campbell|
|Title of Article:||MORRIS, JAMES RAINSTORPE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||May 29, 2023|