NAPIER, DUNCAN CAMPBELL, British army officer and office-holder; b. c. 1788 probably on the Island of Jersey; d. in June 1865 at St Helier, Island of Jersey.
Duncan Campbell Napier joined the Commissariat Department of the British army at an early age. He spent almost the whole of his active career in Canada, stationed in either Montreal or Quebec City where he was attached to the office of the governor general’s military secretary. Although his career was hardly spectacular, it does provide some useful insight into the workings of the Indian Department in the half century before confederation.
Napier seems to have been attached to the military secretary’s office from the time of the War of 1812. He had a variety of responsibilities; by 1825 he was in charge of army transport for the Montreal district, the resident Indian agent for the area, and secretary at Montreal of the Indian Department, responsible for all correspondence regarding the Indian population of Lower Canada. From 1830 to 1840 he was secretary at Quebec City and from 1840 until his retirement in 1857 secretary again at Montreal. Napier was the chief official in the Indian Department in the lower province for at least 32 years.
The Indians of Lower Canada were in a very different position from those of Upper Canada during the years Napier was concerned with Indian affairs. In North America, the traditional British policy was to negotiate the surrender of Indian lands through treaties, and then to sell these lands to incoming white settlers. This model was used in Upper Canada after 1791 and in the new dominion after confederation. French authorities in New France before 1763 had had quite another practice. They had entrusted the work of cultural assimilation to religious orders, setting aside land grants for that purpose. The ownership of these grants or reserves had been vested in the religious organizations rather than the Indians. Consequently, no Indian land surrenders had been signed and Roman Catholic missionaries had often acted in a double capacity as priests and as government Indian agents. After 1763, British authorities in the Province of Quebec thus found themselves administering a system of Indian-white relations whose roots lay in the province’s French past.
Under the British system of Indian treaties, bands who gave up territory received compensation in the form of yearly presents, annual payments, and interest on the capital which accrued from the sale of surrendered land. From at least the time of the American revolution the army commissariat had been involved in the annual distribution of Indian presents. Because the Indians were also regarded as military allies, it seemed logical to put one of its officers in charge of the Indians of Lower Canada. After 1800 they came under the jurisdiction of the governor general, who made the military secretary responsible. By the time of the War of 1812 it had become necessary to appoint a permanent official in Lower Canada to oversee the duties of the military secretary’s office with regard to the Indians and Colonel Napier was the first officer to be appointed. Napier was therefore subordinate to the military secretary. This administrative pattern persisted in Lower Canada until the Canadian government became responsible for Indian affairs in 1860 [see Richard Theodore Pennefather], even though the Indians of Upper Canada were effectively under civil control after 1830.
Napier was responsible for a vast, ill-defined area whose Indians for the most part clung to the semi-nomadic hunting and fishing life of their ancestors. He could do little to encourage the formation of fixed agricultural settlements which was the object of official policy. His correspondence was mostly with resident priests or other religious and dealt chiefly with the mundane matters of everyday administration: population statistics, requests for funds, and salary supplements. Many Indian bands went officially unvisited for years or simply dropped out of view altogether. This situation contrasted with the one in Upper Canada, where problems were fewer and administration more innovative [see Thomas Gummersall Anderson*].
Duncan Campbell Napier was a conscientious administrator who could do little more than maintain the Indian Department’s status quo in Lower Canada. Advancing age lessened his effectiveness during his last years in office. His retirement in 1857 coincided with Britain’s decision to retreat from Indian affairs in Canada. That retreat marked the real end of an administrative system which had become an anachronism. It is not known when Napier left Canada or how he spent the last years of his life.
PAC, MG 30, D62, 22, pp.787–802; RG 10, vols. 22–25, 78–102, 141, 590–603, 655–655a. Gentleman’s Magazine CCXVIII (January–June 1865), 801.