NIXON, JOHN, governor of HBC settlements 1679–83; b. c. 1623; d. in Carolina, 1692; nothing is known of his parentage.
Nixon was appointed governor in succession to Charles Bayly and sailed from London in the John and Alexander (Capt. Nehemiah Walker ), on 23 May 1679. At the time of his arrival in Hudson Bay, the HBC occupied Moose Factory, Charles Fort in Rupert East River, and probably Albany, which Nixon later strengthened. His governorship was not marked by notable new settlements; though directed to occupy Port Nelson and New Severn, there is no proof that he did so. His main achievement (which proved short-lived) was the occupation of Charlton Island and the construction of buildings there. Nixon recommended a policy of expansion–the establishment of forts in the interior as well as the sending of men inland to induce the Indians to visit the Bayside – and he understood the necessity of pacifying warlike tribes if trade were to flourish. But he does not appear to have done anything himself to further these aims. Consolidation and attention to the details of business were the chief preoccupations of his governorship.
This assessment is suggested by Nixon’s letter of 1682, the only governor’s dispatch from Hudson Bay to survive from the 17th century and “the first detailed and substantial account of conditions by the Bay” (HBRS, XXI (Rich), 111). His concern was to check the spirit of law-lessness which he found amongst the Company’s servants, fomented by crews of hired ships wintering in the Bay. The Company’s policy at this time was to use Charlton Island as a magazine at which “great ships” from England could discharge cargoes and take on furs for the return voyage, the trading posts being supplied by sloops. Nixon argued cogently against this policy: Charlton Island, in his opinion, was remote from trade, difficult to defend, and ice-bound longer than the mainland. Nixon also criticized forth-rightly the supply of trade goods and tradesmen. He wrote of “the heap of unventable goods which ly spoylling on oure hands . . . if wee had the prime coast of them and their fraught, layed out in ould sherie it would goe off better to oure comfort . . .”
Nixon’s early years in the bay were undisturbed by active French competition. Plans to enter the maritime fur trade were being laid but did not mature until 1682. In that year the HBC sent John Bridgar, with a command independent of Nixon, to settle at Nelson River. At the same time Radisson* and Chouart Des Groseilliers were leading a French expedition to Hayes River. These events and Bridgar’s defeat and capture in 1683 seem to have taken place without Nixon’s participation. His dispatch of 1682 does not dwell at length on the French menace, showing more awareness of the dangers of mutiny and Indian attack.
Nixon, it must be admitted, left few obvious marks on the Company’s history in Hudson Bay. Some noise was made by his lowering of the standard of trade laid down by Governor Bayly: he not only reduced the number of beaver skins accepted for English trade goods but also lowered the equivalent of beaver in terms of other furs. His intentions in this do not appear. There is, however, no reason to question his honesty or loyalty in the Company’s service. Returns in beaver during his governorship were 24,123 in 1681, 18,600 in 1682 and 20,355 in 1683, the proceeds of sales in London being well above the average in Governor Bayly’s time. If it would be rash to give Nixon all the credit for this improvement, it is difficult to see who else (in the bay) was responsible. His own claim “I spend many hours (when others take their quiet rests,) to considder of what is most needfull to be doone” need not be doubted.
The decision to replace Nixon was taken on 31 Jan. 1683 and on 27 April following the Committee wrote recalling him “in regard of your great age and disability to travaile & endure the Hardship which the place you have for severall yeares held under us doe require.” Nixon handed over to Henry Sergeant on 27 Aug. 1683. Back in London, he had to wait some time for the settlement of his account. His commencing salary had been £100 a year, raised in 1680 to £200: a large part was still due on his return. At a number of meetings in June 1684 the Committee debated his case and whether a governor had power to alter the standard. Eventually, with the deputy governor dissenting, it was resolved to pay the balance of £305. After 1685 no reference to Nixon has been found in the HBC archives.
Modern historians have been hard on Nixon. E. E. Rich describes him as “a tetchy fellow,” A. S. Morton calls him “a disappointment,” while to Sir George Clark he was “sanctimonious” and to E. G. R. Taylor “a man of dour, puritanical habit.” Certainly Nixon’s letter contains some melancholy asides (“O Lord how hath the Northwest been corrupted”). It is also true that he condemned drunkenness. But he made no secret of his own partiality for liquor. “Water doeth not agree with me,” he wrote, indenting for wine and brandy for his own use; and he refers more than once to the necessity of strong drink for the men. His remarks on “licentiousness” (which seem to have inspired Professor Taylor’s verdict) refer not specifically to the common practice of keeping Indian women at the posts but to the general indiscipline of the company’s servants.
Something of the man emerges from his long dispatch of 1682. He found difficulty in imposing himself on others by force of character, and so was unduly dependent on his status and commission as governor. In his clashes with Capt. Walker, both on the voyage out in 1679 and in the winter of 1681–82 on Charlton Island, Nixon on his own showing was the loser. The best he could do was to maintain a dignified silence and pretend to be superior to Walker’s drunken antics and ridiculous behaviour. Apprehensive of mutiny, Nixon advised the Company to enlarge the governor’s authority to enable him to inflict corporal punishment and he recommended the engagement of Scotsmen who would be not only hardier and cheaper but also more obedient. From his subordinates he expected the worst and he wrote feelingly of his own position “between two rocks”: efforts to keep good order in accordance with his instructions led to complaints against him which might prejudice the Committee. Yet to buy the goodwill of his men, he thought “not worth three skips of a louse.” Complaints there certainly were. In 1682 the Committee wrote to Nixon that most of the men who had returned to England the previous year reported that he carried himself with “tomuch inhumanity and cruelty towards the Natives.” He was warned to take care that “the morossness of your temper turne not to the prejudice of our affaires.”
Very little has been discovered of Nixon’s life apart from his connection with the HBC. He himself stated that he had been in the East Indies but search in the records of the East India Company has been fruitless. There is, however, a strong case for identifying him with John Nixon of Carolina. In the first place, we know that Nixon came into the HBC at the instance of the Earl of Shaftesbury and Sir Peter Colleton, both Lords Proprietors of Carolina. In 1677 John Nixon was deputy to Colleton in Carolina. Secondly, and more conclusively, Nixon’s will is extant in North Carolina: the upright, angular signature on this document is beyond doubt the same as the two signatures at the end of Nixon’s dispatch of 1682.
Granted this identification, we still do not know a great deal about Nixon’s life in America. He was presumably the “Mr Nixon” mentioned by John Locke in connection with Acts of Assembly of Albemarle County, Carolina, in 1669–70 (CSP, Col., 1669–74, no.142); in 1673 he was a magistrate and in 1675 a member of the “Court of Albemarle” (Essex Institute, Historical Collections, 11 (1860), pp. 129–30). When the Culpeper rebellion broke out in Carolina in 1677 Nixon, with Thomas Miller, Shaftesbury’s deputy, was imprisoned by the rebels (who included Capt. Zachariah Gillam, later drowned in Hudson Bay during Nixon’s residence there). In 1679 Miller was tried in Carolina for seditious words and blasphemy alleged to have been spoken in November 1675. Nixon’s deposition in this case gives his age as 54. The deposition is undated, so that the year of Nixon’s birth may have been any between 1621 and 1625. He must have been about 60 in 1683 when he was relieved of office on grounds of “great age.” In his will, dated 4 Feb. 1687/88, he left three-quarters of his estate to his wife Em, the remaining quarter to his daughter Ann at age 18 or on marriage. This is presumably the daughter for whose maintenance he appointed attorneys while in Hudson Bay: Em Nixon may, therefore, be a second or subsequent wife. Nixon’s will was proved on 8 Aug. 1692.
A summary of Nixon’s career in the HBC is in HBRS, IX (Rich), 331–33. This volume and vols. VIII and XI of the HBRS publications contain many references to him. His dispatch of 1682 is preserved at the Royal Soc., London (Boyle Papers, Misc., XL); there is a photostatic copy in the archives of the HBC, London, and the document is printed in HBRS, IX; Nixon’s signatures are at pp. 49 and 52 of the MS. The Boyle Papers (Science, XXI) also contain Nixon’s impressions of ice in Hudson Bay and an estimate of the magnetic variation of Charlton Island. HBRS, XXI (Rich), chap. ix, relates Nixon’s governorship to the history of the company and the bay. Nixon’s will is in North Carolina, State Department of Archives and History, North Carolina Wills, 1663–1789, XXII 59; a photostatic copy has been placed in the HBC archives so that the signature may be compared with those of the Royal Soc. MS. References to Nixon’s life in Carolina are in The Colonial Records of North Carolina, ed. W. L. Saunders (10v., Raleigh, N.C., 1886–90), I.
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Cite This Article
K. G. Davies, “NIXON, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nixon_john_1E.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:||K. G. Davies|
|Title of Article:||NIXON, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1966|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|