PAGAN, WILLIAM, businessman and politician; b. 1744 in Glasgow, Scotland, eldest son of William Pagan and Margaret Maxwell; d. unmarried 12 March 1819 in Saint John, N.B.
The Pagan family had been active in the rising commerce of Glasgow since the 1650s. William Pagan Sr, a prominent sugar refiner there, established a strong commercial reputation through trading activities in the West Indies, in the Mediterranean, and along the Irish coast. In 1754 he and his brother John became burgesses and guild brethren of Glasgow, positions open to them because their father, David, had been admitted to the city as a merchant earlier in the century. Another brother, George, set up as a merchant in Greenock; a third, Thomas, successfully entered the London trading community as a silk-mercer. There were yet other family ties to London and the West Indies, as well as to the tobacco commerce of North America. Thus, by the 1760s, when a second generation of brothers – William, John, Robert*, and Thomas – left their home port of Glasgow for North America, they had the advantage of an existing network of commercial, financial, and political connections.
In 1766 William Pagan Jr was master of the sloop Britannia trading to St Eustatius. Operating in what was probably his father’s vessel, he participated in the traditional trade in sugar and rum between the West Indies and the coast of North America, principally the stretch from Virginia to New York. By 1769 he had become firmly enough established in business at New York to warrant his admittance as a freeman of the city. Described as a shipping agent and shop proprietor, he likely dealt mainly in goods and supplies connected with the family businesses.
By 1777, it appears, Pagan had joined forces with his brothers Robert and Thomas under the business style of Robert Pagan and Company. Robert, at the age of 19 in 1769, had settled at Falmouth Neck, Mass. (Portland, Maine), where in partnership with the Greenock firm of Lee, Tucker and Company, he traded goods from the West Indies and Scotland in return for masts and timber. Thomas, the youngest brother, had joined him there in 1775. Later, both brothers had evacuated to Barbados and then gone on to New York, where they established Robert Pagan and Company. Meanwhile, John Pagan had been expanding his commercial horizons on another front, that of promoting the migration of settlers to America from Scotland. In 1772, as a merchant of Glasgow, he contracted with the Philadelphia Company to provide settlers for a tract of land at Pictou, N.S. [see John Harris]. The following year he financed the ship Hector, which carried around 200 passengers to Pictou Harbour.
The diverse operations and broad talents of the Pagan brothers brought them into contact with major businessmen and political figures on the eastern seaboard. Moreover, as a member and manager (1770–75) of the prestigious St Andrew’s Society of New York, William enjoyed the company and respect of such worthies as the Reverend Dr John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) and a member of the Philadelphia Company; James Phyn, partner in the great trading business of Phyn, Ellice and Company of Schenectady, N.Y. [see Alexander Ellice]; Colonel Beverley Robinson, a prominent New York landowner; Neil Jamieson, tobacco lord and agent for the firm of Glassford, Gordon and Company of Glasgow; William Shedden, son of Robert, head of a prominent London trading house; and Cadwallader Colden, lieutenant governor of New York. Several of these individuals were later to maintain solid ties with Nova Scotia.
By the time that Robert, William, and Thomas moved to Penobscot (Castine, Maine) in 1780, they had perfected a trading pattern which put them in touch with commercial establishments up and down the coast from Halifax to the West Indies. Spurred on by the prospect of a permanent loyalist haven at Penobscot [see John Caleff], the Pagans cemented their links with Halifax through James McMaster and his three brothers, originally traders of Boston, Mass., but later of Nova Scotia, and through them established a close relationship with John Wentworth, who was to become lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia.
When it was eventually learned that the peace negotiations in early 1783 would designate the St Croix River and not the Penobscot as the boundary line between the new United States and British North America, William Pagan and his brothers made preparations to move to Nova Scotia. As an agent, along with William Gallop, of the Penobscot Associated Loyalists, William assisted in re-settling nearly 430 families at St Andrews, in what was shortly to become the new colony of New Brunswick. His brother Robert decided to stay at St Andrews, but William moved up the coast to Saint John where, with Thomas, he established the firm of William Pagan and Company.
Reckoned by 1795 to be among the three largest of the 25 Scottish houses in Saint John, Pagan’s company imported dry goods, rum, and a wide variety of Scottish manufactures. There were initial difficulties in the trade, largely due to the lack of currency with which to make remittances home in payment for goods brought in. However, as the New Brunswick timber trade developed, Pagan was able to consign an increasing number of lumber cargoes to the Clyde and also to the Mersey, where Liverpool was becoming the pre-eminent timber-importing centre in Great Britain. These exports put the firm on a sound basis for a thriving overseas commerce, and for expansion into other lines, including various forms of trade, licit and illicit, with the United States. In 1790 James Glenie charged that Pagan and his brothers were openly looting government reserves of mast timber in the southern parts of the province. No action was taken against them, if indeed there was any truth in the allegations. The Pagans had early launched out into shipbuilding, and in the late 1780s they established a regular weekly packet service between Saint John and St Andrews. William Pagan was quick to see that the wartime scarcity of, and losses to, British shipping would put colonial-built vessels at a premium. Apart from building for his own fleet, he constructed several large ships of more than 200 tons for sale in Britain, and during the War of 1812 he was part-owner in several privateers. In 1812 his firm was acting as agent at Saint John for Lloyd’s of London, and Pagan was engaged in the first marine-insurance transactions known in the colony. Unlike his brother Robert, he had early seen the advantage in diversifying his business operations. After 1800 Thomas Pagan was established on the northern shore of New Brunswick at Richibucto, where, in addition to shipbuilding, he engaged in milling and the fishery.
In his various commercial activities Pagan benefited greatly from his large network of contacts, both in North America and abroad. He expanded ties nurtured in New York by striking up a strong business relationship in New Brunswick with Colonel Robinson’s son John*. Other British North American contacts included two of the largest operators in the colonies, William Forsyth of Halifax, whose firm was a subsidiary of the Greenock house of Hunter, Robertson and Company, and James Dunlop of Montreal. A long-standing relationship with John* and William* Black gave Pagan access to additional contacts in London and Greenock, while his association with James McMaster connected him with business circles in Boston and Portsmouth, N.H. Through Thomas at Richibucto trading connections were expanded to the Miramichi and to Pictou, N.S.; brother John guided the family’s affairs at Quebec. However, the Quebec branch of the business became insolvent, and its difficulties had a reverberating effect on the whole North American operation.
It was not only through business that Pagan made his mark in New Brunswick. During the first, controversial elections to the House of Assembly in 1785 [see George Duncan Ludlow], he was returned for Saint John County. Historian James Hannay* has described his legislative record as “honorable,” for he consistently championed the cause of the assembly against what he considered to be the overweening power of the ruling hierarchy headed by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton. Pagan’s interest in public affairs was also evident at the municipal level. In 1785 he became alderman for Queens Ward in Saint John and six years later he served as a fire warden. Patrick Campbell* described him in 1792 as among those “of the first character and respectability” in the city. He lived opposite St Andrew’s Church in a house built of brick shipped from London. His landholdings in Saint John were extensive and included a large block at the southern end called Pagan Place.
A staunch adherent of the Church of Scotland, Pagan was one of the founders and incorporators of St Andrew’s and participated directly in the building committee. In 1798 he became the first president of the St Andrew’s Society of Saint John, a position he retained until 1801; he held the office again in 1806–12 and in 1815. Among the original members who met at the Exchange Coffee House were his business associates John and William Black, fellow merchants such as Hugh Johnston*, Munson Jarvis*, and Thomas Millidge*, Thomas Wetmore*, a future attorney general, and William Campbell*, the second mayor of Saint John. In 1803 Pagan was also a founding member of the Subscription Room, the first club in Saint John for which records remain.
Pagan was appointed to the New Brunswick Council in 1817, a notable event since he was the first adherent of a denomination other than the Church of England to be nominated. He thus became a member of the establishment that he had so often criticized. He was still attending council meetings when he died on 12 March 1819. The Royal Gazette reported that “he was ever conspicuous for his integrity, correctness and impartiality.”
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Cite This Article
David S. Macmillan and Roger Nason, “PAGAN, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pagan_william_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:||David S. Macmillan and Roger Nason|
|Title of Article:||PAGAN, WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|