PERKINS, SIMEON, businessman, office holder, judge, politician, militia officer, and diarist; b. 24 Feb. 1734/35 in Norwich., Conn., fourth of 16 children of Jacob Perkins and Jemima Leonard; m. first 12 June 1760 Abigail Backus in Norwich, and they had one son; m. secondly 10 Sept. 1775 Elizabeth Young, widow of John Headley, in Liverpool, N.S., and they had six daughters and two sons; d. 9 May 1812 at his home in Liverpool.
Simeon Perkins was descended from John Parkyns, who arrived in Boston, Mass., from England in 1631. His parents, as the Methodist leader William Black* stated, were “respectable members of the Presbyterian or Congregational persuasion, who neglected not to instruct their son in the grand and important doctrines of the Christian faith,” and Perkins remained strongly religious throughout his life. He evidently received a fair education, and was apprenticed to his first cousin Jabez Huntingdon, member of a Norwich family prominent in business and public affairs.
At about the time of his first marriage Perkins became a member of a partnership with his father-in-law and another cousin, and in May 1762 he went to Nova Scotia to establish the business of the company in the new town of Liverpool. He immediately opened a store and became directly involved in the fishery. An enterprising merchant in the broadest sense of the word, Perkins was concerned not only with catering to the needs of his fellow townsmen but also with lumbering, trading to various outside markets such as the West Indies, the Thirteen Colonies, Newfoundland, and Europe, shipbuilding, and several related operations. On 24 April 1766, moreover, he was licensed to traffic with the Indians of Nova Scotia. Perkins’s commercial activities in the decade and a half preceding the American revolution involved close communication with New England, where he had relatives, friends, and trading partners. Liverpool itself was essentially a New England community in Nova Scotia, and Perkins’s business undertakings epitomized the trade of the province. During these years Perkins visited his native land three times: once in November 1762 to report to his partners and plan for the future, then for a year and a half from November 1767 when Liverpool was experiencing hard times, and lastly in the spring of 1775, when increasing friction between the mother country and the colonies was causing concern.
As controversy changed to crisis, Perkins’s responsibilities as lieutenant-colonel of the Queens County, a position he had held since 1772, took on special importance. He had, however, little success in persuading the men of Liverpool to enrol for militia duty. Although all but one took the oath of allegiance in the winter of 1775–76, they were reluctant to give active support to the British side. Nor was Perkins himself immune from the desire of many Nova Scotians to maintain connections with their relatives and friends in New England: he carried on a clandestine trade there and on at least one occasion was detected and had his goods seized. The incursions of American privateers, however, caused a change. Rather than offer active resistance, the people of Liverpool had attempted to dissuade privateers from attacking, but raids prompted them to take a stand in their own defence. The most dramatic incident occurred on 13 Sept. 1780, when two privateers surprised and captured the fort with the garrison of troops stationed there for the protection of the town. At first the inhabitants were “Disheartned & did not Incline to make any resistance.” But Perkins engineered the capture of one of the American captains, and by means of prudence and diplomacy, and with the militia now “under Arms & Determined to fight,” he arranged for the recovery of the fort and the mutual release of prisoners. Within a few hours “every thing [was] restored to its former Situation without any Blood Shed.” Liverpool was not bothered by privateers for the remainder of the war. Perkins was later to be concerned again with the security of the area during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Under his direction, a battery was built at Liverpool in 1793, arms and ammunition were distributed, and a guard of 36 men was mounted. Under his command, also, the Queens County militia was periodically mustered, trained, and reviewed.
During periods of warfare Perkins was actively involved in privateering. In 1779 he was one of a group of Liverpool merchants who purchased and fitted out the schooner Lucy as the first Liverpool privateer, and between 1798 and 1801 he was financially involved in five of the six privateers the town sent out. Fortunes in privateering fluctuated: although a venture early in 1799 resulted in five prizes estimated to be worth more than £26,000 to Perkins and his associates, other cruises that year were less remunerative and one privateer was wrecked. By 1801 prospects had so worsened that Perkins and his associates decided to sell their privateers at auction. Perkins was, however, briefly involved in further ventures in 1803 and 1805.
Fishing, trading, and privateering required ships: thus Perkins’s concern with lumbering and shipbuilding. On 7 May 1765 he launched the Nabby and the Polly, two schooners he had built at Liverpool, and in June 1766 he agreed to take a quarter-share in a schooner being built at Port Medway. The American revolution hit him severely (he lost five ships to privateers), but matters improved later. Between 1789 and 1810 he was owner or part-owner of at least 20 vessels built in Liverpool and vicinity.
For many years Perkins was prominent in both local and provincial affairs. Early in 1764 he was appointed a justice of the peace and a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, and he served for 46 years in both that court and the Court of Quarter Sessions. In 1770 he was chosen as proprietors’ clerk, an office which he held until 1802; he also acted as town clerk and county treasurer for a lengthy period. In 1772 he was appointed commissioner of roads. From 1777 to 1807 he was judge of probate for Queens County, from 1780 to 1790 deputy registrar of the Vice-Admiralty Court, and for many years custos rotulorum as well. Lieutenant-colonel of the county militia from 1772 to 1793, he served as colonel commandant from 1793 to 1807. Perkins was also for more than 30 years a member of the House of Assembly, representing Queens County from 1765 to 1799, except in 1768 and 1769. Even though he attended only 11 of 40 sessions, during his absence he was able to render service through his connections in Halifax. As an assemblyman, Perkins did effective work in a rather quiet way throughout a period affected by problems of both war and peace. Although “slow to speak,” according to William Black, “. . . in deciding upon questions of importance he is said to have manifested great wisdom and integrity.”
Simeon Perkins is well known for the comprehensive and voluminous diary he kept from 29 May 1766 to 13 April 1812. It is complete with the exception of the period from 22 Nov. 1767 to 15 June 1769, when he was in Connecticut, the year 1771, for which there are no entries, and the period from 5 March 1806 to 29 Nov. 1809, the record of which has been lost. When the diary was bequeathed to the town of Liverpool in 1899, it was described as “one of the most valuable and interesting records, that ever perhaps, came into the province.” It is indeed a mine of information for the study of economic, political, and social institutions, shedding light not only on the life of a community but also on a region occupying a significant place in the North Atlantic triangular trade and an important position in the evolution of the second British empire. Largely devoid of flashes of wit or insight, the diary is a journal of daily events in a pioneer settlement which had little time for worldly pleasures and a constant concern for survival. Perkins kept a careful record of births, marriages, and deaths, faithfully observed the weather, and commented on all noteworthy events in Liverpool and abroad. His statement upon heating of rumours of the end of hostilities in 1782 – “we hope for a Peace . . . that our Nation[s] may no longer Ly under the awfull Judgement of Devouring one an Other” – reflected the feelings of a great many Nova Scotians whose friends and relations were in New England. Perkins took a great interest in religious affairs, and changed from Congregationalism to Methodism late in life. He was impressed enough by Henry Alline* in 1783 to record that he had not seen “Such an Appearance of the Spirit of God moving upon the people” for some time. The following year, however, the New Light supporters were excluded from regular church meetings because Alline, in Perkins’s words, “denied the Fundamental Articles of the Christian Religion.” The diary also provides illuminating glimpses of the war at sea, as well as comments on losses at the hands of one’s own countrymen, and shows to what extent business and military strength affected the status of Nova Scotia. It has been published in a series of five volumes by the Champlain Society. The house of Simeon Perkins in Liverpool, built in 1766–67 and extended in 1781 and 1792, has been preserved as one of the historic houses of Nova Scotia.
The originals of Simeon Perkins’s diary are in the possession of the town of Liverpool, and microfilm and transcript copies are in PANS as MG 1, 749–52. It was published under the title The diary of Simeon Perkins . . . , ed. H. A. Innis et al. (5v., Toronto, 1948–78).
PANS, MG 1, 748A, 851; MG 4, 77; MG 20, 215, no.10; RG 1, 40; 48; 51–54; 165; 168; 171–72; 221, doc.40; 287; 378; 499 1/2; RG 5, A, 3, 6, 8, 10. Private arch., Seth Bartling (Liverpool, N.S.), R. J. Long, “The annals of Liverpool and Queen’s County, 1760–1867” (1926) (typescript at Dalhousie Univ. Library, Halifax; mfm. at PANS). Norwich, Conn., Vital records of Norwich, 1639–1848 (Hartford, Conn., 1913), 370. N.S., General Assembly, Acts (Halifax); House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1765–99. Naval Chronicle, 5 (January–June 1801): 174–75; repub. with comment in Provincial: or Halifax Monthly Magazine (Halifax), 2 (1853): 337–39. Nova Scotia Royal Gazette (Halifax), 3 June 1812. Epitaphs from the old cemeteries of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, comp. Charles Warman (Boston, ). G. A. Perkins, The family of John Perkins of Ipswich, Massachusetts (3 pts. in 1, Salem, Mass., 1889). C. B. Fergusson, Early Liverpool and its diarist (Halifax, 1961). Liverpool privateering, 1756–1815, comp. J. E. Mullins, ed. F. S. Morton ([Liverpool, 1936]). A. [McK.] MacMechan, There go the ships (Toronto, 1928). J. F. More, The history of Queens County, N.S. (Halifax, 1873; repr., Belleville, Ont., 1972). J. E. Mullins, Some Liverpool chronicles ([Liverpool], 1941). Murdoch, Hist. of N.S. R. R. McLeod, “Old times in Liverpool, N.S.,” Acadiensis (Saint John, N.B.), 4 (1904): 96–118. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 28 Nov. 1899. G. E. E. Nichols, “Notes on Nova Scotian privateers,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 13 (1908): 130.