RYAN, JOHN, merchant, steamboat captain and agent, and Patriote; b. probably 2 Sept. 1792 at St Johns (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Lower Canada, son of Thomas Ryan and Catherine Dwyer; m. first 11 Jan. 1813 Elizabeth Towner in Montreal, and they had five children, four of whom died in infancy; m. secondly 13 Jan. 1824 Elizabeth’s sister Deborah Towner in St Andrews (Saint-André-d’Argenteuil), Lower Canada, and they had eight children, five of whom reached adulthood; d. 12 Feb. 1863 in Quebec City and was buried two days later in Mount Hermon Cemetery, Saint-Colomb-de-Sillery (Quebec City).
John Ryan was working as a merchant in Laprairie (La Prairie) when he lost his wife, Elizabeth, on 17 April 1821. She was only 27. His father, Thomas, a veteran of the Provincial Marine, died the same year, on 15 July. John, who had amassed considerable debts through his commercial activities, was ordered by the Court of King’s Bench for the district of Montreal to sell his assets and repay his creditors.
In 1822 Ryan became captain of the steamer La Prairie, launched that spring by the La Prairie Steam-Boat Company to compete with the St Lawrence Steamboat Company, which was owned by the Molson family [see William Molson*]. At the time, steam navigation on the St Lawrence River was becoming increasingly important because of the growing number of immigrants who, having arrived at Quebec City’s port, wished to go on to Montreal. Two years later the St Lawrence Steamboat Company offered Ryan the helm of the steamer Chambly, which he captained for three years. In 1827 he was given command of the Montreal Tow Boat Company’s barge Hylas, owned by the Torrance family [see David Torrance*]. He then settled in Quebec City.
In July 1831 Ryan, acting as an agent of the Montreal Tow Boat Company, was called to testify at the Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace at Quebec against a man accused of theft. About to be sworn in by the counsel for the defence, he asserted that he did not believe in God. The magistrate could not accept Ryan’s declaration – every witness had to acknowledge the existence of God or a deity as well as a future state of reward and punishment – and he was therefore compelled to free the accused. Since Ryan’s atheism prevented him from upholding the interests of his employer, he was dismissed in March 1833. For almost 30 years he would demand that parliamentarians representing Lower Canada and later the united Canadas make it possible for individuals to give evidence in a court of law regardless of their beliefs. In 1843, however, he agreed to set aside his atheism for the good of his business interests and so that he could, among other reasons, testify against four employees and have three of his children baptized the following year.
In addition to the difficulties he encountered as a non-believer, Ryan also fell victim to his political opinions. As a reformer and a democrat, he advocated measures that would give people more power and freedoms (of the press, commerce, and religion, for example). In January 1838 Ryan’s residence was searched, uncovering his correspondence with leading Patriotes who had left for the United States, including Louis Perrault and Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan*. Ryan went into exile across the border to escape an arrest warrant alleging high treason. Lord Durham [Lambton*] issued a decree on 28 June forbidding 16 Patriotes, who were accused of high treason and had sought refuge in the United States, from re-entering the country on pain of death. Ryan and his son Jeremy Bentham were among those banished, as were Édouard-Étienne Rodier*, Cyrille-Hector-Octave Côté*, Louis-Joseph Papineau*, and George-Étienne Cartier* [see also Sir George-Étienne Cartier]. On 20 August the British government repudiated Lord Durham’s decree, although the Ryans did not return immediately, choosing instead to continue the fight from the United States, where their efforts included the publication of newspapers.
In late summer 1841, only a few months after returning to Quebec City, Ryan was offered the post of captain of the steamer Charlevoix. Three years later he asked for the public’s financial support to build the steamer Quebec, which would allow him to establish an independent line between Quebec and Montreal; the enterprise would compete with the consolidated company of his former employers, the Molson and Torrance families. On 27 March 1845 Ryan and his brother-in-law Michael White, together with businessmen John Wilson, Michael Connolly, and William Paterson, formed the People’s Line of Steamers [see John Munn*], which began operating in June with the Quebec and the Rowland Hill; Ryan was its first manager. At the beginning of the following year, Ryan and White became minority shareholders because Wilson wanted to take control of the company and they were forced to sell their shares.
Impoverished because of his diverse ventures, Ryan spent the last years of his life in White’s home, where he died on 12 Feb. 1863. On the 19th the newspaper Le Défricheur, published in the town of L’Avenir, wrote of him: “His political and religious opinions were extreme and were probably the cause of his limited success in business. He was supremely indifferent to all money matters and habitually involved himself in public projects with the single goal of making himself useful. He took an active part in all movements of this country’s progressive party.” Ryan’s line of work and his friends’ linguistic backgrounds suggest that he was able to express himself in both French and English.
Almost three years before his death, John Ryan had presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada demanding that never again should a “person be excluded from testifying in the Courts of Justice …, by reason of his religious belief, or want of religious belief.” More than a century later, the Code of Civil Procedure, promulgated in Quebec in 1965, would allow a witness who refused to take an oath to make a solemn affirmation. The “Act respecting the implementation of the reform of the Civil Code,” sanctioned in 1992, retained only the requirement of a solemn affirmation.
This biography is based on the author’s book John Ryan: capitaine, athée et patriote (L’Assomption, Québec, 2017). An exhaustive list of the many primary and secondary sources included in this publication was consulted.
Despite extensive searches, no records of John Ryan’s birth or baptism could be found or authenticated. The information about his date and place of birth corresponds to the dates inscribed on his gravestone at Mount Hermon Cemetery in Quebec City.
The names of Ryan’s parents are found in the family Bible preserved at the Dunham Bible Museum of Houston Baptist Univ., Tex. (BS 185 1791 .W73 c. 2 1791). It also contains information on the children born of his two marriages.
Prov. of Can., Legislative Assembly, Journals, 27 April 1860.
© 1976–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
José Doré, “RYAN, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ryan_john_b_9E.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:||José Doré|
|Title of Article:||RYAN, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||2023|
|Access Date:||April 2, 2023|