RYKERT, GEORGE, militia officer, teacher, surveyor, merchant, politician, and office holder; b. 8 Aug. 1797 in Rhinebeck, N.Y., son of Zacherius and Catharine Reickert (Reichert, Rikert); m. 31 Oct. 1827 Ann Maria Mittleberger in Montreal, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. 1 Nov. 1857 in St Catharines, Upper Canada.
A member of a Lutheran family of Germanic origin, George Rykert came to the Niagara District of Upper Canada in about 1810. During the War of 1812 he served with the 1st Lincoln Militia, which saw action in the skirmishes near St Davids in July 1814. He subsequently settled at St Catharines, where he taught school and on 26 Nov. 1818 took the oath of allegiance to the crown. After training under Charles Kinsey Fell, a Pelham Township surveyor, he qualified on 9 Nov. 1821 as a deputy provincial land surveyor, an occupation which he practised until shortly before his death. He conducted surveys throughout the Niagara District, especially for the “German” settlers in the Jordan area, and participated with varying success in engineering projects throughout the province.
In 1826 Rykert laid out a village plot for St Catharines, which was beginning to grow as a result of the construction of the adjacent Welland Canal. With Samuel Clowes, an experienced civil engineer, he also completed in that year a survey and estimates for a canal system on the St Lawrence River. In 1827 Rykert, James Simpson, and Thomas Adams formed a company to build the Smiths Falls section of the Rideau Canal but their failure to complete the contract resulted in the firm’s dissolution about 1829 and a prolonged legal dispute with the British military.
Rykert’s association with the Mittlebergers, a Montreal family active in the supply and financing of Upper Canadian merchants, was probably the major factor in his decision to enter business after his attempt at canal construction. In 1829 he and his brother-in-law John Mittleberger opened a general store and wharf in St Catharines. With Mittleberger and Beacher Benham, he later expanded into distilling and grist-milling. The supply of goods from Montreal and the subsequent sale of produce there were normally handled by commission agents such as Charles Mittleberger. Rykert gradually became heavily indebted to Montreal businessmen, including Peter McGill and Robert Armour. The business periodically suffered losses in the grain trade but, shored up by the regional prosperity generated by the Welland Canal, Rykert experienced modest success until the mid 1830s and acquired various local positions.He was a founding subscriber, and later trustee, of Grantham Academy, established in St Catharines in 1829, and four years later he received his first commission of the peace for the Niagara District.
Supported by his long-time friend William Hamilton Merritt*, the influential St Catharines businessman and politican, Rykert contested the seat for 2nd Lincoln in the provincial election of 1834. Described by the British American Journal as “a Steadfast Reformer, (not a Humite revolutionist) – and an opponent of the ‘church and state’ doctrine of the Tories,” he defeated radical reformer William Woodruff with a moderate reform platform. Though a member of the Church of England himself, through his entire political career Rykert advocated the sale of Upper Canada’s clergy reserves and the application of the proceeds to public works, education, and the needs of all religious denominations, including the Tunkers and the Mennonites. Re-elected in 1836, he “generally acted together” with Merritt and they “voted uniformly in the direction of improvements.” Rykert served as chairman of a parliamentary committee on banking, which proposed the formation of district banks; both he and Merritt supported a bill to establish a district bank at St Catharines, an institution they had sought since 1831 owing to the “largely increased business” stimulated by canal operations. In the growing climate of hostility from reformers towards the Welland Canal, Rykert, who had withdrawn his stock in 1825 for “various causes,” denied in 1836 that he had profited from the venture and recommended public control of the canal, which he regarded as a “fine thing for St. Caths and the adjoining places.”
Beginning in 1836, largely on issues relating to Lower Canada, he began moving from moderate reform politics to compact toryism, and a position of ruinous political divergence from Merritt. He firmly opposed the much-debated Upper Canadian annexation of Montreal, which Merritt supported. Union of the provinces and Upper Canada’s economic and cultural subjugation, he argued, would follow and the rebellion of 1837 only served to strengthen this belief. In the turbulent weeks of December 1837 Rykert, citing a lack of efficient militia officers, lobbied without success to secure a captaincy in the 1st Regiment of Lincoln militia and reputedly rejected a subaltern’s appointment. By early January 1838 he had, however, assumed command of a cavalry company although he saw no action. Rykert had reacted vehemently towards William Lyon Mackenzie*’s proclamation of a provisional government on Navy Island in the Niagara River, applauding the destruction in December 1837 of the steamer Caroline [see Sir Allan Napier MacNab*], which had served the rebel forces there. During the resulting border tensions, which were marked by sporadic rebel raids and rumours of American complicity, he deplored the encroachment of republicanism, the permissive response of the British government, and French Canadian insurgence on another frontier. “There is no doubt in my mind the next brush will be on the Niagara Frontier,” he informed Christopher Alexander Hagerman*. “We must be prepared to meet them [‘the Rabble of Buffalo’] – I trust we shall have some assistance from the other side of the Lake. . . . I have great fears that we shall be attacked in rear by the people in the Southern part of our District.”
During the early months of 1838, as rebellion subsided in Upper Canada and debate in the assembly resumed, Rykert became increasingly fearful of renewed hostility and resentful towards the military and government authorities. He lamented his legislative presence in Toronto. “It is disgusting to see the train hanging about the Govt office,” he confided to Charles Mittleberger. “Every little puppy connected in the remotest degree to the family Compact of this city is dubbed Col. or Major.” The rebellion had convinced Rykert that only a greater number of political representatives from Upper Canada could counter the political, cultural, and economic evils which he foresaw in provincial union. “I have no desire to be connected with your french rebels,” he bluntly told Mittleberger in January 1838. “We have enough to do to keep down our own vagabonds.” In 1839, following the release of the famous report from Lord Durham [Lambton*], Rykert briefly recognized the principle of union but, overwhelmed by personal antagonisms towards Roman Catholicism, the French language, and imperial concessions since the conquest, he soon resumed his open opposition to union and responsible government.
Rykert’s sense of crisis and extreme conservatism, which were particularly acute even given the hostility in the wake of the rebellion in Upper Canada, were intensified by business difficulties (possibly related to the depression of 1836–37) and perhaps by the death in 1838 of his young daughter. In 1836 he had sought unsuccessfully a commercial association with Merritt. Rykert was forced to discontinue credit transactions with store customers in January 1839 as a result of the “inconvenience and embarrassment” caused by losses in “flour matters” and by his over-extension of credit. In August his partnerships with Mittleberger and Benham were dissolved as part of a complicated business reorganization which was completed about 1841.
In spite of his withdrawal from business, Rykert entered the electoral campaign of 1840–41, the first of the union era, anticipating strong support in St Catharines and several key townships. He was unexpectedly opposed by Merritt, whose moderate reform platform of popular union politics and “commercial and industrial improvement” underscored the growing obsolescence of Rykert’s political position. His opposition to union and responsible government, continued antagonism towards the United States, and desperate plea for the continuation of the direct “British connexion” in the Canadas (the hallmarks of tory groups bypassed by the mainstream of politics) produced a bitter and “truly astonishing” rearguard campaign over which Merritt’s supporters and such journalists as James H. Sears rode roughshod. Rykert’s accusations that Merritt had resorted to “bribery and corruption” quickly drew counter-allegations that Rykert had used gangs of Orangemen to control polls but had “tumbled flat into the ditch of political degradation.”
Confronting the realities of political defeat and commercial retreat, Rykert pursued a number of county and district offices between 1841 and 1844 without much success. He nevertheless retained some local prominence as a boundary line commissioner, rebellion losses commissioner, militia officer, Grantham Township councillor, and warden of St George’s Church. In 1843 he secured the newly opened St Catharines agency of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District, an appointment which had been facilitated by his political alignment with its president, the staunch Kingston tory John Solomon Cartwright*.
Although direct political influence had been wrested from him, Rykert viewed with intense partisan rancour the progress of negotiations over that “fatal absurdity,” responsible government, and the degree of control exercised by Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* in parliament in 1842–43. “Either through imbecility, or something worse,” Governor Sir Charles Bagot* had “bartered away the Queens prerogative with a reckless french faction to the immenent danger of our connection.” The resignation of the executive and the prorogation of the legislative assembly in late 1843 [see Robert Baldwin] sparked Rykert’s hopes for a tory resurgence. He revelled in such “stirring times” and urged Cartwright “to take office if asked even at some sacrifice, rather than allow the Govt. again to fall into the hands of the ‘Philistines.’” In the 1844 election Rykert once more failed to oust Merritt. According to an obituary, however, he “was afterwards thoroughly convinced of the justice and wisdom of the decision of the majority” on the question of responsible government.
The incorporation of St Catharines in 1845 drew the former councillor back into municipal politics. A member of the town’s police board (1845, 1848–49), Rykert promoted the formation of a fire brigade, the erection of a market and town hall, and the construction of the Great Western Rail-Road. Privately he participated in the new businesses and institutions fostered by the reconstruction of the Welland Canal (completed in 1845) and the province-wide boom of the 1850s. He held the presidency of the St Catharines Building Society in 1850 and by 1852 agencies for the British America Fire and Life Assurance Company, the Colonial Life Assurance Company, and the Church of England Life Assurance Company. A director in 1853, he was president from 1854 to 1857 of the Port Dalhousie and Thorold Railway, which was to connect with the Great Western just south of St Catharines. He was elected to town council in 1855, and in 1856–57 served as reeve of St Catharines and warden of Lincoln County.
Following the Midland Bank’s closure of his St Catharines agency in July 1856 because of diminishing financial resources, Rykert toured England, Ireland, and Europe in a futile bid to arrest the chest cancer that afflicted him. Upon returning he nevertheless resumed his banking interests in St Catharines, where “facilities are wholly inadequate to the business of the place” as he optimistically declared in December in an effort to raise capital from Merritt and others to establish a branch of the Union Bank of Canada. That same month his own financial situation, which had possibly worsened since his return, necessitated his mortgaging of property.
In September 1857 Rykert’s debilitating illness forced his confinement to his residence, where “the friend of the farmer, merchant and mechanic” died. His funeral and procession attracted over 500 people, including the town’s fire brigades, representatives of Grantham Academy, and a large masonic cortège led by a “rather unusual feature – an excellent Band.”
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