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SMITH, WILLIAM, surgeon, army officer, politician, judge, and author; b. in England; m. Sarah MacLean; fl. 1784–1803.

Very little is known of William Smith before his appointment as garrison surgeon of the new colony of Cape Breton on 28 Aug. 1784. He arrived there in November with other English immigrants on the Blenheim and was appointed by Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres* to the Executive Council of the colony. DesBarres also named him judge of the Court of Exchequer, a largely titular position.

During the autumn of 1785 a dispute developed between DesBarres and the garrison commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John Yorke of the 33rd Foot, over responsibility for the distribution of supplies to the settlers. Smith and the other military men on the council tended to favour Yorke. As a result, in the spring of 1786 DesBarres demanded of this group that they give up either their council seats or their military posts. Smith resigned from the council, and then allied himself with Attorney General David Mathews* and Secretary Abraham Cornelius Cuyler to forward a petition to the British government calling for DesBarres’s dismissal. He was restored to the council after DesBarres’s recall in November 1786.

Smith enjoyed amicable relations with DesBarres’s successor, William Macarmick, and when Macarmick suspended Chief Justice Richard Gibbons* in March 1788 he named Smith the senior of the three assistant judges appointed to take Gibbons’s place. Smith’s income, however, was evidently inadequate to allow him to live in Cape Breton, and in the autumn of 1791 he returned to England, although he maintained an interest in the colony. In January 1796 he was superseded as garrison surgeon for neglect of duty and seems to have gone through a difficult period. But thanks to his friendship with Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth of Nova Scotia and Lieutenant-General James Ogilvie, then stationed at Halifax, N.S., he was able in March 1798 to obtain the position of joint chief justice of Cape Breton with Ingram Ball. He was sworn in that August, and was later reappointed to the council.

Smith and Ball were soon at odds, since Ball supported a political faction controlled by Mathews, while Smith aligned himself with the opposing group, headed by the Reverend Ranna Cossit. Both groups contended for dominance in the council and supported various rulers of the colony in an attempt to achieve their ends. Cossit and Smith favoured the policies of Ogilvie, who had become administrator of the colony in June 1798, and those of Ogilvie’s successor, Brigadier-General John Murray*. Murray dismissed Ball as joint chief justice in December 1799, leaving Smith alone in the post. Smith’s power was then at its peak; he sided with Murray in destroying the power of Mathews and his faction.

In June 1800 Major-General John Despard* arrived in Sydney to become administrator, but Murray refused to surrender the civil command. Since Smith’s influence had increased during Murray’s administration, he naturally took Murray’s part and refused to acknowledge the legality of Despard’s appointment. When in the autumn it became obvious that Murray’s efforts to retain power were futile, Smith left Cape Breton to present Murray’s case to the British government. He was not only unsuccessful in having Murray reinstated but was himself superseded as chief justice, despite his requests to retain the position.

Though Smith never returned to Cape Breton, in 1803 he wrote a 158-page pamphlet entitled A caveat against emigration to America; with the state of the island of Cape Breton. The first part of the work is descriptive of the problems encountered by British settlers in North America, and the remainder is an extensive account of the geography and political life of Cape Breton. Smith extolled the attractions of the island: “Intersected by navigable rivers, with numerous deep and commodious bays . . . surrounded by numerous fishing banks, stored with fish . . . with a rich soil [and a] healthy climate, it affords the settler great and tempting advantages.” At the same time, the Cape Breton section is highly critical of Smith’s political enemies, and biased and pessimistic in its account of events. Nevertheless, its description of the colony and its delineation of life in a newly settled region make it valuable to the student of the period. The pamphlet elicited a reply from DesBarres entitled Letters to Lord ********** onA caveat against emigration to America” in which he attacked Smith for the stands he had taken in Cape Breton. Nothing is known of Smith’s career after 1803.

Like others in Cape Breton, William Smith had high hopes of success in the colony, but his experiences there left him disappointed and bitter. He is, however, unique in having left a printed record which gives an insight into events there between 1784 and 1803. It is ironic to reflect that the Caveat was published in 1803, at the very time when the colony, now rid of personalities such as Mathews, Gibbons, and Smith, was finally beginning to achieve a measure of self-sufficiency.

R. J. Morgan

William Smith is the author of A caveat against emigration to America; with the state of the island of Cape Breton, from the year 1784 to the present year; and suggestions for the benefit of the British settlements in North America (London, 1803).

PAC, MG 11, [CO 217] Cape Breton A, 3. [J. F. W. DesBarres], Letters to Lord ********** onA caveat against emigration to America . . .” (London, 1804). Morgan, “Orphan outpost.”

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

R. J. Morgan, “SMITH, WILLIAM (fl. 1784-1803),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 13, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_william_1784_1803_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_william_1784_1803_5E.html
Author of Article:   R. J. Morgan
Title of Article:   SMITH, WILLIAM (fl. 1784-1803)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 13, 2024