THAIN, THOMAS, fur trader, militia officer, businessman, office holder, and politician; b. in Scotland; d. unmarried 26 Jan. 1832 in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Not much is known about Thomas Thain’s origins; he is said to have been a nephew of John Richardson and John Forsyth*, and thus a relative of the Phyns and Ellices. These family connections probably opened the doors to the fur trade for him. In 1803 he was a clerk with the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), for which the firm of Forsyth, Richardson and Company, one of its copartners, acted as agent. On 5 Nov. 1804, when the North West Company and the New North West Company amalgamated, Thain was made the agent of the latter firm (then renamed Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company) for a period of five years, and four days later he became a partner. In his capacity of agent, he received a share in the reorganized NWC as well as additional compensation of £200.
In each of the first five years following the amalgamation Thain, who was located in Montreal, went to the “depot” on the shores of Lake Superior. Indeed, he wrote up the minutes of the annual meetings there in 1808 and 1809. At this period the NWC was concerned with reducing expenses, and Thain was largely instrumental in instituting measures to that end. In 1808, as agent, he participated in a committee studying how to reduce certain fur-trading costs considered excessive, such as advances made to the Indians. He does not seem to have gone to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) in the period 1810–14.
When McTavish, McGillivrays and Company was reorganized on 1 Nov. 1814, Thain became a partner. He received 2 of the 19 shares and, “in consideration of the benefit expected to be derived by the Concern from the services and experience of the said Thomas Thain,” he was accorded additional remuneration in proportion to profits made; he even continued to act as agent of Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company. From 1818 Thain held a still more important position in McTavish, McGillivrays and Company: he replaced John McTavish in the accounting and bookkeeping departments. He was active in defending the NWC’s interests. In September 1817 he had tried unsuccessfully to secure the arrest in Montreal of Colin Robertson*, the agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company who was already being prosecuted for having attacked the NWC’s Fort Gibraltar (Winnipeg, Man.), and he played a somewhat shady role in the lawsuits resulting from the legal disputes between the NWC and the HBC.
The amalgamation of the two giants of the fur trade marked the beginning of the end for McTavish, McGillivrays and Company. The 1821 agreement made it the Montreal representative of the HBC and left it to run the Montreal department, which included the Ottawa River posts and, until the lease expired, the king’s posts. This arrangement meant an obvious loss of authority for the firm, previously in supreme control of the NWC’s operations. In 1823 Thain had to submit to the governor of the HBC the matter of concluding the sale to the government of company buildings at Sault Ste Marie (Ont.). In the period 1822–24 Thain and his firm were reprimanded several times by the London committee for the losses suffered at posts under their jurisdiction, their costly way of resolving the problem of competition, and their neglect of systematic reporting on trade at the posts.
In the autumn of 1821, when the brothers William and Simon* McGillivray left for England, they had put Thain at the head of the firm. The agreement under which the firm operated expired in November 1822 and the three of them set up, though without a partnership contract, the firm of McGillivrays, Thain and Company, to serve as agents for the HBC and to liquidate McTavish, McGillivrays and Company. A partner of the latter firm, Henry McKenzie, who disputed his partners’ earlier decisions and who had vainly asked to examine the books, was persuaded to entrust management of the firm to Thain until November 1825, when he would have to give an accounting. During those years Thain settled some of the firm’s debts with former partners and employees. The financial situation of the two companies kept deteriorating, to the point that in December 1825 Simon McGillivray had to suspend payments and declare them insolvent, and then in February 1826 hand over their assets and his own to trustees.
Thain seems to have been the person most responsible for this deterioration. If McGillivray is to be believed, Thain’s numerous other activities harmed his main work. He had helped revitalize the Beaver Club, which he had joined in 1807. On 20 Feb. 1811 he was commissioned a lieutenant in Montreal’s 1st Militia Battalion. One of the original shareholders of the Bank of Montreal, in 1819 or 1820 he was appointed a director, and from 1822 to 1825 he was vice-president. He held other offices at the same time: commissioner for building the Lachine Canal in 1819 and member of the House of Assembly for the riding of Montreal East from 1820 to 1824. He was also a shareholder in the Bank of Canada, and in March 1824 he transferred 100 shares to Charles Grant. He was likewise one of the promoters of the Theatre Royal in Montreal, founded in 1825.
On 5 Aug. 1825 Thain left Montreal for England “with a view,” as he said, “of obtaining medical advice . . . , to visit my relatives in Scotland, and also to adjust accounts connected with the late firm of Sir Alex. Mackenzie & Co.” He left his books and papers, along with those of the companies that he managed, in total disorder in his living quarters. He was never to return to Lower Canada; on arriving in England he suffered an attack of brain-fever and from the spring of 1826 till his death he was confined in an asylum in Scotland. John Richardson was appointed trustee of his real and personal estate on 5 Dec. 1826.
Thomas Thain is a controversial figure. One fur trader, John McLean*, considered that he was rather eccentric but that he had “a heart that glowed with the best feelings of humanity.” Another, John Siveright*, also spoke highly of his kindness and generosity. Simon McGillivray, however, thought he had too much confidence in his own abilities, which led him “to undertake too much and to trust too much to the labour of his own hands.” Henry McKenzie accused him, in effect, of embezzlement: according to McKenzie, the assets of McTavish, McGillivrays and Company had been used to liquidate McGillivrays, Thain and Company’s debts, and Thain’s personal debt to various companies amounted to some £96,000. Thain was caricatured as Hurlo-thrumbo, Lord Goddamnhim, in the Scribbler, a newspaper issued by Samuel Hull Wilcocke, formerly a publicist for the NWC.
ANQ-M, CC1, 10 juin 1831, 17 avril 1832; CN1-16, 19 déc. 1822; CN1-29, 18, 29 avril, 6 nov. 1816; CN1-68, 27 juin 1815; CN1-187, 9 nov. 1816; 29 juin 1820; 3 déc. 1821; 26 févr., 18 mai, 10 juin 1822; 1er, 5 févr., 18 oct. 1823; 7 juin, 4 oct., 28, 31 déc. 1824; 29 juill., 4, 31 oct. 1825; 2 févr., 1er juin 1826; P1000-5-537. AUM, P 58, U, Inglis, Ellice & Co. to Thain, 15 April 1819; Thain to J. Mackenzie, 10 Aug. 1815; Thain to Alexander Mackenzie & Co., 17 April 1816; Thain to Inglis, Ellice & Co., 25 Oct. 1816; Thain to James Grant, 2 April 1821; Thain to Charles Grant, 4, 6 March 1824; Thain to John McDonald, 15 May 1829. McCord Museum, Beaver Club minute-book. PAC, MG 30, D1. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). [James] Hargrave, The Hargrave correspondence, 1821–1843, ed. G. P. de T. Glazebrook (Toronto, 1938). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming); HBRS, 3 (Fleming). John McLean, John McLean’s notes of a twenty-five year’s service in the Hudson’s Bay territory, ed. W. S. Wallace (Toronto, 1932). F.-J. Audet, Les députés de Montréal. “Calendar of the Dalhousie papers,” PAC Report, 1938: 46. Desrosiers, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Lartigue,” ANQ Rapport, 1941–42: 417. The centenary of the Bank of Montreal, 1817–1917 (Montreal, 1917). G. C. Davidson, The North West Company (Berkeley, Calif., 1918; repr. New York, 1967). Denison, Canada’s first bank, 1: 162, 171, 225. M. L. MacDonald, “The literary life of English and French Montreal from 1817 to 1830 as seen through the periodicals of the time” (ma thesis, Carleton Univ., Ottawa, 1976), 55. Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vol 2. W. S. Wallace, The pedlars from Quebec and other papers on the Nor’Westers (Toronto, 1954). M. [E.] Wilkins Campbell, McGillivray, lord of the northwest (Toronto, 1962); NWC (1957). C. F. Klinck, “The world of The Scribbler,” Journal of Canadian Fiction (Montreal), 4 (1975), no.4: 123–48. “Question,” BRH, 39 (1933): 48.
© 1987–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Gratien Allaire, “THAIN, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thain_thomas_6E.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:||Gratien Allaire|
|Title of Article:||THAIN, THOMAS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||April 2, 2023|