WHITMAN, ABRAHAM, mariner, businessman, and justice of the peace; b. 10 Sept. 1761 in Stow, Mass., tenth child of John Whitman and Mary Foster; m. 1 March 1793 Hannah Webber in Chester, N.S., and they had five daughters and four sons; d. 24 March 1854 in Canso, N.S.
Abraham Whitman’s family was among the New England planters attracted to Nova Scotia by the vacated Acadian lands which were offered in the proclamation of 1758 by Governor Charles Lawrence*. His father, Deacon John Whitman, arrived in Annapolis Royal on 25 June 1760, the family following some time later. In 1763 John died, leaving his wife with 11 children, all under 15 years of age. As a result, the family was broken up. Abraham was only two years old when his father died and it is not clear where he spent his youth. A family genealogy suggests that he “was of an active and energetic disposition, and at an early age started out to make his own living.” A deed registered in 1793 refers to him as a “mariner,” and later biographical accounts suggest that he lived in both Halifax and Liverpool, N.S., before settling in Chester by 1792. Here he married, farmed, ran a store and wharf, and here eight of his children were born. His business included building ships and shipping timber to England, apparently in association with the large importing firm of James Foreman and George Grassie in Halifax. By 1807 Whitman’s business in Chester was not prospering and he looked seriously at prospects elsewhere. Local references maintain that he had visited Canso during business trips and “was favourably impressed with the advantages it possessed for the fishing trade.” In the fall of 1809 he petitioned for land there and the following year received a grant of 500 acres, 300 of which were on Durell Island, a valuable location for one who wished to “carry on a Fishery.”
Although Canso had been the most important fishing post in the province until the middle of the 18th century, by the first decade of the 19th century it was hardly a shadow of its former self: it contained only five households in 1810. Thrust into the North Atlantic, it was isolated and lonely for months of the year. Despite establishing a business in Canso, Whitman did not immediately move his family there, preferring to winter in Chester until the War of 1812, “with its attendant privateers, reduced communication extremely dangerous.” When he moved his family to Canso in December 1812 or January 1813, his split with Chester was complete, since he left power of attorney to sell all his property there. His business in Canso consisted of “fitting out fishing vessels and selling the cargoes brought home from the Banks.” He also purchased large quantities of land, had a store, and “built up a business of considerable volume, exchanging merchandise for fish and fur. He shipped his fish principally to the West Indies – some to the Mediterranean ports and the Azores – bringing back return cargoes.” He also built and bought ships, which were sailed by his sons, two of whom were lost at sea.
As both Canso and his business grew, Whitman became “the leading man in the community,” and for 40 years he was involved in every aspect of life there. A Congregationalist himself, he set aside a room in his house for public worship and cooperated with local Methodists. He helped organize a Sunday school; as “Mr Whitman was versed in music scientifically, a singing school was also opened.” In 1824 he completed the building of a Congregational church in which “all evangelical clergymen visiting Canso were invited to preach,” and in 1846 he turned the building and land over to the congregation. He sold and gave land to the Baptists and the Methodists. Apparently Whitman was a man of conviction as well as of religion. Like most merchants of the period, he was a large importer of liquor until, impressed by the claims of the temperance society, he pledged total abstinence about 1830 and “never imported another gallon of spirits.” He was also concerned with education. During his early years in Canso he had brought a teacher from Chester for his family. In 1846, when the community needed a public school, he supplied the land. His concern for civic affairs is also evident in his acceptance in 1840 of a commission as a justice of the peace for Guysborough County: in a community that seven years before had gone through religious riots, such a commission was not simply honorary.
The Whitman business, which flourished for many years after Abraham’s death in 1854 at 92, played a central role in the life of the community, as did several generations of Whitmans. The family, the business, and Canso itself provide an interesting insight into the growth, development, and decline of a Nova Scotian outpost community in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Guysborough County Registry of Deeds (Guysborough, N.S.), Index to deeds, 1800–60; deeds, book D: 295; book H: 204, 540; book I: 279; book K: 137 (mfm. at PANS). Lunenburg County Registry of Deeds (Chester, N.S.), Deeds, book 3: 532; book 6: 20; book 7: 106 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 4, 103: 1–12; MG 9, no.45: 276–77; MG 100, 42, no.57; 245, no.26; RG 1, 175: 138; RG 20A, Whitman, Abraham, 1809, 1810, 1820. C. H. Farnam, History of the descendants of John Whitman of Weymouth, Mass. (New Haven, Conn., 1889), 806. Harriet Cunningham Hart, History of the county of Guysborough (Belleville, Ont., 1975). Canso News (Canso, N.S.), May 1912. Harriet Cunningham Hart, “History of Canso, Guysborough County, N.S.,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 21 (1927): 1–34.