WOOLSEY, JOHN WILLIAM (baptized Jean-Guillaume), businessman and militia officer; b. 26 July 1767 at Quebec, son of John William Woolsey, merchant, and Marie-Joseph Trefflé, dit Rottot; m. 19 March 1797 Julie Lemoine in Montreal, and they had seven children; d. 9 May 1853 at Quebec and was buried on 12 May at Château-Richer, Lower Canada.
Shortly after the conquest of New France, the elder John William Woolsey and his brother Robert left Portadown in Ireland and came to settle in the new British colony. Following his marriage, he and his wife, a daughter of the Montreal merchant Pierre Trefflé, dit Rottot, settled at Quebec, where Woolsey launched into various business activities. During the siege of the city by the Americans in 1775–76, Woolsey, who held the rank of major in the local militia, was taken off to Philadelphia as a prisoner. John William, who was then eight years old, went with his uncle George Woolsey to live in Baltimore, Md. They returned to Quebec some years later and on 14 May 1781 John William was apprenticed to his uncle Robert Woolsey and George Gregory, merchants specializing in the imported dry goods trade. The contract, which bound him to them for a period of five years, was transferred on 22 May 1784 to Melvin, Wills, and Burns with John William’s consent.
Six years later Woolsey became the partner of William Burns* in Burns and Woolsey. The two partners were auctioneers, commission merchants, and brokers. In 1797 the firm rented the Queen’s Wharf at the foot of Rue Sous-le-Fort, a site which then belonged to William Grant*. Burns and Woolsey was dissolved in 1806. That year Woolsey bought the Queen’s Wharf, which included three stone houses three storeys high, four two-storey stone sheds, various other buildings, and a quay.
The following year Woolsey left the house he had lived in for 12 years on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot to take up residence on Rue des Pauvres (Côte du Palais). It was here in 1808–9 that the artist William Berczy* did a painting of the Woolsey family. Woolsey moved again in 1810, to be closer to his business, and for the next 16 years he was to occupy a house at Queen’s Wharf, opposite Rue Saint-Pierre. Following his move Woolsey introduced various innovations, such as establishing uniform charges for warehousing and wharfage, and using a crane to unload goods. In 1819 he brought in a European fertilizer and had a steam-mill built in order to prepare it. It was at this juncture that he joined the Agricultural Society in the district of Quebec.
In the same period Woolsey played an important role in the city’s business community. In December 1816, for example, he chaired a meeting called to plan the location for a stock exchange. Subsequently he served on a committee of five merchants to carry out the plan. Two years later he presided over the founding meeting of the Quebec Bank and he held office as the first president of its board of directors from 1818 to 1823. His reputation extended beyond business circles, and he was called upon to chair various public meetings, including one of the Quebec Constitutional Association held on the Esplanade on 31 July 1837, which attracted several thousand people.
In connection with his business operations, Woolsey set up various firms. John William Woolsey and Company was formed in 1810 with his brother-in-law Benjamin Lemoine. Then came Woolsey, Stewart and Company, from 1815 to 1820. On the dissolution of this partnership Woolsey ceased to act as an auctioneer, commission merchant, and broker, but he kept his fertilizer business and continued to use the port facilities of the Queen’s Wharf, where he had a steam-mill built for grinding wheat. However, by 1822 he had returned to his first commercial interest, setting up Woolsey, LeMesurier and Company, in which his son William Darly and merchant Henry LeMesurier* participated. LeMesurier resigned within a month, and the firm took the name of Woolsey and Son. William Darly Woolsey soon chose the priesthood, but his brother John Bryan showed an interest in business and made a start in the fertilizer trade, buying a site at Saint-Roch where he had a steam-mill built. In 1838 Woolsey Sr turned this mill, which had been badly damaged by fire two years before, into a sawmill. It included at least three saws run by a six-horsepower motor.
At the time his wife died in 1840, Woolsey was living comfortably in a rented nine-room house on Rue Saint-Georges (Côte d’Abraham), in Upper Town. The couple owned a library of some 60 volumes, with French and English books shelved side by side. A telescope was installed in the room at the top of the house. Subsequently Woolsey moved to various parts of Upper Town, and from 1847 to 1848 he even lived in a villa at Sainte-Foy. He had been residing for a short while on Rue Saint-François at Quebec when he died on 9 May 1853 after a brief illness, at the advanced age of 85 years and 10 months. Not long before, he had renounced Protestantism, to which he had been converted in 1787. On 21 Feb. 1851, in a letter to a niece in England, he complained that his greatest disappointment had been in the manufacture of fertilizer, which he had carried on for more than 30 years at a loss he estimated at over £8,000. In fact various debts had forced Woolsey to divest himself of his properties gradually during the final years of his life.
His obituary in the Quebec Mercury of 17 May 1853 described John William Woolsey as a man with an innovative, venturesome mind and exemplary public-spiritedness. It was doubtless this last quality that had earned him his commission as lieutenant-colonel of Quebec’s 1st Militia Battalion in 1830.
The papers of John William Woolsey and of his family are at PAC, MG 24, D1, 1–2.
ANQ-M, CE1-63, 19 mars 1797. ANQ-Q, CE1-6, 10 sept. 1840, 12 mai 1853;CE1-20, 28 juill. 1767;CN1-188, 4 mars 1841, 25 mai 1853;CN1-230, 31 oct. 1806. Quebec Gazette, 19 Jan. 1792; 23 Feb. 1797; 4 Dec. 1806; 22 May 1820; 17 June, 15 Aug. 1822. Quebec Mercury, 31 Dec. 1810; 17 Jan. 1815; 17 Dec. 1816; 10, 20 Feb., 7 Sept. 1818; 20 April 1819; 17 May 1853. Jean Trudel, William Berczy; la famille Woolsey (Ottawa, 1976).
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Cite This Article
Michel Monette, “WOOLSEY, JOHN WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/woolsey_john_william_8E.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:||Michel Monette|
|Title of Article:||WOOLSEY, JOHN WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 27, 2023|