Ports of Entry and Collectors of Customs in Upper Canada, 1797-1841 – Summer 1970

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Fredrick H. Armstrong

When the old Province of Quebec was divided into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791 the English-speaking residents of the new upper province, the modern Southern Ontario, were given the opportunity to develop their colony in the British tradition as they desired. At the same time, however, they were presented with a host of new problems, some of them resulting from the very division itself. One of these was the question of trade with the outer world, with the concomitant questions of collection of customs revenues – a vital part of the total provincial income – selection of ports of entry and appointment of collectors of customs. These last two involved the most important issue of the distribution of patronage, for, although the Imperial Commissioners of Customs and the Treasury in England had the right to ratify these nominations, for practical purposes the local authorities had a free hand.

Port of Montreal

The geographical position of the new province, together with the recent political cleavage of the continent, meant that outside trade could be directed in two quite different ways. First there was the trade down the St. Lawrence River to Lower Canada and Great Britain. With the river itself not yet navigable to ocean ships, all goods destined for Upper Canada had to enter through the ports of Quebec and Montreal. Obviously, control of these ports lay with the government of the lower province, but, equally evident, the customs duties collected at these ports would have to be divided between the two colonies. The question of how they were to be apportioned was a perpetual bone of contention, that was finally regulated in 1822, but remained enough of a sore point to be a factor in the reunion of 1841. The history of this question has already been examined in sufficient detail2 and, from an administrative point of view, really did not concern Upper Canada directly as these ports were outside the province’s jurisdiction.

Where Upper Canada was able to develop its own customs service was in the regulation of the trade to the south: across the Great Lakes to the United States, and beyond the United States to Great Britain, whose commerce could enter Upper Canada via New York as easily as along the St. Lawrence. In the years following the Revolutionary War there were naturally restrictions on this trade, but, as relations improved, these were gradually reduced. By 1787 the English Government had made it clear that they intended to leave the regulation of commerce to the local governor and council, and by 1790 American produce was being given favourable treatment.3 Although Canada remained under British economic control, the way was open for the evolution of Upper Canadian-United States trade on the Great Lakes, even before the new province was established.

Map of Upper & Lower Canada, 1791

The first local step in this process came in 1797, five years after the meeting of the first parliament of Upper Canada, when a temporary act was passed regulating trade with the United States for two years.4 Although this legislation expired in 1799, no further action was taken until 1801, when the first comprehensive provincial customs act was brought into force5 – many of the clauses of which remained unchanged throughout the Upper Canadian period. By this statute provision was made for the creation and operation of ports of entry, for the appointment and duties of customs officers, and for the establishment of tables of fees. During the next two decades the only additional legislation was in the form of special statutes, empowering the lieutenant governor to open a close port of entry as required during a specific term of years. The first of these, in 1802, stated that he could open “one or more” ports during a subsequent three-year period; similar acts followed in 1807, 1816, and 1819.6

The major revisions in the system came in the 1820s. In 1822 the British Parliament, in order to regulate the distribution of customs revenues between the two Canadas, passed the Canada Trade Act, which incidentally gave the lieutenant governor permanent authority to open and close ports of entry.7 Two years later the 1801 act, regulating the customs service, was completely overhauled. With some amendments in 1837 this new legislation provided the framework for customs administration up to the 1841 reunion.8

Under these new acts the administration of the individual port remained in the hands of the collector, who was required to both post a bond himself and provide two sureties for the proper performance of his duties. He was responsible for keeping the customs office open, although he could turn the operation over to a deputy, whom he appointed and paid himself. This “nonresidence” clause meant that the lucrative collectorships would normally be granted to a gentleman who would basically devote his time to other interests. The hours for the customs offices, which were set in 1801 and remained unchanged, were 9 :00 A.M.-12 :00M. and 3:00 P.M.-6:00 P.M. from May 1 to October 1, and 10:00 A.M.- 3:00 P.M. from October 1 to April 30. Sundays, Christmas and Good Friday were the only days that the offices were closed.

The remuneration of the collector, especially at a busy port, represented a very large sum of money for that era; it consisted of both an allowance and specific fees. With regard to the allowance, by both the acts of 1801 and 1824 the collector was “authorized to retain the sum of fifty pounds per centum on the amount of duties by him collected until the same amounts to one hundred pounds per annum, no more.” In 1837 this was amended so that he could retain £l2.10, out of every £100 collected, up to a total collection of £l000. Above £l000 revenues for the port he was allowed £5 out of every £l00 collected. It was specifically provided that he could not retain a total of more than £300 on the duties collected in any one year.

The fees were of two types. The first, established in 1801 and elaborated upon by the act of 1824, was the fee charged for a permit to unload. For ships under five tons burthen this was one shilling and threepence; from five to 50 tons it was two shillings and sixpence and over 50 tons, 10 shillings. Canoes, rafts, sleighs, carts and wagons were all rated the same as ships under five tons. The other fee, which appears in the 1824 act, was for a report which had to be furnished by all vessels on arrival at a port of entry. The collector charged one shilling and threepence for providing the form.

The development of a system of ports of entry reflected the increase and concentration of population in the province. The original act of 1801 provided for eleven ports, which were, moving from east to west: Cornwall, Johnstown [ Grenville County], Kingston, Newcastle, York [Toronto], Niagara [on-the-lake]) Queenston, “Fort Erie Passage,” Turkey Point [Norfolk County], Amherstburg and Sandwich [Windsor]. Except for Niagara, which does not appear to have become a port of entry until 6 July 1847, these were all opened effective 9 July 1801. The same 1801 legislation, in a rather confusing manner, attempted to provide that each port would be the entry point for one of the seven administrative districts – each comprising two or more counties – into which the province divided.

There were, however, two ports for the Niagara District, which was split for navigational purposes by the falls. Also, the Counties of Northumberland and Durham, which were about to be separated from the Mid- land District, were given their own port of entry in anticipation. The nine ports thus scheduled, with the areas they were to service, were as follows:

Cornwall – Eastern District
Johnstown – Johnstown District
Kingston – Midland District
Newcastle – Counties of Northumberland and Durham
York – Home District
Niagara – 1st, 2nd and 3rd Ridings of County of Lincoln, Niagara District
Fort Erie – Rest of Lincoln and County Haldimand, Niagara District
Turkey Point – London District
Sandwich – Western District

From the very first, however, this schedule, which admittedly conflicted with the list of ports of entry earlier in the act, was not put in force, for Queenston was opened, instead of Niagara, and in the Western District Amherstburg became a port as well as Sandwich.

Within a year more ports were found to be necessary. Under the 1802 act the lieutenant governor opened Chippawa and Gananoque, and in 1807 the port of St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s was added at the head of Lake Huron. This remained the picture until after the War of 1812 when, under the new authority of the 1816 act, the governor established ports at Bath, Belleville, Brockville, Burlington Bay, Port Dover and Prescott. In 1817 Drummond Island also made its appearance, which may have been a transfer from St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s. These were still not adequate, and in 1819 the last special law authorizing the governor to set up ports was enacted, followed by the creation of custom’s offices at Port Hope and Port Talbot in that year, and Hallowell in 1821. After the 1822 change in Imperial legislation, further special powers for the governor were unnecessary and new ports were opened as re- quired: five in the period 1822-29, thirteen from 1830 to 1841. Many of these were growing towns in the rapidly expanding western part of the province, such as Chatham, Goderich and Penetanguishene. But new ports were also opened on Lake Ontario: Cobourg and Oakville are examples.

In a developing area there was little need to close ports, but there were two cases before 1841. The first was Drummond Island in 1828, which was discontinued when the area was transferred to the United States. The other was Johnstown which declined rapidly, particularly after the district administration was transferred to Brockville in 1808. By 1818 the latter town was also a port of entry, usually with one collector for both ports, and in 1837 Johnstown was closed. Other declining ports may have been left open for patronage purposes, even if the volume of trade was very small.

The holders of the collectorships of customs provide an interesting study. As these were quite lucrative posts, especially in the larger ports, the offices were naturally much sought after, particularly since there was no regulation against holding a collectorship along with other government appointments and the work could be turned over to a deputy. Frequently the collectors were prominent men in the district in which their port was located – an example of the judicious use of patronage that helped to keep the ruling aristocracy in power from before 1800 until the mid-1830s. Although that Toronto-based group, known as the Family Compact, have been frequently castigated for their aristocratic rule of the province, they always had considerable local support and were able to win almost every election. One reason for this support was their careful regulation of the province-wide net of patronage, which meshed their interests to those of the elite in the local centres.

William Henry Merritt

Several of the men who held collectorships were prominent in provincial as well as local politics: James Kerby of Fort Erie was both collector of that port and a member of the Legislative Council, the upper house of the Provincial Parliament; William Hamilton Merritt of St. Catharines, the man who was both the instigator of the Welland Canal and later a leader in the Reciprocity movement, was a member of the Legislative Assembly, the lower house, from 1830 and collector of Port Dalhousie. Other leading local figures held collectorships at the beginning of distinguished provincial careers. Christopher Hagerman of Kingston and Levius Peters Sherwood of Brockville were both collectors of their towns at the start of their rise to legal fame. Hagerman later was attorney general, both were elected to the Legislative Assembly, and both ended their careers as judges of the Court of the King’s Bench, the high court of the colony. Possibly the most important of all was William Allan of York/Toronto, who held the collectorship of that port for the first quarter of the century, together with almost innumerable other offices.9 Beginning as a poor emigrant he rose to become the financial genius of the Family Compact and died in 1853, probably the richest man in the province.

At the purely local level many prominent politicians were also collectors, such as Mayor Thomas Kirkpatrick of Kingston. Others belonged to the local squire class: the Joneses in Eastern Ontario, the Burwells in Western Ontario, and George J. Ryerse of Port Dover are all examples. A few were from families prominent in the politics of the provincial capitol. George S. Jarvis of Cornwall was related to Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs Samuel Peters Jarvis, Home District Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis, Provincial Secretary William Jarvis and Home District Registrar Stephen Jarvis. The necessity of forming alliances with the local oligarchies, however, meant that the governing families of Toronto could make no real effort to dominate the local ports. One of the most interesting of those collectors who were local powers was William Hands of Sandwich, who officiated at that port from 1809 until his death in 1836, and has been described as “a one man civil service” for the Western District of the province. He was simultaneously postmaster, sheriff, treasurer and judge of the Surrogate Court, as well as being the holder of many other offices at various times.

Except for the above-mentioned case of the ports of Brockville and Johnstown there appears to be no example of one man holding two collectorships concurrently. There are, however, several cases of a family holding more than one collectorship and in some half-dozen instances the office was “inherited” by a member of the same family: William Hands passed both the Sandwich collectorship and the Western District treasurership on to his son Felix, as well as handing other offices on to his sons-in-law.

Such was the state of the customs service at the reunion of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada as the new Province of Canada in 1841. This reorganization united all the customs offices in these provinces, both lake ports and seaports, under one administration, and ended the struggle over division of the Lower Canadian customs duties. It did not, however, really have much effect on the Upper Canada customs organization. New ports continued to be opened after the same manner, and at about the same pace – thirteen were created from 1841 to 1849. The appointment of collectors continued to operate on a patronage rather than a professional basis, but, though a new group was now in power, the old officeholders were not displaced, even though some lost other offices. William Kerby of Fort Erie ceased to be a Legislative Councillor, but continued as collector for another eleven years. This lack of change probably demonstrates both that the service operated reasonably efficiently, and that the new men in power in the capital were loath to upset the old local patronage system.

  1. I would like to thank the Canada Council for providing a leave grant to enable me to continue my research on the structure of the government of Upper Can- ada, and also my colleague at Western, Professor Peter F. Neary, for his many helpful comments. Much of the information in this article was obtained while engaged in the research for my Handbook of Upper Chronology and Territorial Legislation (London, Ontario, 1967) which contains preliminary tables of the ports of entry and collectors of customs on pages 212-24.
  2. See Helen Taft Manning The Revolt of French Canada, 1800-1835 (Toronto, 1962) and Gerald M. Craig, Upper Canada the Formative Years, 1784-1841 (Toronto, 1963).
  3. L. Burt, the United States, Great Britain and British North America (New Haven, 1940), pp. 67-70.
  4. Upper Canada, Statutes, 1797, 37 Geo. III c.
  5. Upper Canada, Statutes, 1801, 41 Geo. III, c. 5. This was amplified in 1803 by 43 Geo. III, c.
  6. 6, Upper Canada, Statutes, 1802, 42 Geo. III, c. 4; 1807, 47 Geo. III, c. 4; 1816, 56 Geo. III, c. 8; and 1819, 59 Geo. III, c. 22.
  7. Great Britain, Statutes, 1822, 3 Geo. IV, c.
  8. Upper Canada, Statutes, 1824, 4 Geo. IV, c. 11; and 1837, 7 Wm. IV, c.
  9. See Edith Firth, The Town of York 1815-1834 (Toronto, 1966)) pp. 50-51.

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About the Author: Dr. Frederick H. Armstrong is an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario, specializing in the History of British North Amer- ica, 1759-1867, and in Urban History. He has written before for INLAND SEAS and is also a contributor to Ontario History and Canadian Historical Review. The author of Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology and Territorial Legislation, published in 1967, he is co- author, with Professor Hugh A. Stevenson, of Approaches to Teaching Local History: Using Canadian and Ontario Examples, published last year. Dr. Armstrong attained his Ph.D. degree in Canadian history at the University of Toronto.

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