Robert Nichol, c. 1774-1824

On September 24, 2009, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Port Dover Marine Museum unveiled a provincial plaque in Port Dover, Ontario, to commemorate Robert Nichol, v. 1774-1824.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:

ROBERT NICHOL, C. 1774-1824

    Born in Scotland, Robert Nichol moved to Upper Canada in 1792 and settled in Port Dover in 1808, where he established milling, brewing, and distilling businesses. During the War of 1812 Nichol served as quartermaster-general of the Upper Canadian militia, worked closely with Isaac Brock and was frequently engaged in action against American forces. He endured crippling personal losses when enemy troops burned his mills and home near this site in 1814. Nichol held several civil offices, and between 1812 and his death in 1824, represented Norfolk in the colony's legislative assembly. Initially, he supported the government, but led the opposition from 1817, calling for democratic reform and public initiatives to improve the economy. Nichol contributed much to the province in terms of its civic development in its formative prewar years, defence during desperate times, and in its political maturation in the postwar period.

ROBERT NICHOL, V. 1774-1824

    Né en Écosse, Robert Nichol arrive dans le Haut-Canada en 1792. En 1808, il s'installe à Port Dover, où il crée des entreprises de concassage, de brassage et de distillation. Pendant la guerre de 1812, il sert en tant que quartier-maître général de la milice du Haut-Canada, collabore étroitement avec Isaac Brock et se livre fréquemment à des actions contre les forces américaines. En 1814, il subit de lourdes pertes personnelles lorsque les troupes ennemies brûlent ses moulins et sa demeure, non loin de ce site. Il exerce plusieurs fonctions civiles, représentant notamment le comté de Norfolk au sein de l'assemblée législative de la colonie de 1812 jusqu'à sa mort, en 1824. Si au départ il soutient le gouvernement, il prend la tête de l'opposition à partir de 1817, en appelant à la réforme démocratique et aux initiatives publiques pour améliorer l'économie. Il a beaucoup apporté à la province, en contribuant à son développement civique au cours des années de formation d'avant-guerre, en la défendant en période de troubles et en favorisant sa maturation politique après la guerre.

Historical background

Robert Nichol, born in Scotland around 1774, came to the British colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1792 and pursued his life as a businessman, justice of the peace, office holder, militia officer and politician. He figured prominently in the history of Norfolk County, the War of 1812 and in the province’s legislative assembly until his death in 1824.1

Nichol’s early life is obscure, although we know that he was born near Dumfries. He laboured as a sailor, landed in Montreal and made his way to Upper Canada, where he first found employment on a lake vessel for the prominent merchant, Robert Hamilton. He also worked for other businessmen, as well as on his own and in partnerships at Queenston, Detroit and Fort Erie.2 By the end of the 1790s, he had settled at Fort Erie as a prominent forwarder, moving manufactured goods and produce in and out of the province. Records show that he became a lieutenant in the Upper Canadian militia as early as 1803.3 By 1808, he relocated to Woodhouse Township in Norfolk County (today’s Port Dover) on the north shore of Lake Erie, where he had renovated and opened a gristmill by 1809. His business expanded to include a sawmill, a brewery, three stills and a cooperage. His establishment also boasted a barn, flour store, accommodation for workmen and a house. A good part of his income during those years came from supplying flour and pork to the garrison at Fort Erie. In 1811, he married Theresa Wright of Niagara, with whom he would have four children.

Nichol held various public offices before the War of 1812, serving as a tax collector, justice of the peace and road commissioner. He fell afoul of provincial politics in the latter post when Joseph Willcocks, a leading opposition member of the legislative assembly (who would turn traitor during the War of 1812), had Nichol investigated, for partisan ends, on his handling of government business. Willcocks caused Nichol considerable personal woe, including a short spell in jail for showing contempt towards the provincial parliament in the turbulent environment of the colony’s political life.4

In 1811, Robert Nichol met Major-General Isaac Brock, who later would become a hero in defending Canada during the early part of the War of 1812. Brock asked him to prepare a study of the colony’s resources to help in military planning during the prewar period. In 1812, Nichol was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in the Upper Canadian militia and assumed command of the Second Regiment of Norfolk Militia, but wondered about the loyalty of his men, many of whom had immigrated to Canada from the United States. He expressed his well-known impatience with those around him when he wrote that his force was “little better than a legalised Mob — the Officers without respectability, without intelligence and without Authority — and the men without any idea of Subordination.”5

In June 1812, when the United States declared war on Great Britain, Nichol turned the management of his businesses over to one of his employees and, until mid-1815, devoted himself entirely to the defence of the British province as the quartermaster-general of the militia. This was a demanding position because he had to feed, supply and transport troops (both militia and regulars) in difficult frontier conditions in an undeveloped colony that was fundamentally incapable of meeting more than a fraction of the military’s needs. Beyond that huge task, he fulfilled other important responsibilities as a senior staff officer, with his contributions to strategic planning and decision making being particularly noteworthy. He saw action on numerous occasions during the three years in which the province suffered from enemy invasion. Some of the events in which he participated included the capture of Detroit under the leadership of Brock and Tecumseh in August 1812, actions near Fort Erie later that year, the American attack on Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River in May 1813 (where his horse was shot out from under him), the British raid on Black Rock near Buffalo in July 1813, and the siege of Fort Erie in the late summer of 1814. He regularly was mentioned in reports in highly favourable terms by senior officers for his exertions, zeal and local knowledge.6

American forces raided his property in Woodhouse Township in May 1814 to burn his home and business operations — which he had just improved — as part of a larger effort to destroy Britain’s ability to feed its troops in the colony. This was part of the raid in which Nichol’s neighbours also had their properties looted and their buildings burned during an infamous and destructive American raid along the north shore of Lake Erie.7 Nichol suffered £6,700 worth of damages in the process, which represented an enormous loss at the time and from which he never recovered. The British government gave him a pension for his services shortly after the return of peace, but he thought it was a small reward in comparison to the recognition other men received. It did not, however, process his war claims in a timely fashion and, in the end, the government did not grant him compensation for the torching of his property until a month after his death, and then at only two-thirds of the value of his loss.

The voters of Norfolk Country elected Robert Nichol to the provincial legislative assembly in 1812, 1816 and 1820. He presumably entered politics at the request of Isaac Brock, who struggled with a recalcitrant legislative assembly as he tried to prepare Upper Canada for war. During the conflict, Nichol promoted the government’s interests and served as government house leader from 1814 to 1816, working to restore calm in the assembly and push forward measures related to the colony’s defence. This included a controversial bill suspending habeas corpus in 1814,8 thought by many to be necessary because of the wartime crisis.

After peace returned, Nichol became a strong proponent for government reform. In 1817, he called on the lieutenant governor to extend the privileges of government to the elected assembly in conformity with the practices of the parliament at Westminster and in contrast to the constrained rights the Upper Canadian lower house enjoyed at the time. Through such demands, he represented an early call for “responsible government” or “ministerial responsibility” in the colonial environment, and he otherwise promoted the rights of the elected assembly in the years that followed. He also denounced the existence of Crown and clergy reserves — lands set aside to support the government and the Church of England in Upper Canada — because they stood in the way of forming well-connected settlements at a time when there was no substantial commercial market for the reserves to speed their development. As well, he criticized other aspects of the colony’s affairs and called for a general inquiry into the state of the province. The governor, Sir Francis Gore, was so shaken by this behaviour that he prorogued parliament two days after Nichol and other opposition members launched their attack in order to prevent a vote being taken on the resolutions. Subsequently, Nichol assumed the leadership of the opposition and repeated his calls for reform in the years that followed. He kept up his criticism of the government, and during the economic difficulties of the late 1810s and early 1820s, he called for reduction in public spending as well as for reforms to strengthen the economy. These included investment in canal projects and a union with Lower Canada, which controlled the upper province’s outlet via the Saint Lawrence River to most of the rest of the world.

The reasons why Nichol assumed a critical view of the government in Upper Canada are not certain, but contemporary observers thought they stemmed, at least in part, from not being compensated for his losses in 1814 and not being given the degree of recognition for his wartime services that he felt he deserved. Nichol’s opposition actually encouraged the evolution of democratic government in the colony. As an active supporter of the British cause in the dark days of 1812-15, Nichol helped to restore the credibility of a “loyal opposition” in Upper Canada’s political culture. The opposition of the early war period had been tainted when some of its leading figures went over to the Americans once the enemy invaded the province.9

By 1817, Nichol had emerged as leader of the opposition. He was also involved in improving the near-bankrupt economy of Upper Canada. In 1821, he chaired the select committee on internal resources, struck at the insistence of Baldwin, to examine the agricultural depression and the market collapse in Britain. He was subsequently appointed to a committee to examine the development of inland waterways, including canals.

In 1821, Nichol moved to Stamford (Niagara Falls). Suffering financially, he sought a post as surrogate judge for the Niagara District, which he obtained in March 1824. On the night of May 3, 1824, while returning to his home from Niagara after fulfilling duties related to his new post, he died during a late-season snowstorm when his horse and wagon fell over a precipice in the village of Queenston. Despite rumours to the contrary, the coroner’s jury ruled out foul play.10 Robert Nichol was buried in an unmarked grave in a Queenston cemetery. Prominent people across the colony, including his opponents, were shocked at his sudden passing, and regretted the loss of someone who had contributed so much to the establishment of the province.

Robert Nichol’s contributions encompassed economic and civic development in the formative prewar years, defence during desperate times, and political maturation in the postwar period. Through his participation in the War of 1812, and his commitment to public service, Robert Nichol made a significant military and political contribution to the growth and development of Upper Canada in the early 19th century.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Carl Benn in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2009

1 Unless otherwise stated, data comes from Robert Fraser’s biography of Robert Nichol in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Some sources, including Fraser’s DCB assessment, place his birth around 1780, but Fraser’s most recent text on Nichol in the Canadian Encyclopedia Online and works by other authors suggest c. 1774. Another text in favour of 1774, for instance, is Milo Quaife, ed., The John Askin Papers, vol. 1 (Detroit: Detroit Library Commission, 1928), 324n62. The fullest description of Nichol’s life is Ernest Cruikshank, “A Sketch of the Public Life and Services of Robert Nichol,” Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records 19 (1922), but Fraser’s shorter texts, particularly in the DCB, represent more modern scholarship. Yet anyone wishing to know more about Nichol will find Cruikshank’s detailed assessment rewarding. Furthermore, Cruikshank compiled two valuable collections of Nichol’s papers: “Some Letters of Robert Nichol.” OHS Papers and Records 20 (1923); and “Additional Correspondence of Robert Nichol.” Papers and Records 26 (1930).

2 For example, see the indenture of Robert Nichol to John Askin, September 18, 1795, in Quaife, ed., Askin Papers, vol. 1, 567-68.

3 Cruikshank, “Public Life,” notes that he was a lieutenant in the militia as early as 1803.

4 For a broader discussion on this affair please see Cruikshank, “Public Life,” 10-20.

5 Quote from Fraser, Nichol biography, DCB. Cruikshank, “Public Life,” 7, 19-20 notes the American origins of the bulk of the county’s population, which could account for some of Nichol’s doubts.

6 Cruikshank, “Public Life,” 21-48.

7 Ibid., 41. An important study on the burning and the condition of the village beforehand is J.A. Bannister, The Burning of Dover, May 15, 1814 (London: Lawson Memorial Library, University of Western Ontario, 1965). See also Ernest A. Cruikshank, “The County of Norfolk in the War of 1812,” first published 1923, in The Defended Border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812, edited by Morris Zaslow (Toronto: MacMillan, 1964).

8 Habeas Corpus is the court order that directs law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner that is in their custody, in person, to the designated court.

9 For a broad discussion of these issues, see David Mills, The Idea of Loyalty in Upper Canada, 1784-1850 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988); and Jane Errington, The Lion, the Eagle, and Upper Canada: a Developing Colonial Ideology (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987).

10 Discussion of possible foul play was included in reports of the findings of the coroner’s jury, The Colonial Advocate, 18 May 1824.