New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Robert Rankin in New Brunswick

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Robert Rankin in New Brunswick

Robert Rankin was born in Scotland in 1801 and attended school there between 1807 and 1813. James Jackson was his school master, and several other of Jackson’s students went on to become business leaders. Rankin’s education is said to have included book-keeping although other business talents might have been imparted to him at the same time. In any case, Rankin was one of those rare people whose talents and single mindedness in business at an early age defied normality.

Pollok, Gilmour and Company was founded in 1804 and Robert’s older brother Alexander had been working there for several years when, in 1812, he and James Gilmour (a son of one of the company founders) were sent to the Miramichi on the brig ‘Mary’ to establish a branch company, Gilmour, Rankin and Company. A couple of years later, in 1815, Alexander found a place at a company office in Scotland for his brother Robert who very rapidly proved his worth and was transferred to the head office in Glasgow the next year, when he was still fifteen years of age. He was promoted to the position of cashier for the company the following year, at the age of sixteen.

Pollok, Gilmour and Company and its allied branch companies were leading timber merchants in British North America. The New Brunswick operation alone accounted for around fifty ships with seven hundred men working in the woods and sawmills when, in 1818, Robert Rankin was also sent to the Miramichi to gain experience. Robert had realized that he would be working in the North American operation and was taking French lessons while still in Glasgow.

The two branches of the Miramichi allowed for exploitation of timber from the whole region, although the harbour was not deep enough for some ships and eventually had to be dredged. Operations were even vaster than that, and extended to the Tobique and Restigouche Rivers.

It is always noted that there was extensive importing and distribution of supplies for the lumber camps and mills and that this was a major task. Sugar and molasses were brought from Guyana and the West Indies; pork from Boston or Canada; and biscuit from Britain [stale, I suppose!]. These supplies together with local game made it possible for the lumbermen to survive quite well.

The company was also engaged in general merchandising, however, since “Pollok, Gilmor or Rankine and Gilmore or Ritchie and Gilmor or whatever you like are the largest merchants in the world I think. Their stores at Campbelton, Dalhousie, Bathurst, Miramichi, St. John, Quebec, Montreal, etc. contain each of them more goods [than any store in] Glasgow. Their bill is better than the bill of our banks here and they are really and truly the backbone of North America.”

In 1820 or 1821, Robert made a trip from the Miramichi to Saint John to assess the timber reserves along the way. “To get there he had to travel, first by land from Miramichi to Fredericton, a distance in direct line of about 60 miles, and thence by river or road to St. John. But there was no recognized road between Miramichi and Fredericton, so he had to travel up the Miramichi River and down the Nashwaak River probably thrice the distance. … It was quite impossible to travel either on wheels or by sleigh; the snow was melting by day, and during the night a frozen crust formed on the surface, quite penetrable up to one’s thigh; this made it impossible for beast, and very irksome and painful for man to travel.”

Robert recommended that a branch office be established at Saint John but, upon further consideration, he decided that the time was not quite right and the office was not opened until 1822. This was preceded by another trip from the Miramichi and, “accompanied by an Indian, he set out on foot for Fredericton. Between them they carried, mostly in bullion, and partly in silver Mexican dollars, the capital with which he intended to start his business.” The operations headed out of Saint John soon became one of Pollok and Gilmour’s most profitable businesses.

He was personally involved with cutting deals for the import and export of timber, and for provisioning stores to serve his lumber camps and the lumbering industry at large. He was so successful that he became influential in decision-making in Glasgow.

Robert Rankin’s simple lifestyle was legendary, as was his dedication to the Company’s operations and profits. By the time he arrived in Saint John he had managed to save almost all of his salary from the Miramichi, having spent next to nothing. They say that he was an “independent, thrifty Scotch [who] cut his coat according to his cloth.” From all accounts, he cut his suit somewhat smaller than that.

Regarding his work habits, it was recalled by a stevedore that “on many occasions when he went to the office at daylight for his day’s orders, he would find, not Mr. Rankin fresh after an ordinary night’s rest, but Mr. Rankin who had been at work till the small hours of the morning, yet fit and ready for another day’s work, having snatched an hour or two of sleep in the office itself. This sort of thing went on until 1838.”

Robert married Ann Strang in 1829 and, by 1830 (at the age of 29), he was the leading timber merchant in Saint John; was wealthy; and was soon considering retirement to an estate in Scotland where he planned to raise livestock. That is not how it turned out, however, for, in 1837-38, there was a crisis among the partners in Glasgow and Robert was recalled to rescue the situation. He bought out Allan Gilmour’s share of the company for £150,000 and re-named the business Rankin, Gilmour, and Company.

Robert Rankin’s direct involvement in New Brunswick ended with his move back to Glasgow, as will this summary. One more story from the later years is interesting, however: “I recollect the election in New Brunswick in 1843; Gilmour, Rankin & Co. for J. A. Street, Cunard Bros, for Williston. Cudgels were used, and there were many broken heads on both sides. County Northumberland took twelve days polling open voting. Street won by an overwhelming majority. Feeling afterwards ran so high that two companies of soldiers were sent from St. John to quell the riots.”

A Story of David and Goliath, or Don’t worry, I’ll sue you and we can straighten it out later

It would be interesting to detail all of the suits by Rankin and Company on file at the Archives. There must have been a large number of them since he had time enough to zero-in on the Oromocto River on several occasions, at least. He sued John Wood twice during 1834, for example, to recover loans, proxy payments, and the like and also for merchandise such as flour, knives and forks, a chalk line, a hat, nails and iron. These debts were clearly owed Rankin in his role as a general merchant.

A previous blog posting about Jeremiah Tracy’s mill at the village of Tracy mentioned suits by George P. Nevers, Daniel Wood, and George Morrow against Jeremiah Tracy between 1827 and 1832.Tracyhad ongoing logging expenses, and his debts were made all the worse when his new mill burned in late 1825. So, Nevers, Wood and Morrow had legitimate claims against Tracy, but there may have been more to it than that. Rankin and Company was also owed money, and they were not in the habit of losing suits. If Rankin sued Tracy then he might be left with principal interests in the mill which was relied upon by Morrow, Nevers and Wood. Rankin could never be a partner with the others because their interests were too large and they didn’t need partners. The suits by Daniel Wood, and George Morrow might therefore be seen as an attempt to keep the money on the Oromocto. That is, by the time Rankin and Company got around to suing Tracy they would have to settle for pennies on the dollar. Unfortunately, it did not turn out exactly as they hoped, since Rankin and Company sued Nevers and Daniel Wood’s son John instead.

But that was not the end of it! George Morrow stepped forward and sued George P. Nevers and John Wood, only two months before Rankin launched their suit. John’s father Daniel was also involved, through an unpaid promissory note that Daniel had bought from George. It’s complicated, but one thing is clear: John was being sued by his brother-in-law with the cooperation of his father and this was likely another friendly or defensive suit.

Finally, in 1840, John Wood’s entire homestead was put up for auction to cover his debts. He did not lose the property, however, since he still had enough money squirreled away somewhere to buy it back at the auction. He may have had a little help from his friends.

Therefore, by one means or another, Rankin had to settle for a fraction of what they were owed; having been out-foxed by the people of the Oromocto. Not our proudest moment, but it feels good anyway!

A Note About References:

The quote about Pollok, Gilmour and Company’s many stores is from Bailey, Alfred G., editor, The Letters of James and Ellen Robb, Acadiensis Press, Fredericton, 1983. All other quotes are from Rankin, John, A History of Our Firm, Henry Young and Sons, Limited, Liverpool, 1921. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online for Robert Rankin was also used. Information regarding law suits may be found in Record Series 42 at the New Brunswick Provincial Archives in Fredericton.


Written by johnwood1946

June 20, 2012 at 9:35 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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