New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

At Portland Point

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This article was written by W.O. Raymond, to whom we owe a great debt for preserving New Brunswick history. It is about the first English settlement at Portland Point (Saint John) and the trading company that was established there. The principal partner of the company was James Simonds.

James Simonds

James Simonds, from the N.B. Museum

Pre-Loyalist pioneer at St. John. Copied by Florence L. Gilbert from a pre-1831 portrait


At Portland Point

The First English Settlement at St. John

All that has hitherto been published with regard to the founding of the first permanent English Settlement at the mouth of the river St. John is of a fragmentary character. The story really remains to be written, and in view of the abundant materials available it is a matter of surprise that some competent hand has not long since been found to undertake the task.

As early as the year 1755, Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia suggested to Sir Wm. Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts, the desirability of establishing a fortified post on the St. John river; he also recommended that steps should be taken to induce the people of New England to occupy the lands left vacant by the removal of the Acadians as well as other eligible situations in Nova Scotia—which colony at that time included the present province of New Brunswick. In reply, Sir Wm. Shirley expressed the opinion that all that could then be attempted was to make known as widely as possible the terms on which the lands would be granted, coupled with an assurance of protection for the settlers from the French and Indians, whom they had come to regard as their hereditary enemies. Unfortunately for the designs of the two royal governors, the exigencies of the war then being waged with France required the withdrawal of most of the forces stationed in Nova Scotia, and Governor Lawrence was unable either to secure possession of the St. John river, where Boisherbert, the French commander, had established himself, or to garrison the fort at St. John harbor captured by Captain Rous the previous summer.

Meanwhile the Lords of Trade and Plantations, who largely controlled the British colonial policy, advised Lawrence to promote the development of his province in every practicable way, expressing their opinion that there should be no difficulty in obtaining settlers from the other colonies. Although this idea was quite in accord with the governor’s own mind, he was obliged to plead his inability to induce the New England people to settle on frontier lands as long as they “ran the risk of having their throats cut by inveterate enemies who effected their escape by their knowledge of every creek and corner.” He added that as he could not spare the troops necessary to defend new settlements nothing could be done “till the country was possessed in peace.”

The threatening attitude of Boisherbert, however, determined the British to establish a fortified post at the mouth of the St. John, where the French had again taken possession of their old fort on the point of land opposite Navy Island. Accordingly in the summer of 1758, an expedition, consisting of three ships of war and two transports, having on board a regiment of Highlanders and one of New England troops, left Boston for the St. John river. A landing was effected near Negro Point, and after making their way with some difficulty through the woods, the attacking party advanced against the fort from the land side. They were repulsed in their first attack, but in a second attempt were more successful and the fort was carried by storm. The defences were found to be very weak, there being but two small cannon in position. The French lost about forty killed and a number of prisoners, the remainder escaping in boats and canoes up the river. The sloop Ulysses which attempted to follow them was wrecked in the falls. The fort was now occupied by a British garrison of some 200 men, its defences were improved and barracks built for the accommodation of the troops.

On the 12th of October, 1758, the first of the now celebrated proclamations of Governor Lawrence was issued, offering favorable terms to such industrious settlers as might be disposed to remove to Nova Scotia and cultivate the lands vacated by the French or any unsettled parts of the province. This had the effect of directing attention to the St. John river, as well as to other localities. Young and adventurous spirits came to the fore as pioneers of civilization, among them James Simonds of Haverhill, Massachusetts, to whom undoubtedly belongs the honor of being the founder of the first permanent settlement at the mouth of the St. John. The circumstances that induced Mr. Simonds to come to St. John are thus detailed in one of his letters now in possession of the writer of this article:—

In the years 1759 and 1760 proclamations were published by his Majesty’s order through the colonies (some of which I can now produce) which promised all the lands and possessions of the Acadians who had been removed or any other lands lying within the Province of Nova Scotia to such as would become settlers there. In consequence of these proclamations I went through the greatest part of Nova Scotia, in time of war at very great expense and at the risk of my life in search of the best lands and situations, and having at length determined to settle at the River St. John, obtained a promise from Government of large tracts of lands for myself and Brother Richard who was with me in several of my tours.

Mr. Simonds states in another document, a copy of which is also in the writer’s possession, that he obtained from the government of Nova Scotia the promise of a grant of 5000 acres of land in such part of the province as he should choose, and that in the year 1762, in company with his brother, he by virtue of this arrangement took possession of the great marsh to the east of St. John, called by the Indians Seebaskastagan, where they cut a quantity of salt hay and began to make improvements. The letter from which we have just quoted continues:—

The accounts which I gave my friends in New England of the abundance of Fish in the River and the convenience of taking them, of the extensive Fur trade of the country and the natural convenience of burning Lime, caused numbers of them to make proposals to be concerned with me in those branches of business, among whom Mr. Hazen was the first that joined me in a trial. Afterwards in the year 1764, although I was unwilling that any should be shares with me in the certain benefits of the Fur trade, which I had acquired some knowledge of, yet by representations that superior advantage could be derived from a Cod fishery on the Banks and other branches of commerce which I was altogether unacquainted with I joined in a contract for carrying it on for that year upon an extensive plan with Messrs. Blodget, Hazen, White, Peaslie and R. Simonds.

When Mr. Simonds first visited the St. John river the Indians were hostile to the English, but the capture of Quebec and the subsequent discomfiture of their French allies inclined them to sue for peace, and a treaty was made at Halifax by the Chiefs of St. John and Passamaquoddy early in the year 1760. In accordance with this treaty an Indian trading post was to be established near Fort Frederick, at the mouth of the river, and a tariff of prices was arranged which the savages were to receive for furs and peltries and to pay for such supplies, etc., as they needed.

The complete ascendancy of the English over the Acadians on the river St. John was secured by one of the most cruel and unjustifiable forays that ever sullied the annals of civilized warfare. The story in brief is as follows:—

In the month of March, 1759, a company of rangers under Captain McCurdy started up the St. John river, on snowshoes, to strike a blow at the French settlements. The first night they encamped on a hillside near the mouth of the Belleisle river. Here the party had the misfortune to lose their commander, Capt. McCurdy, who was killed by the falling of a birch tree cut by one of his own men. Lieut. Moses Hazen succeeded to the command and under him the party proceeded to Ste. Anne’s Point, where they set fire to the chapel and other buildings and ruthlessly killed the inhabitants with little regard to age or sex. On their return they treated the settlements at Oromocto, Grimross and Nerepis in much the same fashion. Sir Jeffrey Amherst, Commander in Chief of the forces in America, refers to this transaction in two of his letters to Governor Lawrence. He says in the first: “You will have heard of the accident poor Capt. McCurdy met with as likewise of the success of his Lieut. in demolishing the settlements at St. Anne’s. On the recommendation of Major Scott I have preferred Lt. Hazen to Capt. McCurdy’s Company.” In the second letter he writes: “Major Morris sent me the particulars of the scouting party and I gave a commission of Captain to Lieut. Hazen as I thought he deserved it. I am sorry to say what I have since heard of that affair has sullied his merit with me as I shall always disapprove of killing women and helpless children: poor McCurdy is a loss he was a good man in his post.”

Confirmation of the barbarity practised on the occasion is found in the journal of Rev. Jacob Bailey of Pownalboro, Maine, a prominent Loyalist and afterwards Rector of Annapolis, N.S. Mr. Bailey on the night of Dec. 13, 1759, chanced to lodge at Norwood’s inn in Lynn, and speaking of the company he found there he says: “We had among us a soldier belonging to Capt. Hazen’s company of Rangers, who declared that several Frenchmen were barbarously murdered by them after quarters were given, and the villain added, I suppose to show his importance, that he split the head of one asunder after he fell on his knees to implore mercy. A specimen of New England clemency.”

When James Simonds first visited St. John he was a young man of about twenty-five years of age. He was descended from Samuel Simonds of Essex, England, who came to America in 1630 with Governor Winthrop. His father, Nathaniel Simonds, of Haverhill, Mass., married Sarah Hazen, whose brother Moses was father of Capt. Moses Hazen just referred to as leader of the party of Rangers that destroyed the French settlements on the River St. John, and also father of William Hazen of Newburyport, who came to St. John in 1775. It is possible that the presence of Capt. Moses Hazen with the garrison at Fort Frederick may have led James Simonds to visit the place in the first instance. Mr. Simonds was a man of good education, resolute character, shrewd and enterprising. He was, moreover, possessed of a robust constitution, as is seen in the fact that in spite of the hardships and privations of his early life in St. John he survived all his contemporaries, as well as every official and appointee of the crown at the time of the organization of the province, and every member of the first provincial legislature, and quietly departed this life at his old residence at Portland Point Feb. 20, 1831, at the patriarchal age of 96 years.

About the same time that Mr. Simonds was laying his plans for establishing a fishing and trading post at the mouth of the St. John, Captain Francis Peabody, Israel Perley and others, were making arrangements for the settlement of the Township of Maugerville, and it appears that in the year 1762, James Simonds came with Capt. Peabody and his son Samuel Peabody, Hugh Quinton and some others to St. John in a small vessel from Newburyport. There were about twenty in the party besides the families of Captain Peabody and Hugh Quinton.

A frame for a large dwelling house with boards, to cover it, was brought by Capt. Peabody in the vessel, also a small stock of cattle. The spot selected for the erection of the house was near the site of an old French fort at Portland Point, and by the united efforts of the party it was erected, enclosed, and on the third day after their arrival, inhabited. The women and children had meanwhile found shelter at the barracks on the other side of the harbor, and there on the same night of their arrival, August 28, 1762, was born James Quinton, the first child of English speaking parents whose birth is recorded at St. John. Capt. Peabody’s daughter Hannah, then a girl of fourteen, was among those who found shelter at the Barracks until the house at Portland Point was fit for their reception. She afterwards became the wife of James Simonds, and her sisters Elizabeth and Hephzibah married respectively James White and Jonathan Leavitt. Captain Francis Peabody had served with distinction in the “Seven Years War,” and from the active part he took in effecting the settlement of the Township of Maugerville, as well as from his age and character, he must be justly regarded as the most prominent and influential person on the St. John river while he lived. He died in the year 1773.

The unstable condition of affairs during the war with France had for some time precluded any serious attempt at settlement along the northern shore of the Bay of Fundy, and the New England traders and fishermen who resorted thither were for the most part adventurers. With the return of peace the more enterprising spirits began to make arrangements for securing a foothold against rival traders.

James Simonds and his brother, in the first instance, established themselves at St. John merely with the tacit approval of the Nova Scotia authorities and of the commander of the garrison at Fort Frederick. It was not until three years later that they obtained their first grant of land.

In the grants issued by the government at this period a provision was inserted requiring the payment to the crown of “a free yearly quit rent of one shilling sterling for every 50 acres, the first payment to be made on Michaelmas day next after the expiration of ten years from the date of the grant.” In order to prolong the period when the payment of quit rents would be necessary, many of the early settlers delayed taking out their grants. James Simonds tells us that he deferred taking out his grant for this reason, thinking that, with the exception of a fishing station, the lime quarries and the marsh, the lands in the vicinity of St. John were not even worth the quit rents. However, before long rival traders appeared upon the scene and the securing of his situation became an object of importance. An entry in the minutes of the Council of Nova Scotia records that on Aug. 9, 1763, license was given to John Anderson to occupy 50 acres of any lands unappropriated on the St. John river until further orders from government, and under date June 7, 1765, we have the following:—

Licence is hereby granted to John Anderson to Traffick with the Tribes of Indians on St. John’s River and in the Bay of Fundy, he conducting himself without Fraud or Violence and submitting himself to the observance of such regulations as may at any time hereafter be established for the better ordering of such commerce. This licence to continue during pleasure.

A similar license was granted the same year to Capt. Isaac Caton “to traffick with the Indians on Saint John’s River and the Bay of Fundy.” These licenses for trade with the Indians were issued in accordance with the proclamation of George III, given at the Court of St. James, October 7, 1763, as is shown by the following extract:—

And we do by the advice of our privy council declare and enjoin that the trade with the said Indians shall be free and open to all our subjects whatever, provided that every person who may incline to trade with the said Indians do take out a licence for carrying on such trade from the governor or commander in chief of any of our colonies where such person shall reside, and also give security to observe such regulations as we shall at anytime think fit by ourselves, or commissioners to be appointed for this purpose, to direct or appoint for the benefit of the said trade.

The growing importance of St. John as a trading centre is indicated by other references to the locality scattered through the minutes of the proceedings of the Governor in Council; among them the following shows that the excellence of the lime stone had attracted the attention of the imperial authorities at an early date:

Licence is hereby granted Jonathan Hoar, Esq., to carry Lime Stone from Musquash Cove at St. John’s River to Annapolis Royal for the repairing of the Fortifications there. Given under my hand and seal at Halifax, October 1, 1763.

(Signed) Montagu Wilmot.

Of those who came to St. John with Capt. Francis Peabody in 1762, only Samuel Peabody and one or two others appear to have settled at the mouth of the river, the remainder removed shortly afterwards to Maugerville, where a township had been assigned to them. The small dwelling erected at Portland Point by Capt. Peabody became the property of his son-in-law, James Simonds, but was for some years the residence of James White.

In the year 1763 James and Richard Simonds were actively engaged in the fishery and trading business at St. John and Passamaquoddy in conjunction with their relative, William Hazen, a young and enterprising merchant of Newburyport who provided the necessary supplies. They had several men in their employ, among them Samuel Middleton, a cooper, and Anthony Dyer; these remained at St. John the first winter. Others of those engaged in the employ of Simonds and his partners seem to have had a previous acquaintance with St. John harbor; Moses Genough for example was there in 1758, and Lemuel Cleveland in 1757 when he says “the French had a fort at Portland Point where Mr. Simonds house was afterwards built.”

In order to carry on the business at St. John on an extensive scale, James Simonds decided to form a company for the purpose, but first he made sure of his situation by procuring the following license from the governor of Nova Scotia:—

Licence is hereby granted to James Simonds to occupy a tract or point of land on the north side of the St. John River, opposite Fort Frederick, for carrying on a fishery and for burning lime stone, the said tract or point of land containing by estimation ten acres.

(Signed) Montagu Wilmot.

Halifax, Feb. 8, 1764.

The accounts that James Simonds gave his friends in New England of the admirable situation he had secured for himself caused numbers of them to make proposals to be concerned with him in the business about to be undertaken, of whom Wm. Hazen was the first that joined him in a trial. Mr. Hazen had intimate business connections with Samuel Blodget, a merchant of Boston, and the latter became a partner in the enterprise. It was agreed that Messrs. Blodget, Hazen arid Simonds should each have one fourth part in the company about to be organized, and that the remainder should be taken by Richard Simonds, James White and Robert Peaslie as junior partners. The partnership was in its way “a family compact,” Richard Simonds being a younger brother of James Simonds, while Robert Peaslie had married Mr. Hazen’s sister Anna, and James White had been for some years a clerk in Mr. Blodget’s employ, and was moreover a cousin of Mr. Hazen.

Articles of partnership were carefully drawn up and signed on March 1st, 1764, under which it was arranged that Messrs. Blodget and Hazen should remain at Boston and Newburyport to forward supplies and receive whatever was sent them in return, and James Simonds, with Messrs. White, Peaslie, and R. Simonds as his aides, should proceed immediately to St. John and there “enter upon and pursue with all speed and faithfulness the business of the cod fishery, seine fishery, fur trade, burning of lime and every other trading business that shall be thought advantageous to the company.”

Accordingly, Messrs. Simonds and White, with a party of about thirty hands, embarked on board the schooner Wilmot, Wm. Story, master, for the scene of operations. They left Newburyport about the 10th of April, arriving at Passamaquoddy on the 14th and at St. John on the 18th. The names of these pioneers of commerce at St. John were Jonathan Leavitt, Jonathan Simonds, Samuel Middleton, Peter Middleton, Edmund Black, Moses True, Reuben Stevens, John Stevens, John Boyd, Moses Kimball, Benjamin, Dow, Simon Ayers, Thomas Jenkins, Batrheldor Ring, Rowley Andros, Edmund Butler, John Nason, Reuben Mace, Benjamin Wiggins, John Lovering, John Hookey, Reuben Sergeant, Benjamin Stanwood, Benjamin Winter, Anthony Dyer, Webster Emerson, George Gary, John Hunt, George Berry, Simeon Hillyard, Ebenezer Fowler, William Picket, and Ezekiel Carr.

Quite a number of these men became permanent settlers in the country and their descendants today are numerous and respectable.

Some months ago the writer of this article found in a pile of rubbish that had been thrown out of the old Ward Chipman house some old account books in a fair state of preservation, containing in part the transactions of Messrs. Simonds and White while in business in St. John. One of these, a book of nearly 100 pages, ordinary foolscap size, with stout paper cover, is of especial interest. At the top of the first page are the words

1764, St. John River, Day Book No. 1

This book is intact and very creditably kept. The entries are in the hand writing of James White. It contains the record of the initial transactions of the first business firm established at St. John one hundred and thirty-four years ago. The accounts during the continuance of the partnership were kept in New England currency or “Lawful money of Massachusetts.” The letters L.M. were frequently affixed in order to distinguish this currency from sterling money or Nova Scotia currency. In early times the value of the Massachusetts or New England currency was in the proportion £1 sterling = £1. 6. 8., L.M. The New Brunswick dollar or five shillings was equivalent to six shillings L.M. It is a fact worth recording that the Massachusetts currency continued to be used in all ordinary business transactions on the St. John river up to the time of the arrival of the Loyalists in 1783. This is only one instance showing how close were the ties that bound the preloyalist settlers of this province to New England, and it is scarcely a matter of surprise that during the Revolutionary war the Massachusetts Congress found many sympathizers on the River St. John.

While accounts were kept according to the currency of New England, very little money was in circulation and the amount of cash handled by Simonds and White was small enough. For years they supplied the settlers at Maugerville with such things as they needed, very often receiving payment in furs and skins, in the securing of which the white inhabitants became such expert hunters and trappers as to arouse the jealousy of the Indians. They also furnished barrel and hogshead staves of white and red oak, boards, shingles, oar rafters, spars, cedar posts and cord wood. Later, they were able to furnish farm produce, sheep and cattle; they also were frequently employed in the service of the Company in various ways by Simonds and White. With the Indians the trade was almost entirely one of barter, the staple article being the fur of the Spring beaver. The account books that have been preserved probably do not contain a complete record of all the shipments made from St. John by Simonds and White, but they suffice to show that during the period of ten years that elapsed from their settlement in 1764 to the outbreak of the American Revolution (when the ports of Massachusetts were closed against them) they exported 18,250 lbs. of spring beaver skins, and 8,390 lbs. of fall and winter beaver skins, a total of 26,640 lbs. besides 2,265 lbs. of castor, the whole amounting in value to £8,500, according to the invoice prices. As the average weight of a beaver skin was a pound and a half, the number of skins exported must have been at least 40,000. There were other traders engaged in the same business, as appears from Mr. Simonds’ correspondence. If then this firm alone sent to New England an average of 4,000 beaver skins annually, it is manifest that the fur trade of the St. John river at this period had assumed large proportions.

During the ten years of uninterrupted trade, Simonds and White shipped to New England, in addition to the beaver which was their staple article, skins of all the animals common to the country, including the following:—11,022 Musquash, 6,050 Marten, 870 Otter, 258 Fisher, 522 Mink, 120 Fox, 140 Sable, 74 Racoon, 67 Loupcervier, 8 Woolverene, 5 Bear, 2 Nova Scotia Wolf, 50 Cariboo, 85 Deer, and 1,113 Moose, besides some 3,000 lbs. of feathers, of which articles the value according to invoice prices was £2,795.

The prices at which these furs were quoted one hundred and thirty years ago seem, when compared with those of modern times, to be ridiculously low; their total value, however, amounted to the respectable sum of $40,000.

In their business transactions Messrs. Simonds and White kept four sets of accounts: one for the Indian trade, a second for their business with the white inhabitants of the country, a third for that with their own employees, and a fourth for that with the garrison at Fort Frederick. These old account books contain some curious items. The consumption of rum by the employees, and indeed by all the inhabitants of the country, was something astonishing. The use of rum as a beverage seems to have been quite the universal custom of the day, while on the other hand many apparently did not use tobacco, although the use of snuff boxes shows that the use of snuff was not uncommon. Rum was sold at 1 shilling per quart, tobacco at 8 pence per pound, tea (which was little used) sold at 8s. per lb., coffee at 1s. 6d. per lb., molasses at 3s. per gallon, sugar at 7d. per lb., gingerbread cakes 2d. each, lemons 3d. each, cheese 9d. per lb., soap 1s. per lb. Among other articles in demand were powder and shot, fishing tackle, flints, cuttoe knives, milled caps, blankets, blue rattan and fear-nothing jackets, woollen and check shirts, horn and ivory combs, silk handkerchiefs, turkey garters, pins and needles, etc. In the course of a few years the variety of articles kept in stock at the store at Portland Point increased surprisingly till it might be said that the company sold everything “from a needle to an anchor,” including such things as a variety of crockery and dry goods besides such articles as knee buckles, looking glasses, men’s and women’s pumps (or best shoes), tin candlesticks, brass door knobs, wool cards, mouse traps, whip saws, mill saws, skates and razors. Writing paper was sold at a penny a sheet or 9d. per half quire. The only books kept in stock were almanacs, psalters, spelling books and primers.

The old account books bear evidence of being well thumbed, for Indian debts were often hard to collect and white men’s debts were at least as hard to collect in ancient as in modern days. Old and thumb worn as the books are, and written with ink that often had been frozen and with quill pens that often needed mending, they are extremely interesting as relics of the past, and well deserving of a better fate than that which manifestly awaited them when by the merest accident they were rescued from a dismal heap of rubbish.

W.O. Raymond


Written by johnwood1946

March 18, 2015 at 9:08 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Great articles. Rich in history and helpful discovering my ancestor John Nason.

    S.R. Nason

    March 18, 2015 at 1:32 PM

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