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People > Scots of Windsor's Past > Alexander Duff

People: Scots of Windsor's Past

Alexander Duff (1770-1890):

Little is known about the early life of this important early figure aside from his parentage and hometown. Born to Reverend William Duff in Foveran, Aberdeenshire, Alexander seemed to cling to the Duff family motto - Deus juvat, or "God assists" - as he embarked upon his transatlantic adventures. Although no records have been uncovered as of yet to elucidate his cloudy immigration history, the historical record indicates that Alexander Duff and his older brother, William, were securely established as fur-traders in Detroit by the 1790s.

After the United States won its independence, those people living in Fort Detroit and wishing to retain their British citizenship were evacuated on 11 June 1796, the date the British officially surrendered the fort. While many residents chose to become Americans, the Duff brothers feared that their banking and credit connections in Montréal would be disrupted if they resigned British citizenship. So they crossed over the Detroit River and resettled in Amherstburg, where William became the Master of Ordinance Supplies for the Amherstburg Regiment.

Duff-Baby House
Duff-Baby House

Alexander, on the other hand, continued to amass wealth as a fur-trader in the early Sandwich community. In 1798, he built a frontier Georgian-style house on the south shore of the Detroit River along what is today Mill Street. The house served as a residence and a trading complex, from which Duff carried out his fur-trading operations for nine years before selling to James Baby, a prominent figure from Québec, in 1807. The two and a half storey timber mansion is today recognized among Upper Canada's most significant eighteenth-century landmarks and is the oldest house in southwestern Ontario. Turned over to the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1979 by the Baby family, the Duff-Baby Mansion remains as one of the area's most important landmarks.

Two years after Alexander Duff built his now-famous home, he was appointed to the Grand Jury for the Western District, a commission formed to investigate why, despite the proliferation of generous government grants, so little building construction was underway in slow-growing Sandwich. That same year, he was also appointed a Commissioner for Upper Canada and a Justice of the Peace. Such accomplishments made him an eligible bachelor, and 1800 was indeed a busy year for Duff. In addition to his political appointments, he also married Phyllice Grant, daughter of Alexander Grant, the third son of the 8th Earl of Glenmoriston and Lieutenant of Essex County. Duff's father-in-law helped garner him an appointment as captain of the North East Regiment Company.

Phyllice joined Alexander in his riverside mansion, where they had three children in their mansion: Alexander, born in 1802; William, born 1804, and Anne Theresa, born 1807. By this time, however, the fur trade was in decline, and the mansion's upkeep strained the family's waning financial resources. So after Phyllice gave birth to her third child, the Duffs sold the house to the Baby family and moved to an estate in Mount Pleasant in Colchester Township. Alexander fell ill two years later and passed away in 1809. He is buried at Christ Church.

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