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People > Scots of Windsor's Past > Alexander Grant

People: Scots of Windsor's Past

Alexander Grant (1734-1813):

Alexander Grant, "a large stout man" with a face "pock-marked and red as a pomegranate," was the third son born to Isobel and Patrick Grant, 8th Earl of Glenmoriston. 1 He claimed to have been "in the very early part of his Life bread to the sea," entering the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of twenty-one. Two years later he accepted an ensigncy to the newly-raised 77th Foot, Montgomery's Highlanders, which was sent to Lake Champlain to serve with Major-General Jeffery Amherst's army during the Seven Years War. Grant was given his first command in October 1759 with the sixteen-gun sloop the Boscawen, part of Captain Joshua Loring's flotilla constructed to wrest naval control of the lake from the French. Grant remained on the lake for the remainder of the war, after which he assumed command of the vessels and naval station at Fort Ticonderoga, New York. When Loring retired in 1763, Grant succeeded him.

Grant's rank as naval superintendent allowed him to launch his own commercial empire in the region. As there was virtually no private shipping along the Great Lakes yet, commercial goods were transported as cargo on Crown ships. Grant's duties as naval superintendent included managing dockyards; building, fixing, and deploying ships; purchasing materials; and transporting goods. His power to allocate cargo space on Crown ships placed him at the centre of the trade route between New York and Fort Detroit, and it did not take long for him to recognize this golden opportunity. He began to build his own vessels at Detroit and Navy Island for use on the lakes, an enterprise that proved to be immensely profitable almost immediately. In 1767, John Blackburn, an English merchant who had recently won the British Treasury contract to man, victual, and repair Crown vessels on the Great Lakes signed Grant as his local agent, giving him a virtual monopoly over lake shipping. Phyn, Ellice, and Company formed in Detroit in 1769 to challenge his hegemony, but was forced to sell out after only four years.

In 1771, Grant's naval headquarters were moved from the dockyard on Navy Island in the Niagara River to Detroit. He spent the first few winters after the move in New York City, but made Detroit his permanent home after marrying Therese Barthe in 1774.

The outbreak of the American Revolution initially strengthened Grant's shipping empire. The British government banned private shipping in 1776, but its naval ships were strained with military supplies and private goods. The Crown turned to Grant and rented three of his vessels - the two schooners Hope and Faith and the sloop Angelica - for use on Lake Erie at a cost of £8 per month. The government employed Grant's Caldwell for service on Lake Ontario at £12 per month the next year, and rewarded his service with the naval command of Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan.

Ultimately, however, Grant's income suffered from the effects of war. The Patriots confiscated 12,000 acres of land he owned in New York, and his salary was cut in half following the close of the war. His private shipping empire also began to decline in 1780 when he sold three of his lake vessels to the British government; four years later, the North West Company was allowed to commence building at Detroit, ending his stranglehold monopoly on shipping. Private vessels were allowed on Lake Ontario in 1787, and the Upper Lakes were opened to private trade the following year.

Coinciding with the decline of his shipping empire, however, was a rise to civil pre-eminence. Grant was awarded his first appointment - a Justice of the Peace - in 1786, a position to which he reappointed continuously until his death. When western Québec was divided into four administrative districts in 1788, he was named to the land board of the Hesse District. His prominent stature within the province was further manifested by his appointment, at Lieutenant Governor Simcoe's request, to both the Legislative Council and the Executive Council of Upper Canada in 1792. Grant exerted a considerable amount of influence over the region, collecting a host of offices that included Lieutenant of the County of Essex, which he was awarded in 1799.

Grant spent the remainder of his life in politics, and was even thrust into the position of provincial administrator in August 1805 when Lieutenant-Governor Hunter unexpectedly died. Hunter's principal advisors called Grant to York immediately, and gave him the reigns of power until the next Lieutenant-Governor, Francis Gore, would arrive from Britain the following August. Grant governed according to Hunter's policies, explaining to Lord Castlereagh that he did not "feel myself at Liberty, in my Temporary situation to discontinue what he had authorized." 2 Nevertheless, Grant's style was considerably different from Hunter's, and his conciliatory nature in the House of Commons did a great deal to remove some of the sources of political ill will. After the legislative session was prorogued, he even admitted to missing the excitement of the political arena.

As a statesman, Grant was, according to Colonel George Thomas Landmann, "not very polished, but very good natured." 4 According to an anecdote often related by his contemporaries, Grant unabashedly exclaimed in his thick Scottish accent, upon being introduced to Prince Edward Augustus, "How do you do, Mester Prince? Hoe does yer Papaw do?"

After his brief tenure as provincial administrator, Grant's age began to take its toll on his health, and he retired from politics in 1812. Despite his impressive accomplishments, family was far more important to him than titles. During the time he spent in York as provincial administrator, John Askin wrote to him, "I think you would rather be with them [your family] than sitting in state. Your not one of those men who prefers honors to Family comforts." Grant maintained a loving devotion towards his wife, who, along with their eleven daughters and son, was the centre of his life. Twenty-four years his junior, Therese had spoken no English when they had married, and he no French. Based on how Grant raved about his missus in his letters, however, this obstacle bore no hindrance to their relationship. Except when official business required him to travel, he spent all of his time with his family on their farm at Grosse Point, Castle Grant. After she died in November 1810, Grant wrote to his brother that she was "as good a mother and as kind a wife [as] perhaps ever was." Grant himself died at Castle Grant in 1813, and was buried in Sandwich.

  1. Landmann, George Thomas, Adventures & recollections, Colburn & Co.: London, 1852. 12
  2. Whitfield, Carol, "Alexander Grant," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. V, 1801-1820. Francess Halpenny and Jean Hamelin, eds. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1983
  3. Landmann, 12
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