Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

William Eppes Cormack (1796-1868): A Biographical Account of the Early Years

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

William Eppes Cormack (1796-1868): A Biographical Account of the Early Years

Article excerpt


William Eppes (2) Cormack is celebrated for his walk across the interior of the island of Newfoundland in 1822, and for his involvement with the Beothuk: his collection of information about Beothuk history and culture and his attempts to rescue the Beothuk from extinction. Several reports of his interior explorations have been published, (3) and the information he obtained from the Beothuk woman Shanawdithit, the last known member of her people, comprises an important part of what is known about Beothuk history and culture. (4) A central figure in Newfoundland's history, surprisingly little is known about Cormack's early life, his birth in St. John's, and his family's relatively strong ties to Newfoundland and to Prince Edward Island. This paper intends to close this biographical gap as far as the available documentation will allow. It focuses on Cormack's early years, beginning with the records of his father, Alexander Cormack, in Newfoundland, describes the family's documented business interests and the family's return to Scotland after Alexander Cormack's death, and finishes with what is known of William Eppes Cormack's life up to 1821, when he returned to Newfoundland. It also touches on some of the economic, social, and civic responsibilities that individuals like Alexander Cormack were typically responsible for at that time.

Though this study focuses on the family history of the Cormacks and Rennies in St. John's and their Scottish connections, it also fills in a substantial gap in our knowledge of the business and economic life of St. John's at the end of the eighteenth century and during the early nineteenth century.

Alexander Cormack in Newfoundland

Alexander Cormack (c. 1762-1803), a Protestant Scot and the father of William Eppes Cormack, arrived in St. John's in 1782 at the age of 19 or 20. The 1794-95 census for St. John's described him as a "merchant in the colony for 12 years." (5) He may have been sent to this outpost as an employee of one of the established Scottish firms in St. John's. Newfoundland was one of Britain's oldest North American possessions and St. John's, a town with about 3,000 inhabitants, (6) was the main port of call for the Grand Banks fishery and the third point in a triangular trade that included Europe and the West Indies.

No records were found disclosing details of Alexander Cormack's life before his arrival, though there is a good record of his life in St. John's. (7) It reveals a reliable young man who was, to use the Scottish term, "canny," or capable of making smart decisions in a challenging business environment. By 1791 Cormack had become a well-established member of the town's elite and one of the "Principal Merchants of St. John's" who signed petitions and lobbied governors. (8) He was also a member of the Grand Jury where he was fisted alongside members of the town's largest merchant houses. (9) Cormack's numerous appearances in court as litigant, suing or being sued in cases concerning trade, reflect some of his business interests. He is fisted as the owner of three vessels: the Nancy, the Rose, and the Two Sisters, and as sharing ownership of the 55-ton sloop Betsey with the St. John's firm Hart, Eppes and Co. (10) His trade transactions extended to Dartmouth, Quebec City, Prince Edward Island, South America (for molasses), and Grenada Island and Suriname in the West Indies. Cormack seems to have become independent of larger firms although there is speculation that he may, for a time, have been a junior partner with Hart, Eppes and Co. (11)

It appears that Alexander Cormack and William Isham Eppes had become friends as well as business associates. Eppes had come to Newfoundland from England, but began life in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1760. (12) His father had died young, leaving his mother, Abigail, with five children to raise. Her second husband, Dr. Silvester Gardiner, was a prosperous Boston surgeon. …

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