The Mysterious Death of Robert Nichol

By Cassandra Montague

During the first twenty years of the nineteenth century, few men were as well known in the public life of the Niagara and London Districts of Upper Canada as Robert Nichol. He was a mariner, militia officer, Justice of the Peace, office holder, politician, and judge.  And he was associated with many of the other prominent and influential public figures of his time and place:  Robert Hamilton, Thomas Clark, William and Thomas Dickson, Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, and others.

The Mysterious Death of Robert Nichol

Robert Nichol was born in Dumfries, Scotland, in 1774.  After labouring as a sailor, he arrived in Upper Canada in 1792 and found himself employed by Robert Hamilton in Queenston.    Before the War of 1812, Hamilton held the contracts for portaging army and fur-trade goods around the Falls at Niagara.  Nichol worked his way up through Hamilton’s trading network of Scottish countrymen, relatives and acquaintances at Fort Erie and Detroit.  Toward the end of 1798 he was back in Queenston as a forwarder in his own right, moving manufactured goods in and out of the province.  By 1800 he was working with Thomas Clark, a cousin of Hamilton’s also originally from Dumfriesshire, who owned and operated wharves and warehouses at Queenston, Chippawa and Fort Erie.

Site of Brock’s Monument and Queenston, ca 1830 NFHM L974.P.026.001

Site of Brock’s Monument and Queenston, ca 1830 NFHM L974.P.026.001

But commercial trade was not for Robert Nichol.  He called  himself “more of the Epicurean than Stoic,” who “required more spiritual nourishment than came from a bowl of porridge and a hard day’s work.” (Dictionary of Canadian Biography:  Robert Nichol, Vol. VI).  By 1808 he had left the forwarding trade and gone into processing:  he relocated to Woodhouse Township, Norfolk County (today’s Port Dover).  The following year he finished renovating a grist-mill, which in the winter of 1813-14 was capable of producing 200 pounds of flour weekly.  The mill, however, was only the centre of a complex that included a sawmill, a distillery with three stills, a large barn, a residence for workmen, a coopery and a flour store.  Supply of the British garrison at Fort Erie and Fort George was an important part of his business.  The years leading up to the War of 1812 seem to have been prosperous and busy for Nichol, yet the looming crisis in relations with the United States acquired personal meaning when in 1808 the Americans seized seventeen vessels belonging to Canadian traders, including eight of Nichol’s own. He duly reported the affair to Major-General Isaac Brock, making note of American troop movements at Detroit and Michilimackinac at the same time.

Nichol held several public offices prior to the War of 1812, serving as a tax collector, justice of the peace and road commissioner. Brock asked Nichol to prepare a study of the colony’s resources to aid in military planning. 

Nichol became involved in the factionalism so characteristic of the London District in which he resided. He had a bad temper and an abrasive personality; he was not one who suffered fools gladly, whomever he considered a fool.  A staunch supporter of the mercantile elite and the Executive, he clashed with the growing faction of opposition led by Joseph Willcocks from Niagara and Abraham Markle from the London District.  When Willcocks initiated an investigation into Nichol’s handling of public funds as a road commissioner, Nichol found himself under arrest for contempt.  Convicted and jailed, Nichol applied for a writ of habeas corpus and launched a suit for damages against the speaker of the house, Samuel Street.

In 1812, Nichol was promoted to lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd Norfolk in the Upper Canadian militia.  When the United States declared war, he turned the management of his businesses over to an employee and devoted himself to the defence of the province as quartermaster-general of the militia.  In this role, he fed, supplied and transported troops.  He also participated in strategic planning and decision making throughout the war.  Nichol was frequently engaged in action against American forces, including the capture of Detroit.   But he ran roughshod over his regiment, which he considered “little better than a legalized Mob – the Officers without respectability, without intelligence, and without Authority – and the men without any idea of Subordination.”  (Dictionary of Canadian Biography:  Robert Nichol, Vol. VI).  He questioned the loyalty of the American settlers in Upper Canada and laid charges against several of his officers.  An election victory in June, 1812, only strengthened his idea of his own effectiveness.

For three years Nichol had worked tirelessly under the most difficult conditions.  On May 14, 1814, American raiders under Abraham Markle  of the Canadian Volunteers, his old adversary,  burned his home and his businesses at Dover, and his total losses were estimated at a staggering 6,684 pounds, provincial currency.  (Dictionary of Canadian Biography:  Robert Nichol, Vol. VI).  The home government, however, was not in a position to begin plans for immediate, large-scale compensation; in all, after repeated petitions and letters, including a trip to Quebec to address the Governor General, his estate was not granted compensation until after his death.

By the war’s end, Nichol had attained heights equalled by only a few in Upper Canada.  His military service and his business career were certainly impressive, and his political career had just begun.   Nichol acted as the government’s house leader during the sixth parliament (1812-16), and under his capable management procedural motions, amendments and bills were moved through the assembly rapidly. The old opposition had lost its leadership (Willcocks and Markle had gone over to the enemy) and Nichol’s tough-mindedness prevailed.  He was re-elected to the seventh parliament (1817-20), but this time there was a striking reversal in his attitude towards the administration.  Now he introduced resolutions which attacked the crown and clergy reserves as well as the policy of restricting immigration, especially from the United States.

Many questioned Nichol’s motives for his about-face.  William Lyon Mackenzie didn’t believe in his sincerity, calling Nichol a “mean sycophant” and his opposition “pretended.”  Lieutenant-Governor Francis Gore dismissed his new attitude, thinking Nichol’s hostility was because of his disappointment in not receiving a medal for his actions during the War at Detroit and because Gore had not provided any special interference on Nichol’s behalf over war claims.  Nichol explained himself:  “When that character,” meaning Gore, “insulted the House, and violated the Constitution, I  felt it my duty to reprobate him and his corrupt advisers.”  (Dictionary of Canadian Biography:  Robert Nichol, Vol. VI).  His transformation from government man to opposition man was all about Gore’s order forbidding commissioners from administering the oath of allegiance to anyone except office holders and loyalists’ children without the permission of the Lt.-Governor’s office.  This limited the acquisition of land to British subjects, which meant that Americans, the largest group of new settlers, were banned from purchasing land.  Resident aliens could be deported simply by the order of a magistrate, so Gore was threatening the security of most new settlers.  Anyone who wanted to buy or sell land, especially land speculators in the growing Niagara District, was in a difficult situation with no one to sell to.  Similarly, since the government depended on the proceeds of the sale of the confiscated estates of traitors to meet claims for war-time damage to private property, it can be seen that Nichol’s reaction was that of a strict adherent of Simcoe’s Constitution (which Nichol had always been) against what he saw as a violation of the law.  The fact that he was a substantial landowner and speculator -- and one of the largest claimants for wartime damages -- did nothing to lessen his fury.

Nichol remained active in Upper Canada politics and was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Norfolk County three times from 1812 to 1820.  As leader of the opposition, he pushed for a reduction in public spending and for reforms to strengthen the economy, including a union with Lower Canada.  He moved to Stamford in 1821 and in 1824 obtained a post as surrogate court judge for the Niagara District. 

The Mysterious Death of Robert Nichol

Robert Nichol died mysteriously, late on the night of Monday, May 3, 1824, when he and his one-horse carriage toppled over the cliff at Queenston Heights.  The foreman of the jury at the inquest was William Lyon Mackenzie, who set out an abstract of the hearing in the first issue of the Colonial Advocate, dated May 18, 1824.

According to the newspaper account, Colonel Nichol (as he was called) and his wife, Theresa, and children set out on Monday morning from their residence in Stamford to Queenston, where Nichol dropped off his family, promising to pick them up again in the afternoon for the homeward journey.  On the way down the escarpment, they stopped to view the construction site where the monument to Major-General Sir Isaac Brock was being built.  Everyone appeared to be in fine spirits and health.

But Colonel Nichol never did return to pick up his family from their sojourn at Queenston.  Major Richard Leonard took them home later in the day due to Nichol’s lingering stay on business in Niagara.  Theresa grew increasingly alarmed at his absence and sent out message after message to find him, but to no avail.  It was not until Tuesday evening that the thought occurred that he might have fallen over the high banks of the river.  When the body was at last found the next morning it was taken to the ferry house and the coroner, Gilbert McMicking, summoned a jury to investigate the manner of his death.

Mackenzie reports that the jury viewed the body, and “it appeared that he had received several wounds and bruises in the head; his skull was fractured and his neck broken, and a more ghastly spectacle could not well be conceived.” (Colonial Advocate and Journal of Agriculture, Manufactures & Commerce, No. 1, Tuesday, May 18, 1824).  They heard evidence from Elijah Place, who had found the body “when the Sun was half an hour high, [about six o’clock in the morning] above the ferry house, among the rocks.”  (ibid)  The deceased had on all his clothes except his hat, and his horse lay a considerable distance below the body, without any harness or bridle. (italics Mackenzie’s)  It was supposed the rocks and bushes tore the harness off in the fall.

Stereographic shot of the cliff at Queenston Heights from Lewiston side. D.188.013

Stereographic shot of the cliff at Queenston Heights from Lewiston side. D.188.013

Next they visited Queenston Heights.  “It appeared from the wagon tracks that he had gone to the left of the road; the horse had, as if aware of his danger when he came to the edge of the awful precipice, stamped the ground with his feet – there was very little room for turning, and the wagon had been backed about; but whether by the driver or by the instinct of the animal does not appear.  In backing the hind and fore wheels had cramped, as was visible from the tracks in the stretch of grass.  The hind wheels, in cramping, appear to have been forced down the sloping bank beyond the horse’s power of resistance; the seat and of consequence the rider must have been immediately upset, and the latter precipitated down over two ledges of rocks, in all from 200 to 250 feet perpendicular.”  (Ibid.)

The jury then went down “by a narrow and difficult path” to where the deceased had fallen, about 60 or 70  feet above the river.  A small cairn of stones had been erected there to show the blood-stained ground.  The jury looked at the horse collar – it was not damaged!

They couldn’t agree on their verdict, so a number of witnesses were called who had been with Colonel Nichol on the day:  Robert Grant, a magistrate and personal friend of the deceased, had been handed the papers and property that had been found with the body.  Grant didn’t think any of the papers would have irritated Nichol and the jury did not examine the papers.  Nichol had on him over 45 dollars in York bank notes and a watch with a seal.  Grant swore he “had no doubt but that Nichol’s death was accidental.”  Robert Hamilton, another friend, reported that he had seen the deceased and that “the handkerchief round deceased’s neck was double folded in his mouth”, but that he, likewise, “had no doubt that it was an accidental death.”

Next came Moses Little, who testified that he had accompanied Nichol on another occasion in a night-time trip up the escarpment in Nichol’s wagon.  He said that Nichol was apt to guide his horse out of the way of the edge.  On this day, though, he had seen the body and noted that he had sustained a large wound or bruise on his left thigh and another on his right shoulder; he had concluded that Nichol’s neck was broken.

William Jarvis declared that Nichol had stopped at a Mr. McCormick’s home on Monday noon, left that place and returned at around two o’clock for dinner.  Apparently he had been reluctant to stay at McCormick’s for dinner because of the promise he had made his wife to pick her up in Queenston, but that nevertheless he had stayed until half past seven, when he walked over to Jarvis’ brother Samuel’s house.  He stayed at Samuel’s until about a quarter past ten, returning with William Jarvis to McCormick’s for his horse and wagon.  William had urged Nichol to stay the night in town, but Nichol had refused because of his promise to his wife.  William Jarvis had known Robert Nichol for a long time, though he couldn’t remember ever having ridden up the escarpment with him; Nichol was in “no ill humour,” but “was somewhat the worse for his wine.”  Jarvis still “had no fear then of any accident befalling [the] deceased [but] believed from the deceased’s own account that he was near sighted, which with the darkness and the wine he had taken would render him less able to take a correct road.”  Nichol had told Jarvis that he had no fear but that he would get home safe, and, again, Jarvis “had no doubt but that Nichol’s death was accidental.”

Samuel Jarvis agreed that Nichol had come with William to talk about the upcoming election.  Apparently Nichol had taken about half a pint of port there and talked until ten o’clock.  Samuel, too, asked Nichol to stay the night, but Nichol again pleaded his promise to Theresa, shook hands with Samuel and left with William.  Samuel averred that he had known Nichol since childhood; from his knowledge of Nichol’s habits and character “he had no doubt but that his death was accidental;” he did not believe that Nichol was afraid of way-layers or night enemies.  What is more, Nichol had been in high spirits, he was thinking of moving from Niagara to London, and he was not affected by pamphlets and squibs that were published about him.  He had laughed at the squibs.

No other evidence was called.  Mackenzie explains that by the evidence produced they could not have come to any verdict other than that death was accidental, even though he, Mackenzie, was “suspicious that this might have been the work of some secret enemy.  There is a mystery about this man’s death that we cannot unravel.  It is hard to suppose that any one could have been so barbarous as on that stormy and dreadful night to have forced him into certain destruction; yet it is really marvellous how he, with a steady horse, which so well knew the way, should have so far missed the path.”  Mackenzie goes on to introduce the fact that Mrs. Thomas Dickson had heard Nichol knocking at her door at around eleven o’clock, but when he found that the family were in bed, she supposed that he thought it best to go on because he did not wait for anyone to come to the door.  He goes on to report that he also “knocked at Mr. Grant’s house before he went up the mountain, which shows he was but little disordered by the wine  he had taken.”  Nichol’s servant McIntyre said the horse was a strong animal and not liable to mistake the road; “he has been out with the deceased at all hours, and is sure that had not the horse been forced out of the way, he would have kept the road.  The place where deceased fell over is about six rods from the road.”  (one rod is just over five metres).

Therein lies the mystery.  Robert Nichol was no doubt under the influence of his wines and spirits, but his horse was strong and sure.  The jury “saw no cause to believe otherwise” but that death was accidental (even though Mackenzie, the jury’s foreman, clearly did).  A number of facts of the case are disturbing, however:  Nichol’s handkerchief was double folded in his mouth, as if he were gagged and strangled.  His horse was found without harness or bridle; even if we assume the conjecture was correct and they were torn off in the fall, why then was the collar undamaged?   Was Nichol calling for help at the Dickson and Grant houses when he knocked but could not wait long enough for the respective doors to be opened?  And how can we visualize the locked wagon wheels, the horse stamping the ground before being pulled over the edge by the weight of the wagon, if there was no other malevolent force in a space six rods from the road?  Would a jury nowadays, with modern forensics, have come to the same conclusion?

Robert Nichol was buried with full masonic rites in the cemetery of the Hamilton family at Queenston and the history books maintain just that he fell over the cliff at Queenston Heights.  We may never know the full story of how he died that night. 

Nichol died before receiving his share of the British grant, but the 1823-6 committee of revision eventually determined that he should be compensated for more than 4,205 pounds in losses.  His widow received a share of the money pledged by the British government, but all of it was directed towards creditors who had numerous claims against the estate.  She immediately applied to

Maitland for relief as the widow of a militia veteran and he forwarded her application with a favorable recommendation. Maitland said the family had been “left in extremely distressed circumstances.”  Several years later Theresa Nichol was placed in charge of Brock’s monument in the hope that she could earn at least a modest income from leading tours around the site.  The position had originally been offered to another woman, Laura Secord, but Theresa’s case was considered more pressing.

Robert Nichol’s passing marked the end of an era in Upper Canadian affairs. He had entered the Assembly in 1812 as a staunch supporter of the government, but the war and its legacy of economic hard times led him to become the chief critic of the administration for almost a decade.  By the time of his death, however, the economy of Upper Canada was showing definite signs of revival.

Bibliography

Robert L. Fraser, Dictionary of Canadian Biography:  Robert Nichol, Vol. VI, (University of Toronto/Universite Laval:  1967)  Accessed August 25, 2014.

William Lyon Mackenzie, “The Late Colonel Nichol.” Colonial Advocate and Journal of Agriculture, Manufactures & Commerce; No. 1.  Tuesday, May 18,1824.

 

Ernest A. Cruikshank, “A Sketch of the Public life and       services of Robert Nichol, a  member of the Legislative Assembly and quartermaster general of the militia of Upper Canada,” Ontario History 19 (1922) 10-18

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