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Selections from the Reports of the Public Archives of Canada (1872-1972): 
18th Century Isle Royale and Cape Breton Island


Eric Krause

April, 2002

Krause House Info-Research Solutions

Papers Relating to J. F. W. DesBarres (1774 - 1825)

Photostat copies of documents relating to his survey of the North American Coast and his administration, of Cape Breton.


May 25, 1774

Resolution of Lords of Admiralty re Memorial of Mr. DesBarres, suggesting bringing before Parliament the question of publishing his charts.

September 13, 1776

Lords of Admiralty to Navy Board. Ordering payment to DesBarres of an allowance of twenty shillings a day.

March 17, 1777

Lords of Adm. to Navy Board. Ordering to pay DesBarres  264-6s for 36 sets of charts of Nova Scotia & 36 sets of charts of New England, and binding.

August 4, 1779

January 28, 1794

J. F. W. DesBarres to Lords Comrs. of Treasury. 

January 28, 1794

Account of J. F. W. DesBarres' Disbursements, in carrying on Surveys of the Coasts & Harbors in N. America & in constructing & publishing Charts for the Public Service, from 1764 to 1784.

January 28, 1794

Explanation of above Accounts of Disbursements.

July 12, 1781

Lords Cormrs. of Admiralty to the King. 

(1782, ?)

Memorial of J. F. W. DesBarres to the King in Council.

(1782, ?)

J. F. W. DesBarres to Lords of Privy Council, with a Comparative State of Sums claimed by Memorialist, & Mr. Holland.

(1782, ?)

Memorial of J. F. W. DesBarres to the King in Council, with  an Account of Contingent Disbursements, 1764-73.

October 21, 1782

Report of Lords Comrs. of Admiralty to H.M. Privy Council, upon Memorial of J. F. W. DesBarres.

November 25, 1783

Report of Lords of Privy Council upon DesBarres' Disbursements.

November 28, 1783

Order approving above Report. 

May 1, 1784

A Statement of the Services of Major J. F. W. DesBarres, Prevost.

May 16, 1776

Memorial of Joseph F. W. DesBarres to the Lords Comrs. of  Trade & Plantations.

January 15, 1777

John Robinson to Richard Cumberland. 

Rec'd. 1778

J. F. W. DesBarres to Richard Cumberland. 

February 9, 1779

J. F. W. DesBarres to Richard Cumberland. 

February 9, 1779

List of 26 Plates of Charts, etc., to be ready in 4 or 5 months. 

Rec'd. 1780

Memorial of J. F. W. DesBarres to the Lords Commissioners Of  Trade & Plantations.


List of Titles of Charts with number of Plates each Chart consists of:


Cape Breton Governor's Accounts, &e. A.0.3/142: Statement of Lieut. Govr. DesBArres. Narrative of the Motives of Lieut. Govr. Desbarres' appointment to Cape Breton, and of the Circumstances of the Expenditures for the public service there with Remarks.

Plantations General. 1766 to 1780.-N.-C.O. 324 Vol. 18:


Estimate of the Expense attending General Surveys of H.M. Dominions in N. America for the year 1777. Extract.

February 3, 1777

Richd. Cumberland to John Robinson.

February 3, 1777

Observations on the Estimates. Extract.

February 18, 1778

Estimates of the Expense attending General Surveys of H.M. Dominions in N. America for 1778.

February 18, 1778

Observations on the Estimates. Extract.

February 19, 1779

Estimate of the Expense attending General Surveys of H.M. Dominions in N. America for 1779.

February 28, 1779

Observations on the Estimates. Extract.

February 28, 1780

Estimate of the Expense attending General Surveys of H.M. Dominions in N. America for 1780.

February 28, 1780

Observations on the Estimates, 1780. Extracts.

House of Commons Journals. Vol. XXXV:

March 6 & 7, 1775

Estimates of the expense of engraving charts of Nova Scotia surveyed by J. F. W. DesBarres.


Additional MSS, 32880, 37845, 37885, 37886, 37890.

London, February 15, 1793

DesBarres to Dundas. 

Gratitude for his answer of the September 26, 1791 to his letter of September 17, 1791 asking for a trial of his case. Hopes there is no more obstacle in the way to a decision.

There was in Nova Scotia a party of officers and traders opposed to the settlement of Cape Breton from fear of curtailment of their importance or profits. They did everything to ruin the enterprise. Six of the civil and military officers entered into a combination to oppose all undertakings and made allegations to the Colonial Office against him. He asks for copies of these and to be tried upon the following:

From Lord Sydney's correspondence with him, the case cannot be fully understood, as he contented himself with reporting to him the actual state of things, denying all complaints generally, and many letters remained unanswered or, after long delay, but partially answered. He was told that his letters and the explanations of the Chief Justice, whom he sent to England, were 1793 insufficient to remove allegations against him, but how could it be otherwise, when such allegations were never communicated to him. The correspondence shows a complete lack of knowledge, so the only way out is a public and impartial trial. 

It is of no use to say that the incriminating papers are not in the office. That would be strange and also suspicious. But he can furnish a copy of the Remonstrance and Petition No. 1. He could also prepare a summary of all the facts with the complaints, and have it printed. And he is ready to stand by the judgment of any competent persons on the matter. He is ready to risk anything for a trial at any rate. The pretence of Lord Sydney for withdrawing it - that he did not know whether the government was authorized to recall or remove him - cannot deprive him of his right to a trial. Besides one cannot be removed without being proved guilty, which guilt can only result from hearing both sides. 

During the war, he received praises from Townshend, Amherst, etc. In Newfoundland, he contributed to the army's success. He made a survey of the principal harbours there, and also of the harbour of Halifax, and it was proposed to him to survey the coast of Nova Scotia. Thus he was led to compose and publish the Atlantic Neptune, after twenty years of hard work, losing in the meantime his opportunity of preferment. 

He has not even been paid all his expenses. Still this book is one of the most useful works of the kind and has been very useful to the navy and commerce. At the time, the Board of Trade was in a tottering situation, so he had to rely on his own and friends' resources to finish his book. He did not secure the military preferment he was entitled to, but only recommendation for some mark of the Royal favour for his services.

Accordingly the following year, he was appointed to Cape Breton. Such being the case, how could Lord Sydney destroy his character without a trial? He cannot submit to that. Is it not the duty of government to protect faithful servants? Had the minister fulfilled his promises of help and considered the difficulties of the situation, the officer, who was charged with creating the settlement and who accounted for everything, should have been treated with liberality, not with distrust. 

His difficulties were inconceivable: three vessels, loaded with provisions, were successively seized. Still the infant colony succeeded in exporting 40,000 in one year. It could have become a source of supplies for our West Indian Islands and secured us the chief part of the carrying trade of North America. The government not only did not communicate to him the complaints, but even restored officers he had suspended. Then government money ceased to be issued to his agent. This brought an inundation of protested bills, which he tried to settle from his personal resources. 

In October 1787, he left for England and his property has since been plundered. When leaving, two trunks of papers were stolen. He had to pay 200 for the old vessel which brought him to Jersey. Hearing that a watch was kept to seize him on account of the protested bills, he asked Lord Sydney for a safe conveyance to London, but without result. He succeeded in gaining London secretly in April 1788 and reached a sanctuary in the vicinity of Whitehall. He presented himself to the Colonial Office, demanding a speedy trial, but was told he was still the lieutenant-governor of Cape Breton and that justice would be done to him. He had not a guinea to himself, and was constantly visited by the holders of the protested bills. Then stopping all payments, the Secretary of State had recommended paying 7,000, but both the Colonial Office and the Treasury Board did nothing about it. 

He then heard through his friends of the accusations and calumnies circulated. He was petrified with astonishment and urged the Colonial Office to give a speedy trial. Communications followed for ten months. The Secretary of State relegated him to the Under Secretaries and then always prevented any progress. They tried to deter him from a trial, on account of the uncertainties of the complaints, arguing that he was not supposed to incur expense in Cape Breton, nor spend money for barracks or the relief of the people and the best thing was to have his accounts passed. But he still insisted on a trial. 

The pretence that no expense was to be incurred is astonishing: Cape Breton was to be reserved for the Loyalists. Haldimand was asked to send Loyalists there at the public expense and the Secretary told DesBarres to accommodate them with provisions and articles of bounty. The Secretary of State forgot that barracks were to be built. The measure was imposed on him. Besides it was a necessity. 

The expenditure of which he gives the details, incurred for the Loyalists, the barracks, wages, etc., amounted to 22,366. This is less than in the original plan. Had he known it was not to be executed, he could have realized some saving. But they had to live in continual suspense and to buy what supplies they could at any terms. The barracks were built very cheaply and the government has already saved more than their cost. 

He has seen a paper intitled " Remonstrance and Petition of the Principal Inhabitants of Cape Breton," which was exhibited by Mr. Hurd, who was suspended for misconduct from his office of surveyor in Cape Breton. He asked the Colonial Office for an official copy, but could not get it, nor copies of the Secretary of State's report, or of any complaint. 

Always some pretext being used for a refusal. Though a public servant may be removed as an executive measure, this does not extend to refusing a trial before punishment. As one of the Under Secretaries swore one day that he would ruin him, perhaps here is to be found the explanation of his difficulties. The complaints are linked with the accounts, since the former were examined in connection with the latter. And the Lords of the Admiralty could not proceed upon the accounts without first ascertaining the facts by a trial. If the reports to the Treasury had not included part of the complaints, the accounts could have been dealt with without reflecting on his conduct. The accounts could have been rejected, and he would have been a great loser, but then he would not have been considered a criminal but a meritorious man, having founded a colony. 

After ten months, the Secretary of State decided to refer the case to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, on February 21, 1789. This measure, without a previous trial, could bring no result as he was officially prejudged and could not expect any attention. It simply meant hanging up the case and so it proved to be. He was refused all copies of reports and nothing was done. 

But the importunity of Mr. John Drummond, one of the complainants, succeeded in bringing about an examination of his claims and complaints by the Comptrollers of the Army Accounts and they were not found to be what they were represented. Some of the holders of the protested bills began to agitate in order to find whether anything was done to him. Fearing longer postponement, the government at the end of 1789 issued 10,000 for 1793 payment of the bills, but only 7,171 went to pay the original, the rest being absorbed by interests and expenses. 

An arbitration decided the claims of Mr. Sparrow to be unfounded and his own conduct in the administration of Cape Breton, to be conducive to his honor, and suggested a more complete enquiry. At the request of the Secretary of State who said part of the original and duplicate vouchers had been lost, he presented the triplicates he had retained. One of the secretaries of the Treasury, Mr. Steele, compared them with the accounts and declared himself satisfied. But later they were missed from the office and he had to obtain an official acknowledgment before the Court of Exchequer for the lost vouchers. 

Then followed a long official silence, during which some of the complainants were privately examined and reports by Col. Macarmick laid before the Board. Out of this investigation a great number of queries of all kinds were submitted to him. It would have taken months to answer them. Evidently there was an intent to prolong the proceedings or raise some reason to postpone the public trial asked for. Therefore unwilling to submit any longer to a secret proceeding before the Board, he wrote to them, protesting against its proceeding with the case, before a trial was duly granted to him. Without answering, the Board addressed further queries, which relating solely to the accounts, were answered by him. 

He only wants justice. He was anxious to serve his country' and deserve commendation. He had so far succeeded well enough, and now he has been stripped of everything. He asks to be reimbursed the residue of his expenses in publishing the Atlantic Neptune; that the preferment lost in the army may be made up in the course of time; that the government of Cape Breton be restored to him; that his losses may be paid to him; that he may be tried upon all complaints and accusations.

May 10, 1793

Memorial of Lieutenant Governor DesBarres to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. The memorialist represents that, in 1755, he had sufficient property. In 1756 he went to Pennsylvania and Maryland, where he raised 327 recruits. In 1757 he commanded a party of volunteers against the Indians of Canada, and secured their friendship. In 1758 at Louisbourg, he attacked with success an entrenchment and battery. 

His conduct was mentioned to the King by General Wolfe, and he was, as a result continued an engineer in the expedition against Quebec in 1759. He made a survey of the town and the harbour, after the capitulation. In 1760, be was detached, with 500 men to establish a post at Cap Rouge. After the defeat of General Murray, the Commanding Engineer, Col. Mackellar being wounded, his services were useful in the defence of Quebec. 

After the conquest, he was sent to Halifax to make plans and estimates for fortifying the dockyards at Halifax. In 1762, he took part in the expedition for the retaking of St. Johns in Newfoundland, serving as Engineer and Quarter-Master-General. 

After the peace, promises of promotion induced him to accept the surveying of the coasts and harbours. After ten years' work, the king was pleased to order the publication of his survey. During the American war he was employed by the Board of Trade to adapt various surveys to nautical purposes. 

After twenty years' services, he claimed promotion and reimbursement of expenses. In 1784 the Admiralty Board paid for the work done under its direction, but the rest remained unsettled. This put him in the apparent situation of not having served his country, but he kept hoping that the nation would not desire to benefit by his personal loss. 

He drew attention to the resources and advantages of Cape Breton. In 1784, to assist Loyalists, the government decided to colonize this island and he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-in--Chief of the troops. He was promised every requisite and support and instructed to invite settlers,. The government was in the habit of supplying the Loyalists and Soldier settlers with provisions. In the absence of expected support, he carried on the work, reporting that the emigrants were helped and the colony established with such results that in one year the colony exported to the value of  40,000. Then on the ground of pretended complaints, he was recalled home but without being communicated the particulars of them. His credit was stopped, the bills negotiated for the service came back on him, his property was seized and he was left in complete distress. 

On his return to England, he was promised justice. On his claiming an investigation, he was charged with having spent lavishly large sums of money. On his refuting these charges, he was led into an explanation of his administration, which brought about an inquiry, which suddenly stopped, and only the matter of his accounts was resumed. Incidentally, he came to the knowledge of other imputations, and as such had been the cause of his recall, he claimed right to a trial, which was promised, but not conceded. Considering the success of the new establishment, he was entitled to a liberal view of his conduct. 

As to his accounts, he explained their necessity, reported the current expenditure and proposed a plan to be followed till he received instructions. The bills were drawn, the agent paid and advised to continue the same course. Still later his credit was stopped without explanations. The bills should have been examined regularly and, if found defective, observations transmitted, according to practice, but he was, hastily condemned. He was given no justice, and the Commissioners for auditing the public accounts were misled by misinformations and they reported a list of disallowances. But his observations are before the minister. 

As to the two items, one of 268 is claimed by a Mr. Andrews, which the memorialist has nothing to do with; and the other represents bills paid by Sir Herbert Mackworth & Co. The Commissioners make the mistake of including a sum which should be deducted. But it is only when proper attention is afforded that he can explain the whole case. Divested of his property, wounded in his feelings, he prays that copies of complaints be supplied him and opportunity be given of vindicating his honor, also that he should be compensated for his past work and services. 

Detailed Account of what the government owes to Lieut. Gov. DesBarres, 1784-1789.

London, October 29, 1795

DesBarres to Windham. Sending two memoranda; one respecting his claims, on which he asks him to secure a decision; the other relating his injuries.

London, October 30, 1795 

DesBarres to Windham. Sending some papers.

London, December 31, 1795

Windham to DesBarres. Relating to a letter of Mr. Miles. Will not give it any consideration. He is not connected with the paper in question. Wants no more communication on the matter.

London, March 2, 1796 

DesBarres to Windham. Has received his letter of yesterday. His interposition in his case should remove obstacles. On his advice will write an abstract of his transactions. He received no letter from 1796 Lord Sydney or the Treasury limiting expenses for stationery or a private secretary. The first notice to him came from the Auditors in their report of 1793. P.S. Lord Sydney's declaration was in a report to the Treasury. The expenses had then been incurred and paid by himself before he knew of the report.


Printed summary of DesBarres' claims with table of money received and disbursed by him.

London, June 16, 1801

T. Steele to the Duke of Portland. 

At his request and that of the Board of Treasury, has examined the memorial of DesBarres. In 1763, DesBarres was appointed to survey the coasts of Nova Scotia by the Board of Admiralty. He was to receive 20 shillings per day and an allowance for instruments and stationery. In 1769, he presented a demand for contingent expenses amounting to 623. The Board allowed him only 132, charged for purchase of instruments and ten guineas per annum for instruments and stationery. In 1770, he asked for a larger allowance as well as for allowance for house rent, etc., without success. In 1779 five years after his return to England, he presented a bill for contingent expenses not authorized, which was rejected. In 1781, he presented a memorial to the king, claiming 4,214 and the Board of Admiralty recommended payment of only 1,200. The report was referred again to the Board, and a change having taken place in the administration, the new Board recommended payment of the whole less 300. This payment in 1782 was so ample as to dispose of any complaint that he was insufficiently paid for that service. 

In 1774, DesBarres returned to England and it was understood with the Admiralty that he was to publish his book at his own expense and profit, but the Board later on agreed to allow him 35 guineas per plate. Consequently a sum of 3,711 was granted by Parliament and issued to DesBarres. The allowance of 20 shillings per day was paid to him from 1763 to August 1779. In 1777, the Board of Trade made an agreement with DesBarres to adapt to nautical use certain surveys at the rate of 35 guineas per plate, with 20 shillings per day. The work ended in 1780. 

There was no complaint of DesBarres at any time. He received payment for 247 plates. He was paid by the Admiralty 20 shillings per day from 1763 to 1779, and received the same from the Board of Trade, so that he was in the receipt of 40 shillings per day for nearly three years. The Admiralty actually paid for the copies they were furnished with. The plates were left to DesBarres. On that point DesBarres has no claim whatever against the public. 

In 1784, on the recommendation of General Conway, DesBarres was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Cape Breton. His settling there with his family must have meant considerable expenditure. The difficulties met with were so great that allowance ought to have been made for the irregularities in the accounts and errors of judgment. At the outset he tried to form an estimate of the probable expenditure and sent it home. He drew cheques which were at first paid, but as the amounts appeared likely to exceed expectation and accounts were not made in the regular way, the Board of Treasury refused to pay the bills. The colony was soon reduced to distress and divided into factions. 

The Secretary of State, on the information of Cape Breton people, suspected DesBarres of errors of judgment and, dissatisfied with the state accounts, directed him to return to England and await instructions. On the arrival of  Lieut.-Col. Macarmick to act during his absence, DesBarres sailed for England. The bills drawn and unpaid accumulated to so large an amount that the holders seized DesBarres' property. On his arrival in England, he was in fear that his person would also be seized. 

In September 1786, Lord Sydney recommended payment of several sums upon account, but the Treasury did not think proper to issue any money till convinced of the propriety of the expenditure. In February 1789, Lord Sydney recommended payment of great part of DesBarres' demands. DesBarres reached London in the spring of 1788, and pressed at once for an inquiry, but nothing was done in 1788 and during the greater part of 1789. The writer, at that time secretary to the Treasury, suggested paying a certain sum on account and made an examination of the accounts. 

On his report, the Board paid 10,000 which discharged 7,171 of the principal debt, the remainder being applied to interest and expenses. DesBarres continued from month to month and from year to year to press for a final settlement and inquiry, but it was only in October 1791 that the Commissioners for auditing the public accounts were directed to proceed with the case. But owing to the loss in the department of many of the vouchers, the report was only made in February 1793. It admitted that a balance of 2,213 was due to DesBarres, but disallowed various sums amounting to 3,549. DesBarres remonstrated with the Board, which allowed another sum of 1,500, making a total of 3,700 due to him. 

He has explained the report and DesBarres' explanations. The auditors and the Board could not, limited by their constitutions, accept the accounts disallowed. But the writer having to state his opinion, as to the equity of DesBarres' claims, thinks he should be allowed the whole sum that was disallowed, except for a sum of 33 and some other trifling accounts. Consequently he should be allowed about 2,000, although there are no proper vouchers. 

Reviewing the whole case, here is his judgment: DesBarres is not entitled to the l,207, claimed for his first period of service, nor to the payment demanded for advances, while engraving the Atlantic Neptune; but there should be repaid with interest, a sum of 302-11-10 paid for fees. As Lieutenant-Governor of Cape Breton, he should be allowed the above sum of 2,000 without interest, but is entitled to 5 % interest on the 3,700 admitted from 1787 to date. As since this return, a long period elapsed before his accounts were examined and he was in almost daily attendance at the government offices, he should be allowed a sum equal to half his salary from his last payment to the end of 1793.

London, July 4, 1801

DesBarres to Duke of Portland. 

Regretting that Mr. Steele's award has not been accepted, but rejoicing that he has vindicated his conduct. He was appointed Lieutenant-Governor as a reward for services and re-called to answer charges not founded on truth. . He
should be reinstated and compensated.

London, September 21, 1801

DesBarres to Windham. 

Soliciting his recommendation for obtaining a post. Mr. Steele has misunderstood his case. Asks for payment of the part of his claims which has been admitted.

London, 1806

DesBarres to Windham. 

Asking him to press the payment of what appears payable in his claims.

Prince Edward Island, December 17, 1806

DesBarres to Windham. 

Transmitting a memorial.

Prince Edward Island, March 6, 1807

DesBarres to Windham. 

Expressing his gratitude and refunding money lent. Is not forgetting Mr. Adams' professional services. With slender salary, has to provide at his own cost a house with council chambers. Public entertainments exceed his means. Hopes some provision may be made to assist him.


A collection of commissions, letters and papers, extending from 1784 to 1826, relating to J. F. W. DesBarres, Lieutenant-Governor of the Island of Cape Breton, 1784-1787, and Thomas Ashfield, who was his private secretary, as well as solicitor and notary public, clerk of various courts and commissioner for small debts. The following is a list of the most important papers: 


Copies of documents lent by Rev. Thomas DesBarres, Christ Church Vicarage, Hertford, comprising memoranda, letters and notes giving biographical information on the DesBarres family.

Extracted, reformatted, and edited from the Report of the Public Archives for the Year 1923, Appendix D, Miscellaneous, (Ottawa: F. A. Acland, 1924), pp. 7-16