John Le Breton

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John Le Breton

Canadian immigrant



John Le Breton was an army officer, farmer, mill owner and Justice of the Peace in Canada. Born in about 1779 in Jersey, he was taken to Canada as an infant by his parents, and may have been baptised there, because there is no record of a baptism in Jersey. He died in 1848 in Toronto. This article is taken from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Although it refers to his as John and his parents as John and Jane, they would more likely have been Jean, Jean and Jeanne


John Le Breton’s parents appear to have been John Le Breton, a ship’s captain in the Newfoundland trade, and his wife Jane; they evidently brought John to Newfoundland as an infant.

Army career

Entering the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment as an ensign in 1795, he became a lieutenant in 1798 and in 1807 obtained a permanent army lieutenancy in the unit’s successor, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

In 1808, while serving at Quebec, he requested a posting either to an armed vessel on the St Lawrence River or as adjutant of a militia battalion in Upper Canada; in support of the former he cited his fluency in French and his experience in command of a cutter off Newfoundland.

The following year he became deputy assistant quartermaster general at Quebec, a temporary staff appointment he held until March 1812. Between April and October he acted as adjutant of the Voltigeurs Canadiens; in November he returned to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, serving as an assistant engineer.

An aggressive officer whose ambition outreached his achievements, Le Breton nevertheless participated with distinction in nine actions during the War of 1812. In October 1813 he was sent to Detroit under truce by Major-General Henry Procter to request the humane treatment of prisoners taken by the Americans at Moraviantown and the restoration of their private property. Secretly he was to assess the Americans’ strength at Detroit and on Lake Erie.

In December Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo described him as a “very clear headed intelligent Officer”. Le Breton returned to the quartermaster general’s department in February 1814 and remained with it until mid-1815. During that period he pressed unsuccessfully for authorisation to raise and command an Upper Canadian “Corps of Rangers”.

He was severely wounded and disabled at Lundy’s Lane in July 1814. Between July 1815 and April 1816 he was on leave in England and in the Canadas. Promoted captain in the 60th Foot in March 1816, he went on half pay later that month.

Rideau Canal, 19th century

Land petition

In March 1815 he had petitioned for land in Upper Canada. Four years later his grant was located in Nepean Township in the Ottawa River valley, where he settled and later erected mills. His holding, which he called Britannia and which was later known as Le Breton Flats, was near the Chaudière Falls property of Robert Randal, part of which Le Breton tried to buy or lease. By May 1819 he had built a storehouse there.

The key to the property’s importance was its location – at Richmond Landing, the main transit depot for the military settlements of Perth and Richmond. In December 1820 Le Breton bought the Randal property for £449 at a sheriff’s sale in Brockville. Though legally transacted, the purchase became part of Randal’s litany of political grievances, and immediately established Le Breton before many as an obstreperous opportunist.

Governor Lord Dalhousie accused him of acting on privileged information, reputedly overheard at a dinner in Richmond the preceding August, about the government’s intention to develop a new depot at Richmond Landing. A number of the district’s compact of half-pay officers and gentlemen later supported Le Breton by testifying that no such news had been discussed at the dinner.

Le Breton repeatedly refused to relinquish the landing to the government for less than £3,000, despite the direct involvement of an offended Dalhousie, who questioned the legality of his purchase and loathed the characteristic aggressiveness of his resistance. His title survived a court challenge by the crown in 1828, following which he began to subdivide the property, now adjacent to the newly established settlement of Bytown (Ottawa) and the Rideau Canal.

Disputes

Le Breton’s modest accomplishments as a settler are overwhelmed in the historical record by a series of disputes which preoccupied him for almost two decades, and create the impression of an embittered veteran in an almost constant state of grievance.

First appointed as a magistrate for the Montreal District in 1821, he petitioned Lieut-Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland unsuccessfully in 1822 to have his name reinstated on a list of magistrates for Upper Canada from which it had been inexplicably struck.

His action was motivated in part by his need for income (he claimed to have invested more than £2,000 in his settlement) and partly by rampant lawlessness in Nepean. In 1820 he had protested to Maitland’s secretary, Major George Hillier, the theft of timber from his land. In 1823–24 he was assaulted by timbermen, whom he viewed as plunderers and thugs, some of whom, including Philemon Wright, had again stolen timber.

Solicitor General Henry John Boulton contended in 1824 that the timbermen accused by Le Breton that year had had a contract with him and that any dispute should be resolved in court, a course that Le Breton, who often pressed charges of trespass, declined to follow, possibly because of the cost and uncertain outcome. In 1825 he realized some additional income by commuting his half pay, and finally, in 1830 and again in 1838, he was commissioned a magistrate for the Bathurst District.

Compensation

Between 1827 and 1839 Le Breton was embroiled with Lieut-Colonel John By, other military authorities, and provincial law officers over his claims for losses resulting from the construction of the Rideau Canal and related works. The running controversy centred on timber allegedly taken from his property and on the Royal Engineers’ construction of a dam and deepening of a channel for floating timber past the Chaudière Falls as part of the developments near the canal’s entrance.

Situated adjacent to Le Breton’s property, these works prevented him from erecting his own dam and ruined the mill site. This dispute with the authorities, which may rank next to that involving Nicholas Sparks as the longest and most complicated to arise from the canal’s construction, illustrates Le Breton’s painful inability to negotiate productively. He refused to accept either By’s offer of compensation or adjudication by jury, and though one senior military officer supported his claims, the contestants could not agree on an arrangement for arbitration.

Eventually, both the Colonial Office and the Upper Canadian administration of Sir George Arthur despaired of ever settling with Le Breton. At this point the civil courts became his only recourse; he evidently took no legal action, perhaps because of the probable expense and likely futility.

Marriage

In the midst of this tribulation Le Breton married Susannah George in Quebec, and continued to visit there periodically. The couple had no children.

In early 1832 he tried to build a bridge from ice, utilizing the studies he had made before the War of 1812 of ice movements on the St Lawrence. His main occupation, however, remained farming at Britannia (in 1842, for instance, he occupied 660 acres, of which 60 were improved). He supplemented his income by selling land. His last sale of Chaudière land took place in 1837, though his interest in development there continued; in 1840 he and John George Howard corresponded about the latter’s plans for a bridge in the area.

Le Breton’s wife died in July 1847 and he subsequently moved to Toronto, where he passed away the following winter. A large memorial stone was erected at his grave in St James’ Cemetery by his five nieces, who lived in Toronto and to whom he had left his estate.
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