John Askin was born in Aughnaclay, County Tyrone, to James Askin and Alice Rae in 1739. John came to Albany, New York as a sulter with the British Army in 1758, and entered the western fur trade after the British gained control of New France. In 1764, he went to Michilimackinac, Michigan, to open a trading post, where he formed tight friendships with Canada’s leading fur traders, including James McGill, Issac Todd, and Alexander Henry. Askin remained in the area until 1780, when a conflict with Patrick Sinclair, the new commandant, prompted him to move to Detroit.
In Detroit, Askin entered into partnerships with several other leading merchants and attempted to consolidate some of the regional firms operating south of the Great Lakes to mimic the efficiency and profitability of the North West Company. However, armed conflicts with native populations combined with a declining animal population prevented Askin’s Miamis Company – a conglomeration of five Detroit firms – from achieving its aim. Fur exports from Detroit dropped from 5,000 packs in 1784 to 1,900 in 1796. The Miamis Company folded in 1789, and Askin was becoming increasingly indebted to his Montreal suppliers. Todd, McGill, and Alexander, however, remained on friendly terms with Askin, and they shielded him from financial ruin.
Aware of the fur trade’s precarious future, Askin exerted great effort to generate income from other ventures. In 1788, a year after the British government opened up the Great Lakes to private vessels, he went into the shipping business and, through his Montreal connections, obtained a contract to supply corn and flour to the North West Company in 1793. As a merchant, he was in a favourable position to acquire land for debts, and, venturing into large-scale land speculation, bought up numerous properties in Upper Canada over the years.
From the time of the American Revolution until 1796, Detroit was under military government, with little civil jurisdiction. In 1789, Askin was appointed a Justice of the Peace there, his role akin to that of a municipal leader. Although he continued to reside in Detroit after the British surrendered it to the Americans in 1796, he remained a British subject, his office of Justice of the Peace being transferred to the Western District of Upper Canada.
In the spring of 1802, Askin removed his home to Sandwich, Upper Canada, where he continued to hold extensive lands, earning the nickname “the Count of Kent.” Living in considerable comfort with an estate full of carriages, silver plates, mahogany furniture, and a well-stocked library, Askin devoted much of his time to farming. Shortly after moving, he was also appointed lieutenant-colonel for the local militia, a role he fulfilled with good humour and charm. “Once a year,” he wrote to a friend in 1805, “I put on my best Cloths & as Colonel Commands the Militia … make them Fire in Honor the the best of Kings. If we dont all Fire at once that’s no matter[;] a Drink generally closes the Scene.”
During the 1760s, Askin had three children, John, Catherine, and Madelaine, by his Indian slave, Manette. These three, however, were treated no differently than the six surviving children he had with Marie-Archange Barthe, whom he married in Detroit in June 1772. All nine children were educated and cared for according to the same standards. The eldest son, John Askin, Jr., became collector of customs for Amherstburg in 1801 and a storekeeper for the Indian Department at St. Joseph Island in 1807. Likewise, all of the children married British military officers or members of influential local families. Therese, John and Marie-Archange’s eldest daughter, for example, married Thomas McKee, a prominent official within the Indian Department, in 1797.
With a house already full of children, Askin felt that it was no strain to take in others along the way. After a fellow trader, Charles Patterson, allowed his illegitimate son to be sold to the Ottawas in 1778, Askin rescued the child and raised him in his home until the boy was old enough “to earn his Bread without Assistance.”
Such charity was natural to him, but was not spurned by religious duty. “I think before a man’s two hours dead he knows more about … [religion] than all those who remain behind,” he wrote Alexander Henry in 1796. “At Same time surely there can be no risk, in being what all the world agrees is good; and this is in the power of all who are disposed to be so.”
Askin was in his seventies when the War of 1812 broke out, and retired from the militia. Four of his sons, two sons-in-law, and ten grandchildren, however, served the British army. But with so many cross-border connections, the war pit family members against each other: to the great distress of John and Marie-Archange, one of their sons-in-law fought in the American army. “When on August 16, 1812, General Brock crossed his army from Sandwich to Spring Wells … Askin and his wife, from their vantage point on the opposite shore, viewed the entire spectacle, gully anticipating that their sons would presently be locked in deadly combat with their son-in-law, and that in the event of a British triumph, their daughter and grandchildren within the fort would be exposed to … Brock’s red allies.” 2 Their fears, thankfully, were put to rest when General Hull surrendered.
As Askin’s health began to wane in the 1810s, his son Charles took over responsibility for the family estate near Sandwich. He passed away in 1815 at the age of seventy-six. As a legacy he left a huge amount of papers and correspondences, which were collected and published in the late 1920s. Although Askin never achieved any widespread renown, his interests and contacts were so varied and so numerous that the two volumes of the John Askin Papers illuminate “almost every aspect of the history of the North West in this period.” 3 An enormously valuable resource for any student of local and regional history, both volumes of the John Askin Papers are available in the Local History section of the Central branch of the Windsor Public Library, call. no. R 977.4 As4.
John’s descendants continued to impact Essex society as Registrars for the District and County. His son, Colonel James Askin (1788-1863) became the county’s Registrar of Deeds in 1831 and held the office for fifteen years. James’ son, John Alexander (1817-1904), became the Reeve of Sandwich Township in 1855 before being appointed a Justice of the Peace. In 1858 he also became Registrar of Deeds, and held that position until 1872. John Alexander’s oldest son, Alexander (1831-1923) served in the 13th Battalion in Hamilton, where he was a civil engineer and surveyor for the Great Western Railway. John’s other son, John Wallace (1848-1914) served the Sandwich Infantry Company during the Fenian troubles and earned the rank of captain. He served his father as Deputy Registrar beginning in 1868, succeeding him at his death in 1872.