Customs House Records at Archives of Ontario
MacNamara, OGS 8157
In addition to Ontario
government records, the Archives of Ontario holds more than 2,600 collections
or fonds of "private" documents. The Toronto Customs House fonds
(F 214) is one of these private fonds.
The Archives Descriptive Database (www.archives.gov.on.ca)
tells us that the Lt.-Gov. of Upper Canada authorized the building of
customs houses in designated ports in 1803, although William Allan (footnote
1) had served as Collector of Customs at York from August of 1801 until
1828. The York (later Toronto) Customs House concerned itself only with
shipments from the USA. European goods would have cleared customs at Quebec
or Montreal. (footnote 2)
The Toronto Customs House fonds consists of two bound registers of manifests
of goods arriving in Toronto by ship from April 17, 1836 to July 8, 1841.
(This covers, approximately, the period that the Collector's job belonged
to Thomas Carfrae, Jr.) (footnote 3) Each record gives the name of the
vessel, the date and wharf of arrival, the name of the importer, and a
detailed list of what was being imported.
I've transcribed a portion of one particularly interesting manifest from
June 1, 1836 (footnote 4) that sheds light on the business activities
of a Toronto merchant named Silas Burnham, and on the goods that were
available for purchase in 1830s Toronto--somewhat more exotic then we
might expect. The list (below) appears in the order in which it was originally
written. Does the mention of some items, like raisins, several times on
the list reflect the fact that the items were being fished out of the
nooks and crannies in the hold where they had been stowed for the voyage?
The customs register book for 1836 began on April 17 (presumably when
the lake was clear of ice) and continued until December 1. The Customs
House at this time was a small one-storey building on the north side of
Front Street east of Scott Street. (footnote 5) The register shows that
virtually all goods were brought ashore at either Brown's wharf or McDonnell's/McDonald's
wharf. The vessel that brought Silas Burnham's goods, the Robert Burns,
appears to have come to Toronto only once that season, but Silas received
about a dozen shipments from the USA on various ships, including a "thrashing
machine" on August 12.
The importer, merchant Silas Burnham, may have started his retail life
with a market stall, (footnote 6) but by 1836 he was operating a general
store at 67 King Street East. At that time, King, Toronto's principal
commercial street, was numbered from east to west; 67 was on the south
side between George and New (Jarvis) streets. He appears there in the
1833/4 and 1837 directories, (footnote 7) and in the assessment rolls
(footnote 8) from 1834 to 1839. However, in the assessment rolls for 1840,
the building is empty. Has Silas moved to a different Toronto location,
or has he left the city? A thorough search of the 1840 and later assessment
rolls should provide the answer.
We do know that he eventually left Toronto--and Upper Canada. In an intriguing
letter written May 22, 1843, in Kingston, to his wife in Toronto, Samuel
Peters Jarvis expresses surprise at a rumour that Silas Burnham has committed
fraud and fled the country. Jarvis writes, "If the report should
prove true it will cause quite a panic among the Good Citizens of Toronto."
(footnote 9) Not having consulted court records, I won't hazard a guess
about when or why Silas moved across the border. However, his estate file,
proved in the Court of Probate on July 20, 1849, reveals that he died
on May 7, 1848, in Centreville, Wayne County, Indiana. He left a son Erastus,
aged 13, a daughter, Mary Louisa, aged 5. His widow Clarissa Jane Burnham
returned to Upper Canada, and was living in Port Hope, shortly after Silas'
death.( footnote 10)
Should you consult the Toronto Customs House fonds? If your family lived
in or near Toronto during 1836 to 1841, the registers will give you, at
least, a glimpse of the activity at the harbour. Many individuals--not
just merchants--received goods that are listed. On the same day that Silas
Burnham's shipment arrived, the Robert Burns also brought cargo for Messrs
Rigney and Brent, Rev. D. McAuley, and three bales of hides for tanner
Jesse Ketchum. We see William Lyon Mackenzie importing type and a printing
press later that summer. (footnote 11) While the Toronto Customs House
registers are not indexed, they are very legible, and a fascinating read.
June 1, 1836
Importer: S Burnham
Vessel: Robt Burns
3 boxes of ware
1 box medicine
1 box paper
3 bags of spice
4 tierces of rice12
4 casks of mittens
29 kegs of tobacco
20 dry barrels
6 boxes of chocolate
4 dry kegs
18 1/2 boxes of raisins
6 boxes of pipes
3 boxes of ware
1 box of [goods]
2 boxes of bitters
1 basket of oil
20 drums of raisins
20 do of figs
4 boxes of ware
4 bags of nuts
2 boxes of prunes
1 do cocoa
1 do capers
1 do syrup
2 small boxes
10 bales of goods
40 boxes of raisins
21 kegs of tobacco
1 box of goods
11 boxes of candy
2 boxes of pepper sauce
2 boxes ware
4 bags of nuts
16 boxes of sythe stones
1. Two customs account
books created by William Allan during his tenure survive in the William
Allan fonds, S 123, Series 1, Vols 1 and 2, Baldwin Room, Toronto Reference
Library. They cover the period 1815 to 1830.
2. Armstrong, Frederick H. Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology,
revised edition. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1985. pp 217, 225.
3. ibid. p 225.
4. Register entry for S. Burnham, June 1, 1836, Register of Manifests,
Toronto Customs House fonds, F 214, Box MU 2991, Archives of Ontario.
5. Martyn, Lucy Booth. The face of early Toronto. Sutton West,
ON, and Santa Barbara, CA: The Paget Press, 1982. p 31.
6. Silas Burnham appears in a list of vendors who rented market stalls
in York in 1831 in Appendix to Journal of the House of Assembly of
Upper Canada…1831. p 172 (available at www.canadiana.org)
7. York commercial directory, street guide and register, 1833-34….
York, U.C.: Walton/Dalton.
City of Toronto and the Home District commercial directory…for
1837. Toronto: Walton/ Dalton & Coates.
8. City of Toronto assessment rolls are at the City of Toronto Archives,
and available on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario and through the
LDS Family History Library.
9. Letter from Samuel P. Jarvis (Kingston) to Mary Jarvis (Toronto), 22
May 1843, Samuel Peters Jarvis and William Dummer Powell fonds, F 31,
item 362, microfilm MS 787, reel 2, Archives of Ontario.
10. Estate file for Silas Burnham, merchant, Toronto, 20 July 1849, Court
of Probate, RG 22-155, microfilm MS 638, reel 41, Archives of Ontario.
10. Mackenzie received printing equipment on June 17, 26, and July 12,
1836. (Register of Manifests, Toronto Customs House fonds, F 214, Box
MU 2991, Archives of Ontario)
12. A tierce was a cask that held 42 US gallons of liquid or about 159