Alexander Henry The Elder Biography

Alexander Henry the Elder, a renowned merchant of the 18th and early 19th centuries, was a pioneer in global trade during a time when technology and globalization were unheard of. His career began with supplying arms and ammunition to the British army, but he soon expanded his fur trading empire to various continents. While some of his ventures were successful, others failed miserably. One of his greatest achievements was establishing a British-Canadian fur trading relationship, which he vividly described in his book, considered one of the best adventure tales of all time. Alexander’s business acumen caught the attention of notable figures such as Queen Maria Antoinette of France and the royal elite of England. Additionally, he co-founded the esteemed ‘Beavers Club’ with a select group of individuals.

Quick Facts

  • Canadian Celebrities Born In August
  • Also Known As: Alexander Henry
  • Died At Age: 84
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Julia Calcutt Kittson
    • Father: John Henry
    • Children: Alexander Henry, George Kittson, John Henry, Julia Henry, Martha Henry, Mary Kittson, Robert Henry, William Henry
  • Explorers
  • Business People
  • Died on: April 4, 1824
  • Place of death: Montreal
  • Founder/Co-Founder: The Beaver Club and pioneer of the British-Canadian fur trade

Childhood & Early Life

Alexander Henry was born in August 1739 at New Brunswick, New Jersey, to an educated business family. After completing his education at the age of twenty, Alexander started working as a merchant near New York. Initially, he supplied arms and ammunition to the British army which were used in the French and Indian wars. Though the business earned him handsome amounts of profits, it was quite risky and dangerous.

Career & Later Life

Alexander’s business career took an interesting turn in 1761, when he met John Baptiste Ludec, who advised him to expand his fur trading venture in and around Michilimackinac, the land between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Alexander who was all excited about this trip was attacked by the Ojibwe tribes, who were supporters of the French forces. However, he managed to make a good impression on the Ojibwa tribes which led to an expansion in business.

Alexander then partnered with Jean Baptiste Cadotte Jr in 1765, and introduced fur trade in the Lake Superior region. The business flourished since there were absolutely no competitors, which offered Alexander the liberty to sell his commodities at expensive prices. Alexander also helped noted American Frontiersman Robert Rogers with arms & ammunition during this period.

Two years later, Alexander collaborated with the Duke of Gloucester, Sir William Johnson, in a venture to extract silver out of the mines near Lake Superior. However, the duo ended up making losses with this one and in 1774, the business was shut down.

Henry next wanted to try his luck in the territories of England and France. He reached the shores of England in 1776 to submit a proposal to fur trading giant ‘The Hudson Bay Company’. He next visited France – though Henry was welcomed by the Queen of France Marie Antoinette, but the visit didn’t yield him any benefits in terms of his trade.

During the period 1778 to 1781, Henry visited England frequently to meet scientists Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. Henry’s purpose was to find a possibility to explore the Pacific Ocean, to expand the fur business, but Henry’s plans didn’t work.

After years of frequent travelling, Alexander Henry finally settled down at Montreal in 1781. Since the American Revolution had ended at the same time, it made a major impact on his business and Henry ended up in losses.

The fur trading giant Northwest Company had caught Henry’s attention. In 1792, Alexander acquired a share in this firm along with his nephew Alexander Henry The Younger.

Alexander faced an acute financial crisis in 1801, when one of his vessels was seized by the French. Without much choice, he had to work as a commission merchant. However, Alexander was not satisfied by this new job.

Achievements

In 1776, Alexander Henry was cordially invited to the prestigious ‘Royal Society of London’ to speak about his trading journey and the experiences of his travel to different countries.

Alexander Henry penned the memories of his most eventful business trip ‘Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories, between the years 1760 and 1776’. The book served more as a guide to adventurers who ventured to Canada.

Personal Life & Legacy

Henry lived up to the tradition followed by many fur traders, and married a Native Indian whose name is not known. It’s claimed that this woman was the mother of several children, one of them being a daughter named Martha Henry.

He next got married to Julia Calcutt Kittson, who was previously married to an Anglo-Irish army officer. Julia had two children from her previous marriage, named Mary and George Kittson. Henry and Julia then became the parents of six kids.

Henry’s daughter Julia died without getting married. His elder son William Henry, born in 1785, followed Alexander’s footsteps, and went on to become a fur trader himself. He also worked as a Surveyor in Montreal.

Alexander’s younger son Robert Henry worked for a fur trading firm by name North West Company. He also went on to become the director of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District at Cobourg later.

Alexander Henry died on April 4, 1824, at his Montreal home. He was 85 years at the time of his demise.

Trivia

Though the Indians and French were Alexander’s rivals, they also fondly referred to him as ‘The Handsome Englishman’ and ‘A middle sized man, easy yet dignified’. He also socialized a lot by attending parties and inviting friends and other fellow merchants frequently to his home.

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