Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
John Porteous Letter Book, 1767-1769

Finding aid created by
Shannon Wait, January 2011

Summary Information
Title: John Porteous letter book
Creator: Porteous, John, d. 1799
Inclusive dates: 1767-1769
Extent: 1 volume
The John Porteous letter book documents the business endeavors and concerns of a fur trader and merchant active in New York, Montreal, and Michigan between 1767 and 1769.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

2005. M-4505.1 .

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

John Porteous Letter Book, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


John Porteous, a Scotsman by birth, arrived in America from Perth, Scotland, in 1762. In 1764, he was hired as a clerk by John Duncan, a Schenectady fur trader. The next year, he began working for James Sterling in Detroit and at Fort Michilimackinac in present-day Mackinaw City. His duties included selling goods, buying furs, and extending credit, and collecting debts. In this role, Porteous also made occasional travels to Canada and New York. He was also associated with the merchants James Phyn and Alexander Ellice, and before the start of the Revolution, established himself as an important trader in Montreal.

During the American Revolution, Porteous worked as a merchant in New York City, and helped to supply the local garrison with British goods. He was also part-owner of the British privateer Vengeance . At the time of the British evacuation, he returned briefly to Scotland, before settling in Nova Scotia, and subsequently, Little Falls, New York. There, he continued to work as a merchant and also operated a flour mill. He died in March 1799.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The John Porteous letter book contains 83 letters written by Porteous and 4 by his secretary on his behalf, comprising a total of 251 pages of material. Covering the period between March 8, 1767, and November 1, 1769, the letters primarily concern the business affairs of Porteous and his trading firm, Duncan, Sterling & Porteous, located in New York, Michigan, and Montreal. The letters include numerous details of trading activities; travel between Schenectady, Niagara, Detroit, Fort Michilimackinac, and Montreal; relationships and transactions with clients, traders, and Native Americans; and occasional social and family matters. Recipients of letters included James Sterling (22), John Duncan (10), Robert and Alexander Ellice (13), and James Phyn (5).

The letters touch on numerous details of the trade services provided by Duncan, Sterling & Porteous. In his correspondence, Porteous enumerated and discussed shipments of the various items distributed by the company, such as bear and beaver pelts, spirits, salt, clothing, stones, and food items. Several letters also communicate orders for supplies to Porteous' associates. Porteous frequently noted the sale of items to British soldiers, including Lieutenant Perkins Magra, a cartographer and later consul to Tunis, and Captain Patrick Sinclair, who oversaw the construction of Fort Mackinac. On March 15, 1767, he noted that payments owed to him by the 17th Regiment of Foot were in arrears; elsewhere, he recorded the comings and goings of several military officials, including General Thomas Gage (May 26, 1768). Additional letters discuss the quality and prices of the available products and the increasing difficulty of finding labor at a moderate price.

Porteous's correspondence also sheds light on the firm's efforts to serve their many clients. On June 9, 1767, Porteous wrote to Sterling that he was "at a loss how to excuse" him after a client refused to accept a shipment a brandy that had been sent by Sterling in lieu of rum. Another letter provides a glimpse of the difficulty of working with independent-minded trappers, including one whom Porteous found "unwilling to come to any written agrement[.] only says I may depend upon him" (July 16, 1767). On June 6, 1767, he expressed concern that white traders were slow to arrive at Fort Michilimackinac. Coaxing payments from debtors also proved difficult and is the subject of several letters. Porteous commented occasionally on his encounters with Native Americans and their attitudes toward the British. On July 2, 1767, he reported that Jean-Baptiste Marcotte, a trader near Michilimackinac, had been "Pillaged by the Indians," and in other letters he mentioned gifts intended for the Ojibwe. While in Detroit on February 26, 1768, he assessed Native Americans there as "not very well intent'd this spring" but predicted that no war would take place.

Another frequent topic is Porteous' continual travel between various regions, including New York, Michigan, and Montreal. His journeys were sometimes hindered by the elements, as on March 23, 1767, when he noted to fellow merchant Hayman Levy that he was "obliged to remain" in Schenectady "until our river is open." The letters also contain occasional personal news, such as the health and death of family members and references to pastimes.

Subject Terms

    • Detroit (Mich.)--History.
    • Fort Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.)
    • Fur trade--Canada.
    • Fur trade--Michigan.
    • Fur trade--New York (State)
    • Fur traders.
    • Indians of North America--Great Lakes Region (North America)
    • Michigan--Description and travel.
    • Montréal (Québec)--Description and travel.
    • New York (State)--Description and travel.
    • Niagara (N.Y. : Town)
    • Sinclair, Patrick, 1736-1820.
    • Trading companies--United States--History--Sources.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letter books.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Volume   1  
    John Porteous letter book,  1767-1769
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    The Michigan collection contains a letter to Porteous, dated August 14, 1771.

    The Business and Labor collection contains a financial record between Porteous and Nicholas Harkemer [Herkimer?], [1793].

    The James Sterling letter book contains several letters to Porteous.

    The Burton Historical Collection (Detroit Public Library), Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, Herkimer County Historical Society, and New York State Library in Albany all have collections of John Porteous papers.


    DeWolfe, Barbara. "Of Bateaux and Beaver Skins." The Quarto. No. 27 (Spring-Summer 2007), pp. 6-7.

    Howland, Henry R. "A British Privateer in the American Revolution." The American Historical Review. Vol. 7, No. 2 (1902), pp. 286-303.