Nelson, Wolfred (DNB00)

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NELSON, WOLFRED (1792–1863), Canadian insurgent, was born at Montreal on 16 July 1792. His father, William Nelson, held an office in the commissariat department of the royal navy; his mother was the daughter of an American loyalist named Dies, owner of an estate on the Hudson river, who emigrated to Canada after the revolt of the American colonies. In December 1805 Wolfred Nelson was apprenticed to Dr. Carter, of the army medical staff, then residing at Sorel. In January 1811 he obtained his medical diploma, and began practice as a doctor at St. Denis, on the Richelieu river, near Montreal. In the war between England and the United States in 1812 Nelson accompanied the militia regiment of his district to the frontier. During the next fifteen years he remained at St. Denis. Besides his medical work he carried on a distillery and brewery. He was made a justice of the peace, and rapidly acquired great influence among the surrounding people, the vast majority of whom were French Canadians or habitants. Though coming of a rigidly royalist and tory stock, Nelson completely identified himself with the habitants, and headed the cry raised by them for an alteration in the exclusive system of government then in vogue. In 1827 he contested the borough of William Henry against James Stuart, the attorney-general for Lower Canada, and defeated him by three votes. In the assembly Nelson closely allied himself with Louis Papineau [q. v.], head of the French party. On 23 Oct. 1837 a great meeting of delegates from six counties of Lower Canada was held at St. Charles. Nelson acted as chairman, and so violent was the tone of his speeches that the governor, Lord Gosford, issued a warrant against him and Papineau; a reward of two thousand dollars being offered for Nelson's apprehension. Papineau urged surrender, but Nelson, bent upon rebellion, entrenched himself, with George Cartier and a number of French habitants, in his brewery, a large stone house at the north-east corner of St. Denis, and prepared for armed resistance. On 23 Nov. he beat off an attack made by Colonel Gore and a company of the 23rd regiment with heavy loss. Two days later, however, the rebel camp at St. Charles, seven miles distant from St. Denis, was stormed by the English. Nelson now evacuated his position, tried to escape to American soil, but was captured and brought to Montreal a prisoner. His brother, Robert Nelson, who had joined him, escaped to American soil, whence he organised expeditions against Canada during 1838. Nelson remained in gaol till 1838, when the high commissioner, Lord Durham, on his own responsibility, sentenced him and a number of other prisoners to transportation to Bermuda. The sentence was reversed as invalid by the home government, and Nelson was set free. But, fearing subsequent prosecution, he retired to America in November 1838. He returned to Montreal in 1842, after the amnesty, and resumed his practice as a doctor. His popularity continued, and in 1845 he was elected to the Canadian assembly for the county of Richelieu in opposition to D. B. Viger. He supported the Rebellion Losses Bill, a measure bitterly resented by the English and loyalist party; but as a general rule he showed himself opposed to any extreme action. He thus recovered favour with the government. In 1847 he was appointed chairman of the board of health. In 1851 he was made inspector of prisons, and in 1859 he rose to the chairmanship of the board of prison inspectors. He wrote numerous reports on the state of the prisons, and also contributed on political subjects to a Montreal paper, ‘La Minerve.’ He died at Montreal in 1863.

[Morgan's Sketches of Celebrated Canadians; Rose's Cyclopædia of Canadian Biography; Histories of Canada by Garneau and Withrow; Lindsey's Life of William Lyon Mackenzie; Canadian Parliamentary Reports.]

G. P. M-y.