Nova Scotia Archives

Colonel John Gorham’s Account Book

John Gorham's Account Book comes from a different time and place than we are familiar with today. To help you explore his large, handwritten ledger and understand more about what information it contains, we've provided a short introduction written by John Reid, Professor of History at St. Mary's University (Halifax, NS) and a specialist in Nova Scotia's colonial history.

Who was John Gorham and Why is His Account Book Important?

John Gorham, founder and commander of Gorham's Rangers during the mid-eighteenth century, was a controversial figure in his lifetime and has remained so in historical memory. Born in 1709 and raised in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable, Massachusetts, Gorham became a merchant as well as a military leader. Essential to both elements of his career were his connections in Cape Cod, and with the wealthy Boston merchant firm of Charles Apthorp and Thomas Hancock. As a young man he was primarily a seafarer, as a skilled whaler and a sea captain. He then became active in trade and in land speculation in a number of locations throughout northeastern North America, including Sable Island, but during the early 1740s he turned increasingly to military activity. With the onset of the British-French phase of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744 (known to the Anglo-American colonists as 'King George's War'), Gorham raised his first ranger company and led it to Annapolis Royal, the British headquarters in Nova Scotia, besieged at the time by French forces and their Indigenous allies.

As Brian D. Carroll has recently shown, the majority of Gorham's recruits were not Mohawks, as some historians have believed, but Indigenous — mainly Wampanoag — whalers from southern New England who had ties to the Gorham family. Some were experienced rangers from earlier conflicts.1 The company's deployment to Annapolis Royal was at the behest of Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, who consistently saw the maintenance of the British presence in Nova Scotia as essential to the defence of New England. The impact of Gorham's force was immediate, and contributed to the lifting of the 1744 siege. Like preceding New England ranger forces, dating back to the earliest activities of Colonel Benjamin Church some seventy years earlier — under whom John Gorham's grandfather had served as second-in-command — Gorham's Rangers relied on the use of ruthless force as a means of overawing both the Indigenous and Acadian populations. Killing and scalping were intrinsic to fulfilling this goal, and in 1747 Gorham publicly deplored delays in his receiving payment for Mi'kmaw scalps taken by his rangers in 1744 and brought to Boston under the Massachusetts scalp and prisoner bounty of the day.2

Even by this time, Gorham had attracted controversy from various quarters. His complaint regarding scalp bounties had been prompted by suggestions from Indigenous rangers and their families that he was cheating them. During the 1745 siege of Louisbourg, as one of the commanders of an assault force that failed to take a key French battery amid allegations of drunkenness and negligence among the troops, Gorham was brought before a council of war but cleared of any wrongdoing in the affair. Later, after the founding of Halifax in 1749, Gorham had political disputes with the new governor of Nova Scotia, Edward Cornwallis, although he nevertheless retained his membership on the Nova Scotia Council to which he had been appointed in 1749. Gorham also had strong supporters, including both Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts and Major Paul Mascarene, the Administrator (acting governor) of Nova Scotia from 1740 until the appointment of Cornwallis. Writing to Shirley in August 1746, Mascarene praised the effectiveness of 'wood rangers' in 'annoying the enemy we have to deal with.'3

During the years from 1744 until Gorham left Nova Scotia in the summer of 1751 for London (where he died of smallpox later in the year), Gorham's Rangers were active in two primary forms of warfare. First, operating from schooners and using whaleboats to come ashore, they made brief but violent inland forays, sometimes fighting with Indigenous forces but also attacking communities. Secondly, they built and defended blockhouses at places of strategic importance, and latterly established Fort Sackville at the head of what became known as the Bedford Basin, to the northwest of Halifax. All of this was at a time of extreme tension; the close of King George's War was followed by continuing though undeclared British-French dissension over conflicting border claims, and by the activities of aggressive French missionaries such as Jean-Louis Le Loutre. Most of all, however, Gorham's Rangers represented the British invasion of Mi'kma'ki — the violence against communities aggravated the provocation offered by fort-building, which had long been recognized as both a symbolic and a practical tool of imperial assertion.

It is hardly surprising that in historical memory, as at the time, Gorham has been controversial. For George T. Bates, he was remarkable for 'the great importance and value of... [his] service to the welfare of British interests in the making of history in this Province of Nova Scotia.'4 For Daniel N. Paul, who in 1998 successfully opposed the naming of a section of highway near Bedford, Nova Scotia, in Gorham's honour, he was most significant for leading 'bounty hunters' whose 'murderous reputations' were well deserved.5 Meanwhile, the measured conclusion reached by John David Krugler, Gorham's biographer in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, was that 'Gorham and his company of brutal rangers seem to have been a necessary ingredient in maintaining the English presence in Nova Scotia.'6

Yet any assessment of Gorham and his career must contend with the limited and fragmentary nature of the available primary sources. Portions of his journal have long been known, as well as entries on the 1745 Louisbourg siege and genealogical notes that he combined in a 'Wast[e] Book' in spare moments during the siege.7 A valuable collection of Gorham's papers exists at the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan. It includes his journal for a single week in September 1749, correspondence between Gorham and Shirley, and evidence on recruitment of rangers.8 Nevertheless, at only 24 items, the collection's scope is necessarily limited. Although Carroll's analysis of Gorham's Rangers shows what can be achieved by collating more or less isolated pieces of evidence from a wide variety of sources, there is much that we do not know about Gorham and his mercantile and military pursuits.

It is in this context that the acquisition and digitization by the Nova Scotia Archives of the account book, 1747-1750, that now constitutes the John Gorham fonds is so clearly welcome. Running to 178 pages, a few of them blank, the account book provides evidence in a number of important areas. First of all, however, it must be recognized as the humble document that it was. Much of its content consists of extended lists of items distributed to named members of Gorham's Rangers — clothing, foodstuffs, weapons, tools, and so on. Because the entries sometimes appear out of chronological sequence, some of the content was clearly copied into the book after being recorded elsewhere, while it is also likely that the book itself was used as raw material for more formal accounting.

Thus, there are major questions about Gorham and the rangers that do not find answers here. For example, there is no mention of scalp or prisoner bounties, and so the document leaves us no closer to a clear understanding of the degree to which ranger companies — Gorham's or others that briefly existed following the establishment of Halifax, such as Francis Bartelo's Rangers and William Clapham's Rangers — acted upon Nova Scotia's own scalp and prisoner proclamation of 1749.9 Also, while the account book contains much detailed financial information, it is silent on the wider provenance of funding for Gorham's Rangers. It is clear that Gorham funded his company partly through colonial and imperial subsidy — he initially had provincial rank in Massachusetts, but held an imperial commission from 1747 onwards — and partly through such sources as plunder and bounties.

Recently-uncovered provincial accounts for early Nova Scotia contain details of provincial contributions to Gorham's Rangers, beginning in September 1753 (by which time the company was commanded by Gorham's brother Joseph) and also note reimbursements to John Gorham's estate for the expenses of the schooner Warren, but the exact balance between state funding and entrepreneurialism remains obscure.10 Gorham himself complained in late 1749 about his 'perplexed affairs' and the absence of his company from any '[state] Establishment or foundation,'11 but by March 1752 the British Board of Trade was advocating financial savings by dismissing all ranger companies and notably Gorham's Rangers, because the latter 'appears to be ineffective.'12

Where the account book offers new and important insights is on a variety of issues primarily connected with Gorham's Rangers, but also extending to such other matters as the attempted colonization of Sable Island and the complexity of British-Acadian relations. The material culture of irregular soldiering in the northeastern North America of the mid-eighteenth century is richly documented in the purchasing and distribution lists. While the book is not clear on which items were distributed freely to the members of Gorham's company, and which were charged against wages, the spectrum of knives, hatchets, buckles, shoes, shirts, trousers, haversacks, hook and line for fishing, pork, beef, lamb, poultry, rice, sugar, rum, cider, pipes, tobacco — and more — is reflected on the many pages devoted to listings of such goods.

Also clearly represented are the stages of preparation for the expeditions mounted. Intensive efforts and large sums of money were devoted to enlistment, and even the language of Gorham's repeated insistence that he required 'bould fellows' (pp. 24-6) is revealing of the characteristics needed for the swift and ruthless operations of a ranger company. Preparation and maintenance of the two schooners, Anson and Warren, along with the acquisition of whaleboats, is also prominent among the accounts (see, for example, p. 11). The company's firearms included a number of 'swivelled blunderbusses' (pp. 7, 16, 17) — a seemingly quaint designation for a hideously destructive weapon.

Names of individual rangers are recorded in large numbers, and while many are obscure, some are not. Jérôme Atecouando or 'Captain Sam,' for example (p. 31), was a Pigwacket, one of a small number of this Indigenous group from the Saco valley area of Maine, who abandoned a traditional alliance with the French to enlist with Gorham, and was probably the son of one of the leading Wabanaki treaty negotiators of the preceding generation, also named Atecouando.13 More generally, however, the listings in the account book confirm the observation by Carroll that over time the number and proportion of Indigenous rangers declined. Even 'Captain Sam' deserted in 1750, and Celtic surnames such as Mark McCraith (p. 38) and Micall Sulaven (p. 104) had already begun to appear.14 To the Halifax diarist and letter-writer John Salusbury in 1749, Gorham was still the 'Indian Coll[onel],' but in reality his force was considerably less 'Indian' by that time than it had originally been.15

Also revealed by the account book are the main outlines of Gorham's mercantile network in New England, centring — unsurprisingly — on Barnstable. From sheep purchased there in 1748 (p. 2) to the role of his brother Captain David Gorham in enlistment and business affairs in the Barnstable area (pp. 4, 25), Gorham's local ties in Cape Cod were persistent in the running of his military and mercantile enterprises. In Boston, some of his dealings involved the Sturgis family, with which he shared marital ties as well as Barnstable connections (p. 33). In Boston, however, it was with Apthorp and Hancock that he dealt most frequently. Transactions with that firm are pervasive through the account book, reflecting the longstanding and continuing interest of Thomas Hancock, especially, in the northeast — extending to Louisbourg as well as to Nova Scotia.16

Apthorp and Hancock were also deeply involved with Gorham in attempting the colonization of Sable Island — an effort that failed as far as human settlers were concerned, but did bring horses to the island. References to Sable Island in the account book are few but revealing — an entry as early as 1747 refers to the establishment of a seven-year-old stallion with 'Breeding Mairs,' and the birth of a number of 'Coults' (p. 1), as well as the presence of other livestock. Although the ancestors of the eventual and current horse population of the island are believed primarily to have originated with the shipment of Acadian horses to the island by Hancock a decade or so later, during the era of the Grand dérangement, nevertheless the account book adds intriguing details to our understanding of the Sable Island project as a whole.17

A further pervasive element of the account book is its documentation of business dealings between Gorham's Rangers and Acadians. This might seem surprising, because Acadian communities had good reason to fear attack by rangers — just as they had in the earlier era of Benjamin Church.18 Yet Acadian history, including especially the business relationships of Acadians with New Englanders, was nothing if not complex. Therefore, the evidence of transactions with such individuals as Antoine Landry (p. 34), Francis Leblong (sic, p. 39), Thomas Doyron (p. 142), 'John Le Blong the ffrench man' (p. 145), Jean-Baptiste Landry (p. 158), Silvan Leblanc (p. 164), and others, can be seen as a continuation of the longstanding Acadian tradition (identified some years ago by Jean Daigle) of seeing New Englanders as 'nos amis les ennemis' — our friends the enemy.19

In addition to these major themes, the account book offers a large number of more particular insights and vignettes. It contains, entered in reverse page order at the end of the book, a further fragment of Gorham's journal, documenting a series of landings by Gorham's Rangers from the Minas Basin during just five days in August 1748, and a series of indecisive affrays with 'a parcell of Indians' (p. 178). There are also copies of two full letters, both dated 15 July 1748 and both addressed to Sergeant William Bassett, which highlight the process and the terms of enlistment (pp. 24-5). Scattered throughout the document are references to the wide variety of currencies that circulated in New England and Nova Scotia during the mid-eighteenth century. Varying issues of Massachusetts pounds coexisted with pounds sterling, while overlapping terminologies identified Spanish coinage: dollars, piasters, pieces of eight, and pistareens.20 On some occasions, arrangements are made for advances to family members of the rangers — in November 1748 a cash payment of £15 'on behalf of Joshua Newcombe to his wife Hannah Newcombe' (p. 68); and in February 1749 a payment of £2 to the wife of Abraham Spurr as well as fabric 'for to Make a Shift' (p. 77). A rough map of what appears to be the vicinity of Lennox Passage in Cape Breton is included (p. 90) for indeterminate reasons. A tantalizing reference to 'my Neagr [Negro]' (p. 6) hints at Gorham as slave-owner.21

This latter vignette provides a useful reminder as to how the account book must be read. Much of the document's content is prosaic, and items such as the reference to Sara Spurr's making a shift or the acquisition by three of the rangers of 'a Fiddle' (p. 30) might create an impression that is downright benign. What must never be forgotten, however, is that this was the Atlantic world of the mid-eighteenth century — and one of its most violent theatres at that. It was a world of enslavement, of persistent forced migration, and of assault on Indigenous territories and peoples — not just military encroachment but, most lethal of all, environmental change through agriculture. That Indigenous fighters, as in the case of Gorham's Rangers, fought each other in association with empires — a phenomenon already well known in the Celtic areas of the British Isles — was yet another testament to imperial influence.22

John Gorham was a product of his times, while also emerging from an extended tradition of New Englanders who pursued merchant and military interests in Acadia/Nova Scotia. His ranger force, as an element of the British invasion of Mi'kma'ki, had considerable local success, as involved officials such as Mascarene and Shirley clearly recognized. Yet the British incursion in a broader sense remained stalled — and would not gather compelling force until the large-scale settler colonization and rapid environmental change that belonged to the Loyalist era of the 1780s; and so the more sceptical verdict of the Board of Trade also carried weight. From the account book, the wider conflict of empires is largely absent, while the extreme violence of ranger operations is reflected only faintly and intermittently in its pages. Nevertheless, these are the inescapable contexts of this important document.


1   Brian D. Carroll, '"Savages" in the Service of Empire: Native American Soldiers in Gorham's Rangers, 1744-1762,' New England Quarterly, 85:3 (September 2012), 383-429, esp. 392-4. This biographical sketch is based primarily on John David Krugler, 'John Gorham,' Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB), /en/bio/gorham_john_3E.html; and Carroll, '"Savages" in the Service of Empire.' Also useful in some particulars is George T. Bates, 'John Gorham, 1709-1751: An Outline of his Activities in Nova Scotia, 1744-1751,' Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, 30 (1954), 27-77, although the article is marred by egregiously stereotyped treatment of Indigenous soldiers and people, and documentation of its key points is erratic. A revealing recent analysis of Gorham's military significance can be found in John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), esp. 66-83, and in the relevant passages of Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008); also important are two works by Geoffrey Plank: An Unsettled Conquest: The British Campaign Against the Peoples of Acadia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), and Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). For valuable advice during the preparation of this introduction, I am indebted to Dan Conlin, Martin Hubley, Zoe Lucas, and Kevin Robins.

2   Carroll, '"Savages" in the Service of Empire,' 406-7. On British use of rangers more generally, see Stephen Brumwell, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 211-15. For the Massachusetts bounties on Mi'kmaw and Maliseet scalps and prisoners, see Daniel R. Mandell, ed., New England Treaties, North and West, 1650-1776, Vol. XX of Early American Indian Documents: Treaties and Laws, 1607-1789, General Editor Alden T. Vaughan (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 2003), 458. French authorities also offered payments for British scalps; see Geoffrey Plank, 'The Two Majors Cope: The Boundaries of Nationality in Mid-18th Century Nova Scotia', Acadiensis, 25:2 (Spring 1996), 32.

3   Mascarene to Shirley, 20 August 1746, in Charles Henry Lincoln, ed., Correspondence of William Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts and Military Commander in North America, 1731-1760 (2 vols.; New York: Macmillan, 1912), I, 339.

4   Bates, 'John Gorham, 1709-1751,' 77.

5   Daniel N. Paul, We Were Not the Savages: A Mi'kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations (2nd ed.; Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2000), 103, 149.

6   Krugler, 'John Gorham,' DCB.

7   See Frank William Sprague, ed., Col. John Gorham's "Wast Book": Facsimiles (Boston: David Clapp, 1898), at (accessed 16 September 2013).

8   John Gorham Papers, 1744-1772, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. A few documents regarding Gorham are also located in the Admiralty and Treasury Papers at the United Kingdom National Archives (UKNA), as well as mentions in the relevant volumes of the CO 217 series of colonial correspondence and in the correspondence of other major figures such as William Shirley.

9   A documentary reference to reports of rangers bringing in both Acadian and Indigenous scalps clearly refers to the era of the Acadian Deportation, and also belongs to an era some 30 years after the events described; Letter of Hugh Graham, 1791, quoted in John Knox, An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760 ed. Arthur G. Doughty (3 vols.; Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1914-16), 196-7.

10   See General James Grant of Ballindalloch Collection, National Archives of Scotland, GD 494/1/31, 4-10, 12, 14-15. Microfilm at Saint Mary's University Archives. On Gorham's personal economic goals, see Grenier, The First Way of War, 69-70.

11   Letter of John Gorham, November [1749], Gorham Papers, Clements Library.

12   Board of Trade to Edward Cornwallis, 6 March 1752, UKNA, CO218/4, f. 68. John Gorham, of course, had died by this time, although Gorham's Rangers had continued under the command of his brother Joseph.

13   Carroll, '"Savages" in the Service of Empire,' 395.

14   Carroll, '"Savages" in the Service of Empire,' 415-16.

15   Ronald Rompkey, ed., Expeditions of Honour: The Journal of John Salusbury in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1749-53 (2nd ed.; Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011), 141.

16   See Julian Gwyn, Excessive Expectations: Maritime Commerce and the Economic Development of Nova Scotia, 1740-1870 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998), 17-18; also George A. Rawlyk, Nova Scotia's Massachusetts (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1973), 195, 198.

17   See Barbara Christie, The Horses of Sable Island (Lawrencetown Beach: Pottersfield Press, 1995), esp. 19-25; Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, (accessed 3 September 2013).

18   For Gorham's advocacy and practice of force against Acadians, see Grenier, The First Way of War, 80-1.

19   Jean Daigle, 'Nos amis les ennemis: Relations commerciales de l'Acadie avec le Massachusetts' (PhD dissertation, University of Maine, 1975).

20   For further discussion of a complex subject, see Julian Gwyn, 'Financial Revolution in Massachusetts: Public Credit and Taxation, 1692-1774,' Histoire sociale/Social History, 17 (1984), esp. 64-7, 74-5.

21   A local record in Barnstable for 11 February 1746 (presumably 1746-47), mentions 'Cesar Negro and Mercy Daniel Indian, Servts to John Gorham Esqr': Leonard H. Smith and Norma Helen Smith, eds., Vital records of the Towns of Barnstable and Sandwich (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1982), 165. Further references to Cesar are at 13, 82, and 84. While the term 'servant' can encompass a variety of states from outright enslavement to other forms of unfreedom, the context in this case suggests that Cesar was enslaved. The entry in the account book represents a claim by Gorham for the wages of his 'Neagr,' also indicating an entitlement on Gorham's part that would have stemmed from the status of the servant.

22   See Wayne E. Lee, 'Subjects, Clients, Allies, or Mercenaries? The British Use of Irish and Amerindian Military Power, 1500-1800,' in H.V. Bowen, Elizabeth Mancke, and John G. Reid, eds., Britain's Oceanic Empire: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, c. 1550 –1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 179-217. That the phenomenon was by no means unique to the British empire is made clear by the essays in Wayne E. Lee, ed., Empire and Indigenes: Intercultural Alliance, Imperial Expansion, and Warfare in the Early Modern World (New York: New York University Press, 2011).