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About James Sutherland's first twenty-nine years there are a variety of stories but few substantiated facts. He was born in 1805 on the island of Hoy in the Orkneys, one of at least six children in a seafaring family. The uncle after whom he was named was a distinguished captain in the Royal Navy. At the age of seventeen the younger James set to sea. In the next ten or eleven years he is reputed to have sailed to Holland, Portugal, the Brazils, and the Baltic and travelled in the service of the Hudson Bay Company with Sir John Franklin. He served as chief officer or mate of the Royal William before she became the first vessel ever to cross the Atlantic entirely under steam. His move into the Great Lakes region dates from the conclusion of this service, although the only contemporary evidence of his presence dates from his marriage to Margaret Robinson in December 1833.7

Hon. John Hamilton
That season Sutherland had been the mate of John Hamilton'sGreat Britain, the finest steam vessel of its day on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence.8 The following year the newlywed was promoted to the command of another of his employer's vessels, the Queenston.9 Evidently he made a strong impression on the Queenston'sToronto-Hamilton route, for in 1836 he took command of Hamilton's newest steamer, the Traveller.10 It was on her decks that Sutherland established his reputation as a commander.

The normal navigation season had closed and the Traveller was laid up in Toronto, when Mackenzie's rebels began their advance on the city in December 1837. Although the fighting was all over by the time the Traveller could be made seaworthy again, she spent the rest of the winter in the government's employ.11 A year later Sutherland would be in the centre of the controversy that led to the Hon. John Elmsley's expulsion from the Executive Council,12 and before the troubles were over Sutherland was threatened by a pistol-waving William Lyon Mackenzie as a group of armed Patriots swarmed over the Traveller.13

Within two weeks of the Rochester incident, John Hamilton sold the Traveller to the government for a handy profit.14 Almost immediately he laid plans with the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company for a new vessel, the Niagara. As Sutherland supervised her construction over the next eighteen months, his accounts provide a fascinating insight into the outfitting of a steamboat.15

The following season, however, proved to be Sutherland's last in Hamilton's employ. The latter was retrenching and had sold the Niagara to Donald Bethune and John Elmsley.16Bethune, the rising star in the Lake Ontario steamboat trade, was rapidly expanding his fleet and had plenty of openings for an officer as experienced as James Sutherland. But since Elmsley,Bethune's partner in the Niagara, still nursed a grudge over his abrupt departure from the Executive Council, Sutherland spent the next season in the slow and decrepit St. George.17 The captain quietly began to seek other employment, applying that same year to be Collector of Customs in Hamilton.18 Unsuccessful, he spent the next three seasons working for Bethune, returning to the decks of the Niagara (since renamed the Sovereign) after Elmsley withdrew from the business.19


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This article originally appeared in Ontario History.