The Honourable William Hamilton Merritt
William Hamilton Merritt was born on July 3 1793 in Bedford, Westchester County, New York. His father was Thomas Merritt V, U.E.L., son of Thomas Merritt IV, U.E.L., who landed in Canada in 1782. His mother was Mary Hamilton (1761-1843). William Hamilton Merritt had seven siblings: Thomas VI (died in infancy); Amy (b. 1782, died in infancy); Phoebe (b.1784, died in infancy); Caroline Matilda (1791-1824); Anna Maria (1797-1850); and Susan (1801-1866).
Merritt’s father Thomas V received land at Twelve Mile Creek, modern day St. Catharines, and moved there in 1796. William Hamilton Merritt was educated by various teachers over his childhood, such as by Richard Cockrel, who taught him surveying and mathematics, Reverend John Burns, who taught classical education and by Alexander McLeod on a visit to Bermuda.
Merritt started out as a farmer in St. Catharines and also owned a general store. On the 28th of June in 1812 he was called to fight in the War of 1812 as a lieutenant with the Niagara Light Dragoons. He fought in Sandwich, Queenston Heights in addition to many other battles. On March 11th, 1813 he was appointed captain and fought at Lundy’s Lane in July of 1814 where he was captured. He remained a prisoner in Cheshire, Massachusetts until the end of the war.
Merritt is best known for his support and promotion of the Welland Canal linking Lake Ontario and Erie. In 1818 he organized a meeting to call for the creation of a canal between 12 Mile Creek and Chippawa Creek. The Upper Canada assembly approved the plan by charting the Welland Canal Company in January of 1824 after years of opposition. Merritt became the financial agent of the company, which required him that led to him travelling extensively to fundraise. Merritt served in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada from 1832 to 1841 for Haldimand County. After the unification of Upper and Lower Canadas, he served in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada for Lincoln County from 1841 to 1860.
Merritt was married to Catherine Rodman Prendergast with whom he had 6 children: Thomas Prendergast (1816-1819); Infant daughter (d.1818); Jedediah Prendergast (1820-1900); William Hamilton Merritt Jr. (2nd) (1822-1860); Thomas Rodman (1824-1906); Catharine Merritt (1829-1830).
On July 5th, 1862 Merritt passed away aboard a ship near Cornwall.
“W.H. Merritt Day” was held on November 29th, 1974. On this day there was a ceremony that marked the 150th anniversary of sod turning for the first Welland Canal. The ceremony included a memorial service, wreath laying at the statue and an open house at the St. Catharines Museum. The opened house featured an unveiling of the Merritt Portrait, the issuance of a Merritt stamp, and the unveiling of the Merritt plaque. There was also a performance of the play “Merritt” which was performed in Thistle Theatre at Brock University.
The William Hamilton Merritt Monument / Statue is located in a parkette at the corner of St. Paul Street West and McGuire Streets in downtown St. Catharines.
This series is written and compiled by Alicia Floyd, Collections Technician – Archival at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre