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Pollock, Oliverlocked

(1737?–17 December 1823)
  • Light Townsend Cummins

Pollock, Oliver (1737?–17 December 1823), merchant, planter, and American revolutionary patriot, was born near Donagheady, Northern Ireland, the son of Jared (also spelled Jaret) Pollock and his wife, about whom little else is known. Raised in a farming and linen-producing region near Londonderry, Pollock learned the merchant trade. He emigrated to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1760 after the death of his mother, accompanied to America by a younger brother and his father. For two years thereafter, he worked as a merchant associated with commercial houses operated by Daniel Clark and William Plumstead. Pollock went to Havana in 1762 when that port fell to the British navy during the Seven Years’ War. He specialized in trade between Cuba and British ports in North America. Taking advantage of his Roman Catholic Irish background, Pollock remained in Havana after the city was returned to the Spanish by the Peace of Paris, 1763.

Pollock became active in a circle of Irish Catholic traders operating at Havana. In so doing, he became friendly with Alejandro O’Reilly, a Spanish general of Irish heritage who was stationed at Havana. Pollock prospered financially in his commercial ventures with the Cuban Asiento Trading Company. He also served as corresponding agent for various British and American merchant houses, especially the Philadelphia firm headed by Robert Morris (1734–1806).

Pollock moved from Havana to the lower Mississippi valley in 1768, making his residence at New Orleans. There, in 1769, his old friend General O’Reilly became Spanish military commander, and the general exempted Pollock from the trade restrictions that barred non-Spanish merchants from engaging in commerce. Pollock also received land grants in West Florida, a British colony bordering on Spanish Louisiana. In 1772 he began operating a plantation at Tunica Bend, north of Baton Rouge, in British territory. He also managed Mississippi River plantations in West Florida that were owned by Philadelphians Thomas Willing, James Willing, and Morris. Pollock had amassed a considerable fortune by the mid-1770s because of his commerce in slaves, foodstuffs, and manufactured items.

With the coming of the American Revolution, Pollock embraced the patriot cause. He would later write of his activities as a rebel, “I have the pleasure to reflect that from the beginning to the end I was deaf to evry [sic] motive except an ardent affection for our righteous Cause” (James, p. 347). His primary contribution to the American effort was in making Spanish New Orleans into a supply center for rebel military forces. In 1776 he assisted Captain Charles Gibson, who had been sent to New Orleans by Virginia governor Patrick Henry, in securing for the Americans a large shipment of supplies, gunpowder, and other materials from the governor of Spanish Louisiana. In 1777 the Continental Congress appointed Pollock as its commercial agent at New Orleans. In this capacity, he supported the military expedition led by Captain James Willing, an American force that raided British settlements along the Mississippi in West Florida. Pollock also underwrote the shipment of gunpowder up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers from New Orleans to Fort Pitt during 1778, from whence it was distributed for use by the Continental army. Pollock established a friendship with Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Louisiana, and influenced Gálvez’s decision to sympathize with and support the American cause. Gálvez loaned Pollock money from the Spanish treasury at New Orleans to buy supplies. In 1779 Pollock shipped provisions from New Orleans to the Illinois area to assist the military conquests of George Rogers Clark. He also negotiated at New Orleans bills of exchange drawn by Clark, but the refusal of the state of Virginia to pay these drafts helped ruin Pollock’s credit. By 1781, in fact, Pollock’s own fortune had been exhausted in support of the rebel cause, and when some of the loans made at New Orleans to the Continental Congress became overdue, his signature on them as agent added to his financial distress.

In 1781 Pollock traveled to Philadelphia in an unsuccessful effort to convince Congress to repay the loans and bills he had guaranteed at New Orleans. Congress delayed, as did the state of Virginia, in whose capacity Pollock had also served as agent in Spanish Louisiana. Both governments would later decide that some of these loans were not properly authorized or negotiated. They refused repayment to Pollock who, having settled some of them with the creditors, became bankrupt in the process. This began a 35-year period of controversy and contention, during which Pollock sought eventual reimbursement from Congress and Virginia. Pollock’s accounts would not be settled to his satisfaction until the 1810s.

In the meantime, Pollock moved to Havana in 1783; there he served as U.S. commercial representative for two years. He was instrumental in opening Cuba to regular trade in flour and other foodstuffs with Atlantic coast ports. In 1785 he moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and in 1788 he once again returned to New Orleans. He regained ownership of his prewar plantation at Tunica Bend, traded in slaves, engaged in astute commercial transactions, and thereby regained his lost fortune. Leaving his cousin Hamilton Pollock in charge of his Mississippi River properties, he returned to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Pollock bought a large estate at Silver Spring, operated a tavern on the post road to Harrisburg, and became active in politics. In 1804 he ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic-Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. The following year he moved to Baltimore, where he opened a merchant house specializing in trade with Cuba and other Spanish ports in the Caribbean.

Pollock married Margaret O’Brien in 1770; they had eight children. Margaret died in 1799, and Pollock married a widow, Winifred Deady, in 1805. They had no children together, and she died in 1814. Legal disputes thereafter between Pollock and the children of Winifred’s first marriage proved to be very costly. For that reason, in 1815 Pollock moved from Maryland to spend his final years with his daughter in Pinckneyville, Mississippi, where he died.

Pollock is best known as the financier of the American Revolution in the West. He was also important in opening regular maritime commerce between Spanish Louisiana and the Atlantic coast ports of the United States during the late eighteenth century.

Bibliography

The most recent book-length biography of Pollock is James A. James, Oliver Pollock: The Life and Times of an Unknown Patriot (1937). For discussion of Pollock’s contribution to the American revolutionary cause, see Light Townsend Cummins, Spanish Observers and the American Revolution, 1775–1783 (1992). For Pollock’s role influencing Anglo-American commercial expansion into the lower Mississippi valley, see, by Cummins, “Oliver Pollock’s Plantations: An Early Anglo Landowner on the Lower Mississippi, 1769–1824,” Louisiana History 29, no. 1 (1988): 35–48, and “Anglo Merchants and Capital Migration in Spanish Colonial New Orleans, 1763–1803,” Gulf Coast Historical Review 4, no. 1 (1988): 7–27.