Christopher Sower

Schul Ordnung, Christoph Docs; Published by Christopher Sower, 1770.
Schul Ordnung, Christoph Docs; Published by Christopher Sower, 1770.

Christopher Sower III (Saur/Sauer), printer and postmaster; b. 27 January 1754 in Germantown, Pennsylvania; m. 8 January 1775, to Hannah Knorr in Philadelphia; d. 3 July 1799, in Baltimore, Maryland.

He was the son of Christopher Sower II and Catherine Sharpnack. His grandfather was Christopher Sower I, who moved to Germantown in 1724 and established a successful printing business in 1738. Christopher Sower III joined his father in the family printing business in 1755 (Harper, “Christopher Sower”). Their business was a profitable and significant one. The Sowers were one of the wealthiest German families in the colonies (Knauss 11). The Sowers are credited with printing the first German Bible in America (previous Bibles were printed from plates made in Britain), as well as an annual almanac. Sower worked as an apprentice under his father for many years, and he became an adept printer and type founder. When the Revolutionary War began, the Sowers printed anti-revolutionary publications, and on 16 December 1776, their printing business was confiscated from them. Christopher and his wife, Hannah Knorr, escaped to New York. During the War, Sower was engaged as a spy for the Loyalist cause, collecting intelligence for William Howe and Major John André (Harper, “Christopher Sower”). In 1781, Sower travelled to England seeking compensation for his family's losses during the war; in return for his valuable service to the British army and because of his sound training as a printer, he received a position as the first King's Printer and postmaster of New Brunswick.

It was not until 1785 that Sower arrived in New Brunswick to begin work in a small building on Dock Street in Saint John. As King's Printer he was responsible for printing the journals of the House of Assembly and publishing official government notices. He had, however, a contentious relationship with the House of Assembly, given the government’s frequently late payments for his services, and because of these difficulties, some of his contracts were awarded to a rival printer in the city. When Sower established The Royal Gazette and New Brunswick Advertiser, he forced rival printers John Ryan and William Lewis to delete the word “Royal” from their newspaper, The Royal Saint John’s Gazette and Nova-Scotia Intelligencer (Harper, “Directory” 84). Sower's Royal Gazette and New Brunswick Advertiser carried stories from American and British newspapers as well as articles written by Sower himself. His writings were about government proclamations and official reports. To Sower, the newspaper was strictly a governmental publication. Occasionally he wrote articles concerning news in Saint John, which usually concerned local weddings, deaths, and executions. The paper also contained a section called Poets Corner, which usually contained the work of amateur poets writing romantic and religious poems. He was also a publisher of books; in 1786 Sower published Two Letters, which were two books that contained the confessions of two criminals waiting to be hanged in Saint John. On 10 October 1797, Sower also published a story in his newspaper about a murderer, which was written in a dramatic way. J. Russell Harper had this to say about these works:

Sower's choice of subject matter for books in which a combination of sadistic brutality is made palatable by a veneer of religious piety undoubtedly resulted in a wide sale... he details the whole gruesome episode[s] in a contemporary sensational journalistic style. (Harper, “Collections” 85-6)

Sower also published a pamphlet, written by Rev. S. Peters, concerning the improbability of salvation. In addition to his official duties as King’s Printer, he introduced the practice of printing annual almanacs in this province in 1786. With the publication of almanacs, Sower kept his family's established printing tradition alive. His almanacs were met with great anticipation, as they were the first non-governmental books printed in New Brunswick. The almanacs contain the cycles of the moon, a calendar, “Feasts and Fasts of the Church, Time of High Water and a variety of other matter both useful and entertaining” (Harper, “Collections” 83-4). He used his newspaper to advertise his published books and almanacs.

In 1790 he purchased 1400 acres of land from a Monsieur Thibideau and others on the Hammond River, which he named Brookville (Harper, “Collections” 95). On this land he built a two-storey log home, where he lived and relocated his printing business. In February of the same year, after years of seeking public office, he was elected City Alderman for Saint John. In 1795 he resigned his position as postmaster, and William Campbell, the mayor of Saint John, replaced him. In that same year, he ran for a seat in the House of Assembly representing King's County, but his efforts were unsuccessful. He was greatly upset by the election results, and he blamed a faulty electoral process, writing a letter of complaint to the House of Assembly, but his request for a reconsideration of the election was ignored.

His health failing, Christopher Sower resigned his position as King's Printer in March 1779. His position was filled by John Ryan, the former printer of the Nova-Scotia Intelligencer and long-time rival. However, the two eventually became companions. Increasing obesity had placed tremendous strain upon Sower’s heart and overall constitution. He decided to retire to a warmer climate, his former home. In May he travelled to Philadelphia. On 20 June he arrived in Baltimore to meet with his brother, Samuel Sower, about creating a co-partnership in a type foundry business, where they would produce text plates. On 2 July he suffered an apoplectic fit, but lived through the night. He died the next day. The family printing business continued on through his brother Samuel and his son Brook Watson Sower. His wife Hannah, whom he left in New Brunswick, also returned to the United States in 1801 (Harper, “Collections” 107). She lived for another thirty-seven years after Sower’s death (Lawrence 2).

Christopher Sower III is a notable figure in New Brunswick's history, as he was the first King's Printer and an important member of a prominent printing family. Sower was the first person to print non-governmental publications in the province, which included almanacs, books, and letters. Sower took his newspaper work very seriously, but when he did publish other works, their nature was sensationalized and, at times, gruesome. His training and pedigree in publishing turned him into an experienced printer and type founder. That training gave him skills that the British government recognized and which brought him some influence in a fledgling New Brunswick.

Dusty Green, Winter 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Sower, Christopher. “ST. JOHN October 10.” Royal Gazette and New Brunswick Advertiser 10 Oct. 1786: 3.

---. “ST. JOHN October 17.” Royal Gazette and New Brunswick Advertiser 17 Oct. 1786: 3.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Harper. J. Russell. “Christopher Sower.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 4. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1979. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. 2003. U of Toronto/U Laval. 1 Dec. 2010

---, et al, eds. Collections of the New Brunswick Historical Society No. 14. Saint John, NB, 1955.

---. “Royal Gazette.” Historical Directory of New Brunswick Newspapers and Periodicals. Fredericton, NB: U of New Brunswick, 1961.

Knauss, James O. Christopher Sower the Third. Worcester, MA: The Davis Press, 1931.

Lawrence, J.W. “The First King's Printer.” Saint John Globe [Saint John, NB] 9 Jan. 1889: 2.

Sabine, Lorenzo. Loyalists of the American Revolution, Vol II. New York: Kennikat Press, 1966.