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The lost loyalists: The family of Dr. James Macnab.

The Loyalist traditions of the Macnab family have had their place in the historical records of Upper Canada for over two hundred years. It was with dismay, therefore, that when I began to research this family, I learned that the Macnab's claim to Loyalist status had been unequivocally rejected in the histories of two writers, Jane Bennett Goddard and Mary Beacock Fryer. Over time, their version has been accepted as an integral part of the history of Belleville. (1) Their repudiation ignored all the readily available information in government archives, church records and early histories. Both writers dismissed the existence of Dr. James Macnab, his wife and two eldest sons, Colin and Alexander, and thus claimed that their two youngest sons, Simon and James, arrived in Thurlow in Upper Canada directly from Scotland in 1803, impoverished, ambitious and aggressive. However, the following excerpts from early histories and records are testimony to the Macnab's place in the Loyalist traditions.

In a lengthy petition submitted to the Executive Council in 1795 Alexander describes his family's situation in 1774, prior to being driven from their home in "the late province of New York," later Vermont. In it he states, "That your petitioner's late Father, being of the medical profession was nominated and duly appointed by His Excellency the then Sir Guy Carleton Surgeon to Major McAlpin's Corp of Loyalists, in which Capacity he continued until his Death in the spring of the year 1780." (2)


William Canniff writes of Dr. Macnab, "Many years after Surgeon James Macnab's death, in consideration of his distinguished services in the American Revolutionary war, as the departmental records attest, his heirs received grants of land from the Crown." Edward Chadwick includes the Macnab name in his collection of Loyalist families as follows, "James Macnab, a military surgeon in the American Revolutionary war, settled in Canada, and died at Machiche, Quebec, in 1780, leaving four sons ..." (3)

Dr. Robert Kerr, military doctor in Major McAlpin's Corp of Loyalists with whom Dr. Macnab served as an assistant, provides the following testimony: "York, February 23, 1818. I do certify that I was acquainted with Dr. James Macnab when he acted as assistant surgeon to the Loyalist during the first war with America; and that I attended him in his last illness at Machiche, in Lower Canada, where he died about the beginning of the year 1780. Robert Kerr, Surgeon I. Department." (4)

In the early records of the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, at least four descendants of Simon Macnab were members. (5) Of these the Rev. Alexander Wellesley Macnab, his grandson, was the most prominent.


He was born in Cobourg in 1850 where his father, the Rev. Alexander Macnab D.D. was then President of Victoria College. His involvement with the UELAC began in 1900 and continued until his death in 1926. He was President in 1906-1907 and in 1914, when it was incorporated, he was among the early signatories. On his death it was reported in the Annual Transactions, January 1926-1927, that "A great deal of credit for the growth of the Association was due to Canon Macnab who took a great interest in all its activities." (6) Further support for the legitimacy of the Macnab family's claim to Loyalist status can be found in the various petitions submitted to the Executive Council by the three youngest sons of Dr. Macnab. Colin, the eldest of the four brothers, was born in 1761 prior to the family's migration to the colonies. (7) He joined the Nova Scotia Volunteers, circa 1780, while still in his teens and was discharged in 1783 as an ensign on half-pay. (8) Having served in a Loyalist corps, he claimed land in his own right rather than as the son of a Loyalist. In 1787 he settled in Niagara where he remained until his death on 13 November 1820.


In his petition of 1795, Alexander stated that he was twelve years old when his father died in 1780 at which time he was placed on staff of the Commissary Department in Machiche. Three years later his name again appeared on a list "of persons under the description of loyalists," but located in Niagara. (9) Alexander remained with the Commissary Department until 1797, at which time he left to join the Executive Council as an assistant clerk. In total he served with the government for nineteen years, an indication that the Macnab family was not unknown to members of the Executive Council. When the government relocated to York, Alexander petitioned for, and was granted, fifty acres on which to build a home. Perhaps his new career did not offer sufficient challenge since two years later he joined the Queen's Rangers where he remained for two years before retiring as an Ensign on half-pay. In 1804, armed with a letter of introduction from Gov. Russell, he went to England where, on 16 January 1804, he joined the British Army. He eventually became aide-de-camp to General Picton and, like Picton, was killed on 18 June 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. (10)

At present there is little information about where Simon and James Macnab spent their early years although in their petitions both stated that they had been in the province (Quebec) since childhood. By the early 1790s both had joined their brothers, Colin and Alexander, at Niagara. Based on his age as reported in his obituary, James was four years of age when his father died; and Simon was at least eight since he was granted land in Newark in 1793 where he established what was probably his first store. In 1796 petitions for land of both James (11) and Simon, (12) as the sons of a Loyalist, were granted by the Executive Council, which stipulated only that they must be of age. Within the next two years the three younger Macnab sons had all moved on to York. In December 1799, Simon petitioned for a town lot in York (13) where he again opened a store. In April 1799 James also petitioned for a lot in York, stating that he was "desirous of settling in the Mercantile line."

Simon's marriage to Mary Simons, daughter of Titus and Jerusha Simons, took place in York circa 1800 but, by 1802, this couple had settled in Thurlow. On 24 March 1801 James married Mary Ann Frazer, daughter of William and Elizabeth Frazer, at Fredericksburg, and this couple also settled in Thurlow. What brought the two brothers from Machiche to Thurlow is probably not difficult to surmise. The Macnabs already had connections with some of the families who had located in that area since a number had lived in and around Machiche, a location where Dr. Macnab served for at least two years as the local medic. Prior to locating in Thurlow in the early 1790s, both Titus Simons and the Macnab brothers had lived at Niagara and later, for a short time, in York. (14) Finally, if speculations were true that the Widow Macnab, who married Conrad Sills at Machiche in 1782, was in fact their mother, that may also have been a factor in their eventual decision to settle in the Thurlow area.

As early as 1800 the two brothers had established connections with Kingston merchants and, in addition to meeting local needs, were involved in shipping such goods as flour, potash and lumber to European markets. Shortly after his arrival in Thurlow, James purchased Lot 3, Concession 1, and, again backed by business men in Kingston in 1804, constructed a saw and a grist mill. Within the next few years he had established a cloth factory, a bakery and, on his Fredericksburg property, a potashary. In the fall of 1808, however, the records show that James and Simon dissolved their shipping partnership (15) and James sold his land and mills in Fredricksburg. (16) While it is not known to what extent the two men remained involved in business, it is clear that James' interests were increasingly focused on political and civic areas.

In 1808 James received his first commission as a Justice of the Peace, a position he held until his death in 1820. That same year he was elected to the Legislative Assembly representing Hastings and Ameliasburgh where he served for two terms: 1808-1812 and 1816-1820. This was a period of rapid growth in the county where, according to Canniff, in 1800 there was no village at the mouth of the river, but less than two decades later Belleville was recognized as a thriving business community. Having taken care of the basic needs of shelter and food, the residents had moved ahead to establish a number of Societies aimed at meeting the needs of a more sophisticated community. James actively supported these Societies, frequently as chairman, but also as the M.L.A., representing the interests of the constituency.

The issues that were viewed by the residents as needing their attention make an interesting statement about the concerns and the values of the early refugees, who were, even then, struggling to re-build their lives in what was still known as 'the king's waste lands'. These Societies included The Midland District Agricultural Society, Society for Bettering the Conditions of the Poor, the Midland District of the Board of Education, the Belleville Auxiliary Bible Society, (17) the Upper Canada Bible Society and the Committee to establish St. Thomas Church. (18)

Atheme that is firmly ensconced in the history of Belleville is of a feud between the Macnabs and John Meyers. From their arrival in Thurlow, it is claimed that the brothers were rejected, both by Meyers and by the original settlers, because "they were upstart newcomers of non-loyalist blood." (19) That James is the primary target is obvious from the derogatory language directed at him: a sneak, a political animal, vindictive, a vicious little viper and a thorn in Meyers' flesh. He was also blamed for the premature death of Polly Meyers. (20) The accusation that "toppling Meyers from his pedestal' was the goal that motivated "the hard boiled younger man" (21) is not consistent with early records that show members from both families serving together on committees, and of petitions signed by both. (22) The relentless perception of the feud is ensured by periodic reminders such as, "The bitterness between the Macnabs and Meyers family is mounting heavily with each arising, differing circumstances" (23) and "In any major question that arises in this small community Meyers and the Macnabs fall into opposite sides and consequently their conflict of interest increases." (24)

John Meyers was well established in the business and industrial activities of the nascent community of Thurlow a decade before the Macnabs moved to the area. His reputation as a man, larger than life, daring, hard-working and principled, had preceded him and he already had a large family that, in pioneering days, was a major asset. Since there is no evidence, such as letters, diaries or records from Meyers' own hand, nor items quoted in early histories which support claims of a feud, it is difficult to envision in what way James, a young man in his early twenties, newly married, with little family support, could have been viewed as a threat by Meyers. It is also difficult to believe that at a time when mills were badly needed, Meyers could seriously have regarded the Moira "as his river." (25) Meyers' reputation both in the Revolution and in the settlement of Belleville is well documented. The desire to immortalize him at the expense of another Loyalist family adds little to our knowledge of the evolution of Belleville or to our understanding of this crucial period in Canadian history.


It is not unknown that history can be obscured when archival and other early records are ignored and information and interpretation of the past replaced by folklore. The example cited below is an indication of how easily the course of the Macnab family's history was redirected by writers who ignored the many available historical sources. Canniff and other early historians refer to the arrival of "two young Scotchmen," aptly describing Simon and James since they were born to Scottish parents, immigrants to the colonies.26 The casual insertion of the three words "came from Scotland' that appear in some recent histories has been used to justify the frequently-stated claim that the Macnabs were rejected by the community because they were non-Loyalist. (27)

The claim that Meyers was the "catalysf" and "architecf" (28) of Belleville, and that its "existence" was due to his "genius," (29) ignores the early records that document the competition for Lot 4, Concession 1, between Meyers, for his own use, and James, who represented the wishes of the community. (30) Folklore can ignore what historical records document--in this case, the role played by members of a community who shared a vision of their future town, and who, having overcome the first obstacle, moved ahead with the task of rebuilding their lives, a task that, for one and all, demanded hard work, intolerable sacrifices, co-operation among neighbours and an abiding faith in the future.

Like other emerging communities, Belleville experienced several name changes between the 1790s and 181.6 when it was officially renamed. That this final change was the source of much angst for some recent writers is clear from the cry that "by this move the McNabbs have now totally erased the name of 'Meyers' from the community, a further dishonour to its founder." (31) Contrary to the above, Meyers did not appear unduly threatened by previous name changes. In a letter to the Executive Council, responding to its request for data about where he lived, Meyers wrote, in part, "Thurlow, 14 Oct. 1806. I reside in the Midland District, in the County of Hastings, and the Town of Thurlow ..." (32)

The minutes of a meeting held to further plans for the establishment of St. Thomas Church states "That the unanimous thanks of this meeting be presented to the chairman (James Macnab) for the attendance and encouragement he manifested to promote such a laudable intention of the said inhabitants of Belleville and its vicinity." (33) It is difficult to justify the lack of recognition of the role played by the "said inhabitants" as described in the records of 1816 with the elevation almost two centuries later of one individual as the "co-founder" of the parish of St. Thomas Anglican Church. (34)

In the course of my research I had occasion to ask a history professor about some Loyalist-related documents in which I was interested. His reply, "I keep as faraway from those records as possible," was disconcerting and reinforces the perception that this period in history receives scant attention in this country. This lack of interest is regrettable and suggests that if knowledge about this important period in Canadian history is not to be lost, family historians may have to assume more responsibility for its retrieval. Research should open doors, not close them, and, as family historians, we too must be accountable. To the degree that we are motivated by shallow and self-serving interests, prefer folklore to historic records and are not prepared to invest time in research and documentation, or to bring some level of objectivity to our interpretation of the events and people about which we write, we will do little to enhance the credibility of Loyalist history or family historians.

Note: This article is taken from a more detailed history of the family of Dr. James Macnab, written by Phyllis H. White UE.


(1.) Jane Bennett Goddard, Hans Waltimeyer, privately published, 1980, and Mary Beacock Fryer, John Walden Meyers Loyalist Spy, Dundurn Press, 1983.

(2.) UCLP RG3, "M" Bundle 1, 1791-1795: RG, Vol. 327, p. 130, A& B.

(3.) William Canniff, The Medical Profession in Canada 1783-1850, Wm. Briggs, Toronto, 1894, p. 497.

(4.) Canniff, 1894, p. 497.

(5.) (1) Alexander Wellesley Macnab, Certificate No. 9, 27 September 1913. (2) Matilda Carter, sister of Alexander W. Carter, UEL designation on her tombstone, St. James Cathedral, Toronto, Ontario, 1914. (3) Hilda Carter Lowe, daughter of Matilda Carter, Certificate No. 398, 10 May 1921. (4) Georgina Carter White, daughter of Matilda Carter, UELAC Dominion Secretary in May 1921.

(6.) Annual Transactions Jan January 1926-1927.

(7.) List of Baptisms in the Parish of Glenorcy, 1753, John N. Vean, Minister.

(8.) Documents of the Revolutionary War, 1770-1783, Vol. XXI, Irish Academic Press Ltd., Dublin.

(9.) Norman K. Crowder, Early Ontario Settlers--A Source Book, Baltimore, 1993, p. 22, A647.

(10.) Nell Ballantyne, History of the 30th Regiment and in Great Britain's Army-Historical Records of the Thirtieth Regiment, Litterbury Brothers, Liverpool, 1923.

(11.) UCLP, RG L3, Vo. 328, "M" Bundle 2, pp. 66-66a.

(12.) UCLP RG1 L3, 327A, "M" Bundle, pp. 23-23a, Vol. 32, "M" Bundle, pp. 71-71a.

(13.) Upper Canada Gazette, advertisement dated July 12, 16, 26.

(14.) Lawrence E. Lowe, Notes on Macnab Family History, 1998, p. 116.

(15.) Kingston Gazette, 20 November 1810.

(16.) Kingston Gazette, 14 November 1810.

(17.) Kingston Gazette, 26 February 1819, meeting to form this society, James Macnab Chairman. List shows twenty-seven signatures and amount of donations.

(18.) Dictionary of Canadian Biography, on-line.

(19.) Goddard, 1980, p. 438.

(20.) Fryer, 1983, p. 215.

(21.) Fryer, 1983, p. 215.

(22.) Upper Canada Sundries, January 1815, pp. 9613-9614. NAC, petition submitted to the Legislative Council, 20 February 1811, sixteen signatures, including the Macnabs and Geo. W. and Leonard Meyers.

(23.) Goddard, 1980, p. 438.

(24.) Goddard, 1980, p. 425.

(25.) Goddard, 1980, p. 382.

(26.) Gerald Boyce, Historic Hastings County Council, 1967, p. 35.

(27.) Goddard, 1980, p. 431.

(28.) Goddard, 1980, p. 458.

(29.) Goddard, 1980, p. 431.

(30.) Goddard, 1980, p. 431.

(31.) Goddard, 1980, p. 442.

(32.) Goddard, 1980, p. 394.

(33.) Dioceses Office of the Anglican Church, Kingston, Ontario. From the Vestry Book of St. Thomas Church, Belleville.

(34.) Goddard, 1980, p. 507.

Author's Autobiography

I was born and raised in the dust bowl of Saskatchewan. My father's roots were firmly Loyalist: Jacob Powley UE of Kingston and Elias Smith UE of Port Hope. At the age of twenty-one, he responded to the call of "Go West Young Mad' and was one of the first three young bachelors to settle in the area where I grew up. As a result, and following in the footsteps of their forefathers, the district was named for him. As I read William Canniff's book on the settlement of Upper Canada, I was impressed by the similarities that have guided the lives of pioneer families, despite the lapse of one hundred years and the various conditions they faced.

War inevitably has an impact on our lives and as a result of the Second World War, like many others, I headed for Toronto. This led to two years in the army, three at the University of Toronto, a husband, three daughters, and what was supposed to be a two-year move to Chicago. But fate intervened and we were sidetracked to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY for one year, which eventually turned into thirteen. In 1969, as we had always planned, we returned home to Canada, my husband to teach at Trent University in Peterborough and I to join the staff of the Children's Aid Society. It was an exciting moment when I realized that I was now within an hour's drive of Loyalist country. Like many others, I became an addicted family historian, which is why, as I move toward my ninth decade, I am still searching.

--Phyllis H. White UE phwhite "at"
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Author:White, Phyllis H.
Publication:The Loyalist Gazette
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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