McKINNON, WILLIAM, office holder and politician; b. in Scotland; m. with at least one son; d. 13 April 1811 in Sydney, Cape Breton Island. His grandson William Charles McKinnon* was a Sydney newspaperman and novelist who later became a Methodist preacher.
William McKinnon emigrated to the New World a considerable time before the American revolution, residing in the Carolinas, Georgia, and finally West Florida. During the War of American Independence he served as a captain in the provincial troops of West Florida. He claimed to have lost £7,900 in property and possessions during the revolution, but since parliament had made no provision for the indemnification of loyalists residing in West Florida, he awaited an appointment in one of the remaining colonies. McKinnon was finally named secretary and registrar of deeds as well as clerk and member of the Executive Council of Cape Breton; he arrived in Sydney in December 1792 and was sworn in on the 15th, replacing Abraham Cornelius Cuyler, who had left the previous year after disagreeing with Lieutenant Governor William Macarmick’s policies. The appointment plunged McKinnon into the political warfare of the colony. One faction, headed by the loyalist David Mathews*, attempted to increase the council’s power at the expense of the lieutenant governor, but was opposed by another, headed by Ranna Cossit, the Church of England clergyman in Sydney, and James Miller, the superintendent of mines. McKinnon at first supported Cossit’s group, which had the favour of Macarmick. However, when the latter left in 1795 Mathews became administrator. In the spring of 1797 a controversy erupted when McKinnon’s wife alleged that Chief Justice Archibald Charles Dodd*, a supporter of Mathews, had accused Cossit of robbery and sacrilege. Dodd refuted the story and retaliated by calling Mrs McKinnon “a most infamous liar” and McKinnon himself a “Damn’d Scotch Highland Brute.” McKinnon’s temper flared and in the council meeting of 18 May he had Mathews deliver to Dodd a challenge to a duel. Immediately afterwards Mathews dismissed McKinnon from office, alleging that he and others had given “every opposition to His Majesty’s Government . . . in a manner calculated to stir up the Objects of his Conduct to revenge and perhaps Bloodshed.” The duel was prevented by the intervention of Cossit.
The next year Mathews continued his attack on McKinnon. It was probably at his behest that a woman appeared in the spring and alleged that she had purchased in West Florida half of McKinnon’s military pay for two years but that McKinnon had never given her the money. Mathews imprisoned McKinnon, who in vengeance took all the council and land records to jail with him and refused to surrender them. Fortunately for McKinnon, Mathews was replaced as administrator shortly afterwards by Lieutenant-General James Ogilvie, who began an investigation into the conduct of the various crown officers. To the affair of the duel, Mathews added a charge that McKinnon had defrauded a settler of 130 acres. Ogilvie decided that the threatened duel between McKinnon and Dodd had been merely a personal matter that had become entangled in political issues, and he dismissed the fraud allegation as a mistake in the transcription of the land patent. He also considered that although McKinnon’s conduct had been “improper and reprehensible Yet it was by no means such, as to Authorize in any respect, Mr. Mathews to suspend him from his seat at the Council Board,” and restored him to it.
This vindication did not free McKinnon from the charge of an unpaid debt, for which he was still in prison. Since it was a civil case, he required a lawyer to defend him, but Mathews was the colony’s only lawyer who was not also a judge and, not surprisingly, he refused to act. Ogilvie could not obtain a suitable person from Halifax to serve as solicitor general, but McKinnon was saved from further imprisonment by switching his political support to Mathews in return for Mathews’s dropping the charges. McKinnon was freed on 5 July 1799 by Ogilvie’s successor, Brigadier-General John Murray*, who also restored him to his official employments. McKinnon kept his allegiance to Mathews during Murray’s term, refusing to support Murray’s and Cossit’s hiring of a Protestant schoolteacher and even refusing to recognize Murray’s legal authority. Murray retaliated by dismissing McKinnon as secretary, registrar of deeds, and clerk of the council. After Major-General John Despard* replaced Murray as administrator in June 1800, McKinnon regained his former posts, which he then held until his death. Murray had also suspended McKinnon from the council, but in 1807 he was reinstated to that body. After 1800 McKinnon was a less controversial figure. Despard’s arrival and Mathews’s death that summer toned down factionalism and, although McKinnon became powerful locally in his later years, he remained aloof from the ensuing struggle for a house of assembly which culminated several years after his death in 1811. He is said to have died as a result of wounds received in 1776 on board the Bristol during an attack on Charleston, S.C.
William McKinnon, like other early political figures in Cape Breton, can be accused of being an opportunist. However, in the light of the colony’s poverty and incomplete constitution, which made no provision for a house of assembly, power struggles in the council were almost guaranteed. In this context, McKinnon’s political career was effective, since he steered an eventually successful course through the rocks of factionalism which were characteristic of the first years of Cape Breton’s existence as a colony.
PRO, CO 217/112: ff.148, 199; 217/113: ff.152–53; 217/114; 217/115: ff.52–54, 148, 150–55, 216–18, 389–90; 217/116: f.110; 217/117: ff.20–22, 198–99; 217/118–25; 217/126: ff.97–98; 217/127–28; 217/129: f.22. Richard Brown, A history of the island of Cape Breton, with some account of the discovery and settlement of Canada, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland (London, 1869), 428. J. G. MacKinnon, Old Sydney; sketches of the town and its people in days gone by (Sydney, N.S., 1918), 106. Morgan, “Orphan outpost,” 175–81.