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McNABB, JAMES, businessman, office holder, and politician; b. possibly in Virginia, son of James McNabb; m. 24 March 1801 Mary Ann Fraser in Fredericksburg (North and South Fredericksburg) Township, Upper Canada, and they had one son; d. 5 April 1820 en route from York (Toronto) to Belleville.

At the commencement of the American Revolutionary War James McNabb Sr reputedly joined a loyalist regiment in Virginia. By 1777 he had joined McAlpin’s Royal Americans as a military surgeon and he served with this unit until his death at the loyalist settlement of Yamachiche, Que., in 1780. His sons Alexander, James, Colin, and Simon had probably come with him to Quebec, and by 1787 Colin and Alexander were residing in the Niagara area. In 1794 the young James McNabb’s petition for land was approved by the Executive Council of Upper Canada. Two years later he settled at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), where Colin was superintendent of inland navigation and Simon had entered business.

“Desirous of settling in York in the mercantile line,” James McNabb petitioned for a town lot in April 1798. Alexander had already moved there to become assistant clerk to the Executive Council, and James relocated in that developing port later in 1798; Simon followed the next year. About 1800, apparently in partnership with Simon, James moved to Thurlow (Belleville), an early trade and milling centre on the Bay of Quinte. Although originally intent upon remaining in business at York, Simon was soon propelled by “unforeseen circumstances” to join his energetic brother in 1802.

The McNabbs quickly established links with leading Kingston trans-shipment merchants and financiers, notably Richard Cartwright and Donald McDonell. Although frequently pressed financially, the brothers shipped increasing quantities of flour, potash, and other staples to their forwarders. Their success made them the leading local competitors to John Walden Meyers*. This rivalry increased when in 1804 James McNabb purchased a mill site near Thurlow on Meyers’ Creek (Moira River) where, with Cartwright’s financial support, he built a sawmill and a grist-mill.

By 1808 the successful merchant had achieved a measure of local status. On 10 March he received his first commission of the peace for the Midland District; the last was dated 8 Jan. 1820. Between 26 April 1808 and 26 Jan. 1813 he was present at 9 of 20 sessions, a much better record than that of fellow magistrates such as Thomas Dorland*, Ebenezer Washburn*, and Joshua Booth. On 2 May 1808 McNabb was elected to the House of Assembly for the riding of Hastings and Township of Ameliasburgh. From 1809 until parliament was dissolved in 1812, he actively represented his constituents’ interests in the assembly and, on land matters, at the surveyor general’s office. Prone to attacks of pleurisy and pressured by commercial problems, he sold his mills in September 1810. The following November he dissolved his partnership with Simon and sold his valuable property in Fredericksburg. Despite his withdrawal from business, in May 1812 McNabb nevertheless pressed the government to make the thriving Thurlow community the centre for a proposed new administrative district on the Bay of Quinte.

The War of 1812 interrupted McNabb’s plans for the locality but it brought him new responsibility. In 1813 and 1814 he voluntarily served as a commissarial agent, charged with the arrangement of military transport and the acquisition, storage, and shipment of supplies for the Kingston garrison. Warned to avoid coercion, McNabb had difficulty contending with constant, often critical, supply demands from the army and the antipathy of settlers such as Meyers to billeting, impressment, and fixed pricing. On 24 March 1814, the military administrator, George Gordon Drummond*, appointed McNabb, along with such prominent men as Cartwright and Dorland, a commissioner to enforce a recent act of the legislature which authorized the detention of persons “suspect of treasonable adherence to the enemy.” In June the fatigued magistrate was awarded financial compensation for his service to the commissariat but was refused a military land grant.

After the war McNabb continued his squabbles with Meyers. In charges brought before Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* in 1815 McNabb apparently discredited his rival with allegations of hindering the commissariat in supplying the army. At the same time he raised the issue of making Thurlow a town site. Gore ordered the appropriate land purchase and between March and April 1816 surveyor Samuel Street Wilmot laid out a plot at the mouth of the Moira River. McNabb used his influence to have the new town named Bellville (Belleville). In the election of June 1816 McNabb was elected for his old riding. That same year he acquired several district offices: war pensions commissioner, branch roads commissioner, and membership on the first Board of Education. Official stipends provided strong motivation. McNabb was crippled in 1815 by the amputation of his right leg following an accident, and the collapse of wartime prosperity apparently brought compelling material setbacks. “In consequence of the reverse of fortune I have met with I am in a manner out of business to attend to,” he confessed in December 1816 when requesting additional appointments.

Although “not so hearty and well as formerly” and overburdened with his magistrate’s duties, McNabb journeyed to York in February 1817 for the forthcoming legislative session. There he continued his earlier efforts to promote regional interests, notably by his unsuccessful attempts of 1817 and 1818 to have a new district formed with Belleville as its centre. During the sessions of 1817 and 1818, however, McNabb’s essentially local interests were overshadowed by such smouldering provincial issues as recession, delayed compensation for war losses, dwindling immigration, and the exclusion of American settlers. Untouched by the tensions surrounding many of these issues, McNabb could oppose a touchy assembly’s unjustified censure of criticism from some of its members.

Back in Belleville, however, his apparent detachment dissolved when his conservative opinions merged with personal antagonism. He displayed little tolerance towards the Bay of Quinte supporters of Robert Fleming Gourlay* – men such as Thomas Coleman, a war veteran and owner of the mills formerly belonging to McNabb. At a militia dinner in Belleville on 4 June 1818, Coleman and McNabb began a heated argument which was rekindled in a local tavern the following day. Coleman reputedly damned Gore and his supporters as a “set of perjured villains.” McNabb promptly sued for libel. Matters were further strained by Coleman’s attendance at the Gourlayite Upper Canadian Convention of Friends to Enquiry held at York in July. By 22 September the feud had spread to the columns of the Kingston Gazette. Coleman castigated McNabb as a “mean malignant man,” part of the political “scum” whom he wished purged in “the people’s interest.” A week later McNabb abruptly brought his adversary to heel with aspersions on his war record – citing a “shameful retreat” led by Coleman.

In the remaining years of his life McNabb attended parliament with diminishing regularity, possibly because of declining health. He nevertheless remained active locally in the Midland District Agricultural Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor of the Midland District, and the Belleville Auxiliary Bible Society; he also supported a petition of Church of England members for assistance in erecting a church. The image held of him by some local people as a vindictive justice of the peace was not shared by the Belleville correspondent of the Kingston Chronicle who deplored the loss of an impartial public servant, an “affectionate husband, [and] an indulgent and a kind friend.”

David Roberts

AO, Map coll., Thomas Ridout, “Belleville, Ontario, on lot 4, Thurlow Twp.,” 1812; ms 75; MU 490–92; 500–1; RG 1, A-I-6, 5–6; C-IV, Thurlow Township; RG 22, ser.54, 2. Belleville Public Library (Belleville, Ont.), Hastings County Hist. Soc. coll., 915 (Thomas Coleman papers); 2119: 202 (rebellion losses claim no.108, Christopher O’Brien). BL, Add. mss 21765, 21826–27 (transcripts at PAC). Hastings Land Registry Office (Belleville), Abstract index to deeds, Belleville town, Hastings County, A1-A2 (mfm. at AO, GS 4158). Lennox and Addington County Museum (Napanee, Ont. ), Lennox and Addington Hist. Soc. coll., William Bell papers, 1st Regiment Hastings Militia, letters, orders, 1798–1831. PAC, MG 23, HII, 1, vol.1: 562–63; RG 1, E14, 10; L3, 40: B11/213; 324: Mc misc., 1788–95/136; 325: M misc., 1792–1816/65; 327A: M2/23; 328: M2/66, 71; 328A: M2/241; 330: M4/90; 330A: M4/209, 275; 331: M5/153; 333: M8/5; 334: M9/44; 338: M11/286, 323, 366, 379; 339: M11/379; 341: M12/226; 342: M12/430; 379: M leases, 1798–1832/79, 128, 146 (mfm. at AO); RG 5, A1: 8145–47, 8276–77, 8488–89, 9071, 9611–15, 12305–12, 12991–93, 13956–58, 14067–68, 14895,14899, 17903 (mfm. at AO); B11, 1: files 16, 20, 22; 4: file 259; RG 16, A1, 12; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: ff.419–20, 424, 432–33, 490, 515. PRO, WO 57/15: no.225 (mfm. at PAC). QUA, Richard Cartwright papers, letterbooks. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1929–31. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1911–13. Kingston before War of 1812 (Preston). [Robert] McDowall, “McDowall marriage register,” OH, 1 (1899): 72–94. Kingston Gazette, 20, 27 Nov. 1810; 4 May 1814; 25 Nov. 1815; 22 June, 13 July, 24 Aug., 28 Sept. 1816; 22 March 1817; 30 June, 6 July, 22, 29 Sept. 1818; 8 Jan., 19, 26 Feb., 7 May 1819; 14 April 1820. Upper Canada Gazette, 12, 26 June 1816; 3 July 1817. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology. Chadwick, Ontarian families. G. E. Boyce, Historic Hastings (Belleville, 1967). William Canniff, History of the settlement of Upper Canada (Ontario) with special reference to the Bay Quinte (Toronto, 1869; repr. Belleville, 1971); The medical profession in Upper Canada, 1783–1850 . . . (Toronto, 1894; repr. 1980). Craig, Upper Canada. MacDonald, “Hon. Richard Cartwright,” Three hist. theses, 127, 180–81. W. C. Mikel, City of Belleville history (Picton, Ont., 1943). “Capt. Alexander McNabb,” Tylers Quarterly Hist. and Geneal. Magazine (Richmond, Va.), 5 (1923–24): 144. “The town of Belleville,” Globe and Canada Farmer (Toronto), 6 July 1877: 1–2.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David Roberts, “McNABB, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 3, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcnabb_james_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcnabb_james_5E.html
Author of Article: David Roberts
Title of Article: McNABB, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: September 3, 2014