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McNABB, COLIN, army and militia officer and office holder; b. c. 1764, possibly in Virginia, son of James McNabb; m. Elizabeth –, “the daughter of an old Servant of the Crown,” and they had at least six children; d. 7 April 1810 at Four Mile Creek, Niagara Township, Upper Canada.

Few details are known of Colin McNabb’s early life. At the outbreak of the American revolution his family, including his brother James, resided in Virginia. His father enlisted in a loyalist corps and served during John Burgoyne*’s campaign of 1777. By 1780 James Sr and probably his family were in Quebec. Some time after, Colin enlisted in Francis Legge*’s Loyal Nova Scotia Volunteers, a unit used primarily for garrison duty at Halifax. When the regiment was disbanded on 20 Oct. 1783, McNabb went on half pay as an ensign. He first appears in the Niagara area of western Quebec on the return of loyalists and disbanded troops compiled by Robert Hamilton in 1787. He was married with one daughter and had cleared 60 acres of land, 30 of which were sown with wheat.

McNabb’s 25-year career as a minor local office holder stemmed from the 1787 decision of the Privy Council committee for trade to lift the prohibition on trade between the British North American colonies and the United States. Jurisdiction devolved on the colonies and the following year an ordinance was issued in the province of Quebec regulating inland commerce. To enforce the measure, superintendents of inland navigation were appointed between May 1788 and January 1789 for seven ports. McNabb’s status as a reduced loyalist officer may have gained him the Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) post, which he received on 23 June 1788. His responsibilities were to collect duties, to prevent smuggling, and to register vessels.

The administration of inland trade was altered by Jay’s Treaty of 1794 which opened free trade with the United States. In 1796 Lower Canada enacted legislation bringing the treaty into effect, and the next year Upper Canada reluctantly followed suit. The period of transition which lasted until 1801 caused confusion for both government and superintendents. On 5 Sept. 1797 Administrator Peter Russell proclaimed the suspension of certain ordinances regulating the inland trade. On 16 November he annulled this decision except for the ordinances concerning the registration of ships. McNabb was baffled. In 1798 he petitioned Russell complaining that the lack of new instructions had inhibited the proper functioning of his office and had resulted in “great Quantities of Duteable & even Contraband articles” entering the province. Unsuccessful in his efforts to spark parliamentary initiative, and hesitant to devise measures of his own, Russell that year recommended to the Executive Council the temporary expedient of adopting Lower Canadian legislation “applicable to the local circumstances of this Province.”

The problems were partially resolved by an act of 1801 which further regulated American trade, established customs duties, and designated 11 ports of entry. McNabb became collector of customs at Niagara on 6 Aug. 1801. To augment the emoluments of office, because Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter thought the collectors’ share of duties might “for some time be inconsiderable,” McNabb received on 1 August the inspectorship of flour, potash, and pearl ash. In addition to the duties of the old superintendents, the collectors had also to submit quarterly accounts to Inspector General John McGill* and to compile lists of the stills, shops, and taverns within their areas of jurisdiction. McNabb supervised a deputy at Queenston, Samuel Street*.

Collectors were usually merchants such as John Warren or John Askin who could use their positions to complement their other interests. McNabb was singular in relying upon his office for the bulk of his income. Consequently problems which interrupted the efficient performance of his duty were a source of constant irritation. Some were personal: “a severe fit of sickness for two months” in 1801 prevented the punctual submission of his returns to McGill; a dispute with Street necessitated McGill’s intervention to uphold McNabb’s authority. There was also the constant problem of imposing new duties when information from government about new acts was not regularly transmitted. Finally, masters of Upper Canadian merchant vessels often refused to report to the collectors. Although in the early period a collector’s share of duties was usually trifling, McNabb was well situated to benefit from a major provincial trans-shipment point, from his region’s close proximity to the United States, and from the volume of trade generated by such prominent Niagara merchants as Hamilton, Thomas Clark*, and the Dicksons, William* and Thomas*. Between 1 July 1801 and 31 March 1802 McNabb received £63 for duties collected on liquor, molasses, sugar, coffee, tobacco, snuff, and salt; his counterpart for Kingston and Cornwall, Joseph Anderson, received less than half that amount, and William Allan* at York (Toronto) took in a mere £2 10s. 9d.

An action taken in the early months of 1802 was to prove McNabb’s undoing. He had decided to apply duty on almost 13,000 pounds of manufactured tobacco belonging to McTavish, Frobisher and Company of Montreal and destined for trade at Detroit (Mich.) and Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.). In spite of his objection to the legality of the duty, Robert Hamilton, the company’s Niagara agent, posted a conditional bond which allowed 7,000 pounds to go forward. The remainder was held pending settlement of the dispute. The company and Hamilton contended that goods in transit for consumption outside the province were not subject to duty; in turn McNabb cited a precedent, the action of the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company) in directing their Niagara agents, George Forsyth and Company, to pay similar duties. Meanwhile the duties payable upon subsequent shipments of tobacco had raised the sum owed by the company to more than £700. Anxious for a compromise to avoid a lawsuit and to extricate himself, McNabb attempted to soothe the powerful Hamilton and pleaded with McGill to secure the intervention of Attorney General Thomas Scott* so that a decision could be made. McNabb’s accounts for duties collected between 1 April and 31 Dec. 1802 showed arrears exceeding £730.

McNabb’s action had offended powerful merchant interests. On 13 March 1803 he wrote McGill that he had seen a letter “wherein you hint that you are apprehensive that I am a lost man.” On 28 March his deputy at Queenston was replaced by Hamilton’s cousin, Thomas Dickson, and the port was separated from McNabb’s control. On 6 April Hunter removed McNabb for defaulting in his payments. McNabb and Street refused to turn over their account-books “on the ground that they may possibly hereafter be necessary to their Justification.” But the authorities did not take legal action. Hamilton subsequently paid duty on tobacco which had been imported solely for local consumption and the matter of duty on goods in transit seems to have been quietly dropped. In March 1810 David McGregor Rogers*’s committee of the assembly on public accounts condemned McNabb’s continuing arrears of £87, the result of merchants’ not paying duties.

Little is known of McNabb’s life after the loss of the collectorship. It seems that his only means of support was his half pay. One piece of evidence indicates he was deputy commissary at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) in 1796 but it is not known whether he continued to act in this capacity. His landholdings in the 1790s exceeded 1,200 acres in addition to town lots in Newark (as Niagara was then called) and York, hardly a substantial total. A 1796 petition for a lot in York stated that he was “desirous of building” there, but he shortly disposed of the lot. Between 1796 and 1798 his brothers, Alexander, James, and Simon, evinced a similar desire to relocate and by 1799 all but Colin had left Newark.

McNabb was a slave owner, a member of the Presbyterian congregation, the agricultural society, the Niagara Library, and an officer in the Lincoln militia. The travel accounts of Patrick Campbell*, who resided briefly in Niagara in 1791 and 1792, provide a hint of McNabb’s life. The head of one of the area’s “genteel families,” McNabb appears as a convivial companion who enjoyed nothing better than an extended hunting trip and took the slightest pretext for social intercourse. On one occasion he and Ralfe Clench* guided Campbell to the Grand River settlement of Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea]. The long evening provided a study in contrasts: sumptuous dining, learned conversation, heavy drinking, Indian dances, and Scottish reels. Campbell was astonished. “I do not remember I ever passed a night in all my life I enjoyed more . . . but the other gentlemen [McNabb and Clench], to whom none of these things were new, looked on, and only engaged now and then in the reels.”

Peter N. Moogk

[Some researchers have confused the careers of McNabb and his son Colin A. (d. 1820) who served with the Nova Scotia Fencibles.  p.n.m.]

AO, MU 1777, Land papers, Grant to Colin McNabb, 15 May 1799; Agreement of bargain and sale, McNabb to A. Macdonell, 6 July 1799; RG 1, A-I-6: 2317–18, 2471–72. MTL, D. W. Smith papers, B7: 337; B11: 60,117,164,178. PAC, RG 1, E3, 60: 93–93D; L3, 324: Mc misc., 1788–95/136; 328: M2/39, 116, 175; 330: M4/176; 330A: M4/275; RG 5, A1: 2184–85; RG 7, G16C, 2: 27, 72–73, 190; 3: 95–96, 105; RG 16, A1, 84: Warren to McGill, 15 Sept. 1801; 232, items used for years 1801–3; 297, items used for years 1801–3; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 525, 677. “Accounts of receiver-general of U.C.,” AO Report, 1914: 732–33, 761. P. Campbell, Travels in North America (Langton and Ganong), 151, 155, 157–58, 168, 181–83. Corr. of LieutGovernor Simcoe (Cruikshank), 1: 191; 4: 229–30, 269–70. Douglas, Lord Selkirks diary (White), 154. “Early records of Niagara” (Carnochan), OH, 3: 9, 12, 15, 54, 69–76. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1929: 89, 144. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1909: 283–84, 435; 1911: 145, 372. Kingston before War of 1812 (Preston), 209. “Names only, but much more,” comp. Janet Carnochan, Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], 27 (n.d.): 10, 13, 15, 17, 21, 23. “Ordinances made for the province of Quebec by the governor and Council of the said province, from 1768 until 1791 . . . ,” PAC Report, 1914–15: app.C, 203–11, 252. “Proclamations by governors and lieutenant-governors of Quebec and Upper Canada,” AO Report, 1906: 190–92. “Proclamations of the governor of Lower Canada, 1792–1815,” PAC Report, 1921: 56–63. “U.C. land book B,” AO Report, 1930: 50, 67, 83. “U.C. land book C,” AO Report, 1930: 162. “U.C. land book D,” AO Report, 1931: 160. Upper Canada Gazette, 10 July 1794. Upper Canada Guardian; or, Freemans Journal (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake]), 14 April 1810. Chadwick, Ontarian families, 1: 21. Gordon Blake, Customs administration in Canada: an essay in tariff technology (Toronto, 1957). William Canniff, The medical profession in Upper Canada, 1783–1850 . . . (Toronto, 1894; repr. 1980), 498. Janet Carnochan, “Inscriptions and graves in the Niagara peninsula,” Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], 19 ([2nd ed.], n.d.): 6.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Peter N. Moogk, “McNABB, COLIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcnabb_colin_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcnabb_colin_5E.html
Author of Article: Peter N. Moogk
Title of Article: McNABB, COLIN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: August 22, 2014