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b. 26 Sept. 1841 in Colchester, England


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McNUTT, ALEXANDER, army officer, colonizer, and land agent; b. 1725, probably in Londonderry (Northern Ireland), and possibly the son of Alexander and Jane McNutt; d. unmarried c. 1811 in Lexington, Va.

Alexander McNutt emigrated to America some time before 1753, and settled in Staunton, Va. In 1756 he was an officer in the militia on Major Andrew Lewis’s expedition against the Shawnees on the Ohio River. A quarrel between Lewis and McNutt after the campaign may have led to McNutt’s leaving Virginia for Londonderry, N.H., where many Ulster Scots lived. He is known to have been one of the “freeholders and inhabitants” of the town in September 1758. Between April and November 1760 McNutt served as a Massachusetts provincial captain at Fort Cumberland (near Sackville, N.B.), and he was also engaged that year in raising troops for the reduction of Canada.

It was about this time that McNutt first became involved in the colonization of Nova Scotia. He apparently worked initially as a deputy for Thomas Hancock, the Boston agent of Governor Charles Lawrence*, recruiting settlers for the former Acadian lands advertised by Lawrence in January 1759. That August he was in Halifax, N.S., where he secured a written promise from Lawrence of seven townships for himself and some associates on condition that he introduce Protestant settlers. One month after the governor’s death in October 1760, McNutt appeared before the Nova Scotia Council to claim the promised townships. Besides mentioning his agreement with Lawrence, he stated that he had obtained 850 subscribers for the promised lands, that he had agents in Ireland and America, and that he had already sent a vessel to Ireland to bring out settlers. During the spring of 1761 a group of about 50 families he had recruited from New Hampshire arrived in the region of Cobequid (near Truro), where they received grants of land.

Early that same year McNutt was in London, England, with a letter from Administrator Jonathan Belcher* recommending him as a proper agent to bring settlers from Ireland. On 24 February McNutt was called before the Board of Trade, and three days later submitted proposals for conditions of settlement of Nova Scotia lands; most were accepted. Although emigration from the British Isles was subject to official discouragement, McNutt was a persuasive speaker and memorialist, and his proposals were attractive since they involved the British government in no ultimate expense. In return for introducing settlers into Nova Scotia, McNutt asked for the right to select townships of 100,000 acres from land ungranted and unsurveyed at the time of his settlers’ arrival, and he also requested that he receive 100 acres for every 500 granted to his settlers. John Bartlet Brebner* has pointed out that if McNutt’s terms had been approved, then he and not the governor and Council would have controlled the colonization of Nova Scotia. But despite the board’s recommendation that the governor be instructed to grant land on McNutt’s terms, the proposals failed to receive the necessary Privy Council approval that year.

In the mean time McNutt, armed with the board’s approval, had proceeded to Ireland, where he had appointed agents in a semicircle through the hinterland of the port of Londonderry. On 21 April 1761 he publicly launched his campaign with an advertisement in the Belfast News-Letter and General Advertiser inviting “industrious farmers and useful mechanics” to emigrate to Nova Scotia and offering 200 acres to the head of each family and 50 to each member. The response seems to have been encouraging: although he had originally decided to hire only one vessel, a second had to be engaged. By October McNutt and 300 colonists had arrived in Halifax. In contrast to the substantial New England farmers who had come the previous year [see John Hicks*], McNutt’s immigrants were “indigent people, without means of subsistence,” but they were welcomed by the authorities. Over the winter they worked in Halifax, supported with provisions borrowed by McNutt from the government and with other supplies donated by the government and private charity. In the spring of 1762 the Council gave the Irish provisions, seed corn, tools, and building materials, and arranged for a vessel to take them to Cobequid, where they became tenants on the lands of earlier settlers.

McNutt had discovered on his arrival in Halifax that the Board of Trade’s instructions for land grants had not been sent to Belcher, but when he appeared before that body in March 1762 he evidently did not mention the problem. The board was then discussing Belcher’s enthusiastic reports of McNutt’s plans to charter 10,000 tons of shipping to transport 7,000 or 8,000 persons from the north of Ireland that summer. On 16 March McNutt submitted a memorial in which he asked the board’s approval of new conditions of settlement, stating that he had already entered into contracts worth £26,000 for transportation. These conditions were much more detailed and ambitious, and included a request that all grants be made in his name so that he could parcel them out himself, “this being the only security He can have of the [payment] of [the immigrants’] Passage and Subsistence, till they have worked out that Sum.” He also asked to be allowed to recommend proper persons for militia commissions in the townships to be formed. Lastly, he solicited the contracts for making and clearing roads from the new townships to Halifax and for other kinds of public works. Through these contracts, he claimed, settlers unable to reach their lands immediately would be afforded employment, and their labour would also permit them to repay him for the passage money they had obtained on credit. The board again found the conditions reasonable and recommended that grants be made to the settlers McNutt had already introduced. But at the same time it questioned whether as large an emigration from Ireland as was envisaged might not be harmful to the mother country. The Privy Council considered McNutt’s plan on 29 April and decided that however useful the settlement of Nova Scotia might be “the Migration from Ireland of such great numbers of His Majestys Subjects must be attended with dangerous Consequences.” It therefore ordered that the governor of Nova Scotia be instructed not to grant land to Irish settlers who had been resident in Nova Scotia or another American colony for less than five years. The landlords who constituted the British government did not favour emigration since they believed that a large population at home was necessary for prosperity. Moreover, and more important, the prospect of massive emigration from the Protestant districts of Ireland had alarmed the authorities.

McNutt had once again not waited for official blessing before opening his recruitment campaign, and in the Belfast News-Letter and General Advertiser of 11 March 1762 he published a laudatory letter from emigrants of the previous year. But by the time he reached Londonderry in June he knew of the Privy Council decision, and his efforts to attract settlers became noticeably less enthusiastic. Nevertheless, he made arrangements for about 170 persons to sail with him for Nova Scotia on the Nancy and Hopewell. Again the Irish arrived late in the season and proved unable to support themselves. Belcher (now lieutenant governor) found it increasingly difficult to accept the expenses that McNutt’s plans entailed and objected to the cost of keeping the immigrants over the winter. But when McNutt threatened to take them to Philadelphia the lieutenant governor gave in: provisions were supplied and the immigrants were taken to New Dublin Township and elsewhere in the province, where they became tenants to others. Because Belcher had apparently not revealed to the Council his instructions not to grant land to recent Irish immigrants, and thanks to McNutt’s work among the councillors, a dispute developed and several councillors protested to absentee governor Henry Ellis that Belcher was trying to stifle McNutt’s attempts to introduce further settlers.

In the spring of 1763 McNutt was back in London, where he addressed several memorials to the Board of Trade. The first requested compensation for losses he claimed were the result of the board’s not keeping its engagements of 1761, and subsequent ones charged that Belcher and other enemies in Nova Scotia were trying to limit his settlement plans. Favourably impressed by his claim for compensation despite his lack of proof, the board recommended that he receive a compensation grant in proportion to the number of persons he had settled in Nova Scotia, and asked the colonial authorities to determine its size. Although the Council criticized his figures, it eventually awarded him 13,500 acres in 1765. The Privy Council decision having effectively halted McNutt’s schemes to introduce Irish settlers into Nova Scotia, his later involvement with Irish immigrants was minimal. All the same, his partners in Ireland sent out one or two boatloads of settlers later in the 1760s on the Hopewell, the Falls, and the Admiral Hawke.

His Irish plans were not, however, McNutt’s only interest in colonization. In 1761, by claiming that he had the approval of the Board of Trade, he had encouraged some disbanded New England provincial soldiers, including Israel Perley, to settle on the Saint John River (N.B.). And at the same time as he was protesting his losses in 1763 he was proposing to transport foreign Protestants to South Carolina on condition that he receive a grant on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island. Moreover, in December 1763 he submitted a plan to introduce 200,000 settlers into Nova Scotia and elsewhere in North America without expense to government. Neither of these proposals received unqualified approval in London, and they appear to have been dropped soon afterwards.

McNutt’s next involvement with Nova Scotia came in 1764. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, by establishing an Indian reserve west of the Appalachians, had restricted settlement in the central colonies. Thus when, in the following year, the British government issued new instructions covering grants in Nova Scotia which made the colony more attractive to land companies elsewhere in North America, a great interest developed in the acquisition of grants there. Hearing of this interest, McNutt arrived in Philadelphia, Pa, in September 1764. By emphasizing his experience with Nova Scotia he apparently persuaded several companies to associate with him in an attempt to gain lands; moreover, he convinced these companies that his conditions of settlement (which broadly followed his 1761 proposals) were the only ones on which settlement should take place. By March 1765 McNutt and agents for several land companies were in Halifax, where McNutt produced applications for 21 townships of 100,000 acres each and set out the conditions of settlement. Governor Montagu Wilmot* was impressed by the number of applications and wrote to the Board of Trade about the possibility of diverting to Nova Scotia “the annual current of Germans into America.” But the governor was hesitant to grant land on McNutt’s terms since they differed considerably from those in the new instructions, which he had received in June 1764. In addition, he himself considered that the new instructions would encourage speculation, and had voiced his misgivings to the British government. Moreover, after consulting the Council he had decided not to publish the instructions as he had been ordered until he received further information from the Board of Trade. While awaiting a reply Wilmot and the Council made reservations of 2,300,000 acres to McNutt and the agents, and proposed as a condition of the grant that settlement be completed in four years or the land would be forfeited. Wilmot wanted to prevent land from being held indefinitely in large blocks by speculators.

For five months over the summer of 1765 McNutt and the agents remained in Halifax in the hope of obtaining better terms from the provincial government. Disputes broke out, McNutt’s supposed associates claiming that he was trying to deceive them. One of the agents, Anthony Wayne, who later became an American Revolutionary War general, reported that several Council members had told him that McNutt “had made Interest privately against us & Said that we had Nothing to do with the terms or any thing Else, & was only Employed as Surveyors under him.” McNutt had succeeded in having his name inserted in the list of the grantees for each of the four townships reserved for Wayne and his associates, and Wayne wished to “try to Exclude him if possible, as he has been rather a Determent than of Service to us.”

By October 1765 the British government had not replied to either McNutt’s conditions or Wilmot’s objections. McNutt and the agents demanded immediate action since the coming into effect of the Stamp Act on 1 November would add an extra £15 6s. 3d. to the cost of every township grant. Wilmot and the Council decided to make the grants, but insisted on the conditions proposed when the land had originally been reserved. Between 13 October and 1 November Nova Scotia experienced a wave of land granting in which 3,000,000 acres were parcelled out, mainly in the south, east, and northeast of the peninsula and along the Saint John, Petitcodiac, and Memramcook rivers (N.B.). McNutt acquired a township grant at Port Roseway (Shelburne), and with various associates he obtained grants along the Saint John, the northern shore, the South Shore, and the northeast coast totalling half of the total acreage granted. He contrived to have clauses inserted in the grants stating that representations were being made to the crown and any more favourable conditions that might be obtained as a result would apply to the lands ceded by these grants. Wayne’s plans for the exclusion of McNutt evidently did not succeed, since McNutt received a one-fifth share in the two township grants Wayne’s group was allotted. Moreover, the Philadelphia Company, one of the organizations with which McNutt had associated himself, was also disappointed. It had expected that its grant of 200,000 acres on the northern shore in present-day Pictou and Colchester counties would have a large water frontage, but McNutt and some associates from Ireland obtained most of the frontage on Pictou harbour, the best in the region, in another grant.

Despite the huge amounts of land granted, Wilmot’s conditions about settlement in four years effectively stopped speculation, and the Nova Scotia land boom rapidly petered out. Only a few settlers actually arrived, and over an extended period of time most of the grants were escheated. McNutt returned to London, where in April 1766 he appeared before the Board of Trade to complain that the board’s instructions had not been followed and that Wilmot and the Council had given the best lands and more favourable terms of settlement to their friends. When the Nova Scotia government was asked to comment on these charges, it denied any partiality and stated that any obstructions McNutt claimed to have encountered “had proceeded from his own intemperate Zeal & exhorbitant demands from Government.” So far from hindering him, they claimed, they had included his name on every grant to the companies with which he had been associated. McNutt’s charges seem to have gone no farther.

McNutt himself went back to Nova Scotia, where from time to time during the late 1760s he lived with his brother Benjamin on McNutt Island in the harbour of Port Roseway. He also seems to have resided in the Truro region, and appears on the census for that town in 1771. To support himself McNutt probably engaged in the timber trade, for in June 1767 Attorney General William Nesbitt* was ordered to prosecute McNutt for the unauthorized occupation of land and cutting of timber. McNutt evidently made no effort to develop his grants, and in 1770 the townships at Pictou harbour and on Minas Basin in which he owned land were escheated; three years later the one at Beaver Harbour went the same way. Moreover, the township at Port Roseway (which included McNutt Island) was sold in 1768 to pay a debt McNutt owed Henry Ferguson, a Halifax merchant. McNutt was taken to court at various times between 1767 and 1774 for other debts and ordered to pay several hundred pounds to his creditors, who included Michael Francklin* and Joshua Mauger*.

With the coming of the American revolution McNutt’s career entered a new phase. Although he later claimed to have conformed to the principles underlying the resolutions of the Continental congresses from 1774, he seems to have remained in Nova Scotia during the early years of the rebellion. But when his house at Port Roseway was robbed in June 1778 by a party of “armed ruffians” from an American privateer who took “upwards of Three Hundred Pounds Sterling, Exclusive of Books [and] Papers,” in property, he travelled to Boston to appeal to the Massachusetts Council for relief. On the way he suffered further humiliation when arrested at Salem as a “Doubtful Character.” Unable to obtain immediate compensation, he went to Philadelphia to petition Congress to draw Nova Scotia into the revolution, and in March 1779 he joined with Phineas Nevers and Samuel Rogers of Maugerville (N.B.) to ask Congress for money to construct a road between the Penobscot River (Maine) and the Saint John. In September 1779 McNutt was given permission to return to Halifax to obtain papers which would prove his losses, but he was suspected by the British authorities and Francis McLean*, commander at Halifax, had been warned that McNutt “was supposed to be in correspondence with the rebels & should be watched.” McNutt evidently left Nova Scotia in 1780 or 1781. In the latter year the Nova Scotia authorities received a letter describing him as “a subtle, designing fellow, [who] has endeavoured to circulate several letters and dangerous pamphlets throughout the Province.”

Among these pamphlets may have been the one attributed to McNutt entitled Constitution and frame of government for the free and independent state and commonwealth of New Ireland, apparently printed in 1781 at Philadelphia. The new nation was intended to encompass that part of Massachusetts between the Saco (Maine) and St Croix rivers, and either by design or by coincidence had the same name and extent as a province proposed by the British government as a haven for displaced loyalists [see John Caleff]. There any similarity between the two projects ended. In contrast to the imperial province, the independent New Ireland was to have a theocratic constitution based on puritanical principles. Lawyers were to be forbidden to hold offices of state, and no person not a regular member of a Christian society would hold public office. Moreover, such recreations as plays, horse-racing, cock-fighting, balls, and games of chance would be banned.

After the end of the revolution McNutt came back to McNutt Island, and both he and Benjamin are mentioned in the tax lists for Shelburne in 1786 and 1787. In September 1791 William Hale, a local merchant, was trying to collect a small debt from “Col. McNutt on the Island.” McNutt’s name was on the Shelburne tax list of 1794, but he moved to Virginia in 1796. The following year he executed a deed of property there in Rockbridge County, where he was also mentioned in a property case in 1802. He is thought to have died some time about 1811.

Phyllis R. Blakeley

PANS, MG 4, 140 (photocopy); RG 1, 31: docs.53, 55;164: f.331; 166A: 41; 188: 5, 29 Nov. 1762; 3 June–2 July 1765; 189: 26 Aug., 1 Sept. 1766; 27 June 1767; 14 April 1770; 3 Oct. 1774; 219: docs.68–69; 220: doc.59; 221, no.3: doc.6; 374: ff.79–80, 93–94, 118, 122, 126–27, 135; 377, no.2: 6, 23, 27, 29, 32, 44, 112, 174, 179; 443: doc.13. PRO, CO 217/18: ff.143–44, 148–57, 198–215, 297–98; 217/19: ff.278–79, 300–1; 217/20: ff.21–24, 41–46, 82–85, 224; 217/21: ff.158–67 (mfm. at PANS). Annals of Yarmouth and Barrington (Nova Scotia) in the Revolutionary War, compiled from original manuscripts, etc., contained in the office of the secretary of the Commonwealth, State House, Boston, Mass., comp. E. D. Poole (Yarmouth, N.S., 1899), 45–49. DAB. Bell, Foreign Protestants (Toronto, 1961), 109n., 111–12, 113n., 114–15, 117n., 122n., 123n., 547. Brebner, Neutral Yankees (1969). R. J. Dickson, Ulster emigration to colonial America, 1718–1775 (London, 1966), 55, 101, 132, 134–52, 154, 163–67, 173, 179–80, 182, 191–93. E. C. Wright, The Petitcodiac: a study of the New Brunswick river and of the people who settled along it (Sackville, N.B., 1945), 16–23, 38–40. A. W. H. Eaton, “Alexander McNutt, the colonizer,” Americana (New York), 8 (1913): 1065–106; “The settling of Colchester County, Nova Scotia, by New England Puritans and Ulster Scotsmen,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 6 (1912), sect.ii: 221–65. Margaret Ells, “Clearing the decks for the loyalists,” CHA Report, 1933: 43–58. W. O. Raymond, “Colonel Alexander McNutt and the pre-loyalist settlements of Nova Scotia,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 5 (1911), sect.ii: 23–115; 6 (1912), sect.ii: 201–15.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Phyllis R. Blakeley, “McNUTT, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcnutt_alexander_5E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcnutt_alexander_5E.html
Author of Article:   Phyllis R. Blakeley
Title of Article:   McNUTT, ALEXANDER
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 26, 2023