Not Subject to the Scorn and Contumely of the Great: Alexander McNutt’s Nova Scotia

Alexandra Montgomery

As an American born kid growing up in Halifax, the question of why that chunk of land stayed British while the rest of the colonies to the south declared independence was something of a puzzle. I became even more confused when I learned that most of the people who lived there at the outbreak of the Revolution were New Englanders, a group of people who my trips to Boston and Connecticut to visit family had convinced me had been waiting to rebel practically since the Mayflower made landfall. As I got older and started to study the history of North America more seriously, my understandings grew much more nuanced. But I discovered that many historians puzzled over the same problem I had. It turned out that there were many theories for Nova Scotia’s loyalty: a supposed culture of neutrality, a lack of connections to the rest of the continent, a heavy British military presence, and Anglo Nova Scotia’s markedly different relationship to the imperial center have all been cited as possible explanations.[1] Yet, in my own work I’ve become more and more interested in a slightly different question. What kinds of alternate futures did people imagine for the region? What did people—British, French, and Indigenous—think and hope was possible?

I want to take the opportunity of this blog post to explore these questions through a perhaps unlikely figure, Alexander McNutt. McNutt was born in Ulster, grew up in backcountry Virginia, and gained notoriety in the 1760s as a promoter and land agent working in and around Nova Scotia. McNutt was responsible for bringing several hundred white Protestant families into the colony at a time when such settlers were being courted by the province and the Board of Trade. McNutt’s plans, however, were much bigger: he claimed to have contacts throughout North America and Europe, an army of agents, and contracts with thousands of prospective settlers. McNutt talked his way into massive reserves, and then set off a craze in Nova Scotian lands in Philadelphia which roped in the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Anthony Wayne. At the height of his influence, on one day in 1765 he and his associates were granted nearly 1.5 million acres of Nova Scotian land. Yet by the end of the decade his career and his finances were in tatters and his grants were revoked. His tall tales, outsized plans, and spectacular failure have led many to see him as something between a punchline and antagonist: historians have called him “frenetic and unscrupulous,” “utterly unreliable,” and “distinctly untrustworthy;” one early biographer stated that he “hesitate[d] to believe” that McNutt could “properly be regarded as sane.”[2]

I’m more than guilty of reveling in McNutt’s kookiness. Yet here I want to suggest that McNutt can tell us something important about the British Empire and early Canada. Recently, as I began to pay more attention to the content of his many memorials to the Board of Trade and other governmental bodies, I was struck by how consistency of his vision of land policy, settler’s rights, and the place of Nova Scotia in a broader continental empire. McNutt was attempting to export an ethos more often associated with the Pennsylvania and Virginia Backcountry of his youth. It was an ideology that placed working settler families at its heart, demanding a wide latitude of independence and freedom for some while rejecting the claims of non-Protestants and non-whites. By championing this view to the highest rungs of the empire and exploiting his connections in the middle colonies, McNutt attempted to draw Nova Scotia more closely into the orbit of Britain’s other settler colonies while transforming the empire in the image of frontier agriculturalists. In McNutt’s view, imperial authority, channeled through men such as himself, was needed primarily to facilitate an orderly transfer of lands to white settler families, to protect settlers from forms of land granting which McNutt saw as predatory, and to ensure civil and religious liberties, otherwise leaving the settlers alone so that they might “take their own way to Happiness.”[3]

McNutt, Alexander. Considerations on the Sovereignty, Independence, Trade and Fisheries of New-Ireland (Formerly known by the name of Nova Scotia) and the adjacent islands: submitted to the European powers, that may be engaged in settling the terms of peace, among the nations at war. Philadelphia: Robert Aiken, c.1780. 

Perhaps drawing on the experiences of his family in Ireland, McNutt had a particular animosity towards land schemes in which settlers were tenants. He claimed that Nova Scotian settlers were being forced to become tenants on properties where they “cannot properly be called by any other name than slaves.”[4] In 1766 he even drew up a map to show the Board of Trade which landowners he felt were predatory or unwilling to settle their lands. At the same time, he proposed model terms to the Board of Trade which would make obtaining clear title a process which was as straightforward and settler-friendly as possible. McNutt’s activism won him few friends: the people he accused of enslaving prospective settlers were some of the most powerful people in the province, including Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher and Michael Francklin, both of whom served as acting governor at various times during the years McNutt was active. They were perhaps especially touchy as there was at least some truth to McNutt’s claims: Francklin was attempting to develop a large estate with tenants, and manorial schemes that bordered on the feudal multiplied in Atlantic Canada in the later 1760s and 70s.[5]

McNutt’s activities also had an important religious dimension. McNutt’s notion of who belonged in the empire can be summed up in one word: Protestants. McNutt pressed—unnecessarily—for enshrinement of religious freedom for all denominations of Protestants.[6] Indeed, he saw himself and his efforts to settle Nova Scotia as part of a religious mission, explaining that “ever since the defeat of Braddock,” he “had been engaged in defense of the Protestant interest.”[7] Reflecting McNutt’s fervent piety, one of his pet plans was the foundation of a city at Port Roseway he called Jerusalem.[8] McNutt’s dream of a Protestant empire, however, included not just a platform of importing Protestants. In 1762, he asked the Board of Trade for a license to remove Acadians so that in one round trip he might both bring in Protestants and remove Catholics.[9] It also perhaps goes without saying that McNutt’s imperial vision was also profoundly settler colonial in nature. McNutt’s claims that he had the power to parcel out all the “unimproved” lands in the province, for instance, suggests he had little concern for Native land tenure.[10] The near-total absence of Native people from his writings might also be interpreted as a reflection of his view on their role in his settler empire.

McNutt’s settler-populist tendencies became only more pronounced after his fall from grace after the 1765 granting spree. In 1767, for instance, he was accused of parceling out land to settlers that had not been granted to him. Some of this land was likely owned by Attorney General William Nesbitt, who brought the complaint, and who McNutt had singled out in his map.[11] McNutt became a staunch supporter of the American cause, and spent most of the period from 1778 to end of the war living in Massachusetts. Mentally, however, he never left Nova Scotia. He petitioned the Continental Congress repeatedly in an attempt to bring the province into the war on the side of the Americans. During these years, he also wrote a series of pamphlets laying out his vision for an independent Nova Scotia, which, alongside what is now PEI, Cape Breton, and Newfoundland, he re-named “New Ireland.”[12] The bill of rights, constitution and frame of government he wrote were modeled on the ultra-democratic Pennsylvania constitution of 1776. Like that constitution, McNutt envisioned a republic with a massively expanded franchise, direct voting for most positions, and a plural executive consisting of a 12-member “supreme council.”[13] But McNutt added his own twist. New Ireland was to be an explicitly Christian republic, in which state power was involved in the behavior and morality of its citizens. He stipulated, for example, that elected officials had to abstain from sinful activities, swear an oath attesting to their belief in the trinity, and be a “regular member of some Christian society.”[14]

What did happen, of course, was the transformation of Nova Scotia into a loyalist stronghold, not a Presbyterian republic. At Port Roseway, the boom town of Shelburne popped up on the site of McNutt’s New Jerusalem. McNutt returned to live nearby, watching as most of his grants and reserves were revoked and given to loyalists. Sometime around 1796, McNutt moved back to Virginia, and attempted to grant his no longer extant lands in Nova Scotia to a Presbyterian academy in Rockbridge County. McNutt died there in 1811, aged about 86. Perhaps he gained some comfort as the young republic grew increasingly associated with the Jeffersonian notion of an “Empire of Liberty,” an idea that resonated with McNutt’s own thinking. His reluctance to leave Nova Scotia until well into the 1790s, however, suggests that giving up the region was a painful decision. Perhaps in some ways he remained stuck in the moment when it seemed like the future of Nova Scotia was still undecided. A family legend claims that in the last years of his life, he dressed only in the court clothing he wore on his trips to London, forever petitioning the Board of Trade in service of a Nova Scotia that never was.[15]

Alexandra L. Montgomery is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies imperially-directed settlement schemes in Northern New England and Nova Scotia in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, particularly, Native responses and counter-plans for the future of the region. She is originally from Halifax. You can find her on Twitter @foreign_advices.

[1] See, for example, John Bartlet Brebner, The Neutral Yankees of Nova Scotia: A Marginal Colony during the Revolutionary Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937); Gordon Thomas Stewart and George A. Rawlyk, A People Highly Favoured of God: The Nova Scotia Yankees and the American Revolution (Archon Books, 1972); Elizabeth Mancke, The Fault Lines of Empire: Political Differentiation in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, Ca. 1760-1830, New World in the Atlantic World (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005).

[2] Bernard Bailyn and Barbara DeWolfe, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of North America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Vintage books, 1988), 364; Winthrop Pickard Bell, The “Foreign Protestants” and the Settlement of Nova Scotia: The History of a Piece of Arrested British Colonial Policy in the Eighteenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961), 111; Brebner, Neutral Yankees, 37; Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton, “Alexander McNutt, The Colonizer,” Americana 8, no. 2 (1913): 1078.

[3] Alexander McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 16 April 1763, CO 217.

[4] Alexander McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 16 April 1763, CO 217.

[5] Michael Francklin, “Proposals for Setling Twenty Families on Francklin Manor,” n.d., Townshend Papers vol XVI, f 255-270, British Library; Draft Agreement with German Tenants, 1765, enclosed in Michael Francklin to the Earl of Egmont, 29 Aug 1769, Nova Scotia Materials, Egmont Papers, British Library; see also Bailyn and DeWolfe, Voyagers to the West, 373–387.

[6] See for example Alexander McNutt’s Proposals for Making Further Settlements, 24 Feb 1761, CO 217; Alexander McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 16 March 1762, CO 217; McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 16 April 1763; McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 17 April 1766,; Alexander McNutt, “Considerations on the Sovereignty, Independence, Trade and Fisheries of New Ireland,” (Philadelphia: Robert Aiken, c.1780), 16, 42-43. McNutt’s repeated insistence on religious liberty for dissenters lead an exasperated Lt. Gov Michael Francklin to respond that “we know of no persons who are deprived of those rights and that liberty which the laws & constitution of Great Britain or of this province intitles them to”: Committee of Council on Alexander McNutt to the Board of Trade, 30 Aug 1766, CO 217.

[7] Alexander McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 16 April 1763.

[8] Alexander McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 16 March 1762; Minutes of the Legislative Council, 30 April 1765, RG 1, Nova Scotia Archives [NSA]; Anthony Wayne to John Hughes, 30 May 1765, Anthony Wayne Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Dartmouth notes on meeting with Alexander McNutt, 16 May 1766, CO 217.

[9] Alexander McNutt Memorial to the Board of Trade, 16 March 1762. Acadians remaining in the province were not safe from deportation until 1764, when families in exile were also allowed to return.

[10] Minutes of the Legislative Council, 27 June 1767, RG 1, NSA.

[11] Minutes of Legislative Council, 27 June 1767, RG 1, NSA.

[12] McNutt, “Considerations,” frontmatter.

[13] McNutt, “Consideration;” Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 359.

[14] McNutt, “Considerations,” 15-20.

[15] Eaton, “Alexander McNutt, The Colonizer,” 1090.

Title Image: Map of Nova Scotia, 1766. From the The National Archives of the UK, ref. CO700/NOVASCOTIA43. While the yellow shaded lands indicate absentee and predatory landlords who abused the land granting system, the red shaded lands are lands reserved to McNutt.


7 thoughts on “Not Subject to the Scorn and Contumely of the Great: Alexander McNutt’s Nova Scotia

  1. Lovely piece – these contested strategies for appropriate settlement techniques and their relations to forms of government offer lots to think about as Britain imagined the refashioning of “Nova Scotia”. I’m also intrigued by the several large lots laid out at the junction of the Shubenacadie and Stewiacke Rivers. The DesBarres lands have a well-known history. I know nothing of these. Were they military? Linked to Ft Ellis and attempts to control Acadians and the Mi’kmaq? So far as I know nothing comes of these, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Daniel, thanks so much for reading! Some of the lettering is smudged on the lands in question but they mostly seem to have been given to council members (Charles Morris, Otho Hamilton, Francklin, etc). I definitely suspect Ft Ellis has something to do with their location and I would be shocked if controlling an important transportation route wasn’t part of the aim, but I’m unsure! I’m heading back into the Nova Scotia council and land records this summer and hoping to find out more.

      Liked by 1 person

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