This Heritage Paper looks at the MacDonnell family, the first official land owners in the Township, who although they did not settle here — being examples of “absentee landowners”, contributed in many ways to the early history of the province of Upper Canada.
From the area around Invergarry Castle on Loch Oich, Glengarry, Invernessshire, several members of the MacDonnell family, among them Allan of Collachie, organised a large group of friends who, like them, believed that their future was in the new lands of the Americas. For during the 1760’s, hundreds of Scots, tenant farmers, merchants, even land-owners wished to escape from deteriorating social conditions, grinding poverty, over-population and farm enclosure. The MacDonnell family were Roman Catholics, and supporters of the Pretender, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), but after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the MacDonnells were constantly threatened and their property seized. A grant of lands in Albany, New York was obtained, so the decision to leave Scotland was made — the family had a relation already well established in the American colony of New York, Sir William Johnson, and it was possibly he who arranged the land grant.
The MacDonnells and their company left Fort William in 1773 on a chartered ship, the “Pearl”.
“Fort William, 20 August 1773, three gentleman of the name of MacDonnell, with their families, and 400 Highlanders from the counties of Glengarry, Glenmorriston, Urquhart and Strathglass, imbarked lately for America, having obtained a grant of lands in Albany.”1
The voyage was short and uneventful, six weeks later the party reached the port of New York. The family of Allan MacDonnell travelled to the northwestern frontier of New York and settled near Johnstown in the Mohawk Valley. With Allan MacDonnell were his wife, Helen, daughter of the MacNab, and two sons, Angus, born c.1755, and Alexander, who had been born at Fort Augustus in 1762.
When dissatisfaction with the British Crown began to develop in New England, the Scottish immigrants of the New York colony, following the July 4 Declaration of Independence, were to rally around such families as the MacDonnells, who had a strong military background and were to take up arms in the Loyalist cause. During the Revolutionary War, Allan MacDonnell served as a Captain in the 84th Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment, until he and his wife were captured and made prisoners of war.
Alexander MacDonnell soon after the outbreak of war entered the service of the Crown as a volunteer cadet in the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, being only in his early teens. Later he was to become a First Lieutenant in Butler’s Rangers, and stories exist about the exploits that MacDonnell and Joseph Brant undertook while members of the Rangers. Raiding parties of Indians and Rangers went into the isolated valleys of northern New York, capturing cattle needed to supply the refugees and soldiers at the garrison of Niagara, ruthlessly burning and looting every building and stack in sight, so that the land was useless to the Americans. As a result of this, Butler retained MacDonnell as a member of his Rangers and he served for the remainder of the war from the fort at Niagara.
In the Returns of Persons at Niagara made 30 November 1783, Lieutenant MacDonnell was listed as being of 21 years of age, and a Loyalist in the Corps of Rangers. Butler’s Rangers were disbanded in 1784 at Niagara, and it is presumed that the MacDonnell family never returned to their American property. On the earliest known map of the Townships of East and West Flamborough showing Crown Patentees, dated 1796, and signed by D.W. Smith, the heirs of Captain Allan MacDonnell are shown as owning considerable property in the first four concessions. MacDonnell Sr. never settled here, moving to Glengarry County on the St. Lawrence River at the end of the war, where he died in 1792. His property was divided between his sons and some lots were sold immediately, as he never registered as a Crown Patentee in East Flamborough.
The first grants of land in East Flamborough to Lieutenant Alexander MacDonnell were made by the Land Board on 14 June 1794. By 1800, this ex-soldier owned all of Lots 7 and 8, Broken Front Concession, Lots 7, 8, and 12, Concession One, Lots 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11 and 12, Concession Two, Lots 4, 5, 7, 8 and 13, Concession Three, and a quarter of Lot 6, Concession Four, with a total acreage of 3,200 acres. Angus MacDonnell, Alexander’s brother, who had served in the 71st Regiment was awarded 1,150 acres in East Flamborough, with property in Concessions One, Three and Four. By the turn of the century, the family owned over 4,000 acres in the first four concessions of the township.
The land grants to this family were almost certainly awarded for their services to the British Crown. The fact that part of the land grant lay along Dundas Street or the Governor’s Road was based on Governor Simcoe’s decision that only such men who could be quickly mustered in case of invasion to protect this vital road could receive such land.
Perhaps the esteem that the MacDonnell family and their relatives were held can be shown by these quotes from a letter written by Colonel Mathews, for many years Military Secretary to Sir Frederick Haldimand and Lord Dorchester, dated 23 June 1804, and sent to the Under Secretary of State for War concerning events in the Revolutionary War.
When the rebellion broke out, they were the first to fly to arms on the part of the Government, in which they and their adherents … took a most active and decided lead, leaving their families and their property at the mercy of the rebels … I was at that time quartered at Niagara, and an eye witness of the gallant and successful exertions of the Macdonnells and their dependants, by which, in a great measure, the Upper Country of Canada was preserved … the sons of both families, five or six in number, the moment they could bear arms, followed the bright example of their fathers, and soon became active and useful officers in that and another corps of Rangers, whose strength and services greatly contributed to unite the Indians of the Five Nations in the interest of Government, and thereby decidedly to save the Upper Country of Canada and our Indian trade.”2
(The name MacDonnell is found spelt in a variety of ways including McDonell, McDonnell, MacDonell, Macdonnell.)
“The Mark of Honour” — Hasel Mathews, University of Toronto Press. 1965.Census of Niagara 1783 — United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, Hamilton. 1978.“Wentworth Bygones” — The Papers and Records of the Head of the Lake Historical Society, Volume No. 9, Walsh Printing Service, Hamilton. 1971.
The next Heritage Paper will focus on the contributions that Angus and Alexander MacDonnell made to the early government of Upper Canada.
Originally published in Heritage Happenings, April 1984.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1984, 2020