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The Story of Peter McNab: a story in progress


While Peter McNab’s acquisition of what became McNabs Island is fairly well-documented, the more one delves into his possible origins and early days in Halifax, the more he emerges as a bit of an enigma.  Genealogical evidence for individuals in Nova Scotia in the 1700s can always be a challenge, but  Peter McNab’s situation comes with contradictory or unproven information.  Susannah Kuhn, his wife, (See story on the Kuhns) can be documented from her baptism in Switzerland to her arrival in Halifax in 1750 as part of the emigration of “foreign Protestants”.  There may be a few challenges documenting the Kuhn family once arrived, but Susannah can be tracked from the start.  Not so much the Scottish gentleman she married. 


Halfway through the research for Peter McNab I, it was necessary to stop and assess from the many documents available.  Fortunately, I was able to exchange ideas with the Clan McNab historian[1] and to consult an Honours thesis[2] that, as part of its research, reviewed most McNab resources available in the Nova Scotia Archives.  It became evident that there were two streams of “story” for Peter McNab, depending on the sources that were used; one being the story of a naval career for Peter (or in some cases his father) leading to connections with the Cornwallis family; the second suggests Peter McNab is a Scottish laird connected to the McNab Clan Chiefs, a merchant who is fondly referred to as the “governor” of McNabs Island.  The questions arise: is his place of birth Inverness or Perthshire; is he a cordwainer or a wealthy merchant; was he a relative of the clan chief families; when did he arrive in Halifax and why? What follows is a summary of research undertaken and evidence, if any, that was found.  While conclusive evidence remains elusive, some assumptions will be made. 


Date of Birth: Scotland’s People (scotlandspeople.gov.uk) is a first stop in researching Scottish ancestors, as it provides digital copies of parish registers for the Church of Scotland going back to 1553, varying by location and degree of completeness. In a broad search for Peter McNab births, born within a range of 1728 – 1736, in Church of Scotland parishes anywhere in Scotland, the result is absolute zero.  One must keep in mind that the earlier the timeframe, the greater chance of no parish register being available or they are incomplete.  It is also important to remember that the Gaelic language often resulted in Peter and Patrick both being used as English forms of the Gaelic Pàtair[3] and thus, both forenames were searched with McNab. Without any narrowing of geography, not one Peter McNab is returned but there are five Patrick McNabs, born/baptised in Killin[4], Perthshire between 1728 and 1734.  


Peter McNab’s date of death 3 November 1799 with age at death being 64 years of age[5],[6],is the reason there seems no dispute on this date.  Reports of the death are also found in historical Halifax newspapers. Gravestones can be inaccurate on birthdates, especially the further back in time.  Thus, age of 64 years that appeared on the gravestone is taken as suggesting “ an approximate year of birth”.  Among other references consulted, year of birth is 1735 ( 5 sources); 1729/30 (1 source); 1734 (1 source). 

Until birthdate evidence is located, the birth year of 1735 is used in the database.


Place of birth: In all sources consulted, birth for Peter McNab has been noted as Inverness, or Perthshire.  In the case of Perthshire, more specific locations have been provided: Breadalbane and Killin.  While the McNab surname was found throughout Scotland, the seat of the Clan was Killin and contains the historical Innis Bhuidhe burial ground.[7] ,[8] As previously noted, the majority of baptisms for Patrick McNabs  were in Killin.  To make things confusing, the Killin of today is actually in Stirling rather than Perth due to alterations to shire boundaries. Six sources cite Perthshire as place of birth, with four citing variant spellings of Breadalbane. Note that Breadalbane is a larger region that encompasses areas such as Killin.  For genealogical records available for the Breadalbane/Killin region, Family Search provides a good overview[9].  Note that in Peter McNab’s era, only the Church of Scotland was in existence.  Those records citing Inverness as place of birth do not point out any particular community.  These number approximately three, but seem to be repeating from one initial source. 

Much points to Killen/Breadalbane as place of birth and will be used in the database.


Parents and other family:  Without any birth or baptismal evidence, parents are an elusive item!  The Scottish naming pattern[10], while not definitive, can be helpful in providing search clues when starting from scratch. While naming patterns may fade over generations after emigration, certainly they were widely followed.  Peter McNab named his first son James (b.1766) and according to the naming pattern, this would suggest Peter’s father was James 

(son’s grandfather).  The second son is Peter, which should point to Susannah Khun’s father who we know was called Jacob (Jakob).  It is possible that with Susannah’s heritage being Swiss German, the pattern was not strictly followed.  Another possibility is that Germanic form of Peter was her father’s first name: among the Swiss and German Protestants order of forenames was not static.


Using only the paternal naming pattern, in addition to James, there is the second born daughter (named after paternal grandmother) and in this case twin girls born, Catherine and Ann. No records have yet been found of Catherine after the birth and Ann died one month after birth. A second Ann was born in 1781.  We do not know which twin was born first but if it were Ann, for example, Peter’s parents would be James and Ann, or so the theory goes.    Generally, further sons would be named after siblings of both the mother and father: we have a “Henry” who could refer to Susannah’s brother (Heinrich), a John and an Alexander who could be siblings of Peter. According to the naming pattern, the third daughter would be named after her mother, which is borne out with Susannah, b. 1771 who died 1772, followed by Susannah b.1773.  In further research to place Peter in a family in Scotland, theorizing on the potential names can help to confirm, or not, parents and siblings. On Scotlands People, a James McNab, married to a Cathrin (sp) is associated with the baptism of a John McNab in 1717: this would be a potential target for research, but is only a clue and nothing more at this time. 


As mentioned earlier, many of the “histories” of Peter McNab refer to his descent from the clan families[11] that provided clan chiefs. Unfortunately, no evidence definitively links Peter to these families. For example, in the Cassel’s book, after a description of clan lineage, the statement jumps to “Peter MacNab….is descended from this family.”[12], but no connecting information. A known descendant of Peter McNab, Mary Gibbens McNab, married Robert Cassels in 1838.  A member of the Cassels family, another Robert Cassels, privately published this book on Cassels family heritage and as previously mentioned, included the McNabs.  What is interesting and valuable about this book, is that the author refers to correspondence from Peter McNab, son of the first Peter, written in 1841.  The goal of the correspondence appears to have been gathering of information on the MacNab family.[13]  Peter McNab II is quoted as having said “I believe I have given you all the information in my power” (p.122).  In genealogy the closer in time of the source to events, the more credible the information is held to be.  As the son of Peter and Susannah, Peter II is not far removed from the family stories.  Many sources refer to Peter II spending time in Scotland for educational purposes. Assuming this was described in his correspondence to the Cassels family,  reference to Francis MacNab, Laird and Robert MacNab of Dundern may have some validity. [14]This means that connection to the Killen clan families is quite likely and while we cannot say that he does not descend from these families, we cannot say that he does! It may be Y-DNA testing that will be the resolution of this question.[15]  The search continues! 

Emigration to Nova Scotia:  How and when Peter McNab arrived in Halifax is not carved in stone. In that era, a quick glance at a passenger list, or manifest, is not usually an option.  As with many aspects of his life, there is disagreement about the estimated date of arrival. What we know is that Peter married Susannah Khun in 1763 (likely November) and thus was resident in the city in that year. The earliest date mentioned is 1754, noted in three sources.  Three cite 1758 and one 1759.  And finally, three mention 1763 as a possibility.  At the time of writing, I have not found sound evidence of arrival but for the purposes of the database, will state “about 1758”. 

The other question of emigration is the why, or the “push-pull” factor[16].  In Scotland, Peter was born in an era of Jacobite uprisings which eventually led to the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Divisions in the Mcnab clans meant that a peaceful life was elusive.  The twelfth clan Chief, Francis was notorious for his profligate ways.  Looking across the pond may have seemed a positive future for a young man.  Nova Scotia would not have been unfamiliar and Halifax was a place for an entrepreneur who had ambitions.  


Marriage and children: A digital copy of the marriage bond dated 23 November 1763 is retained by the Nova Scotia Archives.  While a marriage bond in itself is not proof the marriage took place, several other sources mention the marriage, some suggesting it took place 25 November, which is plausible. The marriage is recorded for the month of November in the parish records of St. Paul’s Church, Halifax and not under a specific day.  The births of the children are sourced in secondary records such as, newspapers, family scrapbook, etc.  The Sydenham Howe scrapbook[17], which covers the period of the mid-1800s and later, has some birthdates with actual hour of birth.  As a descendant of Peter McNab, the scrapbook appears to have information acquired from the McNab family and related families directly. 


Occupation:  As one learns more about Peter McNab in Halifax, it is a puzzle as to how he emerged as a property investor, with the means in 1783 to purchase the entirety of McNabs Island (then known as Cornwallis Island) at the vast sum of £1,000.[18] Many sources refer to Mcnab as a cordwainer, and indeed this is the occupation that he cites in all property indentures. [19] We know this is the right Peter Mcnab as the properties are known and each document also cites, “Susannah his wife”.  What is a cordwainer?  Essentially, it is a shoemaker but keeping in mind the era, a maker of shoes of fine leather, often for the elite.  In the United Kingdom, including Scotland, it was an apprenticed trade with guilds and societies.[20]  Usually apprenticed trades ran in the family, which presents a much different image than Peter as a naval lieutenant or a laird.  The History of Halifax City[21] notes on p. 181/82 that by 1816 James Romans Boots and Shoes had succeeded the old business of Peter McNab’s on corner of Granville and Prince, suggesting a succession in the line of business, but not a fact.  

However, it is also known that Peter McNab’s first foray onto Mcnabs Island was management of a fishing operation.  Property buying and selling in Halifax was also evident.  Trading of goods and business with Boston is mentioned.  It is perhaps worth exploring the potential of privateering – privateering was a favoured activity of many of the Haligonians who acquired fortune and prestige in that era.  The wealth potential was an attractive undertaking and the term “merchant” could cover many things. While a fictional account of Peter Mcnab certainly alluded to privateering[22], it is fiction although written by his descendant and may have been a family myth. 

A word about the naval background.  Many of the McNab family stories allude to Peter McNab I’s presence at the Siege of Louisbourg[23], which occurred in 1758. If he was born about 1735, that would make him 23 years of age, which could suggest being in the Navy.  It also aligns with the many stories that state he arrived in Halifax in 1758.  Certainly, it is possible to find the names of officers in the British Navy who were part of the siege and there is no Peter McNab.  However, there is always a possibility that he was not an officer, but there were approximately 12,000 sailors and mariners[24] involved and no comprehensive list is likely to exist.   The National Archives of England holds many naval records going quite far back, but not able to locate any related to the Siege of Louisbourg, and as well, would require an in-person visit to the Archives. 

While generalizing, it is true that in garrison towns such as Halifax was in those early days, attachment to a branch of the military in the past would have been a known factor.  Going from the Siege of Louisbourg to being a cordwainer may be a stretch.  Several eminent people in Halifax at the time did have associations to military backgrounds and in some cases their stories are similar to the naval story around McNab.  Perhaps this was an assumed background due to the era. 


Conclusions (somewhat): As has been mentioned, the McNabs Island genealogy website is a work in progress.  Constraints in research come mainly from the lack of credible documents and barriers to in-person visits to repositories due to COVID-19.  As anyone familiar with the ups and downs of family history research knows, years can be devoted to solving genealogical brick walls. Peter McNab I is one of those brick wall characters.  Progress has been made and eliminations have occurred and what is considered true and accurate is reflected in his record in the database.  We welcome clues and hints to further inform our research.  Contact us at info@mcnabsislandgenealogy.ca




Selected Bibliography


Akins, T.B. History of Halifax City. Halifax, NS: Morning Herald Printing and Publishing Company. 1895.


Cassels, Robert. Records of the Family of Cassels and Connexions. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot. 1870.


Chidlow, Judith. Peter McNab. WikiTree. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/McNab-180


Friends of McNabs Island Society. Island History.  https://mcnabsisland.ca/introduction


Gray-LeBlanc, Linda and Andrew P. LeBlanc. Haulin’ in the Family Net, Volume IV: Cow Bay, Eastern Passage, McNab’s Island, Lawlor’s Island, George’s Island. Halifax: Author. [Undated].


Holder, Jean. Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1749 – 1768. Halifax: Genealogical Association of Nova Scotia. Publication Number Seven. 1983.


Punch, Terrence. Nova Scotia Vital Statistics from Newspapers, 1769 – 1812. Halifax: Genealogical Committee of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical society. Publication Number Five. 1981. 


Scotlands People. National Records of Scotland https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/about-us

(Note this is a fee-based website using credits per record rather than a full subscription)


Smith, Vanessa Lynn. Peter McNab’s Island: Scottish Settlement on McNabs Island 1782 – 1847. https://library2.smu.ca/handle/01/25842#.Xz65ty2ZM8Y

















©P.Homans Chapman 2021

[1] Smith, Lorraine.  Clan McNab. Several private email exchanges and shared resources.  2020/2021. 

[2] Smith, Vanessa Lynn. Peter McNab’s Island: Scottish Settlement on McNabs Island 1782 – 1847. https://library2.smu.ca/handle/01/25842#.Xz65ty2ZM8Y

[3] What’s In a Name? https://www.whatsinaname.net/male-names/Patrick.html.  Note that Pàtir is Gaelic form of Patrick but its similarity to English form of Peter leads to the use of both Patrick and Peter. 

[4] Killin has long been considered a seat of the Macnab clan.  Covering a wide area, it includes Breadalbane. 

[5]Gravestone of Peter Mcnab, Old Burying Ground, Halifax

[6] The Scrapbook of Sydenham Howe, Nova Scotia Archives, https://archives.novascotia.ca/howe/archives/?ID=438



[7] Clan Macnab Society. https://www.clanmacnabsociety.com

[8] Perthshire Scotland: Scottish Clans and Families. http://www.perthshire-scotland.co.uk/clans-macnab.htm

[9] Family Search. Research Wiki. Killin, Perthshire, Scotland Genealogy.  https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Killin,_Perthshire,_Scotland_Genealogy

[10] Scottish Naming Pattern explanation: https://www.geneosity.com/whos-your-father-then/


[11] It is not the intent of this document to give a detailed overview of the Clan MacNab lineages. Many sources will provide this historical information.  

[12] Cassels, Robert. Records of the family Cassels and Connexions. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot. Available at: http://archive.org/details/recordsoffamily00cass  p.122

[13] Cassels spells the surname as MacNab throughout.  McNab and MacNab are interchangeable and the spelling can be associated with a particular location purely because it was spelt in a particular way in official documentation.  In Halifax, the surname primarily was McNab, but is also seen as MacNab and Mac/McNabb although may refer to different families. 

[14] Robert MacNab is referred to as brother to Francis; however, the historian of Clan MacNab says this is inaccurate as no brother called Robert existed.  However, there is a possibility of him being a cousin of Francis. Francis was noted as “the notorious laird” and 

[15] The Clan Macnab Society hosts a Y-DNA MacNab project.  If you are interested, further information can be obtained at: https://www.clanmacnabsociety.com/dna-project  To participate you MUST be a male, direct line descendant of Peter McNab of McNabs Island.  You will need to provide your descent and allow access to the Y-DNA test results.  At this time, the only company providing Y-DNA testing is Family Tree DNA. 

[16] Push-pull refers to what is occurring in the home community that provides an incentive to leave and pull refers to what factors in the chosen emigration destination are a draw. 

[17] Howe, Sydenham. 

[18] Estimates of the value of £1,000 in today’s Canadian dollar approximate $300,000. However, a major factor is buying power, i.e., how much to purchase a common object in the 1780s vs. today. 

[19] For a good overview of the many faces of Peter McNab, see p.6 – 8 in Vanessa Smith’s thesis: https://library2.smu.ca/handle/01/25842#.Xz65ty2ZM8Y

[20] For information on the trade of cordwainer, this lovely named site “The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers” can be viewed at: http://cordwainers.org  

[21] Akins, T.B. History of Halifax City. Halifax, NS: Morning Herald Printing and Publishing Company. 1895.

[22] Lancaster, G.B. Grand Parade. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1944.

[23] There were two sieges of Louisbourg, the first in 1745.  Clearly McNab would have been a child at that time, and Halifax was not founded until 1749.  The second (and final) siege did take place in 1758. 

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