MacDonells on the Pearl in 1773: A New Perspective

In 1934 William Louis Scott, K.C. – an Ottawa lawyer whose father had been mayor, then  Secretary of State in the national governments of both Alexander Mackenzie and Wilfrid Laurier, as well as speaker of the Senate of Canada – published a short paper entitled ‘The Macdonells of Leek, Collachie and Aberchalder’.[1] It told the story of three brothers who organized the famous party of Highland emigrants, mostly from Glengarry, that arrived in New York on the Pearl in October 1773. William Louis’ father Richard William Scott – the mayor of pre-Confederation Bytown, today’s Ottawa – was the son of a British army medical officer whose family were from County Clare, Ireland. After leaving military service, Richard William Scott married Sarah Ann Macdonell, a grand-daughter of John MacDonell of Leek, eldest of the three brothers of Pearl fame.

Scott’s essay is important to the history of Clan Donald in Canada. He rectified a number of errors allowed by the otherwise meticulous Reverends Angus and Archibald Macdonald in the third volume of The Clan Donald, published in 1904. There the three brothers had been portrayed as more distant relations, with two historical persons combined into one – John MacDonell of Leek (who emigrated to Canada in 1773) and another ‘John MacDonell of Leek’ who was an officer in the 78th regiment (Fraser’s Highlanders) at Quebec, transferred to the 15th upon the disbandment of the 78th in 1763, and ended his career in the army as a Captain of Invalids at Berwick, where he died in 1813. Yet even W.L. Scott was unable fully to untangle the antecedents and inter-relationship of these two: a separate paper to follow this one in the coming months will aim to do just this.

Scott and others – including the outstanding American historian Bernard Bailyn, who died in 2020 at age 97, and more recently Marianne McLean of Ottawa, indispensable author of The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820 – have recounted the genesis of this emigration.[2] In a nutshell, the marriage of Duncan MacDonell, XIII of Glengarry, to Marjory Grant of Dalvey on December 5, 1772 raised the spectre of rising rents across the estate; in response, the principal tacksmen, fearing their income would be squeezed, decamped  to new pastures in America.[3] These push factors are well known. Less attention has been given to why this group ended up as tenants of Sir William Johnson, His Majesty’s Superintendent of Northern Indians, who lived at Johnson Hall in Johnstown on the Mohawk river, which was at the time one of the further reaches of active settlement New York province. The family tradition, recounted in Scott’s article, is as follows:

Leek's eldest son, Angus, died unmarried, before the family left Scotland. His second son, Archibald, married Ann Fraser of Ballindown and, later, emigrated with his family to New York, where he engaged in business, meeting with great success. In New York, he formed the acquaintance of Sir William Johnson and, at the latter's suggestion, made proposals to his father and uncles that ultimately led to their organizing the emigration (…).

Archibald MacDonell of Leek apparently arrived in America in 1771, establishing himself as a merchant, probably in the liquor trade. By family tradition, Archibald MacDonell met Sir William Johnson in 1771-73, although there is no mention of Archibald McDonell in the voluminous published papers of Sir William Johnson.[4] On Monday, October 25, 1773 the New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury reported:

On Monday last arrived the Ship Pearl, Capt. Tucker, in 6 Weeks from Fort William, in the Highlands of Scotland, with a great Number of very respectable Passengers full of Health, and ready Money to purchase each Man his Freehold. They are justly esteemed a great Acquisition to this Province, in some Part of which they propose to settle. There are in the whole about 280 Souls, all of them, about a single Score excepted, of the Clan M’Donald, coming chiefly from fam’d Lochabar, and Glenmuir.

The Pearl was a Niger-class frigate launched at Chatham dockyard in 1762. It was designed by Thomas Slade who was, according to N.A.M. Roger, the “greatest British naval architect of the century”.[5] Its predecessors in the same class – HMS Niger (1759), Montreal (1760) and Quebec (1761) – had been commissioned over the previous three years. HMS Pearl had been serving in the St. Lawrence and on and off the Newfoundland station in 1764-68 and again in 1770-72, when the Captain had been James Bremer, a Scot. [6] By the end of 1772, the Pearl was back at Portsmouth for “small repair”, which was completed in July.[7]

It is not known how a naval frigate came to be used to take a group of Highlanders to New York. It was a highly irregular arrangement, especially when official reservations were mounting about emigration in general. In 1773 the Pearl was still technically under Bremer’s command; he died in Scotland on July 9, 1774. The only Royal Navy officer captain at the time named Tucker was William Tucker, former commander of HMS Levant, who is thought to have died in March 1773 or earlier. Intriguingly, the captain in 1773 of HMS Levant, one of Tucker’s earlier ships also in Portsmouth for repairs around this time, was a son of Lord George Murray, the general who had commanded the Prince’s army through much of the ’45.

Only three days after the Pearl’s arrival on October 18 the New York Journal had reported:

Monday last, the Ship Pearl, Capt. Richard Tucker, arrived here in 6 Weeks and 6 Days from Glasgow, with 280 Passengers, many of whom, appear to be genteel People, of considerable Property: On the Passage, about 25 Children died of the Small-Pox.

Father John McKenna, the Irish Catholic priest sailing with the Glengarry emigrants, later said the size of the group was 300. On October 28, the New York Journal printed the following extract, received from a correspondent in Boston, of a letter from Fort William dated August 20:

Three Gentlemen of the names of M’Donald, having obtained a grant of lands in Albany, have embarked with their families and 400 Highlanders from the counties of Glengary, Glenmorison, Urquhart, and Strathglass.---The hardships and oppressions of different kinds, imposed upon them by the landholders, having obliged them to abandon their native country, to which the women in particular were very averse; for that if their farms could but have afforded them bread and water, they would have been satisfied to stay at home.

According to W.L. Scott, the arriving passengers from the Pearl were honoured at a banquet hosted by the Mayor and Corporation of New York. New York’s Mayor from 1766 to 1776 was Whitehead Hicks, who later supported independence.[8] Archibald, the eldest son of John MacDonell of Leek, was apparently denied an invitation because of his status as a merchant.

The “grant of lands in Albany” turned out to be on Sir William Johnson’s Kingsborough Patent – a 50,000-acre tract situated about 50 miles from Albany. Johnson, who died only ten months later, had been in poor health for several years, as the New York Journal of October 24, 1773 confirmed alongside news of the Pearl’s arrival:

We have received by several Albany Vessels, the melancholy News, that Sir William Johnson, Baronet, lay dangerously Ill at his House; and that last Thursday Evening, the large elegant House of his Son-in-Law, Col. Guy Johnson, was struck, and set on Fire in two Places by Lightning; and there being none but Servants at Home, (as the Colonel and his Lady attended Sir William) the House and all it contained (except one Bed) were entirely consumed.

Only ten days after arriving in New York City, the 50-plus Pearl families boarded a sloop on October 28, 1773 hastening northwards up the Hudson river. At Albany they met up with seventeen other families, mostly from Glenmoriston, who had arrived in May. At least eight more arrived from Glenmoriston in the early summer of 1774.

One prominent member of the group did not make it upstate. On November 1st The New York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury noted “one Mr. Gordon, a young Gentleman lately arrived in the Ship Pearl, Capt. Tucker, from the Highlands of Scotland” had died the preceding Wednesday (October 27) of “a putrid inflammatory Fever”. The group’s departure was reported two paragraphs later in the same edition:

Thursday last the Gentlemen and other Passengers that arrived here last Monday se’nnight in the Ship Pearl, Capt. Tucker, from that Part of North Britain, call’d Glengarry, embarked on a board a sloop for Albany: On going on board they drank his Majesty’s Health, and Prosperity to the Province; and, expressed the highest Sense of Gratitude for the Civilities shown them by the Inhabitants of this City.”

In Albany smaller groups broke off to look more closely at potential land on the Mohawk, as well as in the Schoharie, Delaware and Susquehanna river valleys. By November 14, 1773 Allan MacDonell ‘of Cullachie’ – second eldest of the three brothers who had led the emigration – was writing to Sir William Johnson from Albany in the following terms:

(…) we have a great desire of Settling under your Wing and in which we may have a mutual Interest. You have large estates to make & we have influence over people tho at a distance that may be of consequence in Subsequent years.

In fact, the links between Johnson and the Pearl group had been decades in the making. MacDonells had been emigrating in larger numbers since the late 1730s – around the time Sir William himself arrived in 1738.[9] Angus McDonald (1727-78) of Virginia, a friend of George Washington who arrived soon after the 1745-46 rebellion, claimed descent from the Glengarry family. Andrew McNaughton, who emigrated from Islay to New York province in 1738, was married to Mary Macdonald, reportedly a daughter of one of the Macdonald baronets of Sleat. Neil Macdonald, his wife and six children settled at Livingston Manor on the Hudson in 1738.

Other Macdonalds accompanied Oglethorpe to Darien, Georgia in 1736, or went to North Carolina. In 1764, a number of McDonalds took up land in the Argyle patent on the Hudson – less than 60 miles from Johnstown. On September 29, 1764 ‘Volckert Philipsen’ was married to ‘Marytje’ (‘Polly’) ‘McDonnel’ at Stone Arabia on the Mohawk – less than ten miles from Johnson Manor. By that time, MacDonells had settled on Sir William’s own lands.

By the early 1770s, the ‘Dance Called America’ was reaching a crescendo. Moves were afoot, mostly at landowners’ initiative, to restrict the scale of emigration; none would take effect until hostilities actually began in 1775. The passage that itself gave rise to the phrase ‘Dance Called America’ was inspired by a visit Samuel Johnson and James Boswell made to Armadale castle on October 2, 1773 – when the Pearl was two-thirds of the way through her voyage to New York. Johnson and Boswell had been hosted at Armadale the previous month by Sir Alexander Macdonald (1744-95), 9th baronet of Sleat and first baron Macdonald, and his wife Lady Macdonald, whom Boswell describes as “formerly Miss Bosville of Yorkshire”.[10] On October 2, with Lord and Lady Macdonald en route Edinburgh, the two travellers joined a dance at Armadale with a party of fourteen:

We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.—Mrs. McKinnon told me, that last year when a ship sailed from Portree for America, the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off, they lay down on the ground, tumbled, and tore the grass with their teeth.—This year there was not a tear shed. The people on shore seemed to think that they would soon follow. This indifference is a mortal sign for the country.

We danced to night to the musick of the bagpipe, which made us beat the ground with prodigious force. I thought it better to endeavour to conciliate the kindness of the people of Sky, by joining heartily in the amusements, than to play the abstract scholar.[11]

In 1772 the Nestor and one other ship had taken about 400 passengers from Portree to North Carolina; in the same year the Alexander took 210 passengers to Scotchfort on St John’s Island (re-named Prince Edward Island in 1798).[12] Those on the Pearl were following a well-trodden path. In addition to Archibald MacDonell on Manhattan, the group had multiple relations already in Canada and America, mostly with direct ties to Sir William, whose family played such a crucial role in the removal of the first Loyalist refugees to and defence of Canada.[13]

Of 170 soldiers who took their discharge from the 78th regiment (Fraser’s Highlanders) at Quebec in 1763, at least seventeen had the surname MacDonell/MacDonald. Most remained in Canada; several settled across the border near Lakes Champlain or George. Soldiers named MacDonell from the 15th, 42nd, 60th, 77th and other regiments did the same after 1763.

One Ronald MacDonell, born in 1744, “came to America in the French War” in 1757-63, according to evidence he gave to the Loyalist claims commission on October 31st, 1787. He settled on Sir William Johnson’s lands and became a sergeant in the first battalion, King’s Royal Regiment of New York (KRRNY), a loyalist unit raised in 1776 by Sir William’s son, Sir John Johnson. Another Ronald MacDonell had apparently served prior to 1763 in the 17th and 60th regiments even though his evidence to the same commission (given on November 12,, 1787) states that “he came to America in 1763”. This second Ronald MacDonell served after 1777 in the 84th (Royal Highland Emigrants) regiment, was discharged due to age and later received an annual pension of £30. Both veterans of the Seven Years’ War were living on Sir Johnson’s lands when active rebellion broke out in 1775. The latter Ronald MacDonell, from the Ardnabie branch of the clan and born in 1706, was married to a sister of the Pearl’s three gentlemen-brothers: Ronald had apparently returned to Scotland to join the voyage to New York.

Three half-pay officers from the 78th belonging to Clan Fraser of Lovat, all with direct connections either to MacDonells of Glengarry or to Sir William Johnson, had settled in North America prior to 1773. Simon Fraser of Culbokie, father of the eponymous explorer, was on the Pearl: his brother John, a half-pay captain in the 78th, became a judge at Montreal in 1765. Their mother Margaret MacDonell of Ardnabie, an accomplished poet and contributor to James Macpherson’s Ossianic research, was brother to John MacDonell, 6th of Ardnabie, also on the Pearl with a large family, as well as to the Ranald MacDonell of Ardnabie mentioned above. Like their three brothers-in-law on the Pearl, John and Ronald McDonell of Ardnabie had been officers in the Glengarry regiment under Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745-46.

Hugh Fraser had served as lieutenant and adjutant with the 78th, settling after the war on his land grant near Bennington, New York, the site of a decisive British defeat in 1777. He was married to the daughter of John McTavish, a tacksman from Garthbeg in Stratherrick, who obtained his lieutenancy in the 78th by changing his name to Fraser since he too had been an officer in the Jacobite army. After coming to America in 1764, John McTavish’s son Simon lived for two years with Sir William Johnson, who recommended him in 1766 to merchant Goldsbrow Banyard (1724-1815), a key official involved in the patenting of land, as a “lad of abt 16 years, who can write a tolerable good running hand.” McTavish was willing to work a year in return for clothing, room and board, Johnson said, noting lieutenants Hugh Fraser and John McTavish were brothers-in-law and “The Boy has no vice as yet that I know & is verry smart”.[14]

By 1769 Simon McTavish was doing business on his own account; by 1772 he was trading furs at Detroit; by the end of 1776 he was at Montreal, having begun to amass a fortune. From 1779 to 1787, he consolidated his position atop the newly-formed North West Company, headquartered in Montreal, which employed an astonishing number of Highlanders from the Pearl and subsequent emigrant groups. A third group of Frasers, settled at Balston in 1767, was also tied in multiple ways to the Johnsons and to Pearl emigrants.

Yet the 1773-74 Glengarry, Glenmoriston and Strathglass settlers had even closer ties to Johnson. On the day the Pearl’s arrival is reported, ‘Donald McDonald, 60th regiment’ is listed in the New York Gazette among those with poste restante. This was lieutenant Donald MacDonell, who would become his battalion’s adjutant in 1774. The 60th had recruited Donald and Angus MacDonell as ensigns in 1760; James McDonald joined with the same rank in 1759.

Who were these three? They were almost certainly resident in America prior to their commissions since the 60th (Royal American) regiment was based from the start in North America, drawing most of its soldiers and non-commissioned officers, as well as many subalterns, from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other colonies. Logistic, recruiting and often battalion headquarters for the 60th were at Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Angus MacDonell was commissioned ensign in the 60th on July 8, 1760 – less than five months after the Donald MacDonell mentioned above. We know for certain Angus was a son of Domhnull nan Gleann, the Donald MacDonell of Scotus killed at Culloden, because Angus’s sister Flora married Ranald Macdonald of Geridhoil/Gerinish. A daughter of this union, Isabella Macdonald, who married John McNabb, later petitioned for land as Angus’ only surviving heir in Canada.[15] Their petition, dated 1797, indicates Isabella’s uncle Angus MacDonell died before that date. The lots concerned – designated ‘K’ and ‘L’ in the first and second concessions of Charlottenburgh township, in Glengarry county – were not far from lot ‘G’, where Ronald MacDonell of Ardnabie had settled in 1784. He too had died by 1798.

Donald and Angus MacDonell may also have been brothers of Dr. Archibald McDonald of White Plains, New York, who served as an assistant surgeon in the loyalist corps of Pioneers & Guides active around New York during the American war.[16] His son’s collection of revolutionary memoirs, The McDonald Papers, states that Archibald and his family came to America in 1757, when Archibald was twelve; that his father “belonged to the Macdonalds of Glengarry” and was killed at Culloden, shortly after Archibald’s birth; that “his children emigrated to Canada soon afterwards”; and that one of Archibald’s brothers, an officer in British service, funded his medical studies at Philadelphia. There is no reason to doubt any of these assertions, which are based on credible family traditions regarding their emigration to America.

The only officer of the Glengarry regiment known for certain to have been killed at Culloden was the renowned Donald MacDonell, 4th of Scotus, known as Domhnull nan Gleann.[17] According to one account from the anonymous Hanoverian author of The Highlands of Scotland in 1750, this “eldest son carried 50 Men to the Battle of Culloden and was Reckoned the most Valiant man of all the McDonalds, together with his Lieutenant, Ensign, a Serjeant and Corporal and 18 Private men were all killed upon the Spot.”[18]

The Chevalier Johnstone, who became deeply attached to Domhnull nan Gleann, was a witness on the battlefield as “my unfortunate friend, Scothouse, was killed by my side,” reckoning him to be “about forty years of age”.[19]

The author of the McDonald Papers, John MacLean Macdonald, goes on to assert the following about Archibald’s father, killed at Culloden: “His eldest son and representative of the family was Ronald Macdonald, who afterwards became Colonel of the forty-second regiment in the British Army.”[20] Domhnull nan Gleann’s eldest son was famously Ranald MacDonell who, in the memorable expression of his own 1796 application for a pension from George III, noted that “contrary to the general ideas of that clan at the time,” he had joined as a volunteer Lord Loudon’s Highlanders, the unit that later became the 42nd.

While Ronald MacDonell of Scammadale, as he was later known, never commanded the Black Watch, he is the only eldest son of a Glengarry regiment officer who died at Culloden to have been in Loudon’s regiment.[21] The only other Glengarry officer known to have been killed around this time – according to some, at Culloden itself – was William MacDonell, brother of John, XI Chief of Glengarry. But even this is not certain: of William, the Clan Donald records only that he was “’out’ in the ’45, and was killed.”[22]

The McDonald Papers further state that Ranald “was at one time in command of one of the military posts in Canada, and was familiarly called Governor.”[23] There is no record of Ronald MacDonell of Scammadale serving in Canada. In fact, ‘the Governor’ was a nick-name given, not to any of the Scotus children, but to Ronald MacDonell of Ardnabie, Angus MacDonell’s neighbour in Charlottenburgh township. But one of Ranald of Scammadale’s brothers did briefly command a military post in what was then Canada.

James MacDonell became an ensign in the 60th on April 30th, 1759 – more than a year before Angus and almost a year before Donald. James would almost certainly have been present at the surrender of Montreal on September 8th, 1760. One year later he was present at Detroit, alongside captain-lieutenant Normand McLeod, lieutenant Guy Johnson and other officers, when Sir William Johnson held a treaty on September 8th, 1761 “with all the Sachems, & Warriors” of the “Wiandots, Saguenays, Ottawa, Chipeweighs, Powtewatamis, Kickapous” and seven other nations, including the Lenape and Haudenosaunee.

This diplomacy was not enough to prevent Pontiac’s rebellion, which broke out in 1763 in response to the Treaty of Paris and General Amherst’s disastrous decision to curb gift-giving to indigenous allies. Lieutenant James MacDonell was in command of the contingent from the 60th that formed the core of Detroit’s defences, under Major Henry Gladwin.

He wrote a lengthy account of the first phase of the siege, which began in early May, in a letter to his commanding officer Colonel Henry Bouquet dated July 12th, 1763. One or more of his brothers or cousins may have been present at the Battle of Bushy Run, on August 5th and 6th, 1763, when ranger tactics ultimately prevailed against a battle-hardened force of mostly Wendats, Shawnees, Mingoes and Delawares. Lieutenant James McDonald remained in command at Detroit where Col. Henry Bouquet reached him with the following verdict, written at Fort Pitt on August 28, 1763: “The Highland’rs are the bravest Men I ever Saw, and their behaviour in that obstinate affair does them the highest honor.”[24]

From October 20, 1763 until February 5, 1764, Lieut. James MacDonell was provisioned at regimental headquarters in Philadelphia. By February 1764, having survived a shipwreck off the Normandy coast, he was in London with George Croghan, one of Sir William’s three deputies, lobbying for a land grant of 10,000 acres in Ulster county, New York. In 1765 this was granted, together with a 2,000 acre on the Sacandaga tract north of Johnstown where Sir William had his Fish House on Lake Sacandaga opposite properties belonging to Normand McLeod and Daniel Claus, another deputy. There James MacDonell’s neighbour was lieutenant John MacDonell, formerly of the 77th regiment, who also received 2,000 acres in the Sacandaga tract.

By mid-1764 James MacDonell had returned to New York to await approval of land scheme, which ultimately came in the form of a July order-in-council. Over 1764 and 1765 he was under consideration by Johnson for an Indian Department officer position in the Illinois country, while privately harbouring the ambition to become Indian Department secretary, a crucial position at the centre of Sir William’s web of connections with indigenous chiefs, British officials and New York land speculators. MacDonell also fed Johnson regular updates from New York with regard to news from the colonial administration and the government in London. Fearing that his plans for Ulster county were being blocked by “several of the Grandees of this Metropolis,” he decided to return to London to pursue his own interest at court.

On October 13, 1765 he departed New York on the same vessel as Sir William’s son John, who was knighted by George III upon his arrival at court. Lord Adam Gordon, a son of the Duke of Gordon who had been visiting North America over many months and was deeply impressed by Sir William, also accompanied Johnson. James MacDonell never returned to America. While his fate after 1765 is unknown, a ‘James McDonald’ who died at Kensington in 1769 left small sums to a servant of the ‘Marquis of Dumffries’ (sic) and George Laing, messenger in ordinary to His Majesty the King – an indication of lobbying activity in the circle of Lord Bute. He also directed that any further expenses be defrayed “from my wadset”. It is conceivable that part of the Scotus estate might have fallen by 1769 to James.

Angus MacDonell, the son of Donald MacDonell 4th of Scotus, joined the 60th as an ensign in 1760 and was promoted lieutenant in 1770. An ‘Angus McDonald’ attended the wedding of a Thomas Anderson in Philadelphia in 1774. MacDonell sold out in 1775 due to ill health.

By 1777 he was back in service as a captain in Sir John Johnson’s King’s Royal Regiment of New York. Captured on August 6, 1777 at Oriskany, he gave his parole at Kingston, New York on October 12, 1777 and did not return to the regiment until 1780.[25] After the war he was awarded land on the St. Lawrence river in ‘township no. 1’, later Charlottenburgh, where his immediate neighbour, as noted above, was Ronald MacDonell of Ardnabie. Both had died by 1798.

Lieutenants James and Angus MacDonell of the 60th regiment seem to have had no children. Their sister Flora, who married Ranald Macdonald of Geridhoil/Gerinish in South Uist, has been discussed above. Angus’ older half-sister Margaret, daughter of Ellen Meldrum of Meldrum, married Alexander Macdonald of Glenaladale, one of Prince Charles’ closest companions after Culloden. His son Donald was on the Alexander in 1772 and his heir John Macdonald of Glenaladale, also a captain in the 84th after 1775, followed in 1773.

The brother of Archibald MacDonell who,in  the somewhat garbled account of The McDonald Papers, “was at one time in command of one of the military posts in Canada” was probably lieutenant James MacDonell of the 60th. With only one exception, which is explained below, James, Donald, Angus and Archibald MacDonell were the only British army officers with this surname residing permanently in the American colonies in the 1760s.

While there is as yet no proof that James and Donald were brothers of Angus, the circumstantial evidence is extensive and the prima facie case quite strong. Angus’ father Donald MacDonell, 4th of Scotus, had been born in 1706; his eldest son Ranald of Scammadale was born in 1725. Margaret, who married into the Glenaladale family, was likely also born in the late 1720s. Archibald MacDonell of White Plains, New York was born in 1746. Given this timeframe, Angus may have been born in the early 1740s. Angus’ older sister Catherine (1737-85) was also on the Pearl as wife to ‘Spanish John’ MacDonell (1728-1810), the son of Domhnull nan Gleann’s brother John of Crowlin, also killed in 1746. Donald and James may have been born in the 1730s, with James likely the eldest of these brothers in America. It is less certain that Donald was a brother of Angus and James; if not, he was almost certainly a close relation.

The only other army officer named MacDonell to settle in Canada or America after 1763 was not a brother of those discussed above, but rather their cousin. As noted above, a 2,000-acre property in the Sacandaga tract, near the properties of Sir William Johnson and his closest Indian Department associates, was granted in 1765 to John MacDonell, a half-pay lieutenant from the 77th regiment regiment. Born in 1740, he had joined the 77th in 1757 as an ensign.

He was fortunate to survive the Seven Years’ War. In the brutal fighting at Fort Duquesne on September 14, 1758, 231 Highlanders from the 77th had been wounded or killed. MacDonell, whose battlefield injuries had been observed by his fellow officers, disappeared after the fighting and was presumed dead. In fact, he had been taken prisoner by indigenous allies of the French. MacDonell was returned to the British side at Detroit by early 1760.

As a result, he took no part in successful 77th actions at Niagara, Ticonderoga and Crown Point under Major General Jeffrey Amherst, who had been commander-in-chief since the Louisbourg expedition of 1758.[26] But John MacDonell experienced over one year of life with the First Nations of the upper lakes. After his release, he was promoted lieutenant in the 77th.

In early April 1760 Amherst, who was also colonel-in-chief of the 60th, was in New York, preparing for the coming campaign via Lake Ontario to take Montreal. On April 2 he wrote Sir William Johnson to dismiss intelligence received from George Croghan, one of Johnson’s deputy agents, as “without foundation, particularly a part of that concerning the Detroit, as Lieut. McDonald of Montgomery’s a very Intelligent Young Man, who was a considerable time Prisoner there, and is lately returned, gives me different Accounts.”[27]

By August 10, Amherst, Johnson and Croghan were at Oswego, which had been re-occupied in 1758 during Lieutenant-Colonel John Bradstreet’s successful campaign to capture Fort Frontenac (also known as Cataraqui and later Kingston, Ontario). On land and on the St. Lawrence river, they fought the battle of the Thousand Islands against French forces later in August before advancing on Montreal, which fell on September 8. Eight companies of the 77th numbering 600 men had joined the campaign at Oswego; by September, 404 of them had returned to Albany in New York province.

John MacDonell received a return of survey on October 11, 1765 for his land grant of 2,000 acres “near Sachendaga, adjoining a tract surveyed for Lieut. James McDonald” who received his survey the same day. John MacDonell had apparently left the army in 1763, when the 77th was disbanded. By 1772 he was a captain in the Tryon county militia, described as such during a May 3, 1774 meeting with Highlanders organized by Sir William Johnson’s close associate Joseph Chew, a Virginia militia officer then on the verge of receiving the position Lieutenant James MacDonell had coveted. Chew became Indian Department secretary on July 6, less than a week before Sir William’s death.[28]

On June 28, 1774 Sir William Johnson himself wrote to ‘CPT. John Donell’ in very warm terms to acknowledge receipt of his June 12 letter from Cobus Kill, just south of the Mohawk. Johnson had been pleased to hear that “You, Yr. Family, & those who went wth. You were all well, and contented with their Scituation, & going on well.”[29] Johnson conveyed greetings from “Mr. Dease, Chew, Daly, Adems, &ca” – some of his closest family relatives and associates. He also added in a postscript, “I shall be glad to know what Lot or Lots the 3 Families who went with You have taken up, least I might by mistake sell them to others, there is ye. Greatest run for Land that ever was known.”[30]

It was one of the last extended personal letters Johnson would write. Within a week, he was hosting First Nations, together with his nephew Lieutenant Guy Johnson and new secretary Chew, to discuss new tensions already fracturing the colonies. The pressure on Johnson, whose health was never strong, was too great. On July 11, 1774 he died at Johnson Hall – exactly two weeks after composing his letter to John MacDonell at Cobus Kill.

In the same letter, Johnson reported on the fortunes of the Pearl emigrants:

The Highland Families who settled here last year, are doing very well, & so will I hope those who Settled lately. They are about 40 Familys in all, a very heavy burthen on me I assure You, & full as much as I can bear. But should they prove industrious, & get forward, it would heighten my happiness, there being nothing upon Earth delights me more than to see the rude woods made cultivable, and afford Sustenance to the poor & distressed. – There was a fine prospect of a plentfull Harvest notwithstanding the late Spring, until within these few Days, the Destructive Worms are got among the Grain & Grass in such plenty, as threatens (without ye. Speedy interposition of Providence) a Scarcity, if not a Famine. They are ye. Same kind that ye. Country was plagued with a few Years ago.

There is no further mention of this John MacDonell until 1777 when Sir John Johnson, Sir William’s son and heir now commanding the King’s Royal Regiment of New York (KRRNY), recorded the following entry in his Orderly Book: “John McDonald to be Capt Lieut. In the Room of Capt Lieut Hewetson—19th June, 1777.”[31] The rank represented a promotion from John MacDonell’s last commission in the British army, which had been with the 77th.

This new captain-lieutenant could not be John MacDonell of Aberchalder – son of youngest of the three Pearl brothers – as he was already a lieutenant in the 84th. ‘Spanish John’ MacDonell of Crowlin, a first cousin of all the MacDonell officers discussed so far, would join the KRRNY as a captain later the same summer. Aberchalder and Spanish John would live until 1809 and 1812 respectively, while the officer injured and captured at Fort Duquesne became the highest-ranking casualty of the 1777 St Leger expedition. In the fierce fighting at Oriskany on August 6, one of the most decisive indigenous and British victories of the war, Captain Lieutenant John MacDonell was killed.

But who was he? We learn from a 1788 petition to Lord Dorchester that the deceased officer’s brother and heir at law” was “James McDonell of Cataraqui” (the indigenous name for Fort Frontenac), a former captain in the KRRNY and by then a major of militia.[32] The petition refers to “John McDonell, Capn. – Lieut. In the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Regt of New York; who fell in an Action near Fort Stanwix, in the year 1777”.

A subsequent petition to Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe in 1795 refers to the same “late Captain John McDonell of the late” KRRNY “who was killed in the service of his King & Country at the Battle of Oriska near Fort Stanwix”.[33] ” He went on to report “a very large and numerous family the education of which he is occasionally obliged to superintend” and that “by the loss of his said late Brother” he “has been subjected to much additional Expence in having solely to support Connections & Relations dependant upon him and his said late Brother”.

Finally, he noted that his family “has paid a large tribute of blood to his Country two Brothers having been killed in the Service of it by Land & one at Sea – all of whom were honoured with the King’s Commission.” In a petition of 1796 James MacDonell noted that he was “the only surviving son of the late Mr. Allan McDonell who during the late American war drew pay as a subaltern officer without being attached to any corps.”[34] Allan McDonell died in 1788, according to his only surviving son.

Captain-Lieutenant John MacDonell, killed at Oriskany in 1777, and Captain James MacDonell (1752-98) of Montreal were sons of Allan MacDonell (~1697-1788) of Ardnalishnish, who also died in Canada. Some of his Canadian descendants have been recounted in these pages by Charles MacDonell.[35] Allan MacDonell of Ardnalishnish was a brother of Domnhull nan Gleann and John Of Crowlin, making John and James MacDonell first cousins of the Scotus brothers Ranald (who remained in Scotland), as well as James, Angus, Archibald (and possibly Donald), in America from 1757, as well as both Spanish John and his wife Catherine McDonell.

In 1786 their half-brother Reverend Alexander MacDonell led a large party of 540 emigrants, mostly from the Barrisdale estate in Knoydart. In 1790 he became the first resident parish priest in the new settlements, which became Glengarry in 1792.[36] His mother Catherine McLeod, the last wife of Aeneas MacDonell, III of Scotus, also died at Montreal on August 28, 1791 at age 77. She is described in the register of Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal as “Dame Catherine McLeod, epouse de feu Sieur Angus McDonell De Scothouse ecuier”. Two sons and at least eight grandchildren of this Aeneas, III of Scotus, had settled in America or Canada.

Across the St. Lawrence from Glengarry at St. Regis in Lower Canada in the 1790s was Father Roderick MacDonell, another son of John MacDonell of Leek, the eldest of the three brothers who led the Pearl emigrants. By 1806 both these early missionaries were dead, replaced in the new parish of St Raphael in Glengarry by the Right Reverend Alexander MacDonell, a grandson of Allan MacDonell of Ardnalishnish who would become the first bishop of Upper Canada.[37]

The Leek family had also been on the ground in America before the Pearl sailed. Allan McDonell, another merchant, had emigrated in 1771. He had been related by marriage to Lieutenant Alexander Grant – a lieutenant who received his commission in the 77th in 1758 just five days before John MacDonell (1740-1777) of Ardnalishnish – who subsequently commanded British vessels on Lake Erie and the upper lakes, was an executive councillor and finally administrator of the province of Upper Canada. ‘Commodore Grant’, as he was known, was a son of Patrick Grant (1701-86), VII of Glenmoriston, another Jacobite with deep and abiding ties to Glengarry.

At least two of Allan McDonell’s brothers joined the British army as officers during the American war, including Archibald MacDonell ‘of Marysburgh’, a lieutenant in the 84th who later settled in that township of Upper Canada.[38] Allan McDonell drowned accidentally at Montreal in late 1785; the death record from Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montreal describes him as “de la famille de Glengarry”. One of his brothers was likely Lieutenant Ronald MacDonell, adjutant of the first battalion, 84th regiment of foot, who died at Montreal in 1781. Their father may have been Ronald MacDonell, another officer in the Glengarry regiment in 1745-46, who is described as “brother of Leek”. He may even have also come to America or Canada prior to 1773.

In sum, the Ardnabie, Leek and Scotus branches of Clan Donald sent many representatives to North America between 1757 and 1771. When Militia Captain John MacDonell took three families to settle at Cobus Kill in 1774, they were probably close relatives who had arrived on the Pearl. An Alexander MacDonell of Glengarry, who died in 1787, may have been Alexander MacDonell, tacksman of Auchteraw, another officer in the Glengarry regiment in 1745-46. John ‘the King’ MacDonell and Alexander ‘McRail’ MacDonell (from Newgart in Knoydart), both on the Pearl with their families, may also have been part of the broader Scotus family. Other MacDonells gave places of origin such as ‘Cullachy’, ‘Fort Augustus’, ‘Boleskine’, and ‘Auchengleen’, as well as Glenmoriston farms like ‘Thomacraiskie’, ‘Duldreggan’ and ‘Inverout’ (Thomcrasky, Dundreggan and Inverwick). 

Sir William Johnson’s rent roll for 1773-74 lists 62 settlers of which 35 have the surname MacDonell. Of the remaining 27, at least nine were married to MacDonells. As tensions with the local revolutionary committee of correspondence rose in 1774, some of the settlers began to move to Canada, as Sir William Johnson’s last letter to John macDonell indicates. In early 1775, a larger group of Johnstown settlers elected to depart with Guy Johnson, Sir William’s successor as superintendent. They travelled with a larger group of Haudenosaunee and other indigenous warriors via Oswego to Montreal, where they were to join the newly-formed 84th regiment.

Ensign John MacDonell of Aberchalder was one of the first to see action with the 84th (Royal Highland Emigrants). After Montreal fell to the Americans, he was among those captured while spiriting Governor Guy Carleton down-river to Quebec. Aberchalder was released in time to join the Oriskany campaign, later transferring to Butler’s Rangers, where he became a captain. In 1792 he became the first speaker of Upper’s Canada’s parliament.[39]

By early 1776 five gentlemen who had been on the Pearl had become prisoners of the American side as part of a parole agreement between Sir John Johnson and Philip Schuyler. Two of the three Leek brothers – Allan MacDonell of Cullachie and Alexander MacDonell of Aberchalder, John’s father – were among them, as were their nephews Archibald and Ronald of Leek (sons of the eldest of the three brothers, John of Leek), and Allan McDonell of Lundie, subsequently a commissary in Canada. A sixth hostage, William Falkner, also later settled in Glengarry.[40]

With his back to the wall and facing arrest, Sir John Johnson left secretly in May 1776 with over one hundred followers. They were guided by four indigenous guides north from Lake Sacandaga across the Adirondacks and down the Grasse river to St Regis or Akwesasne. Half-starved by their wilderness journey, they arrived in Montreal just as it had been freed. Johnson quickly formed his new regiment, the KRRNY, at Chambly, Quebec.

In 1777, Allan MacDonell of Cullachie and Alexander MacDonell of Aberchalder fled north with the remaining recruits. Only women, children and some elderly fathers remained at Johnstown until 1780 or later. Cullachie became a captain in the 84th; Aberchalder held the same rank in the KRRNY, where Spanish John – son of John of Crowlin, another brother of Donald, 5th of Scotus – was also a captain by late 1777.

Archibald MacDonell the merchant escaped to New York by August 1778. Despite his imprisonment, he had managed to sign a loyal petition to Lord Howe in 1776 along with his fellow liquor dealer Gerrit Oakes, whose business was at Cruger wharf, between Old and Coenties Slips at the foot of Wall Street. They sailed to Montreal later in 1778. Archibald MacDonell became captain-lieutenant, then captain in the KRRNY.

After the war he settled at Long Sault on the St. Lawrence river near Cornwall, on the edge of Glengarry. He also went back into business as a merchant, forming (possibly together with his brother Alexander) MacDonell, Holmes & Company in which the family of NWC partner William Holmes, who died in 1792, had a part.[41]

Forrest Oakes, the brother of Gerrit, had also been in the Montreal fur trade.[42] While both he and Gerrit were dead by 1782, their sisters married into leading Montreal mercantile families.[43] An astonishing number of MacDonells went on to play leading roles in the fur trade, as well as in many other roles in the new colonies of Lower and Upper Canada, New Brunswick and Cape Breton Island, as well in the older ones of Nova Scotia and St. John’s Island.

At the core of this group were several families who had shared and been shaped by an intensely formative common historical experience. Of the twenty-one officers named MacDonell who led the Glengarry regiment in 1746, two were killed in 1746 (including Domhnull nan Gleann); two more were sons of the chief; three more were of Barrisdale and remained either in Scotland or France. Angus MacDonell of Greenfield and Donald MacDonell of Lochgarry were both dead before 1773. Of the remaining dozen, seven lived out their days in Canada. Six had been on the Pearl. Donald MacDonell of Lundie, who had been lieutenant in 1746 and whose brother Allan was on the Pearl, joined the 1786 emigration, to make seven.

Two more – Alexander of Auchteraw and Ronald MacDonell, brother of Leek – may also have come to America on the Pearl or (in Ronald’s case) earlier, then to Canada. John Roy MacDonell who settled on lot 20 in the fifth concession of Cornwall township, just outside Glengarry, described himself as ‘of Cullachy’: he may have been a relative – even a son – of Captain Allan MacDonell of Cullachie, an officer for the MacDonells of Glengarry regiment. (The Shian branch of the family has not been identified in Glengarry county.)

The principal descendants of the Lochgarry/Sandaig, Greenfield and Scotus families ended up in Canada – either in 1775/76 or after 1785 – where they have played prominent roles in the histories of both Upper and Lower Canada. At least one hundred MacDonells served in loyalist regiments during the American war. Thousands more joined during the War of 1812 and in every subsequent conflict. In the end, the Ardnabie, Leek, Lochgarry, Lundie and Scotus branches of the family left the Highlands en masse. It was almost as if the officers, their families and descendants, together with a large share of the rank and file of the Glengarry regiment, had embarked wholesale for a new land.

The Glengarry emigrants came together in America at a crucial moment. Trade tensions had been growing, prompting fur traders in Albany to begin to relocate to Montreal as early as 1770. ‘Massacres’ of civilians in both New York and Boston had inflamed civil-military tensions. Thomas Gage had left New York in June 1773 for consultation in London. He would return to Boston in May 1774 “with the additional post of governor of Massachusetts.”[44]

On November 6, 1773 an Irish merchant named Kelly was burnt in effigy in front of New York’s coffee house at Wall and Water streets, not far from Cruger’s wharf after promising East India Company tea would be landed. By November 10, the tea commissioners had resigned; by November 25, the so-called Mohawk resolutions had been adopted. There was no going back. One presumes the MacDonell emigrants from Glengarry knew what lay in store for them in America. Their arrival aboard a Royal Navy frigate even hints at a measure of official sanction, even calculation. While they may have contemplated emigration to the Mohawk valley in the 1760s, when lieutenants James and John MacDonell had first entered Sir William’s circle, they knew the ground was shifting beneath them and were ready to defend their interests.

HMS Pearl went on to play a prominent role in the American war. With HMS Carysfort, it escorted a convoy of troop ships carrying several regiments from Ireland to the relief of Quebec in 1776. It was also present off Kip’s Bay during the naval operations that brought New York back under British control later that year. From 1776 to 1782, HMS Pearl was credited with 36 prizes, mostly American but also French and Spanish.

Under Captain George Montagu, the Pearl’s actions with the Santa Monica and Esperance became the subject of celebrated paintings.[45] In the French revolutionary wars starting in the 1790s, its list of vessels destroyed, disabled or captured was even longer.[46] Meanwhile, its fellow Niger-class frigates HMS Montreal was captured by French forces off Gibraltar at the start of 1779, while HMS Quebec was set alight and exploded off Ushant later the same year.

When W.L. Scott wrote his article about the Pearl emigrants, he rightly emphasized their contribution to restoring full tolerance for Catholics in religious practice, in the state, in land-owning and in the military. We now see that their migration was part of an even larger story – the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellions, the legacy of the Seven Years’ War and the new approach to empire and America that took shape under George III. The personal histories of the MacDonell soldiers and officers who preceded them in America and Canada deepens our perspective: the departure of so many prominent members of Clan MacDonell of Glengarry and the greater Clan Donald in the second half of the eighteenth century was part of an even larger wave of change – economic, political and social – sweeping across the North Atlantic.


Chris Alexander (Canada) and Charles MacDonell. 


We are most grateful to Glengarry County Genweb Host Evelyn Goulet for her assistance in clarifying several points for this article.


[1] http://www.cchahistory.ca/journal/CCHA1934-35/Scott.html

[2] Bernard Bailyn’s Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) contains a section entitled ‘The Pearl’s ‘Genteel People of Considerable Property’, pages 582-87 and Marianne McLean’s The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820 (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991) dedicates two separate chapters to, respectively ‘Western Inverness-shire, 1770-1800’ (pp. 62-77) and ‘The Loyalist Emigrants’ (pp. 78-97).

[4] Scott states that this ‘family tradition’ was confirmed in Cruikshank, Ernest A. "A Memoir of Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell, of Glengarry House, First Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada." which first appeared in the Ontario Historical Society’s Papers and Records, volume XXII (1925), pp. 20-59.  Sir William Johnson’s extensive correspondence appeared in fourteen volumes as The papers of Sir William Johnson. Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1921-1965.

[5] N.A.M. Roger. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. London: Penguin (2006). https://books.google.ca/books?id=Prv0NsrpbwwC&redir_esc=y

[7] Rif Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792: Design Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth Publishing (2007), p. 853.

[8] Hicks was replaced during the British occupation (1776-83) of New York by David Mathews, who died on Cape Breton Island in 1800.

[9]In this regard,  J. P. Maclean’s Historical Account of the Settlement of Scotch Highlanders in America Prior to the Peac of 1783, published in Glasgow in 1900, remains essential reading: see https://electricscotland.com/history/highlands/settlendx.htm

[10] James Boswell, Esq. The Journals of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LL.D. (…) The Third Edition Revised and Corrected. London: Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, 1786, p. 137.

[11] Ibid., p. 283.

[12] Lucille Campey mentions the Nestor in The Silver Chief: Lord Selkirk and the Scottish Pioneers of Belfast, Baldoon and Red River, Toronto: Dundurn, 2005, p. 15. On emigration to PEI see J.M. Bumsted. The People’s Clearance: Highland Emigration to British North America, 1770-1815. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1982.

[13] The best recent biography of Sir William Johnson is by Fintan O’Toole’s White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America  (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015) but the fourteen-volume William Johnson Papers, which are cited below, remain the definitive guide to his sprawling interests.

[14] Papers of Sir William Johnson, v. 12, p. 224. See this source online at: https://archive.org/details/papersofsirwill12john/page/224/mode/2up. For more on Banyard, see:


[15] Charles Fraser-Mackintosh does not mention Angus MacDonell, but does mention his sister Florence and her two daughters, who lived in Cornwall, next to Glengarry county, Upper Canada. See “Minor Highland Families—No. 3. The Macdonells of Scotos—Mr. Charles Fraser-Mackintosh, M.P.” in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. Volume XVI 1889-90, p. 83. Found online at https://archive.org/details/transactionsg16gaeluoft/page/82/mode/2up

[17] See the section on ‘MacDonell of Glengarry’s’ regiment in Alastair Livingstone of Bachuil, Christian W.H. Aikman and Betty Stuart Hart, eds. No Quarter Given: The Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army, 1745-46. Glasgow; Neil Wilson Publishing, 2012.

[18] The Highlands of Scotland in 1750. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1898, pp 64-5, found online at https://archive.org/details/highlandsscotla00langgoog/page/n126/mode/2up

[19] Memoirs of the Chevalier de Johnstone in Three Volumes translated from the original French M.S. of the Chevalier by Charles Winchester. Volume First. Aberdeen: D. Wyllie & Son, 1870, p. 109 and p. 95. Online at https://archive.org/details/memoirschevalie00johngoog/page/n115/mode/2up?q=Macdonald

[20] McDonald Papers, volume V, part II, chapter VII, p. 78.

[21] See https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001690556. We know from The Clan Donald, the Chevalier Johnstone and other sources that Ranald, Domhnull nan Gleann’s eldest son, had served in Lord Loudon’s regiment (which was not numbered 42nd until 1748) in 1745-46. See https://archive.org/details/clandonald03macduoft/page/324/mode/2up. Ranald MacDonell of Scammadale’s obituary was re-printed here: http://www.clandonald.org/index.asp?pageid=683701.

[23] McDonald Papers, Ibid., pp. 78-79.

[27] https://archive.org/details/paperssirwillia00unkngoog/page/n248/mode/2up

[29] https://archive.org/details/papersofsirwill12john/page/1110/mode/2up

[30] https://archive.org/details/papersofsirwill12john/page/1112/mode/2up

sitemap | cookie policy | privacy policy | accessibility statement