J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 04, 2017

Studying the Settlement of Nova Scotia

The L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History recently announced the winner of its first Viv Nelles Essay Prize for best paper in the field.

The honoree is Alexandra Montgomery, graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, for “Philadelphia’s Plantations: The Great Nova Scotian Land Boom and Reimagining the British Empire Between the Wars, 1763-1775.”

Montgomery explained her research in this blog posting:
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.

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.
When war broke out in North America, McNutt sided with the rebellious American colonies, corresponding with the Continental Congress about bringing Nova Scotia into their coalition. He arrived in Massachusetts in 1778. But being on the winning side of the war meant McNutt lost the settlement he had organized to the north.

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