Alexander McNutt was one of the most prominent individuals involved in promoting emigration from Ulster to North America in the mid-nineteenth century. He was principally active in Nova Scotia, and had highly ambitious schemes to settle thousands of emigrants from Ulster there, plans which were initially successful but were frustrated by British government scepticism and their own ambitious nature.
McNutt was born in Londonderry (though some sources say Donegal), and settled in Staunton Virginia, in about 1750. During the wars against France in the 1750s, he raised and commanded as colonel a 30-strong militia. In 1760, in the wake of the British defeat of French forces, he was offered a large grant (£5,000) on condition that he settle large numbers of Protestants (deemed to be loyal to Britain) from the north of Ireland (the part of Ireland where mostly they lived). In May 1761, he placed an advertisement in the Belfast Newsletter outlining the terms and practicalities involved, promising fertile land, perpetual deeds for the heads of families of 200 acres, with a further 50 for each child, favourable financial terms, low rents (none for the first ten years) and no tithes. Rather naughtily he omitted to mention that much of the land was still in its natural, uncultivated state, nor did he mention that much of the "choicest lands" referred to were already reserved.
Nonetheless McNutt, who was a man possessed of considerable optimism as well as energy, crossed to Ulster to select agents, principally in Derry city (Arthur Vance), but also across Ulster, though distinctly more in the west; locations included Castledoe, Ramelton, Raphoe, Faun, Convoy and Letterkenny in County Donegal; Strabane and Omagh in Tyrone, Maghera in County Londonderry; he also had a representative in Castleblayney, County Monaghan. The geographical profile is of lowland and heavily Protestant areas of western Ulster, which already by this date had a tradition of out-migration. In 1761, he sent some 300 emigrants across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia and a further 70 in 1762 (though sources note that these were very rough figures); he later claimed to have settled over 1,000 families, exceeding the government's planned settling of 600. Land in Nova Scotia was not expensive, and New England was reckoned to be filling up. But his plans were experiencing some difficulties.
His initial successes set off alarm bells in London, where it was feared that large depopulation of Protestants from Ulster "may yet be ...attended with dangerous consequences" to Britain, and decided to restrict settlement to those who had already been resident in British colonies for a minimum of five years. When he travelled to Ulster again in June 1762, armed with glowing testimonials from the 1761 batch of emigrants (a common technique), he was aware very well of government reluctance, and issued a hastily-written advertisement which gave prospective emigrants only a matter of days to present themselves at the port of Derry. Still, he managed to recruit several hundred willing emigrants, though on arrival McNutt demanded more money for them, failing which he would send them to Philadelphia - which in any case had closed ties, maritime, mercantile and personal, with Derry, and many emigrants preferred to settle where they had fellow countrymen or relatives.
After 1762, McNutt withdrew somewhat from such emigration schemes, though by no means completely, chartering ships in 1763 and 1765 to sail from Derry to Nova Scotia, though he did not advertise this as forcefully as he had in 1761. Some historians have written that McNutt's achievement was surprisingly low in numbers, given that there many civic disturbances in western Ulster at the time. However, one facto which has been pointed to was rather a prevalence of indentured servants, who were far more likely to attain employments in the "middle colonies" than in the still sparsely-populated Nova Scotia.
"Colonel Alexander McNutt was an energetic and ambitious man. His energies accomplished much but his accomplishments have been dwarfed in history by the magnitude of his ambitions...all that remained were the disappointed dreams of a bitter man," wrote R. J. Dickson. McNutt finally settled in Virginia, where he died.
RJ Dickson: Ulster Emigration to Colonial America 1718-1775 (Ulster Historical Foundation); CJ Houston & WJ Smith: Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement Patterns, Links and Letters (Ulster Historical Foundation)