The Early History of the McNitt Family in America

The McNitts who settled in the American colonies in the early part of the eighteenth century descended from the ancient Scottish clan MacNauchtan (or MacNaughton). A branch of the MacNauchtans of Argyll settled in the province of Galloway in Southwestern Scotland in the thirteenth century and shortened the name to MacNaught. Centuries later, as members of the family moved to northern Ireland and then to America, many adopted such forms of the surname as McNitt, McNett, McNutt, McNight, and McKnight.

Members of the clan began leaving Scotland for northern Ireland (also known as Ulster) in the 1630's, but the persecution of Presbyterians beginning with the accession of Charles II to the British throne in 1660 led to a rapid increase in departures from Galloway. Most of the MacNaughts who moved to Ulster settled in the Laggan or Lowlands of County Donegal, where they remained for several generations.

In the years between 1715 and 1720, many Ulster Scots suffered economically because of natural disasters, crop failures, diseases, drought, and the expiration of long-term farm leases and subsequent large increases in rents. These factors led many Ulster families to depart for the American colonies.

In 1720, a brigantine entered the port of Boston with a party of settlers including Alexander McNitt (age 64), his wife Sarah (age 60), and their son Barnard (age 20). Whether any of Alexander and Sarah's other children came along is unknown. The McNitts probably did not remain in Boston long as the Puritan residents of that town had a fairly low opinion of Ulster Scots.

Barnard and his wife Margaret lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, a community of about 50 houses located 45 miles west of Boston in 1726. Margaret must have died in childbirth or soon after the birth of their son. A little over a year later, Barnard married Jane (or Jean) Clark in Middlesex County. Soon thereafter, the McNitts settled in the town of Palmer in central Massachusetts.

In the early years at Palmer, Barnard devoted himself to farming the 100 acres which he bought on January 14, 1732. At the time, the farm included only a small house (probably a log cabin), but he added a large barn in 1735. Crops grown by Barnard and his neighbors included potatoes, flax, corn, wheat, rye, peas oats, and barley. On May 16, 1746, Barnard purchased an adjoining 100 acres.

After his sons became old enough to help with farm work, Barnard began taking a more active role in government and church affairs. He served as town clerk, 1741-1750 and 1755-1761; member of the board of selectmen in 1754 and 1755; and member of many committees chosen at town meetings. He also traveled to Boston several times on town business and was elected an elder in the Presbyterian Church in 1755.

On January 2, 1773, Barnard sold the family farm to his son John. A serious illness must have provoked the sale, as Barnard died exactly two weeks later. As several children had already left Palmer and most of the others left soon thereafter, his heirs sold the family farm on April 9, 1776. It remained in the possession of other families until 1922 when family historian V. V. McNitt bought the farm and restored Barnard's old home, built in 1760. Today a bronze historical marker beside the house's main entrance honors Barnard McNitt, whose many descendants are scattered across the United States and Canada.

Barnard's oldest son Alexander moved about 25 miles north to the Ulster Scot settlement at Pelham, Massachusetts, where he married Elizabeth McLem in 1749. The citizens of Pelham subsequently elected him to such offices as hog rieve, surveyor, or fence viewer. Alexander participated briefly in the French and Indian War in 1757, serving as a private in a regiment sent to the relief of Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George. A tax list for 1760 shows him as the owner of two oxen, three cows, and ten sheep.

In 1769, Alexander followed many of his Pelham neighbors to a new community located in Washington County, New York. This town, which eventually became known as Salem, is located near the Vermont state line, roughly 50 miles northeast of Albany, New York. The McNitts bought a farm several miles out of town on the Salem-West Hebron road which remained in the possession of Alexander's descendants until 1946.

Alexander was almost 50 years old when the Revolutionary War began, but soon set to work organizing a militia company. Captain McNitt's company mainly fought bands of Indians and Tories around Salem. On one occasion, a company of Tories attacked them and they had to take refuge in a building on the Captain's own farm. The militia repulsed the attacking party after a sharp fight.

 The Governor of New York appointed Alexander as one of the three Commissioners for Conspiracies on two occasions during the war. The Commissioners determined which New York residents supported the British cause and then moved to exchange these Tories for any rebels held prisoner by the British. Three of Alexander's brothers and five of his sons also served in the American Revolution, with the British holding one son for two years as a prisoner of war.

Elizabeth McLem McNitt died in 1791 and Alexander soon married a woman named Jane. He retired from farming in 1796 and sold the farm to his sons Daniel and Alexander Jr. In return they agreed to give him a life lease on the house, barn and garden plus half the hay and grain harvested and sufficient firewood. Alexander's second wife died in 1811, but he lived several more years, reaching the age of 90 before dying in 1817.

Alexander and Elizabeth's son Daniel McNitt was about 18 years old when the family moved to Salem. A few years later he married Mary Rogers. During the Revolutionary War, Daniel served as a private and sergeant in several militia units, including his father's company. After the war Daniel continued farming near Salem, eventually purchasing the family farm from his father. He was active in the First Presbyterian Church of Salem and became known to his neighbors as "Deacon" Daniel McNitt.

Daniel and Mary's oldest son Alexander left home in 1803 to settle in Cortland County in the Finger Lakes region of central New York. The other children were probably still at Salem when Mary died in 1808, but most moved west in the next few years. During the War of 1812 Daniel used his horses and wagon to take some of the militia and their luggage to Plattsburgh, New York. Daniel lived until 1829, dying at the age of 78.

These early generations of McNitts in America adhered closely to the traditions which they brought from Scotland and Ulster. All were Scotch-Irish Presbyterian farmers who lived in Ulster Scot communities and married into families with similar backgrounds. They also used only traditional family names for their children. As the end of the family's first century in America approached, however, many of these traditions began to break down.

Sources used in writing this chapter


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