By Lorraine Smith
Before I sat down to write this article, I considering donning protective gear, because I’ve learned from experience that feelings run hot when it comes to the subject of William McNabb of Augusta County and his sons and other assorted relations. I’m not going to attempt to write a comprehensive history here, because that would take far more time than I have (and also because, to be honest, I haven’t yet done enough research to be any sort of authority on the subject!). What I want to try to do is two things:
1) Discuss some of what is said to be “known” about the origins of William and family in terms of whether there appears to be any actual evidence to support it (and in this arena, I am more than happy to be contradicted if I have missed something - so if someone reading this has documentary evidence to support something, please bring it forward. I mean that in utter sincerity - I have no agenda here other than discovering the truth.)
2) Attempt to integrate the DNA evidence we have to date with what we know of William, his family, and other early McNabbs in Augusta County.
Another qualifier - I am far from an expert on the subject of William and company. I have relied heavily on the research of others, and while I have double-checked at least the primary sources, I don’t try to pretend any of this is my original research. The research isn’t mine, and neither are the origin theories - the only thing that’s mine is the attempt to integrate and rationalize - in other words, the attempt to make sense of and fact check it.
Let’s start with the basics, as I understand them (but with a bit of my own interpretation thrown in):
- William McNabb appears in Augusta County, Virginia circa 1745, with his sons Baptist, John, Alexander, James & Samuel (Some lists leave Alexander out; some leave Samuel out.) Some say that the family may have been in the Americas as early as 1740-1, but I have never seen any documentary evidence to this effect.
- In 1742, there is a record of the sale of a tract of land to a John McNabb (this same tract of land was later sold to Baptist McNabb). This John has variously been identified as Baptist’s brother or William’s brother, but I’m not clear on what basis either identification has been made.
- There are at the same time period (circa 1745) records in Augusta County for a Patrick (Patt) McNabb, a John McNabb, and an Andrew McNabb, all of them said to be too old to be sons of William (though I’ve not seen the evidence for their ages). These 3 men are generally named as William’s brothers; again, I haven’t seen evidence for this (though neither do I have evidence that it isn’t true).
- In 1750, William marries Martha Johnston Bennett and has three more sons, Andrew, David & William.
- In 1789 William dies in Washington County, Tennessee
I want to stress that when I make the statement that I haven’t seen evidence for something, I’m not implying that such evidence doesn’t exist. I haven’t thoroughly researched these topics myself; in some cases I have asked others for the evidence to back up their statements, and they have not produced it; in other cases, the statements just seem to exist as accepted fact and I simply have not had the time yet to follow through and see if there is evidence to back them up.
There is, of course, a tremendous amount of very important history following from all of it, but it’s beyond the scope of this article, and I’ll leave that alone for now.
There seem to be two prevalant theories as to William’s origins, as well as at least three other theories that are either more recent, and therefore less discussed, or that simply have not gained the same traction. I’m going to outline each of them below (starting with the two most prevalent) and give a very brief overview of the pros and cons for each one (there is, at this stage, no compelling evidence - as far as I have seen - to support any of the theories).
Before getting into the theories, I want to talk briefly about standards of proof in genealogical research. I can’t count the number of times someone has told me that they researched their family history on Ancestry, by looking at other people’s family trees. Every time I hear it, I’m left speechless…..because…...how do you know that the person who posted that tree has it right? How do you know they did their research properly (or did any research at all, for that matter)? I’ve seen trees on Ancestry that have my 3-great-grandfather’s brother as the patriarch of a family of thousands that he has nothing whatsoever to do with; I’ve seen trees with my 3-great-grandmother as the wife of a man she never married and the mother of children that weren’t hers. Anyone can post whatever they want on Ancestry - it’s like the Wikipedia of family history. There are, I’m afraid, few shortcuts when it comes to genealogy. You can perhaps use a tree from Ancestry as a jumping off point - but once you find one that you think might represent your line, you then need to confirm every single relationship with primary source research. There’s no other way to ensure that it’s accurate and valid. The same holds for all historical research - while it is absolutely necessary to form theories as we go about the process of research (for example, theory : Andrew, Patt & John were in the same place at the same time as William and had close business dealings; their descendants’ DNA proves they were related; therefore they could have been brothers) BUT until we find documentary evidence that proves they WERE brothers (such as birth records, a will that names them as brothers, etc.) the theory has to remain a theory, and not become a statement of fact. Unfortunately, all too often, people either become tempted by the easy way and morph the theory into fact without the evidence, or one person takes another person’s theory and restates it as fact. Either way, we end up with a mess. The standard of proof for genealogical research is quite high - it would not, for example, be sufficient to find a record of a son named Baptist born to a father named William somewhere in Scotland or Ireland at about the right time, in order to say we have “proven” where William and his sons originated. We would need further evidence (possibly emigration records, or a marriage or census record referring back to that same location) to achieve proof that we have the correct people - although when dealing with a name of such rarity as Baptist, considerably more leeway might be given than when dealing, say, with John the son of James.
Rant over; dismount soapbox. On to the theories:
1) That William and his sons came from Killin, Perthshire (in one version of this, his first wife, named as Betty Aitkin, is said to be buried on the Macnab burial island, Innis Bhuidhe). This theory, as far as I can tell, seems to have originated via simple logical progression - Clan Macnab is from Killin; William was a McNabb, ergo, he must have been from Killin. There is certainly no record in Killin that can conclusively be tied to this William McNabb, and there is no record of a Betty Aitkin (or any other wife of a William McNabb) being buried on Innis Bhuidhe. A search in the ScotlandsPeople records reveals no record of a child named Baptist McNabb (using any spelling of either the forename or surname) in either the Old Parish Records or the Statutory Records, and no record of a marriage between a William McNabb (of any spelling) and a female surnamed Aitkin (of any spelling variation), anywhere in Scotland. (There is, in fact, no record of anyone baptized with the forename Baptist anywhere in Scotland before 1798!)
2) That William was the grandson of the James Macnab or Mackinab who was transported to Boston in 1652 as a prisoner of war, following the Battle of Worster. My understanding is that research suggests that this James had but one son, John, and that son had only daughters, so while not impossible (obviously the records of the time were far from complete) there has not been any evidence to date to support the theory. The dates are also a bit problematic, with a gap of close to 100 years between the time James arrived in America and the time William appears in Virginia with his almost-adult sons.
3) That William arrived in America via France and/or the Caribbean. This theory has no evidence to support it (but then, neither do the first two) but it does make some sense in that Baptist is a distinctly French name and both France and the Caribbean nations were well known refuges for highland Scots caught on the wrong side of the politics of the day. There is a record of a William McNab in Barbados in 1657 - obviously too early to be “our” William, but not impossible for an ancestor of his, though I admit it seems a bit unlikely that a history of 2 or 3 generations in the Caribbean would have been completely erased from the family memory bank.
4) That William arrived in the US via Canada - this theory has been suggested to me, and while it’s not impossible, I consider it a bit unlikely. At the time in question, Scots immigration to Canada was primarily fur traders, Catholics seeking religious freedom, and disbanded soldiers, and we have not seen any evidence that William fell into any of those categories (although I suppose his father might have). This time period was a bit too early for much immigration to Canada by Scots farmers.
5) That William and his sons came to the Americas from Galloway/Ayrshire via Ireland (or possibly the converse scenario - from Ireland via Galloway/Ayrshire). This theory is relatively newly arrived on the scene, brought to me by Clark McNabb, the son of one of our Group 1 testers. Clark is an accomplished academic researcher, and has done a tremendous job of uncovering some circumstantial evidence in favour of this theory. While there is no actual hard evidence as yet to tie William and sons to either Ireland or Galloway/Ayrshire, the theory does have many points in its favour in terms of the population influx into the area at the time, and in terms of the DNA evidence itself. M222, the DNA fingerprint of this group, has strong ties to both the Galloway/Ayrshire areas and Ireland, and many of the names that appear alongside our McNabbs in The Big Tree - Kennedy, McCord, Milligan/Milliken, Frew, McKenney - have roots in that part of Scotland and also links to Ireland. It’s an intriguing possibility, and one we’ll continue to work on. Clark is also compiling a spreadsheet of appearances of the name Macnab (of any spelling variation) in Ireland, Galloway and Ayrshire from 1319 on. In compiling the spreadsheet, he has noted the appearance in Ayrshire, Galloway and Ireland of the name variations McNabin, Macanabin, McKnabany, McNabine, McNabinie, McKnabiny primarily in Ayrshire through to about the mid-1700s. We obtained an opinion from the editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names of Britain and Ireland, on the question of whether the McNabinie & variant names were likely of a different etymology to McNab - the answer was an unqualified ‘yes’. While the precise etymology of McNabiny is not entirely clear, it is believed to be of Irish origin. Clark’s research has uncovered one clear instance of the name McNabiny being shortened to McNabb within a person’s lifetime (in Ireland in the late 1700s), and has also noted the fact that the name virtually disappears in Ayrshire after about 1750 strongly suggesting that it may have been universally converted to McNab. Lastly, Clark has identified at least one instance of the use of the forename Baptist in Ireland, a Presbyterian Minister, Baptist Boyd, who was ordained in 1698.
The problem in all of this is that we have yet to find a record of a Baptist McNabb born to a William McNabb in another country; nor of the two traveling together to America. The name William is common enough that it will always be impossible to be certain we have the right William, without some extra corroborating detail, so until we either find that detail, or find a DNA link with another Macnab with roots in and/or emigration through another country, all theories remain on the table.
Next, let’s take a look at the DNA project results for this group, and see what we’ve learned, and how it reflects on the information and theories above. To date, we have 12 men who have completed yDNA testing and joined the Macnab DNA Project who claim a connection to William (we actually know there are several others of this lineage who have done yDNA testing, but have not joined the project - they have all been invited to join, but why they have not done so is not known; some may be deceased; some may have lost interest; some may have other reasons). It is interesting (and a bit unusual) that so far, not a single man claiming the William heritage has proven to not fit genetically with the group. Within the DNA Project, I call them “The Baptist Group”, not because they’re all descended from Baptist (they’re not) but because it’s a unique enough name to make a good identifier - from here on, I’ll use that name.
As a quick primer for anyone unfamiliar with yDNA testing - yDNA, of course, is the male chromosome. It is passed directly from father to son without admixture, so that except for periodic mutations that occur along the way, your (if you’re a man) y-chromosome is the same as that of your great-great-great-great-great-great, etc- grandfather. It is those periodic mutations that make it invaluable for tracking and building the tree of mankind. There are two different kinds of yDNA testing done - the first, STR testing, looks at specific locations on the y-chromosome, and counts the number of repeats of genetic code at those locations, then comparing the counts for each man. The second, SNP testing, looks for single nucleotide polymorphisms along the y-chromosome where an allele mutation has taken place; a SNP mutation, once it has occurred in one man, will be passed down to all of his descendants. STR testing was once considered best for determining recent relatedness, while SNP testing was for deep history, however, the lines have now become blurred as today’s SNP tests have the potential (with enough testers in a line) to identify SNP mutations that occurred right up to the present day.
Among the 12 Baptist Group Testers, all have done STR testing at various levels and two have now completed SNP testing. The results of the SNP testing were a bit unexpected:
- The Baptist McNabbs do not match the core cadet group Macnabs from Perthshire (although we already knew that from STR testing - and we also knew that a large cohort of McNabs/Macnabs/McNabbs throughout the world don’t match either the Perthshire McNabs or the Baptist McNabbs).
- The Baptist McNabbs belong on a branch of the tree known as M222. When it was originally discovered, this branch was identified with the quasi-mythical Irish King Niall of the Nine Hostages, however, further research has proven that M222 originated at least several hundred years before Niall, and likely on the European continent. So although it remains true that all descendants of Niall carry M222, it is not true that all who carry M222 are descendants of Niall.
- While the greatest incidence of M222 is in Ireland, there is also a high concentration of it in the west of Scotland; most notably in Galloway/Ayrshire. At this point, no one really knows whether its presence in Scotland is due to European immigration to both isles more or less simultaneously, or due to an early migration of an Irish population to Scotland (or, just possibly, vice versa).
- The Baptist Group formed a new branch on the M222 tree - the mutations that they carry below M222 had never been found before in any other tester.
As part of the analysis of DNA results, we use SAPP trees (SAPP is a computer utility designed by David Vance that takes the DNA data from a set of testers and converts it into a speculative “family tree” for those testers, showing how they may be related to each other). I have been working on an updated SAPP tree for this group, and had hoped to have it completed in time for this update, but unfortunately, I’ve run into some technical difficulties - David and I are working to resolve them, but we’re still a ways away, so we’ll have to leave that for later.
Instead, I’ll have to back to a SAPP tree done several months back for the entire Macnab project, and discuss it in light of the information above, and some new project research. First of all, we have one Baptist Group member, JM., who started out believing he was a descendant of William, but has since done further research that now has him believing that the William he descends from is not William the father of Baptist, but William who was the son of John, who may have been the brother of William, the father of Baptist. Too hard to follow? Let’s draw it out:
John William 1 (Brothers?)
William 2 Baptist
So initially this tester thought he was descended from William 1, but his new research has him descended from William 2. What makes this fascinating is that, 6 months before he told me about this, the SAPP tree showed him splitting off at the very top of the tree (along with one other tester, MR, who just possibly could turn out to be a descendant of one of the other brothers, Andrew or Patt, assuming brothers is what they are, because SAPP has this tester breaking off a little earlier, which makes me wonder about an uncle or a cousin, rather than a brother).
Now, I know that everybody else believes they are descended from William I - and it’s not my place to tell you you’re not. But let me just throw 2 thoughts out there for consideration:
1) If, as seems probable, William I, Patt, Andrew & John were all brothers, cousins and/or uncles, what do you suppose the odds are that William has thousands of descendants, while the others have pretty much none?
2) We know for sure that John had a son named William (William II above); does it not seem at least possible that some family trees have been traced to a William McNabb in Augusta County and an assumption has been made that the William in question was William I, when in fact it was William II?
I’m going to step sideways for a moment and discuss the BigY testing that has been done so far in this group. We have two testers who have done BigY, P and S. They just happened to be the first two to test, but in fact they were a good two to start, because they parallel for two generations after William I and then split off:
S : WILLIAM - Baptist - David - Isaac
P : WILLIAM - Baptist - David - James
James was born in 1789, and Isaac in 1800. S and P share somewhere between 5 and 9 unique mutations (depending on whether one prefers FTDNA’s count or The Big Tree’s count) on the ytree. These are mutations so far not shared with any other man who has tested - presently, they sit in a block on the tree, because until someone tests positive for one/some but negative for at least one, there is no way to know what order they occurred in. While some of these undoubtedly pre-date William, at least some of them represent William, his immediate antecedents, and his descendants. You can see a visual of this block, and of where these McNabbs sit on the M222 tree, here: https://www.ytree.net/DisplayTree.php?blockID=572
If you’re not reading this electronically, and have any trouble entering that web address manually, try googling “The Big Tree A224”.
In addition, P and S each have one unnamed variant underneath that block - these represent mutations that have occurred in their respective lines since they diverged, ie since about 1800.
It’s important to realize that each of these mutations - named or unnamed - represents an actual historical ancestor of all men who share it. We don’t know who that ancestor is, but by testing enough men, we can determine the order the mutations happened in, and by combining that with the known paper genealogy that we have,we should be able to build a tree that combines both mutations and ancestors, and ultimately will allow those who do not know exactly how they descend from this line to use DNA testing to help them figure it out. A224, the mutation immediately above our block of unique mutations, has been dated to about 500 AD. A SNP mutation occurs, on average, about every 144 years (which we usually round up to 150 for easier math). If we use The Big Tree’s count, P and S share 9 mutations, and we know they have one unique one each - 10 x 150 = 1500 added to 500 AD gives us 2000 AD. So that calculates perfectly. William I and his brothers (if they were his brothers) should have been born circa 1700, so on average, we can expect that 2 mutations will have happened in each family line since then - but - averages are only averages and you never know till you test. We can already see from P and S’s results that in each of their lines, only one mutation has occurred in the past 200 years, so maybe the law of averages is working in our favour and more mutations happened in the 100 years before that. There’s one way to find out - test more men from the line with BigY!
In short, the BigY testing tends to confirm the genealogical paper trails of P and S’s trees. It also gives us a good quantity of mutations to look for as matching points on the pedigrees of others who take the BigY test in the future. Generally, the next step would ideally be to test the most widely divergent lines, looking for node points in the tree. There are several of you for whom I don’t have family trees,but for those I do, definitely JM would be the #1 candidate for BigY, given his descent from John, possible brother of William I. Beyond that, once David Vance and I are able to resolve the technical difficulties, we hope that the updated SAPP tree will also give us some suggestions as to those whose DNA points them out as candidates for further testing.
The potential for discovery via DNA testing within this group is incredible. We know that there are likely thousands of descendants of this line across the southern US, and probably many more who have made their way into other parts of the country. Many know nothing of their ancestry at all; others, it would appear, may have their lineage confused. It looks to me like DNA testing has the potential to sort out these lineages, possibly to verify whether the relationships between William, Patt, John and Andrew, to verify if they were related to any other immigrant McNabbs of the era; ultimately to help settle the question of their origins (although we will need some luck for that one); and last but most definitely not least, to help us determine the family lines - that is, who comes from which brother, uncle, etc. Considering the number of descendants, this lineage is very lightly tested. You may think that I have something to gain by this - the truth is, the only thing I have to gain is more work (well, that and the satisfaction of untangling a mystery), but you descendants of the McNabbs of Augusta County - you have everything to gain! Having said that, I get that this DNA thing is hard to understand, and sometimes it sounds like a con game. If you have questions; if you want to learn more; if you need explanations - please email me at email@example.com
Shennachie to the Chief of Clan Macnab
Admin Macnab Surname, ZZ10 Haplogroup, Cameron DNA Projects