William McNair (1798-1776) and the Road Less Traveled

We are taught not to have too many assumptions in genealogy, but one custom that is generally true, is that the oldest son inherits the family farm from his father.  When he does not inherit and follow the pattern, there should be a good reason.  In Solomon McNair’s 1832 will, he makes only one statement about his oldest son William McNair.  It sounds a bit terse and one suspects there must be a story behind it.

Solomon McNair 1832 Will Bucks County, PA

Solomon McNair 1832 Will – Bucks County, PA


I give devise and bequeath to my son William McNair the

   two obligations I hold against him with the Interest that is

  due or may become due on them, to be his share of my Estate.

Solomon loaned his oldest son money on two occasions and charged him interest.  This was William’s only inheritance from his father’s estate and Solomon leaves his estate to be divided equally between his wife and 6 of his other children. (His son John McNair doesn’t get a share of the estate either, but that is for another post.)

So, what did William do with the money and where did he go? I found that William left Bucks County, Pennsylvania prior to August 1827 and traveled to the Michigan Territory. When he arrived, he bought land in Tecumseh, Lenawee County and settled down in the undeveloped region in the southeast part of the territory that would later become the state of Michigan.

William McNair Land Patent - Bureau of Land Management

William McNair Land Patent – Bureau of Land Management

Apparently, William wasn’t the type of person to stay in the town where he was born, working on the same farm that grandfather and father had successfully built. He didn’t want to marry a local girl, walk the already well-worn path or do what was expected of oldest born sons.  He had dreams of going west and of creating a new path of his own.

It didn’t take William long to get involved in the local community of Tecumseh. He joined the local militia and became a Colonel by 1832. His regiment served in the Black Hawk War, though Black Hawk and his warriors were captured before William’s troops arrived to the battle. He served as undersheriff of Lenawee County in 1835, when he became involved in a border dispute with Ohio that was called the “Toledo War.”  He plays quite a significant role in taking Ohio surveyors prisoner who were trying to measure the land they believed to be legally part of Ohio. No lives were taken and it sounds a bit humorous from the accounts, but one can imagine this was serious business deciding who really owned the land. He is even called upon to give a description of the event to President Andrew Jackson. Michigan loses this battle for the “Toledo strip”, but wins the war by getting over 9,000 square miles on the Upper Peninsula full of timber and mineral rights, when it is finally made a state in 1837.  It seems that William might have played a big part in getting satisfaction for the state of Michigan!

Disputed Toledo Strip - by Drdpw on Wikipedia Commons

Disputed Toledo Strip – by Drdpw on Wikipedia Commons

William married Elizabeth Robertson, from New York, in 1832.  They had 5 children that lived to adulthood: Eliza (b. 1834), James (b. 1836), David (b. 1840), Sarah (b. 1842) and Agnes (b. 1844).  According to the 1850 Agricultural census, William has 60 developed acres of land and 20 acres of undeveloped land worth $1200.  At some point he sold off 80 acres of land from the original purchase. He grew wheat, corn and oats and had a variety of livestock.

He was involved in Tecumseh community life in a variety of roles as a Michigan State representative in 1849 and later as postmaster from 1853 to 1861.  He died in Tecumseh in March of 1876 at the age of 78.  William McNair lived a full and eventful life, 600 miles away from his hometown, where he could make his own mark on the world.  Proving there is always an exception to the rule and not all oldest sons stay home.

Major General William Sharp (1868-1937) McNair, McNear and McNeir Genealogies by James Birtley McNair (HathiTrust.org)

Major General William Sharp McNair
McNair, McNear and McNeir Genealogies by James Birtley McNair

P.S. In Honor of WWI – Veterans Day

William’s grandson, William Sharp McNair, went to West Point (class of 1890), received the Silver Star in the Philippines, and rose to Major General in WWI where he received the Army Distinguished Service Medal. http://valor.militarytimes.com/recipient.php?recipientid=17931


As part of my “standard work” for research, I always check ArchiveGrid.  It’s a bit like playing the slot machine, in that you typically get a cherry, an orange and an apple….nothing matching the name, location and context of the person you are looking for perfectly. You have to look at the collection’s finding aid to see if the documents have anything to do with the individual you are researching.  The more you know about your topic, the better you can quickly determine if it’s a false positive result. I could almost hear the happy cling-cling from the computer, when I plugged in “William McNair, Tecumseh, Michigan.” I finally got something worth checking out at Yale University. There are two letters in the correspondence files of General Joseph W. Brown from Col. William McNair on 28 May 1832 and 17 Jun 1835.  General Joseph W. Brown was from Bucks County, Pennsylvania and moved to Michigan.  Something tells me these letters are from my William McNair. Now I have to get up to Yale University to check them out.

This entry was posted in Genealogy General, McNair Family, World War I and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to William McNair (1798-1776) and the Road Less Traveled

  1. Val Sanford says:

    You do find the amazing stories of your ancestors. They come to life as you unearth documents and piece them together. Have fun at Yale!

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