Pre-war Albany resident John Macomb (aka John Gordon Macomb) was born in northern Ireland in 1717. He was the son of William and Margaret Wallace Macomb of Dunturkey, Antrim. This sketch will focus on its subject in his Albany context mostly leaving his external career and exploits to his various chroniclers - none more worthy than my old friend and colleague Joseph F. Meany.
As a middle child in a large family, John Macomb appears to have entered business in northern Ireland. None of his biographers have shed much light on his early adulthood or Ulster career.
By 1748, Macomb had married one Jane Gordon. Before he left for America, the marriage had produced at least four children including a famous son and a daughter who married the ill-fated British officer and short-term Albany resident Francis Pfister.
His chroniclers tell us that, in 1756, he left his business in the charge of his sister's husband and set sail for North America. A lapload of lore persists regarding the emigration phase of his career.
Macomb landed in New York City early in 1757. Soon afterwards, he became a clerk for a prominent Manhattan mercantile house. By April, he had relocated to Albany where, supplied by Gregg and Cunningham, he rented two rooms, a shop, and a cellar apparently in the Livingston house at the Elm Tree Corner. From there, he offered his services to British officers stationed in Albany. His massive letterbook from 1757 to 1770 details his Albany-based business. Among his clients was Sir William Johnson for whom he served as a conduit between the Mohawk Valley and New York. During those years, Johnson also kept track of Macomb's activities and fortunes or lack thereof.
Although most of his clients were locally stationed officers in the British army, he sought out stock items in New York from American suppliers as well.
In April 1762, his house "opposite the Store House" was referenced in an initially unsuccessful petition to the city council for church land. That negotiation process ran for several years and led to the establishment of a Presbyterian meeting house. He served as an elder while he lived in Albany.
Obviously pro-British and a relative newcomer, Macomb came under scrutiny in Albany as one suspected of applying for the position of Stamp Tax collector in 1765. That specter would help compromise his standing in Albany business.
By that time, Macomb had established a base in Albany. He appears to have moved to his own location as, in 1767, his first ward house and property was valued at a level commensurate with a middling merchant's standing. At the same time, his name is absent from the petitions, lists and internal records of the Albany's business community and its municipal government.
Known as an "Irish merchant" and Albany storekeeper, the nature of his business required sometimes delicate credit relationships which proved difficult to balance. Over the next half decade, his business was failing as he was unable to replace military with civilian clients. His situation was a topic of concern for Johnson, his Masonic brethren in Albany, and other royal adherents in New York and on the frontier who were sympathetic to Macomb's plight.
At some point, (maybe as early as his own emigration), his children had joined him in America and began to make their own way. Quitting Albany, by 1772, John Macomb had relocated to his son-in-law's property at Hoosick and had acquired a number of parcels of land in the so-called Hampshire Grants. Perhaps a less competitive environment would reverse his sagging fortunes. He later reported that he had made some improvements (erected a sawmill allegedly on Pfister's land) in the area. However, an appointment as Justice of the Peace for the eastern jurisdictions of the county did not generate funds for a solution to his financial distresses.
At least some of Macomb's employees were indentured servants. In September 1765, he advertised that his twenty-year-old Irish servant had run away from him in Albany. In July 1768, he again used the New York paper to note that a different Irish-born servant (aged 25) had run away from him at Hosack.
Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, most people knew that John Macomb's loyalties would be in line with the royalists in America. Thus, he soon fell under the scrutiny of what became Albany's revolutionary forces.
By the summer of 1776, he had been taken into custody by the Albany Committee, was denounced by local witnesses, refused to sign the Association, and, with Pfister - a former British army engineer, was placed under arrest and confined to the "Tory Jail" in Albany. After posting a bond, he was paroled to his home in Hoosick. Cut off from much opportunity to sustain his family, the sixty-year-old endured the wartime activities of 1777 during which his son-in-law would loose his life.
As late as August 1777, and by then known as "highly inimical to the cause," he was seen near "Tunnicliffs" dressed in a "rifle frock." The Committee ordered Abraham J. Yates to apprehend him. Macomb apparently avoided capture, made his way to Canada, and then to Detroit - apparently to start over again.
In 1786, he traveled to Montreal and, by the end of the year, to London to represent his claims for compensation for his and his widowed daughter's losses. His memorial reiterated his long term loyalty to the King's government and his increasingly harsh treatment by his former neighbors turned rebels. However, actual compensation has not been substantiated.
Back in Detroit and reunited with his sons, John Macomb died there in 1796. Shy of his eightieth birthday, this Scots-Irish opportunist had been in America since the 1750s, experienced up-and- down success during a dynamic era on which he was unable to make his mark.
Sources: The life of John Macomb is CAP biography number 1059. This sketch is derived chiefly from family and community-based resources.
Most of the external (non Albany) information in this sketch relies on the graduate thesis entitled Merchant and redcoat: The Papers of John Gordon Macomb, July 1757 to June 1760, by Joseph F. Meany, Jr. (Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham University, 1990). Witnessing the process of developing that massive work (4 volumes) taught me much about understanding and interpreting the past in early America. The experience taught me much about historians and the prisms and lenses through which they seek to learn about past. Operating alongside Joe for more than thirty years, he probably was the most important influence on my ambition to focus on the actual people of colonial Albany and to study and then seek to comprehend them and their stories on their own merit and not as some caricatured interpretations and appendages of the legends of the so-called "Dutch" or of the "King's subjects."
Like other British adherents, following the War for Independence, Macomb submitted a claim for compensation of his losses as a loyal subject of the King. Preserved under the "Loyalist Claims," some of his memorial has been printed online.
first posted 5/20/14; updated 1/10/15