Thursday 26 February 2015

Ulster Settlers in America (pt3)

Some of the early colonists – their services in the American Revolution.

by M. I. MURPHY, Bay City, Michigan, U.S.

With note by Francis Joseph Bigger, Editor.


Another illustrious son of Ulster who occupies a prominent place in American history, and is better known than the foregoing, was Charles Thompson, the "perpetual secretary of the Continental Congress." Thompson was born in Maghera, County Derry, in 1730, and at the age of eleven years was brought to America, with his three brothers, by his father, who unfortunately died while in sight of the capes of the Delaware. When the first Continental Congress met in September, 1774, Thompson was unanimously chosen secretary, and he retained that position until his resignation in 1789. He would accept no pay for his first year's services, and Congress presented his wife, the aunt of the first President Harrison, with a silver urn as a token of its appreciation of his services and unselfish patriotism. The Declaration of Independence was drawn up by him from Jefferson's rough draft, and the only signatures affixed to the document on the 4 July, 1776, were his and President Hancock's, the other signatures not being affixed till the 2 August following. It will, without doubt, be of interest to all Irishmen to learn that John Hancock, the President of Congress, and the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, came of Ulster stock. It is stated upon good authority that the ancestors of President Hancock emigrated from near Downpatrick, County Down, and settled in Boston, towards the end of the seventeenth century.

Others of the signatories of that famous document came of Ulster parentage. Robert Treat Paine was one of them. He was the representative from Massachusetts, and his lineage was a royal one. According to O'Hart, "Henry O'Neill, of Dungannon, born in 1665, sixth in descent from Shane the Proud, Prince of Ulster, and cousin of Sir Neal O'Neill, who received his death-wound at the battle of the Boyne, changed his name to Paine, that of a maternal ancestor, to preserve a portion of his estates. He entered the British army, obtained grants of land in County Cork and other parts of Ireland, and was killed in 1698 at Foxford, in the County Mayo. His youngest brother, Robert, who also took the name of Paine, emigrated to America a little before the occurrence alluded to, and was the grandfather of Robert Treat Paine who signed the Declaration. He was born at Boston, 11 March, 1731, and studied theology at Harvard, accompanying the provincial troops on the northern frontier in 1755 as chaplain. He afterwards studied law, and conducted the prosecution of Captain Preston and eight of his soldiers when they were tried for their part in the "Boston Massacre" of 5 March, 1770. In 1773 and the year following he was elected to the General Assembly of Massachusetts; was sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778; voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence. When, in 1780, the State Constitution of Massachusetts was adopted, he was made Attorney-General, which office he held till 1790, when he was made a judge of the Supreme Court. In 1804 he resigned that position on account of infirmities brought on by old age, and died in 1814, at the age of eighty-three.

Thomas MacKean, of Delaware, who also signed the Declaration, was President of Congress at the close of the war. He was born in Chester, County Pennsylvania, of Ulster parents. In 1765 he was a member, for Delaware, of the Congress of New York. He was a prominent member of the Congress of 1776 that convened at Philadelphia, and remained a member of that body till 1783, being the only one that served all the time. On the 10 July, 1781, MacKean was elected President of Congress, and, on the surrender of Cornwallis, Washington despatched a courier to him with the news. At the close of the war MacKean retired from public life, and took up his residence in Philadelphia, where he died, 24 June, 1817.

In Thomas Nelson, of Virginia, who also signed the Declaration, we find another descendant of the O'Neills of Ulster. His grandfather came from Strabane. County Tyrone, about the beginning of the last century. The name, originally O'Neill, was changed. That eminent Irish antiquarian, Eugene O'Curry, many years ago made out the pedigree of this delegate to Congress from Virginia, tracing his descent from Donald O'Neill, Prince of Ulster, who addressed in 1315 the famous "Remonstrance" to Pope John XXII., in which he denounced the atrocities perpetrated in Ireland, and justified the bringing over of Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert, of Scotland, to aid in expelling the English. Nelson was in Congress from 1774 to 1777, when ill health compelled him to resign. When Congress called for aid in 1778, he raised a volunteer corps, and went at their head to join Washington. He was sent to Congress in 1779, but sickness again compelled him to withdraw. He succeeded Jefferson as Governor of Virginia in 1781, and, as commander-in-chief of the troops of the State, placed himself at their head, joining Lafayette, who was then endeavouring to check Cornwallis. He continued in this capacity till the British surrendered at Yorktown, making constantly great personal sacrifices, himself guaranteeing the payment of a loan of two millions of dollars raised by Virginia, and insisting that his house should be shelled because the British occupied it. Soon after the surrender he resigned, retiring into private life till his death, which took place in 1789.

James Smith, another of the subscribers, was born in Ireland, and is said to have come from Ulster, but I can find no authority to confirm the assertion. So the list goes on. The embryo Republic was aided by gifts of money, deeds of arms, active civil service, and in many other ways by the sons and descendants of historic Ulster. The land of Shane the Proud and Hugh of Dungannon has a lasting monument in the names and fame of those whose acts so materially assisted to establish the United States of America; and she must also treasure the memory of patriots less known but equally true, such as James Moore, of Lurgan; Rev. John Murray, born in Antrim 22 May, 1742; Ephraim Blaine, born in County Donegal, 1741, the grandfather of the celebrated statesman, James G. Blaine (Blaine became the quartermaster of Washington's army in 1780, and by his strenuous efforts did much to alleviate the sufferings of the men); John Bleakley; John Brown, born in County Antrim, 1753; Hugh Holmes, Henry Boyle, William Erskine, Robert Rainey, Alexander Nesbitt, Oliver Pollock, who procured Spanish gunpowder for the Revolutionists; Samuel Carson, and many others, about whom little can be discovered save the part they played in the great drama of the Revolution.

The devotion of Ulstermen did not end with this epoch in American history. The great war of 1812 gave opportunity for their heroism and their genius. Among the brightest names in the history of Columbia are those of Andrew Jackson, victor of New Orleans and President of the United States, and Commodore Thos. MacDonough, both sons of Ulster parents.

Besides these two great men, we find such daring spirits as Captain Boyle, a native of Armagh, whose sea fights read like bits of fiction. He commanded a twelve-gun brig, The Comet, and in it attacked three British vessels, with a Portuguese convoy of 30 guns. He drove off the convoy, sank one of the British vessels, and brought the other two into Pernambuco as prizes. On the same cruise he captured the British ship Aberdeen, of eight guns, and two others often guns each.

Captain Johnston Blakely was born in Seaforde, County Down, October, 1781. He was brought to North Carolina by his parents, who died soon afterwards. A friend educated him, and in 1800 he entered the United States navy as a midshipman, and by July, 1813, had risen to the rank of a master commander. In the Wasp, on 28 June, 1814, he captured, after a severe engagement, the British warship Reindeer. The latter vessel made three desperate and unsuccessful attempts to board, in the last of which her commander was slain. For this exploit. Congress voted Captain Blakely a gold medal. On the 21 September, 1814, he captured and sent into Savannah the brig Atalanta. This was the last direct intelligence ever received of him. The Wasp, being heavily armed and sparred, and deep-waisted, probably foundered in a heavy gale. About the time of his death he was gazetted as a captain. His only child, a daughter, was educated at the expense of the State of North Carolina.

If the deeds of these men, as well as those of General Doherty and others of the same race, were omitted, what a gap there would be in the history of the United States in those times.

In the Mexican War of 1846, Dungannon was represented by two of the most illustrious soldiers under the Stars and Stripes – General James Shields and Major MacReynolds. Among other officers under Scott were Captain Magruder, of the artillery; Captain Casey and Lieutenant Neil, of the regular infantry, all of whom were distinguished for their bravery. All were Ulstermen.

One lamentable fact about the Irish-American heroes who fought under the American flag is the paucity of information regarding their ancestry. Even the birthplace of many an illustrious Irishman is unknown to us. All the information we can get from records is – "He was born in Ireland," or "he was born in the North of Ireland." The prejudice against Irish people in general during the early days of the colonies is responsible, without a doubt, for the meagre records kept of these gallant men.

Excellent work could be rendered by the literary and archaeological societies in various parts of Ireland by taking up the records of the families of these men. A connecting chain could be obtained in American records, and many facts of international interest might be gleaned. It is not merely a matter of pastime it is an imperative duty that a complete biographical encyclopaedia should be compiled and presented to the world, wherein the history of these men would be preserved for all time. The recounting of their deeds, without exaggeration and without bombast, would be a grander and more lasting monument than bronze or stone an example for generations to come, and an eternal proof of the Ulsterman's fealty to the country of his adoption.

NOTE BY F. J. B., Editor.

Through the kindness of an American correspondent, we have been able to peruse The History of Londonderry (United States), by Rev. Edward Parker, Boston, 1851. No more interesting local history than this could be produced, comprising, as it does, not only a full account of the early settlers of the place, but copious references to their Ulster origin and Scottish pedigrees. The lists of names in the appendix – viz., the original subscribers to the Petition to Governor Shute, of Massachusetts, praying for "incouragement" to transport themselves to the colonies; the original list of "proprietors" of Londonderry; and, finally, the list appended to the following portentous document "We, the Subscribers, do hereby solemnly engage and promise that we will to the utmost of our power, at the Risque of our Lives and Fortunes, with arms, oppose the Hostile proceedings of the British Fleets and Armies against the United American Colonies" – all these lists are composed of names exactly similar to those of our own Presbyterian communities; whilst their manners, customs, and mode of speech, till after the Revolution, were the same as those of their brethren in Antrim and Derry. We read of their ministers' ordinations and their communion seasons, when communion tokens were used; even their disputes are alike. For instance, we read of a deceased minister's son being preferred to a stranger who had been ordained, and a rival meeting-house being built for him. Then, again, when a disagreement arose amongst the Presbyterians, a rival Independent meeting-house was built in the district. Again, we read of a Court of Session for the trial of moral offences, just like our own Templepatrick Session, where the offenders were "admonished," and "ordered to appear before the congregation on the next succeeding Sabbath." One James Doake was accused of beating his father, but the Session considered the offence not proven, nevertheless they "rebuked James Doake for giving his father the lie."

These early colonists left Derry in five ships, landing in Boston on the 4 August, 1718, previous to which they had sent one of their number, the Rev. William Boyd, as a deputation to Governor Shute, with authority to make terms for their settlement, which he succeeded in doing. The Petition to Governor Shute has 319 signatures, only 13 of whom were marksmen. Nine of the Subscribers were Presbyterian ministers, and three were Scottish graduates. Such names as the following occur in the list – Houston, Porter, Thompson, Dunlop, Blair, Galt, Mitchell, Patterson, Curry, Anderson, Campbell, Ramsey, Ritchie, Gregg, Boyd, Bigger, Wilson, Haslet, Todd, Holmes, Black, Miller, Brice, MacKeen, Lamont, Orr, Lennox, Leslie, Crawford, Christy, Johnston, Smith, Knox, &c., &c.

The following were the reasons given for their emigration:– "1. To avoid oppression and cruel bondage. 2. To shun persecution and designed ruin. 3. To withdraw from the communion of idolaters. 4. To have an opportunity of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience and the rules of His inspired Word." After these emigrants had landed in the colonies they experienced some privations, but soon obtained a grant of suitable land, and afterwards a Royal charter was granted, enabling them to establish what was practically a Presbyterian Republic, where the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction were one and the same. This was the first Presbyterian congregation in New England. The meeting-house was the head of the commune, and the governing circles widened from its centre. At the time of the Revolution, very few of these settlers or their descendants did not take side with the Revolutionists, still there were some. Colonel Stephen Holland, a gentleman of education, remained loyal, and his estate was confiscated and sold. Londonderry paid for bounties a larger sum than any other town, and, it is believed, contributed a larger number of revolutionary soldiers; and so bitter were they to any loyalists who sought to return after the Revolution and recover their possessions, that they decreed in public assembly "that nothing may ever be done for those infernal wretches by this State further than to provide a gallows, halter, and hangman for everyone that dare to show their vile countenances amongst us." Their first minister, the Rev. James MacGregor, was ordained in Derry, and the succeeding minister, the Rev. Matthew Clerk, left his charge in Kilrea. His successor, the Rev. Thos. Thompson, was ordained by the Presbytery of Tyrone. Other ministers were brought from the mother country as vacancies occurred indeed, the original settlers were largely augmented from time to time by friends and acquaintances from Antrim and Derry. The Rev. J. MacGregor was amongst the defenders of Derry in 1688, and had assisted in firing the large gun from the Cathedral tower that announced the approach of the relieving ships. He was afterwards minister at Aghadowey. His remains were borne to the grave in that new Derry beyond the seas by those who had been his fellow-defenders in the memorable siege of the city by the Foyle. Colonel William Gregg was the son of Captain John Gregg, who emigrated from Antrim with his father, Captain James Gregg. At the commencement of the Revolution, Colonel Gregg commanded a company of minutemen in Londonderry (U.S.), and was most active during the campaign, commanding the vanguard at the battle of Bennington, and received at its close the thanks of the Legislature. Another Gregg was Alexander, who made several privateering voyages during the Revolution.

The Rev. Joseph MacKeen, D.D., of Londonderry (U.S.), was the grandson of James MacKeen, one of the original settlers, who was born in Ballymoney, County Antrim, 13 April, 1715. At the Revolution he laid aside his studies and enlisted as a private soldier under General Sullivan, being present at the retreat from Rhode Island.

The Hon. Matthew Thornton was born in Ireland, and, whilst a child, left for the colonies with his father, where he studied medicine, acting as a surgeon in the expedition against Cape Breton in 1745. He held the rank of colonel in the Revolution, and was also a Justice of the Peace. Subsequently he was appointed a delegate to Congress, and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was a judge of the Superior Court, and then raised to the Chief-Justiceship of the Court of Common Pleas.

John Bell was born near Coleraine in 1678, and left for the colonies in 1719. His son Samuel, with his two sons and two brothers-in-law, were taken prisoners during the war by Burgoyne's army, and his house burned.

Captain Arthur Nesmith was at the battle of Bunker's Hill, and afterwards commanded a company in the Canada service. His father, James Nesmith, emigrated from the Valley of the Bann in 1718.

The above are but a few of the many incidents connected with the names of Ulstermen who settled at an early period in the colonies. It is quite evident that these pioneer colonists left on religious grounds, preferring to risk their lives in a new country, to exercise in the fullest extent their religious opinions, rather than live in Ireland, where their own sect was not the dominant party. The subsequent settlers left Ulster rather upon agrarian grounds, but their exodus must be dealt with in a subsequent article.

Reproduced from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol. 2, No.1, Series 2, 1895.

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