By Ronald W. Collins
From Historical New Hampshire, March 2020
ON APRIL 11, 1719, a group of sixteen Presbyterian families—from northern Ireland but of Scottish descent—arrived in what would become Londonderry, New Hampshire, where they hoped to begin a new settlement. In the decades that followed, Londonderry emerged as the center of Scots-Irish culture in New England and an important gateway for Scots-Irish settlers to the region. The Scots-Irish became the largest group of non-English Europeans in the province of New Hampshire, and their arrival in the Merrimack Valley would mark a new phase of New Hampshire’s colonial settlement.
New Hampshire’s Scots-Irish arrived in New England as part of a larger Scots-Irish diaspora to the American colonies. Driven from Ireland by rising rents, food shortages, and economic instability, the refugees received an unenthusiastic welcome when they arrived in Boston in the summer of 1718. Boston had its own problems at the time, including an economic downturn and a smallpox epidemic. The townspeople had deep reservations about the prospect of absorbing upwards of 800 additional people.
Some of the Bostonians’ trepidations about the Scots-Irish sprang from widespread confusion about these newcomers. They came from Ulster, in Northern Ireland, but they were not actually Irish. Their ancestors had moved from Scotland to Ireland in the 1600s as part of England’s attempt to colonize Ireland with Protestants who would, theoretically at least, be more loyal to the Crown. Many Scots, tempted by English offers of land and opportunity in Ireland, jumped at the chance and crossed the narrow Irish Sea to begin anew. What they found in Ireland was not what they had been promised. There was not nearly as much economic opportunity as they had expected, and the conditions in Ireland, particularly for farmers, were harsh and inhospitable. They found themselves in a situation dominated by religious intolerance, ethnic prejudice, inequality, and general distrust. The Irish—who were mostly poor and Catholic—resented the arrival of the Scots. The Scots were Presbyterians and relatively middle class. Both groups were at odds with the English aristocrats who held large estates in Ireland, belonged to the established Anglican Church, and governed all aspects of society as the ruling class.
Between 1714 and 1719 Ireland suffered from drought, heavy frosts, and the prevalence of diseases that struck both people and livestock. In addition, landlords began raising rents on tenant farmers when their leases came up for renewal, making the tithes that the Anglican Church required of everyone, regardless of religion, seem a greater-than-ever burden. Presbyterians, moreover, were barred from holding civil office- and discriminated against in other ways.
For all these reasons, the American colonies seemed a more promising prospect. Small groups of Scots-Irish had been coming to the New World since the British had begun colonizing it in the early 1600s, generally living among their English neighbors and assimilating into English society, but the mass migration of 1718 marked the largest influx of Scots-Irish that America had yet seen, and the people who came planned to establish their own communities and preserve their culture and religion.
The English colonists were not quite sure what to make of them. When the Scots-Irish first began to arrive in Boston, they were referred to simply as the “Irish” and often confused with the few Irish Catholics who came to America in the eighteenth century. It was not until well after 1800 that the arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholics in the United States required that a distinction be made between the two groups, and, as a result, the terms “Scots-Irish” or “Scotch-Irish” became popular. Despite their common British ancestry and their shared dislike of Roman Catholicism, the Scots-Irish and the English viewed themselves as two distinct peoples. By 1700, the Puritan theology of Massachusetts and New Hampshire had become somewhat diluted, but the people who lived in these provinces were still primarily Congregationalists and overwhelmingly considered themselves English, whether they had been born in England themselves or were descended from those who had once lived there. Unlike the French settlers in Canada, the German immigrants who were starting to descend on the mid-Atlantic colonies, and the Native Americans living around the fringes of English settlements, the Scots-Irish were, at least, British. New Englanders recognized some degree of kinship with the newcomers, after they finally realized they were not Roman Catholic, and thus allowed them to live among them, even while continuing to view them with some suspicion.
The Scots-Irish had tried to lay the groundwork for their arrival by petitioning the governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Samuel Shute, for permission to settle in the land under his jurisdiction. Shute’s tenure in New England was a contentious one, and he was frequently at odds with the Massachusetts legislature. His relationship with the New Hampshire legislature was better but still far from ideal. His rule was complicated by the fact that he simultaneously served as governor, of both colonies, an arrangement that had been established in the 1690s and would remain in place until 1740, after which each colony would have its own governor. At the time of the Scots-Irish settlement in New Hampshire, though, the colony was technically governed by the Massachusetts governor, with day-today operations overseen by Shute’s lieutenant governor John Wentworth, who resided in Portsmouth and represented the Crown in the region. To complicate matters even further, the governments of Massachusetts and New Hampshire were involved in a long-standing dispute over the border between them, which brought into question ownership of most of the land in what is today southern New Hampshire.
The petition, which became known as the Shute Petition, was signed by 319 Scots-Irish who were seeking to resettle in America from northern Ireland, mostly from the valley of the River Bann, which formed the border between County Londonderry and County Antrim. The petitioners’ request was simple: they and their families wanted to move to Shute’s “very excellent and renowned Plantation upon obtaining from his Excellency suitable incouragement.” Dated March 26, 1718, the petition was carried from Ireland to Massachusetts by Reverend William Boyd who arrived in Boston in late July. It is unclear when he presented the petition to Shute, but neither Shute nor the Massachusetts General Court had time to act on it before ships began arriving in Boston harbor mm northern Ireland—specifically from the seaports of Coleraine, Londonderry, and Belfast— Wed with hundreds of Scots-Irish immigrants.
By October, just a couple of months after their arrival in Boston, many Scots-Irish were being warned by government officials to leave town. “Warning out” was a standard practice at the time, designed to protect a community from becoming responsible for supporting destitute newcomers. Before winter, some had sought refuge in Worcester but, after being discriminated against there, ended up in small family groups dispersed throughout the settled parts of Massachusetts. Another group petitioned for a grant for unsettled lands within the province, which the Massachusetts General Court granted in late October, directing them to Casco Bay on the Maine frontier, as Maine was part of Massachusetts at this time. By December, about 300 people who described themselves as recently from Ireland had arrived in the vicinity of present-day Portland Maine. Settling such a large group of Scots-Irish in that region solved two problems for the Massachusetts government. First, the government no longer had to provide food and shelter for the refugees crowded into Boston, since once they were settled in their new home they would be responsible for themselves. Second, Massachusetts had been trying solidify its claim to Maine, which was then referred to as the Eastern territories. Several attempts to do so had met with failure, with Massachusetts settlers driven off by harsh weather, inhospitable agricultural conditions, and conflicts with the local Abenaki. If the Scots-Irish could establish a firmer foothold for Massachusetts in the region, all the better. Finally, there is some indication that Massachusetts authorities planned to settle the Scots-Irish on the frontier as a way to provide “a barrier against the Indians” for the protection of more established settlements.
The Casco Bay expedition was not primed for success, though. The Scots-Irish did not arrive there until November, at which point it was too late in the growing season for them to be anything but a burden to the few Massachusetts settlers already attempting to survive the winter there. With no other shelter available, the Scots-Irish spent several miserable months onboard ship in the bay. Although the Massachusetts General Court sent them a shipment of Indian meal in response to a petition outlining their distress, by spring the Scots-Irish had had enough.
A group of approximately sixteen families left Casco Bay and traveled back along the coast as far as the mouth of the Merrimack River and then followed the river up the Merrimack Valley looking for a tract of unsettled land to claim. They found one just north of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in an area then called Nutfield due to an abundance of chestnut, walnut, and butternut trees. There they were reunited with their pastor, Reverend James McGregor, who had spent the winter in Dracut, Massachusetts, where he and his family had been invited to stay temporarily. McGregor had been a minister in Aghadowey in County Londonderry in Ireland when he led a large part of his congregation, mostly from a few interrelated families, to America. Shortly before the group’s departure from Ireland, McGregor preached a sermon in the port of Coleraine that outlined their reasons for leaving, focusing on the search for greater religious freedom. A large man with a forceful personality, he became known as the “Moses of the Scots-Irish.” When spring arrived and McGregor joined the little community on the Merrimack, he led them in establishing a formal congregation in accordance with their religious faith, which is believed to have been the first Presbyterian congregation established in New England.
The Scots-Irish families who settled in Nutfield quickly set about building houses and planting crops along a creek they dubbed West Running Brook. Most of the first houses were small temporary structures, likely of log construction. After the erection of a sawmill, the first significant frame buildings in town included a meeting house, raised in 1721, and a two-story dwelling for McGregor and his family. When troubles with the Abenaki once again threatened the region in 1722, the Scots-Irish built two stone garrison houses to provide protection in case of attack.
Few Abenaki still lived in this part of the Merrimack Valley, having been pushed north to resettlement in French Canada, but, depending on whether or not the English were at war with the Abenakis’ French allies, parties of Native Americans came to the Merrimack Valley to either hunt and fish or harass settlements. Despite Scots-Irish concern about the Native Americans, they seemed to have lived in peace with the Abenaki, who even showed them where the best fishing was to be found along the Merrimack River.
Within months the Scots-Irish decided that they wanted to stay, but that decision precipitated a crisis of sorts—to whom should they apply for permission to settle when their community lay in the middle of disputed land? The governments of both New Hampshire and Massachusetts claimed this region for their own.
The original charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony specified the border between the two provinces as lying three miles north of the Merrimack River. At the time the charter was drawn up, however, the English had little knowledge of the geography beyond the coastline. They had no idea that the Merrimack River abruptly changes course roughly thirty miles inland and runs north-south rather than east-west, thereby throwing the border into question. New Hampshire claimed the border should be three miles north of the mouth of the Merrimack River (near present-day Newburyport), while Massachusetts claimed it should be three miles north of the source of the Merrimack River (Lake Winnipesaukee). The difference encompasses much of what is today southern New Hampshire.
This controversy between the two provinces was not the only uncertainty relative to who owned the land. There were at least three personal claims for this area as well, the main dispute being between the Allen family and the Mason family. In addition, the heirs of Reverend John Wheelwright also claimed the land. A Puritan minister who had been banished from the Massachusetts colony because of his nonconformist views, Wheelwright founded Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1638. He was thought to have secured a deed from the Native Americans about ten years earlier to a large tract of land that extended all the way to the Merrimack River, which unwittingly placed it in conflict with other claims. Wheelwright’s claim was certainly weaker than either the Allens’ or the Masons’, but it was a competing claim nonetheless.
The Nutfield settlers believed they already had the permission of the Massachusetts General Court, which had approved the Scots-Irish request the previous fall for an unspecified grant to unclaimed land within the province—a blanket statement that was too vague to provide much security. In September 1719 the settlers also applied to the New Hampshire General Court seeking permission to settle at Nutfield specifically. The New Hampshire government did not award the Scots-Irish the grant they ought, believing that the land was too disputed at the time to award to anyone. It did, however, grant the settlers some protection under the law, meaning and New Hampshire placed the settlement under the jurisdiction of a justice of the peace and a sheriff- The Scots-Irish also applied to Wheelwright’s heirs and were awarded permission to settle at Nutfield. The town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, also objected to the settlement, which it claimed fell within its own jurisdiction, causing considerable controversy and litigation for some time. By 1722 the New Hampshire government had changed its earlier ruling and incorporated the settlement as a 10-mile square parcel under the name of Londonderry. It was the first township this far inland established by the Province of New Hampshire. The tract of land that the Scots-Irish settled in New Hampshire includes today’s towns of Londonderry, Derry, and Windham, and parts of several other adjoining towns, including Manchester.
Overcoming the challenges inherent in the first few years of any new settlement, Londonderry thrived. By September 1719, five months after the first settlers arrived, the initial sixteen families had grown to seventyfamilies. Scots-Irish from other parts of New England joined them and new immigrants arrived from Ireland in five separate waves between 1718 and 1775. With nearly all of them engaged at least part-time in farming, they spread out quickly over the available land. Within two decades of its settlement, Londonderry had grown so large that the community took the controversial step of dividing into two parishes, each with its own meeting house and emerging town center. Other divisions followed in short order, most notably the establishment of Windham in 1742. The Scots-Irish also established new settlements throughout southern New Hampshire, including Bedford (1737), Peterborough (1738), Antrim (1744), and Acworth (1766), with large groups of them settling in Goffstown, Derryfield (present-day Manchester), Merrimack, New Boston, and elsewhere. Even with this diaspora across southern New Hampshire, Londonderry continued to grow, becoming New Hampshire’s second largest town by 1760. As of the 1790 census, an estimated 10 percent of New Hampshire’s population had roots in either Ulster or Scotland.
The Scots-Irish brought some distinctive characteristics to the culture of New England, as evidenced in their way of speaking (in a “broad Scots tongue”), their Presbyterian religion (which differed from Congregationalism in the way its churches were governed though not in its theology), their naming practices (for example, naming their settlements after-places familiar to them in Ireland and Scotland) , and their foodways (as in their preference for white or “Irish” potatoes, which they are believed to have introduced to New England, and for eels, which they harvested from both the River Bann in Ulster and the Merrimack at Amoskeag). In addition, the
Scots-Irish had well-deserved reputations for being hardworking, efficient, and frugal in all their dealings, qualities that would become viewed as inextricably part of the Yankee character. Some scholars credit Presbyterianism with softening or tempering the harsher dictates of Puritan Congregationalism, although the more rigid doctrinal aspects of Puritanism were already well in decline by the time the Scots-Irish arrived in New England.
The Scots-Irish also brought mechanical skills, knowledge, and equipment with them to New Hampshire, resulting in the development of a significant linen industry for which Londonderry eventually became noted. From the Scots-Irish immigrants’ earliest days in this country, the English in Boston were fascinated by the “new-fashion linen wheels” that the women brought with them from Northern Ireland—a variety operated by foot rather than by hand. Although flax had been grown and linen produced on a small scale in New England since the 1600s, the English settlers throughout the colonial period relied heavily on textiles imported from England, Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe. The Scots-Irish immigrants to New Hampshire were from the northern counties—the very part of Ireland that was then becoming known as the “seat of linen manufacture” and that eventually produced more than four-fifths of the Irish linen sold. The fact, however, that linen was the only product that the British mercantile policies allowed Ireland to trade overseas left the region susceptible to economic ups and downs, adding greatly to the factors spurring emigration.
Linen-making in Ulster was a cottage industry, with spinsters and weavers working in their own homes or shops rather than in a factory-like setting. Not surprisingly, the women of the families who left Ireland often took along their flax wheels in order to continue yarn production in their new settlement. Before long, Londonderry and vicinity boasted numerous professional male weavers whose names are preserved in New Hampshire records. Linen made by the Scots-Irish in New Hampshire was so highly regarded by the 1730s and 1740s that some unscrupulous characters offered foreign linens for sale “under pretense that they were made at Londonderry [in New Hampshire]. ”
Not all emigrants from Ulster were flax farmers, spinsters, or weavers, however. The work of establishing a community required people skilled in a great number of trades, crafts, and services—providing residents, from birth to death, with everything from shelter and furnishings to sustenance and transportation. In providing for these needs, the Scots-Irish did so in ways that sometimes looked different from those of their English neighbors. This is especially evident in their decorative arts, in which the Scots-Irish expressed a different sense of design from that of their English counterparts. In such areas as furnishings and gravestone carving in particular, the Scots-Irish created distinctive styles, based on a combination of influences from their Scottish and Irish origins, as well as from their new surroundings. In the case of both gravestone carver John Wight of Londonderry (who emigrated from Ireland in 1718 at the age of sixteen) and cabinetmakers John and Samuel Dunlap of Goffstown and Bedford, and later Henniker and Salisbury (sons of an Ulster-born weaver), the distinctive designs that appeared in their work became popular not only in their own hometowns but also wherever they or other Scots-Irish people moved. The dominance of the Scots-Irish sense of design within these communities was short-lived, though. The aesthetic differences between New Hampshire’s two main ethnic groups had all but disappeared by the end of the century, amalgamated into a single Yankee culture.
The impact of the Scots-Irish settlement of Londonderry in 1719 extended to political influence as well. When Haverhill, Massachusetts, attempted to assert a claim over Londonderry in 1733, the Scots-Irish petitioned the Board of Trade in London for a rapid resolution to the New Hampshire— Massachusetts boundary question. It took another seven years for the Crown to finally act, settling the matter in New Hampshire’s favor, but the petition mm the Scots-Irish—and the fact of their settlement in the Merrimack Valley—helped move the British —government toward action. The Londonderry settlers and their impact on the boundary dispute opened the door to colonial expansion throughout the Merrimack River Valley and along its western tributaries (the Piscataquog and Contoocook), with many New Hampshire communities having strong Scots-Irish roots as a result. Nevertheless, by the end of the American Revolution, the flow of immigration from Ulster to New Hampshire had virtually stopped, and by the early 1800s, the Scots-Irish were no longer considered a distinct ethnic group, having assimilated with their English neighbors in less than a century.
For more about the Scots-Irish immigration to New Hampshire, see James Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (New York: Broadway Books, 2005); James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962); and several works by R. Stuart Wallace including “The Scotch-Irish of Provincial New Hampshire” (Ph.D. diss.: University of New Hampshire, 1984), ‘”The Irish Party’ and the New Hampshire/Massachusetts Boundary Controversy,” Historical New Hampshire 49 (Summer 1994): 97—119, and “The Development of the Scotch-Irish Myth in New Hampshire,” Historical New Hampshire 40 (Fall/Winter 1985): 109-34. For the Scots-Irish linen industry and material culture, see “All Sorts of Good Sufficient Cloth”: Linen-Making in New England, 1640—1860 (North Andover, Mass.: Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, 1980); Peter Benes, “John Wight: The Hieroglyph Carver of Londonderry,” Old-Time New England 64 (Fall 1973): 30—41; and David H. Watters, “Fencing ye Tables: Scotch-Irish Ethnicity and the Gravestones of John Wight,” Historical New Hampshire 52 (Spring/ Summer 1997): 2—17.