A look back at the First North West Delegation to Boston: in 1718!

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I read with interest in Friday’s (November 4) Journal about plans for a trade and civic delegation to Boston later this month and it brought to mind a delegation that left here nearly 300 years ago.

They were also seeking opportunities in the new world, but in this case it was land grants as opposed to business investment.

Another distinction, this first delegation was inspired by and led by Presbyterian ministers as opposed to civic and business leaders.

The first step, in what was to become a large-scale exodus of Ulster Scots from Ulster throughout the 18th century, was taken when 311 ‘inhabitants of the North of Ireland’ (including 12 Presbyterian ministers, ministering at congregations in North East Derry and North West Antrim, including Ballyrashne, Ballywillan, Bushmills and 1st Coleraine Presbyterian churches) appointed by petition, dated March 26, 1718, Rev. William Boyd, Presbyterian minister of Macosquin (near Coleraine) to negotiate a grant of land from Samuel Shute, governor of New England.

The negotiations were entrusted to William Boyd, Presbyterian minister of Macosquin (1710 to 1725), who crossed to Boston in 1718. Assurances of support were given by Shute.

It is uncertain how many of the petitioners actually emigrated on Boyd’s return but it is known that neither Boyd nor any of the twelve ministers who signed the petition did so. I have databased the names of these petitioners (email genealogy@derrystrabane.com).

James MacGregor, son of Captain MacGregor of Magilligan and minister of Aghadowey Presbyterian Church, 1701 to 1718, accompanied by some of his congregation arrived in Boston on August 4, 1718.

Sixteen families went to Casco Bay, Maine and remained there during the winter. On October 31, 1718, James MacGregor and Archibald Boyd presented a petition, ‘on behalf of themselves and twenty-six others already arrived in Boston and forty more families who were about to emigrate from Ireland’, for a grant of land to the house of representatives of Massachusetts. They obtained the right to settle in twelve square miles of unclaimed Massachusetts land. In the spring of 1719 the little colony left their winter quarters at Casco Bay and went to Haverhill, where they heard of a fine tract of land about fifteen miles distant, called Nutfield, from the abundance of chestnut, walnut, and butternut, The encouragement offered by the Governor was so favourable the colony of Nutfield was informally organised on April 11, 1719. They began to cut timber and erect log cabins along Westrunning Brook.

In May 1719, Reverend James MacGregor assumed pastoral charge of the settlement, thus the first Presbyterian congregation in New England was formally organised. In June 1722 Nutfield, by charter granted by Governor Samuel Shute in the name of George III, was incorporated as the town of Londonderry.

As well as being one of the founding fathers of Presbyterianism in New England and of the town of Londonderry, New Hampshire it is said James MacGregor had, as a 12 year-old boy, the honour of firing the great gun in the tower of St Columb’s Cathedral, answering the ships which brought relief to Derry to end the siege of 1689. The names of the earliest settlers of Londonderry, are known as, on the ‘map of a large portion of the original town of Nutfield settled in 1719 and chartered as Londonderry in 1722, prepared and drawn by Revd. J G McMurphy’ are recorded 390 names. I have also databased these earliest settlers.

Each was granted a lot suitable for a homestead, upon which relatives or friends might locate at the invitation of the grantee. They lots in fronted on running water. Each family was allotted 120 acres: a 60 acre houselot and a 60 acre woodlot. It is estimated a thousand people, departing from Derry and Coleraine in 10 ships disembarked at Boston in 1718. The importance of this cannot be measured in terms of numbers, alone. The significance of 1718 is that the floodgates of emigration were opened for the first time as an outlet for the distressed and discontented. They demonstrated to tens of thousands of relations and friends they left behind in the Bann and Foyle valleys that life in America was a practical alternative to life, of economic hardship and religious grievances, in Ireland.