From Derry to Londonderry

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As a small contribution to ‘the Gathering’ - an Irish government initiative to encourage an additional 350,000 people overseas with Irish roots to visit our shores and reconnect with their ancestral homeland - Derry historian BRIAN MITCHELL is taking a look at the city’s contribution to the Irish diaspora

John’s story is also shared by one General Noyes, a former Governor of Ohio, who accompanied ex-President of USA, Ulysses S Grant on his two-year world tour which included a stop-over in Derry. At a reception hosted, on Monday 6 January 1879, by Londonderry Corporation to confer the Freedom of the City on Ulysses Grant, General Noyes, in his speech, stated that his wife was “the lineal descendant of the Wilsons who left Londonderry, in the North of Ireland, and established a Londonderry in New Hampshire, more than three thousand miles from this place”.

John, whose grandfather John Duncan was an early settler in California and was involved in developing the prune and apricot growers’ association, now known as Sunsweet, told me that “between 1718 and 1720 George Duncan sailed from Derry harbour to America and Londonderry, New Hampshire (which was originally called ‘Nutfield’) with his second wife Margaret Cross and seven children, John (by first wife), and George, William, Robert, Abraham, Esther and James (by Margaret).  I am also descended from John Bell and Mary Todd who came to Londonderry, New Hampshire, about the same time from Ballymoney, Antrim.’

The first step in what was to become a large-scale exodus of Ulster Scots in the 18th century was taken when 311 ‘inhabitants of the North of Ireland’ (including 12 Presbyterian ministers) appointed, by petition dated 26 March 1718, Rev. William Boyd of Macosquin (near Coleraine) to negotiate a grant of land from Samuel Shute, governor of New England. Two of the signatories of this petition were David Duncan and William Dunkan.

Derry was able to benefit from the widespread emigration of Ulster people to North America from the early 1700s. Owing to her westerly situation Derry was seen as being halfway between London and the American colonies; a Derry ship “is no sooner out of the river, but she is immediately in the open sea and has but one course”. Thirty percent of Ulster Scots, around 75,000 people, emigrated though Derry port to North America prior to 1776 and the American Declaration of Independence.

It is uncertain how many of the petitioners (of 1718) actually emigrated on Boyd’s return from Boston with a favourable report. However, it is estimated that one thousand emigrants, mainly descendants of Scottish settlers in the Bann and Foyle valleys, disembarked from ten vessels, which had departed from Coleraine and the city, at Boston in 1718.

James MacGregor, son of Captain MacGregor of Magilligan and minister of Aghadowey Presbyterian Church (near Coleraine), accompanied by some of his congregation arrived, in Boston on 4 August 1718. On 31 October 1718, James MacGregor and Archibald Boyd presented a petition for a grant of land ‘on behalf of themselves and twenty-six others already arrived in Boston and forty more families who were about to emigrate from Ireland’, 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 and went to Haverhill, where they heard of a fine tract of land about fifteen miles distant, called Nutfield, from the abundance of its chestnut, walnut, and butternut trees.

In May 1719 James MacGregor assumed pastoral charge of the settlement - thus the first Presbyterian congregation in New England was formally organised. Nutfield’s Presbyterianism set it apart from its predominantly Congregational neighbouring New England towns. Indeed, Nutfield has been described has the first Presbyterian community in America. In June 1722 Nutfield, by charter granted by Governor Samuel Shute in the name of George III, was incorporated as the town of Londonderry.

The names of the earliest settlers of Londonderry, New Hampshire, are recorded 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’. Named and located on this map are houselots belonging to George Duncan and John Duncan.

Londonderry, New Hampshire, was to become the second largest town in early colonial times and the towns of Derry and Windham were formed from it. In 1790, the first year that a census was taken, the population of Londonderry, New Hampshire, was 2,622.

As was typical of New England towns in the 18th century, political and economic pressures led to the division of the large town of Londonderry. In 1740, the town of Windham was set off from Londonderry and granted a charter. In 1827, 295 citizens petitioned the legislature to divide Londonderry into two towns.

The western portion retained the name Londonderry, and the eastern portion became known as Derry.