The Nutfield towns of Derry, Windham, and Londonderry were settled in 1719 by a pioneer band of sixteen families from the Ulster Plantation of Northern Ireland. They came here in pursuit of the religious, political and cultural freedom that was denied them in the Old World. The famous siege of Derry in 1689 did much to forge this love of liberty and fierce resistance to any perceived threat to their Scottish way of life.

By way of background, the modern city of Derry, Northern Ireland, was founded in 546 A.D. by Saint Columba. His monastery was on a small, oak-covered, hilly island by the river Foyle. The original name of the village Doire, the Gaelic word for oak trees. In 1613 investors from London, England, built a mile-long wall around central hill in Derry and renamed the town Londonderry. During the seventeenth century, many thousands of Scottish Presbyterians left Scotland for Northern Ireland. Much of the land they settled upon was formally the property of the native-born Irish.

During the twentieth century, sectarian struggles between Catholics and Protestants rocked the city. For decades the British army occupied much of the town and protest marches and gun fire were a daily occurrence. It has only been in the last couple of decades that a state of relative calm has enveloped the city. Today the Catholic majority prefers that the city be called by its original name- Derry. In contrast, the Protestant minority always refers to the city as Londonderry. Sometimes the town called “Slash City” because of the politically correct designation of Derry/Londonderry.

In 1685, James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne of England. He soon replaced all the Protestant officers in the army with loyal Catholics. Many England feared the Catholicism would be made the state religion and that he Protestants would become disenfranchised. In 1688 a coup forced James to flee to France. Protestant monarchs King William and Queen Mary replaced him on the throne.

In March 1689, James landed in Ireland with a French army and a call front he Irish to rise up in rebellion. Soon an estimated fifty thousand peasants heeded his call. This army, called the Jacobites, seized the cities of Ireland in the name of King James II. In time, the only Irish city still controlled by the British was Derry. Within its walls were thousands of Scottish refugees who had fled their villages and farms to escape massacre by the French-Irish army. Derry’s military commander sided with the Jacobites and ordered the city gates open to admit the French. The surrender was rejected by a group of thirteen apprentice boys from Derry. These freedom-loving teenagers rushed to the Derry city wall and slammed the gate shut to keep out the enemy. Their message was “no surrender”

On April 18, 1689, King James II arrived outside the wall of Derry and Demanded that the city surrender to its rightful King. The city refused his command and the siege of Derry began. The Jacobite strategy was to blockade the city and allow no food or supplies into the town. In time, starvation and the effects of daily artillery bombardments would surely force and the seven thousand inhabitants to surrender.

A few miles downstream from Derry, the Jacobites constructed a floating log boom across the river Foyle. This barrier was constructed to prevent any resupplying to the city by the British navy. The French also set up artillery batteries on the nearby shores to protect the boom.

For week after week, the siege continued. Each night the defenders repaired the damage done by the artillery during the day. Each attempt at storming the walls was repelled by the men of Derry. The french army tried to tunnel under the battlements but the effort was repulsed with considerable struggle. Soon most of the buildings in the city were reduced to rubble. The inhabitants were were forced to live in cellars and dig tunnels to provide ways of traveling through the town. Only the tower on the cathedral remained visible above the city walls.

There were likely more Derry men, woman, and children killed by starvation and disease than by cannonballs and musket shot. Soon all the grain was eaten. All the horses were slaughtered and eaten except for nine animals that were “so lean and gaunt that it seemed useless to kill them.” Salted animal hides became standard fare on the tables of Derry. The citizens grew so weak that the bodies of those who died were left unburied. The smell of death was everywhere. The leaders proclaimed that first they’d eat “the horse and hides; then the prisoners’ then each other.” No surrender!

According to a contemporary history of the siege, these were the actual prices charged in the food markets of Derry-a quarter of a dog, five shilling, six pence; a rat, one shilling; a mouse, six pence. Pints of blood and candle tallow were also considered suitable foodstuff. It is said that one overweight Derry man hid himself in the cellar, fearful that his neighbors would covet his flesh for their evening meal. The expression “like the fat man in Derry” used to be slang for an individual whose prosperity excites envy on the part of his less fortunate neighbors.

On July 28, 1688, on the one hundred fifth day of siege, there were only two day’s rations of food remaining in Derry. The city could not hold out much longer. Standing on the tower of the cathedral was twelve-year-old Jamie MacGregor.He had been born in Magilligan County and fled with his parents to safety inside the city walls of Londonderry. From his vantage point he could see miles downstream to where the boom was stretched across the river Foyle. As he watched, the British warships Mountjoy and Phoenix rammed the boom. With heroic efforts they finally snapped the cathedral cannon and fired a volley to let the citizens know the siege had been broken. Relief was on its way! Food would soon be offloaded at the city dock and though the Shipquay gate.

Onto the dock were unloaded six thousand bushels of beef, huge wheels of cheese, kegs of butter, and so on. A diet of tallow, dog meat, and salted animal hide was replaced with a feast of delights. Soon all the bells in the city were pealing in celebration! On August 1, the Jacobite army accepted defeat and left the outskirts of Derry. At the Battle of the Boyne, the forces of King James were routed and the sweetness of peace came again to the green land of Ireland.

Oh yes, about Jamie MacGregor, the boy who fired the cathedral cannon to signal the end of the siege.  He would later attend the University of Edinburgh and became a Presbyterian minister. Probably he had seen enough of war as a boy and wanted to end his life as a man of peace. In 1701 he became a respected pastor in the small Irish village of Aghadowney. In 1710 he was allowed by the Presbyterian synod to preach in Gaelic.

In the second decade of the eighteenth century, life in Aghadowney began to turn bad for James MacGregor and his congregation. The British government decided that only members of the Anglican denomination could hold government office. This froze the Scots out of political life. A tithe was demanded to support an official state church that was not on their own. Why should they be forced to contribute 10 percent of their earnings to the Church of Ireland when they were followers of the Kirk of Scotland? They were Scots who had relocated to Ireland to farm on crown land. Scots they were and Scots they were remain. Everywhere they looked they saw the improvised hovels of the native Irish. Many, perhaps all, of the Scots felt uncomfortable being surrounded by these unrepentant Catholics.

These rather stiff-necked Presbyterians were famous for the rigidity of their beliefs. They were not willing to blend in. They would remain Scots even if they were in Ireland or the New World. Their kirk was where they would worship and their dominies would be their preachers and teachers. As the poet Whittier would later write, it was a common saying that the Derry Presbyterians “would never give up a ‘pint’ of doctrine or a pint of rum.”

Perhaps the most important problem was economic. The members of the MacGregor’s congregation were mainly weaver/farmers. From 1714 through 1718 there were a series of very bad harvests. Those years also saw a decline in the price of linen. After the siege of 1689, the British government had given the yeoman farmers very cheap rents in the Ulster Plantation. After 1710, there was fear that the leaseholders would see their rents doubled, or worse. It was time to leave. But to where?

In 1714 the Reverend William Holmes had left Ireland for the New World. There he met with Boston clergyman Cotton Mather, who encouraged him to find a way to increase Presbyterian migration. In 1718, the Reverent William Boyd, who had preached close to Aghadowney, successfully petitioned Governor Shute of Massachusetts for a grand of land in the New World. As a “thank you,” Shute would be given a large farm in Nutfield.

By 1718, MacGregor and his congregation decided that the attractions of New England were greater than the reason to stay in Ireland. These were not young men and women off on a lark; they were mainly people of middle age who knew they were quickly approaching the end of their working life. Nor were they “your tired, your poor….your huddled masses…the wretched refuge yearning to be free.” They were a fairly prosperous lot who didn’t need to become indentured servants in order to pay for their voyage to America; they were able to pay the fare of five pounds with cash. They were also better educated than most early-eighteenth-century emigrants. They could all sign their names and read their Bibles. Some were even university graduates.

On the day before the Aghadowney pioneers left, the Reverend James MacGregor called together his flock and preached a sermon. His text was from Exodus 33:12, in which Moses prays in the wilderness: “If thy presence goes not with me, carry us not hence.” He and his followers felt that they were on a holy pilgrimage but could succeed only if God was their protector. MacGregor knew that only a couple of verses back, God had said that He would not go with the children of Israel because they were a sinful “stiff-necked people.” It took earnest, sincere prayer of repentance on the part of Moses to get the Lord God Jehovah to continue with them. Likewise MacGregor knew that if God was not with the pioneers from Aghadowney, they would surely fail in the American wilderness.

At the actual hour of their departure from their Irish village, there must have been many scenes of tears and sorrow. They were leaving homes they had lived in all their lives. Each knew that he would never again eat supper with elderly relatives who chose to remain behind. It would only be at the table in heaven that they would be reunited. MacGregor told his flock, “We must say farewell to friends, relations and our native land.” He elaborated by giving the four reasons for their leaving: 1. “to avoid oppressive and cruel bondage”; 2. “to shun persecution and signed ruin”; 3. “to withdraw from the communion of idolaters”; and 4. “to have an opportunity of worshiping God according to the dictates of conscience and the rules of his inspired Word.” In America they could build their village on the hill as a theocracy ruled by the elders, and the church sessions could forge the word of God into the law of man.

Sometime in the spring of 1718, the Reverend James MacGregor set sail from Belfast bound for the New World. With him in the British brigantine Robert were sixteen families from the congregation.Later one elderly woman came dockside to see the pioneers off for America. On board was the pride of her life, her son William Humphrey, whom she would never see again. As the ship was leaving the quay, she yelled her parting prayer, “Go and God be wi’ye a’ but Willie Humphrey- he’ll take care of himself”

No one knows how long it took the ship to reach Boston,  but six weeks is a good guess. The Robert arrived on August 4, 1718. Nor do we know the number of Aghadowney pioneers who were on the first voyage. The sixteen households were: James McKeen, John Barnett, Archibald Clendinon, John Mitchell, James Sterrett, James and Allen Anderson, Randall Alexander, James Gregg, James Clark, James Nesmith, Robert Weir, John Morrison, Samuel Allison, Thomas Steele, John Stewart, and James MacGregor.

It has now been more than ten generations since this first wave of immigrants arrived in the New World. There are doubtlessly many, many thousands of their descendants scattered across the country.

The MacGregor Flock was first offered a trct of land in Casco Bay by the Pejepscot Proprietors. The good ship Robert took some of them to check the site. There they wintered at the mouth of the Androscoggin River. Here they froze and starved until he colony of Massachusetts Bay sent a hundred bushel of meal and to stay in Massachusetts, and he spent the winter of 1718-1719 teaching school in Dracut. Finally the governor of Massachusetts gave them twelve-by-twelve-mile grant that was called Nutfield.

Nutfield had been named b y earlier pioneers in New Hampshire. In Nutfield there were huge, long meadows that extended for miles through the forests. These grasslands were created by beavers damming streams to make ponds. In time they filled in and became grasslands. Settlers in the coastal towns would come to these meadows to cut the grass to feed their livestock. There were also forests of chestnut, walnut, butternuts, oak, and beech whose nuts could be also gathered to feed their animals. These two very desirable animal foods led to this area being named Nutfield. By the time MacGregor reached Nutfield, portions of the grant had been claimed by other towns. The original 144 square miles had ben reduced to about 114.

On April 11, 1719, the first of our town’s pioneers arrived in Nutfield. The men came first so they could build homes before the women and children arrived. The following day the men gathered under a large oak on the eastern shore of Beaver Lake. There MacGregor preached the first sermon ever heard in the town. His text was from Isaiah 32:2 “And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a shelter from the tempest; as rivers of water in a tree became a local tourist attraction. During the 1840s the tree fell 1890, this tree was replaced by a cairn of stones. during the 1920s a farmer’s son grew tired of strangers walking across his garden to see the site of the first sermon. The young man knocked down the monument and scattered the stones so that no one today know were the sermon site was located.

To protect themselves in case of Indian attack, the men built heir houses close together. On each side of West Running Brook they constructed their homes made of crudely hewn. bark-covered logs. Each house was identical and sited exactly 495 feet (thirty rods) apart from each other. Now everything was in place for the woman and children to come to the wilderness of Nutfield. The horses would most certainly have been used as pack animals, with only the very old or feeble being allowed to ride. Everything they owned in the world could be carried in a relatively few bundles and sacks.

In 1881 a story was told about the first day in this tiny village. John Morrison worked hard like all the other men to build a sturdy cabin for his family. When his wife, Jane Steele Morrison, arrived after her long trek, he proudly showed off their new home. Jane did not seem thrilled with the rude building. Summoning up all of her feminine wiles, she twisted her arms lovingly around her husband’s neck. Looking adoringly into his eyes, she whispered, “Well, well, dear John, if it must be a long house, do make it a log higher than the rest.”

The Nutfield colony of James MacGregor grew quickly as more and more Scots from Ireland settled there. By 1721 the population of Nutfield had grown to 360 people. The next year the settlement shed its Nutfield name and became an officially charted town named Londonderry, after the city that gave them refuge back in Ireland. By 1740 only the town of Portsmouth, the capital of New Hampshire, had a larger population than that of Londonderry. In 1767 Londonderry’s population had risen to 2,389. In addition to this resident population there were thousands of first-, second-, or third- generation Scotch Irish who emigrated from Londonderry, New Hampshire, to found towns through out the east coast of America and Canada.

In reference books, MacGregor is sometimes called the Moses of the Scotch Irish in America. The church he started was the First Parish Church in East Derry. James MacGregor went to his eternal es in 1729 at the age of fifty-two. He left a grieving widow and seven children. Five men who had been his comrades at the siege of Derry carried his body from his church to nearby Forest Hill Cemetery. He would likely have been comforted to know that in time his wife would marry the Reverend Matthew Clark, his replacement as pastor in Derry. Mr.Clark was also a veteran of the siege and his temple proudly bore a battle wound that never healed. No doubt there are thousands of his descendants in America today. James MacGregor’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson is Senator John Kerry, who ran for president in 2004.

There were a number of farms in a colonial Derry, Londonderry, and Windham that were exempt from paying property taxes because the owners had fought in the siege of Derry, Ireland. The telling and retelling of the story of the siege would go on for decades. Each new generation heard afresh how their ancestors bravely stood up against an enemy determined to destroy their Highlander way of  life. Fifty-eight years after the original settlement of Nutfield, the Scotch Irish of Derry, Londonderry, and Windham would be among the leaders in the American Revolution. These heroes of 1776 would certainly have remembered the resolve of their forefathers in 1689. The memory of the courage of their ancestors may well have led General John Stark of Derry, New Hampshire, to pen the phrase “live free or die.”

This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard wasborn, raised and attended school throughout New Hampshire. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard has also been a columnist for the Derry News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Nutfield News, and the Manchester Union Leader.

Leave Richard a comment on the story. Copies of his book are still available at the Derry Public Library.

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