It’s almost sunset on a hot July 28th, 1688, and a twelve-year-old boy is climbing stairs to the highest point in the walled city of Derry, Ireland.
He’s no doubt thinking of the several thousand soldiers and residents who recently died within those walls, on this the 105th day of a terrible siege. Rations are scarce—there are few dogs left alive in the city—and only two days worth remain.
Nearing the top, the boy can hear cannon and musket fire from a couple of miles down the calm river Foyle. Emerging at the top of the cathedral tower, he can just see the great battle going on downstream. There, a wooden and chain boom stretches shore to shore, blocking the relief ships sent by King William and Queen Mary, Protestant rulers in England.
The boom was built and defended by the French and Irish army of deposed Catholic King James II. He had promoted Catholicism and threatened the Protestant establishment during his brief reign, and had been banished to France. His attempt to regain the throne centered on taking over Northern Ireland, and until now his forces had been quite successful.
The boy on the tower and his family and many other faithful Presbyterian Protestants had fled to the safe walls of Dublin to escape the Catholic army sweeping the Irish countryside. Soon he sees the answer to their prayers, as the British ships break through the boom and sail towards the city. With great joy and excitement he fires a signal cannon to let the famished residents know that relief is on its way. Two days later and the Catholics give up, abandon the siege—and the war—and a defeated King James heads back to France.
That twelve-year-old boy was James MacGregor, who would go on to found what became Derry and our First Parish Church.
MacGregor’s immediate ancestors had been among the 100,000-plus Presbyterians moving from the Scottish Lowlands to Northern Ireland between 1607 and 1697. They occupied the farms and towns of the defeated local Irish Catholics, at the invitation of the Anglican Protestant King of England and Scotland.
That king’s motivation in establishing this Ulster Plantation was to use the less-unfriendly Scottish Presbyterians to create a buffer between England and the unruly Irish Catholics. This was a great economic success, but Irish/Protestant tension in Ulster oscillated through the decades, peaking in 1688 with the terrible Siege of Derry we just glimpsed.
War left MacGregor determined to pursue a life devoted to peace. In 1701 he became a pastor in Aghadowey, a small village near Derry, and there lead a decidedly Scottish Presbyterian congregation for many years.
Meanwhile, Ulster became the most economically successful part of Ireland and began to rival England. The concerned British rulers took steps to control the economy and force the state-sanctioned Anglican Protestant religion on all the Presbyterian residents. This made religious and economic life more and more challenging for the Ulster Scots, and lead to yet another migration, this time to the New World.
In the spring of 1718, Rev. MacGregor and sixteen families from his congregation—probably about 300 people—left Belfast on the British ship Robert and sailed to Boston. They were first offered land in Maine along Casco Bay, and the Robert took most of the group north to check it out. They ended up stuck there for the winter, freezing and starving, until an offer of new land finally came. The Robert sailed down to the Merrimack River and landed at Haverhill on April 2nd, and a group of men proceeded North to the flock’s new home, Nutfield.
This was a 12 square mile tract known for its plentiful nut trees and rich potential farm land. The governor in Massachusetts gave them this territory in part to create a buffer between the native Indians and the more civilized establishment in Boston. This sort of attitude would persist for many years, as our resilient band of Scots-Irish settlers continually sought to clarify that they were Presbyterian Scottish immigrants, not the even more scorned Irish Catholics.
Finding Nutfield satisfactory, most of the men returned to Haverhill to fetch their families. Some of the party returned via Dracut to pick up Rev. MacGregor, who hadn’t gone to Maine with the congregation, and instead spent the winter teaching in Dracut. They all arrived there on April 11.
The next day, April 12, 1719, Rev. MacGregor gathered everyone under an oak tree on the east shore of Beaver Lake and preached the First Sermon. This marks the founding of our church.
Nutfield grew vigorously from that point on, becoming a formal town and changing names from “Nutfield” to “Londonderry” in 1722. Much later, in 1827, a religious split led to a departure of many from our congregation to the West Parish, where they kept the town name Londonderry and Derry was incorporated as it is today.
The challenging move of the middle-aged Aghadowy congregation to New England was less “grand adventure” and more “the lesser of two evils.” In a sermon the night before their departure, Rev. MacGregor gave these four reasons for leaving their home:
- “To avoid oppressive and cruel bondage,”
- “to shun persecution and signed ruin,”
- “to withdraw from the communion of idolaters,” and
- “to have an opportunity of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscious and the rules of his inspired Word.”
This vision of religious freedom helped our First Settlers to persevere through very tough times, as had the same spirit helped their ancestors back in Scotland and Ireland.
There is much more to the story of our founding First Settlers. Derry Town Historian Richard Holmes tells the full story in his book Nutfield Rambles. Find it in our local libraries, or read a free excerpt online at Londonderry Hometown Online News.
Read much more about the religious history and background in Scotch And Irish Seeds In American Soil.
Follow the story of the settlement in Nuffield as told in 1890 in Scotch-Irish In New England.