Thursday, July 21, 2016

Boston, Eagle Wing and the Merrimack River - 1600s, 1700s, 1800s

As I sat in Boston airport last week waiting for our flight back to Dublin, I remembered that less than one hour north was the proposed location of the settlement for the Eagle Wing and her passengers in Autumn 1636.

1636: Eagle Wing’s Ulster-Scots Presbyterians sail for the Merrimack River
Led by 3 or maybe 4 Presbyterian ministers, they planned to become part of the Massachussetts Bay Colony (official seal shown below). Here is the exact site, marked in green on a map of the late 1700s, and a Google Map from today showing the area more accurately. The small city of Newburyport  (population 18,000) now dominates the location.

Merrimack Eagle Wing

Merrimack Boston

"The territory lying between Ipswich and the Merrimack River was well situated, and covered an area of more than thirty thousand acres of upland and marshland. In the summer of 1634 it had been carefully examined by an agent sent over by " divers gentlemen of Scotland," who "wrote to know whether they might be freely suffered to exercise their presbyterial government amongst us ; and it was answered affirmatively that they might."

We received letters from a godly preacher, Mr. Levinston [Livingstone], a Scotchman in the north of Ireland, whereby he signified that there were many good Christians in those parts resolved to come hither, if they might receive satisfaction concerning some questions and propositions which they sent over.

September 25, 1634, the General Court ordered "that the Scottishe & Irishe gentlemen which intends to come hither shall haue liberty to sitt downe in any place up Merrimacke River, not ppossessed by any." The company embarked for New England, "but, meeting with manifold crosses," abandoned the enterprise and returned home. Before the failure of the expedition was known, however, the town of Ipswich, in the exercise of its authority over the unoccupied territory still under its control, made the following conditional grant with the Irish plantation in mind : —

“December 29th 1634 – It is consented unto that John Pirkins, Junior, shall build a ware [fish trap] upon the river of Quasycung [now river Parker] and enjoy the profitts of itt, but in case a plantation shall there settle then he is to submitt himself unto such conditions, as shall by them be imposed.”

The History of Newbury, Massachusetts, 1635-1902,  John J. Currier (Boston, 1902)

The Parker River mentioned in that quote is just south of the Merrimack and flows into Plum Sound. Today it is a National Wildlife Refuge which each February hosts the Merrimack River Eagle Festival (and here is the website for the Refuge, the map of which shows the Eagle Hill River. Cropped section below).


Parker River crop

Eagle Wing of course failed in her voyage, driven back by hurricanes. I wonder how often her story was told at Ulster firesides in the generations which followed.

1718: Four ships of Ulster-Scots Presbyterians reach the Merrimack River
Nearly a century later it was Presbyterian ministers leading a fresh migration. In summer 1718 four ships arrived in Boston, carrying Ulster-Scots Presbyterian passenger families. They were the first shiploads of the vast exodus of that century, of which you can read more here. These first families grew America’s first white potato, the seed crop of which they had brought with them from Ulster on the voyage. They settled in a few different places in the general area. The settlement of Nutfield became the town of Londonderry, just a few miles from the banks of the Merrimack, which was officially chartered 4 years later in 1722. Presbyterian churches were founded in New England.

1800s: Robert Dinsmoor, Ulster-Scots poet, on the Merrimack River
The eagle-eyed among you will spot that this is the same Merrimack River community where Ulster-Scots poet Robert Dinsmoor the ‘Rustic Bard’ emerged in the early 1800s, at Windham, New Hampshire, (just south of the towns of Derry and Londonderry) with his poems published in Haverhill on the north shore of the river in 1828.

Late 1800s: Opposition from the Merrimack River
NB: The post below – “The Scotch-Irish Shibboleth analyzed and rejected” – mentions Lowell, Massachussetts. Lowell is also on the Merrimack River. It’s pretty remarkable that Joseph Smith airbrushed away the Ulster-Scots history of his adopted home, probably a consequence of the vast demographic change which took place in Boston and other port towns following the arrival of ‘Famine Irish” in the mid & later 1800s.

Willey’s Book of Nutfield (1895) is online here.
• New England Historical Society article ‘How the Scots-Irish Came to America' is online here

(with thanks to Mary Drymon for providing some of these details a while back)



Unknown said...

Mr. Thompson, I am v. interested in your antique map of the Merrimack river. I live about five hundred yards from this river (in what is Dunstable on this map). Are you able to tell me where you found this print online? It is actually quite hard to find maps presenting the Merrimack this plainly. I am looking for a wall map of this wonderful body of water.

Fred Fraser