Monday, June 03, 2019

The Armstrongs - from the Borders to Fermanagh to Pennsylvania to Hawaii to World War II

Armstrong. The name will for ever be synonymous with going to the Moon. But this story is less dramatic but perhaps just as interesting.

The Armstrongs were of course originally Border Reivers, deported to Fermanagh by King James VI & I in the early 1600s to clear them away from the 'debatable lands' on both sides of the Scottish/English border. James had united the two crowns and he needed to get rid of the troublemakers. So to Ulster they were sent. Armstrong remains one of the most common surnames in Fermanagh, and is in the top 50 surnames in all of Ulster.

The Armstrongs conducted themselves valiantly during the Williamite Revolution, in particular in the Inniskillings through their exploits at Lisnaskea and Newtownbutler in 1689. In the 'Address to Their Most Excellent Majesties King William and Queen Mary' which was issued from Enniskillen (online here) the list of signatories includes John, Martin, Thomas, Daniel and James Armstrong.

A later James Armstrong (1754–1829) was an Ulster-Scots Presbyterian, born in Enniskillen. He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1786. He married an Eleanor Pollock there at the First Presbyterian Church in 1788 and they had a number of children. James became a teacher of mathematics at Carlisle High School, Pennsylvania.

Their youngest child Richard Armstrong (1805–1860) was educated at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and then Princeton. He and his new bride Clarissa were sent to Hawaii as  Presbyterian missionaries. They reached Honolulu in 1832 and headed southwards to the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia where they lived and worked among the cannibal Nuku Hiva tribe, alongside fellow Presbyterian Rev William Patterson Alexander who was also of Ulster-Scots parentage. They later moved to the island of Maui and then Wailuku. Richard founded churches and also a sugar company. He was appointed to a number of positions in the Hawaiian government by King Kamehameha III. One of those was President of the Board of Education, gaining him the title 'The Father of American Education in Hawaii'. Richard and Clarissa had ten children; he died following a horse riding accident in 1860.

Their son Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893) had been born in Hawaii. Following his father's wishes, Samuel went to Massachusetts to study at Williams College, during which time the Civil War broke out. Samuel joined the Union Army and became a captain in the 125ht New York Infantry. Later, on becoming a Lieutenant Colonel, he took charge of the 9th United States Colored Infantry in 1863, taking on the task of educating the men in his care. After the war. President Anrew Johnston made him a brigadier general in 1866. But Samuel concentrated the rest of his life on educating African Americans at Hampton University, one of whom was Booker T Washington (1856–1915, Wikipedia here), who said of Armstrong that he was "the most perfect specimen of man, physically, mentally and spiritually the most Christ-like…." and in his autobiography described him as "the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet." 

Samuel's son Daniel Armstrong became a US Navy Lieutenant Commander who, like his father, would train African American troops during World War II, at the Camp Robert Smalls Naval Training Station at Great Lakes Illinois. There is some black and white footage of him here.

Below: Gilnockie Tower, the borders home of the Armstrongs and today the Clan Armstrong Centre.