The Scotch-Irish on the New England Frontier (3)

Henry Jones Ford
CHAPTER VII (3) Start of Section

An authentic account of the manners and customs of the Scotch-Irish settlers is preserved in the Rev. Edward L. Parker's History of Londonderry. The author, born in 1785 in Litchfield, N. H., was for a time a student at the academy in Londonderry, and in 1810 became pastor of the Presbyterian church in the East Parish of Londonderry, remaining until his death in 1850. Thus he spent his life in and about Londonderry and was in the best possible position to acquaint himself with its history, to which he devoted such painstaking investigation that he died before the final completion of the work. It was in such shape that his son was soon able to prepare it for publication. The work itself testifies to its accuracy by its transparent honesty of statement. The following account is given of early customs:

"The bridegroom selected one of his intimate friends for the 'best man,' who was to officiate as master of the ceremony, and the bride likewise one of her companions, as 'best maid.' The morning of the marriage day was ushered in with the discharge of musketry, in the respective neighborhoods of the persons who were to be united. This practice it seems originated in Ireland, in consequence of the Catholics having been, after the Revolution, deprived of the use of firearms. The Protestants, proud of the superior privilege which they then enjoyed, made a display of their warlike instruments on all public occasions. Seldom was a respectable man married without his sword by his side. At the appointed hour, the groom proceeded from his dwelling with his select friends, male and female; about half way on their progress to the house of the bride, they were met by her select male friends; and, on meeting, each company made choice of one of their number to 'run for the bottle' to the bride's house. The champion of the race who returned first with the bottle, gave a toast, drank to the bridegroom's health, and, having passed round the bottle, the whole party proceeded, saluted by the firing of muskets from the houses they passed, and answering these salutes with pistols. When arrived at the bride's residence, the bridegroom's company were placed in an apartment by themselves, and it was considered an act of impoliteness for any one of the bride's company to intrude. When the ceremony was to commence the 'best man' first introduced the bridegroom; then, entering the bride's apartment, led her into the room, and, placing her at the right hand of her 'intended,' took his station directly behind, as did the 'best maid.' The minister commenced the marriage service with prayer; on requesting the parties to join hands, each put the right hand behind, when the glove was drawn off by the best man and maid. Their hands being joined, the marriage covenant was addressed to them, with appropriate remarks on the nature and responsibilities of the connection thus formed. Having concluded with another prayer, he requested the groom to salute his bride, which being done, the minister performed the same ceremony, and was immediately followed by the male part of the company; the female in like manner saluted the bridegroom.

"The ceremony being concluded the whole company sat down to the entertainment, at which the best man and best maid presided. Soon after the entertainment, the room was cleared for the dance and other amusements, 'and the evening,' remarks our aged informant, kindling at the recollection of bygone scenes, 'was spent with a degree of pleasure of which our modern fashionables are perfectly ignorant.'

"Their funeral observances were of a character, in some respects, peculiar. When death entered their community, and one of their number was removed, there was at once a cessation of all labor in the neighborhood. The people gathered together at the house of mourning, and during the earlier periods of the settlement, observed a custom which they had brought with them from Ireland, called the 'wake,' or watching with the dead, from night to night, until the interment. These night scenes often exhibited a mixture of seriousness and of humor which appear incompatible. The Scriptures would be read, prayer offered, and words of counsel and consolation administered; but ere long, according to established usage, the glass, with its exhilarating beverage, must circulate freely; so that, before the dawn, the joke and the laugh, if not scenes more boisterous, would break in upon the slumbers of the dead.

"At the funeral, whatever might have been the age, the character, or condition of the deceased, the assemblage would be large. Every relation, however distant the connection, must surely be present, or it be regarded as a marked neglect; and it was expected that all the friends and acquaintances of the deceased, within a reasonable distance, would attend. Although funeral sermons were seldom if ever delivered on the occasion, yet there would be usually as large a congregation as assembled on the Sabbath. Previous to the prayer, spirit was handed around, not only to the mourners and bearers, but to the whole assembly. Again, after prayer, and before the coffin was removed, the same was done. Nearly all would follow the body to the grave, and usually the greater number walked. Processions, from a third to a half a mile in length, were not unfrequent. At their return, the comforting draught was again administered, and ample entertainment provided. Many a family became embarrassed, if not impoverished, in consequence of the heavy expenses incurred, not so much by the sickness which preceded the death of one of its members, as by the funeral services as then observed, and which as they supposed respect for the dead required.

"Their diversions and scenes of social intercourse were of a character not the most refined and cultured; displaying physical rather than intellectual and moral powers, such as boxing matches, wrestling, foot races, and other athletic exercises. At all public gatherings, the 'ring' would be usually formed; and the combatants, in the presence of neighbors, brothers, and even fathers, would encounter each other in close fight, or at arms length, as the prescribed form might be; thus giving and receiving the well directed blow, until the face, limbs, and body of each bore the marks of almost savage brutality. All this was done, not in anger, or from unkind feeling toward each other, but simply to test the superiority of strength and agility."

Parker could speak from his own knowledge of the arrangements in the meetinghouses as they were still in force when his pastorate began. He remarks:

"The construction of the pulpit with its appendages, in Presbyterian communities corresponded with their form of ecclesiastical government. As you entered the pulpit, you first came to the deacons' seat, elevated like the pews, about six inches from the floor of the aisles, or passages. In the deacons' narrow slip usually sat two venerable men, one at each end. Back of the deacons' seat and elevated ten or twelve inches higher, was the pew of the ruling elders, larger than that of the deacons and about square. Back of the elders' pew, and two or three feet higher, and against the wall, was the pulpit."

The town grew so fast that in 1734, only fifteen years after the first settlement, the church records note 700 communicants present at the sacrament. Londonderry was a source from which Scotch-Irish blood was diffused throughout Rockingham, Hillsboro, and Merrimack counties in New Hampshire. At least ten distinct settlements were made by emigrants from Londonderry during the quarter of a century preceding the Revolution, all of which became important towns. An emigration spread into Vermont, joining with that which moved northward from the Worcester settlement. Numerous families moved northward and westward and over the ridge of the Green Mountains. The Scotch-Irish were active in the French and Indian War, and participated in the Conquest of Canada in 1759. Major Robert Rogers, commander of three companies of rangers raised in New Hampshire in 1756, was a native of Londonderry and most of his men were from that place. John Stark, who commanded one of these companies, was in 1777 commander of the American troops that won the battle of Bennington. Robert McGregor, a grandson of the Londonderry pastor, served on Stark's staff. Col. George Reid, who served throughout the entire war of the Revolution in command of the New Hampshire forces, was a native of Londonderry. Col. James Miller, who led the decisive charge at Lundy's Lane in the War of 1812, was of Londonderry stock, although his people were settled at Peterborough, N. H., at the time of his birth in 1776. He became Territorial Governor of Arkansas, and on retiring from that post an invalid in 1823 he was appointed collector at Salem and Beverly, Mass., where he had as a subordinate Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in his writings made some appreciative notices of the Scotch-Irish veteran. Parker mentions that from Londonderry stock came six Governors of New Hampshire, nine members of Congress and five justices of the Supreme Court of the State.

A decade after the first Scotch-Irish settlements in New England an Ulster colonization of eastern Maine was begun by the activity of a stout hearted adventurer who had a romantic career. David Dunbar, a native of Ulster who had been a colonel in the British army and had served in Spain, was in 1728 appointed Surveyor of the Woods. It was the policy of the English Government to make forest reservations for the use of the navy, and there had been much complaint about the way these reservations had been plundered. The attitude of colonial juries was such that it was practically impossible to convict or punish for such offenses in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Dunbar conceived the idea of making the country east of the Kennebec a distinct province which he undertook to settle from Protestant Ireland. In 1729 he obtained an order appointing him Governor of the Province of Sagadahock, which was placed at his disposal upon condition that he should preserve 300,000 acres of the best pine and oak for the use of the Crown. With the aid of troops sent from Nova Scotia Dunbar took possession, ignoring the Massachusetts claim of jurisdiction. He rebuilt the fortification at Pemaquid, naming it Fort Frederick, and with it as the seat of his Government he addressed himself energetically to the work of planting and settling the country. His career was brief. Jonathan Belcher, who was appointed Governor of Massachusetts in 1730, pressed the claims of Massachusetts so effectively that in 1732 orders were issued revoking Dunbar's powers. Dunbar obeyed orders like a good soldier. His enterprise had involved his finances so that on returning to England in 1737 he was imprisoned for debt; but his friends were able to obtain his release. In 1743 he was appointed Governor of St. Helena. Brief as was Dunbar's career in Maine, he brought in about 150 families, some coming from Massachusetts or New Hampshire, and some direct from Ireland.

Incidentally, Dunbar's enterprise led to another Ulster colonization of eastern Maine. Samuel Waldo, who was active in London as an agent of Massachusetts in the proceedings against Dunbar, was himself holder of a grant to lands between the St. George and the Penobscot Rivers. Impressed by the vigor and capacity of the settlers brought in by Dunbar, Waldo sought to get some of the same sort on his lands. The first company consisted of twenty-seven families, who arrived in 1735, each family receiving 100 acres of land on the bank of the St. George in the present town of Warren. Among them were Alexanders, Blairs, Kilpatricks, Pattersons, McLeans, McCrackens and Morrisons.

These successive settlements in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire were the original centers from which the Scotch-Irish strain spread through New England. The Ulster men amply fulfilled all that was expected of them as frontier barriers for the protection of the older settlements. They were the chief colonizing agency in Maine, in which State the infusion of Scotch-Irish blood was greatest, but the strain was also strong in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. It spread into Connecticut and Rhode Island but is not so marked in those States. It was borne in the current of emigration from New England as the settlement of the interior of the country progressed and many western families of Scotch-Irish derivation have New England antecedents. The main stream of Scotch-Irish influence in the growth of the nation was, however, that which issued from the settlements in Pennsylvania, in which the characteristic institutions of the race were better preserved than in New England.