36. Newcomers in the Bay Colony

In 1720 a brigantine entered the port of Boston with a party of settlers from Ulster that included Alexander McNitt, his wife Sarah, and his son Barnard.  The small ships then plying from Londonderry and Belfast to New England usually were brigantines: two-masted, square-rigged vessels without cocktail lounges and orchestras.  The price of an ocean ticket for one of these no-luxury liners was generally L9.

It would be helpful to this history to identify the father of this Alexander and fix his home locality, but doubt must restrain us.  If we were to be guided by the surname form alone, we might make a tentative selection of Alexander McNitt of Culylee, Raymocky parish, in the Laggan.  He would be an obvious choice except that in all sorts of investigations the obvious so often is overthrown later by the appearance of inconvenient facts, so disturbing to pat conclusions.

We might keep the door of possibility open a little for John McNaught of Culfad, proscribed and forfeited for treason in Galloway.  He had a son named Alexander.  John may have used the name McKnight, or McNeight, as did the great majority of his Galloway kin at the time, but pursuing officialdom knew the original surname form was McNaught and wrote John down that way in the black book when he was stripped of all his possessions.  Partiality to the idea of descent from a covenanting "traitor" to Charles II, and liking for the simple cottage at Culfad, should not be allowed, however, to color deductions.

So perhaps Alexander of Culylee was father to the Alexander McNitt who, with sons, nephews and cousins, was to become more numerously represented in the modern United States and Nova Scotia than anyone else in the McNaught clan.  John and Robert McNitt, living near Culylee, may have been brothers of this elder Alexander; all three names appeared on a Hearth Money Roll in the period of 1665.  It is reasonable to suspect that another Alexander McNitt, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1722, was a son of Robert McNitt of Aghadacor, Mevagh parish, because the name Robert has recurred persistently in the Pennsylvania family to this day.

It was long customary for McNitts in the Laggan and in America to give the name Alexander to the eldest son.  They brought the idea from Scotland, where the name often had been used in the neighborhood of Dalry.  It is a good surmise that the first son of the Massachusetts Alexander was the Alexander McNutt who appeared in Maryland about

(end of page 25)

1735 and in the Valley of Virginia in 1744.  Barnard McNitt of Palmer no doubt was the youngest in this family.  Who were the sons between?

Surmising again, they may have been the men who settled around Londonderry, New Hampshire and in Berkshire County, Massachusetts in the period of 1720 and after, and who generally used the surname form McKnight.  Though lacking proof we still may hold it reasonable to think all the early settlers of the McNaught line in New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were sons, nephews, or cousins of the Alexander McNitt who spent the last of his ninety years at Palmer.

The arrival of an immigrant ship from Londonderry was no gala event for the bored Bostonians of 1720. They had observed such arrivals for two years, without enthusiasm.  Alexander McNitt and his wife Sarah, and their son Barnard and his wife, must have sensed a trace of reserve after they left the crowded, uncomfortable little vessel with their friends and kinfolk from the Laggan to have their first look at the capital of the Puritans.

The project for an Ulster Presbyterian colony in New England had been studied with a great deal of care.  Early in 1718 the neighborhood around Londonderry was astir with chat about departure from the land of rack-renting landlords to seek new fortunes in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Had they better try it?  Counseled by two ministers, the Rev. William Boyd and the Rev. James McGregor, 319 men signed a letter to Governor Samuel Shute of Massachusetts, expressing desire to come if assured of welcome.  Seven of the signers were ministers and university graduates.  Of their letter, John Fiske says in Old Virginia and Her Neighbors:

"In a document signed in 1718 by a miscellaneous group of 319 men, only thirteen made their mark, while 306 wrote their names in full.  Nothing like that could have happened at that time in any other part of the British Empire, hardly even in New England."
In the spring, Mr. Boyd brought the letter to Governor Shute.  He also talked with the Rev. Cotton Mather, who told him he thought Presbyterians had sufficient grace to fit into the theocratic Bay Colony.  This view was not precisely shared by others in Boston, as appeared later.

In truth, Boston had conflicting opinions of the Rev. Mr. Mather himself.  Only twenty-six years before, nearby Salem Village had executed twenty persons -- nineteen by hanging and one by crushing to death under heavy rocks -- in a mad hysteria of witch-hunting incited by the antics of a group of silly, exhibitionistic teen-age girls.  Cotton Mather had seen in these horrors a poetic wrestling between Satan

(end of page 26)

and God, and had invited into his own home for observation one such girl named Margaret Rule, aged seventeen.  Margaret appeared to suffer torments of spectral affliction, and Mather and his father, the Rev. Increase Mather, encouraged spectators to come in from the streets of Boston to observe.  One of the observers was a coffee house wit and skeptic, Robert Calef, who wrote of what he saw, for private circulation, remarking -- according to Marian L. Starkey in The Devil in Massachusetts "She visibly liked being stroked across the face and naked breast and belly by the Mathers, father and son, this being a kind of laying on of hands by which they tried to relieve her, but let a woman touch her and she cried out sharply, 'Don't you meddle with me!"'

Governor Shute encouraged Mr. Boyd, bearer of the letter from 319 Ulstermen, and word was sent back of a waiting welcome.  On August 4, 1718, five ships bearing a hundred families arrived in the port of Boston from Londonderry -- ships as much cherished in historical recollection by descendants of the Ulster Scots aboard as the Mayflower is cherished by some others, though not nearly so much celebrated.  No bonfires were lighted; no keys to the city were offered.  Even Cotton Mather may not have been on hand with an address of welcome.  He may already have had misgivings about these plain, sensible immigrants.

The Bostonians were not away at Nahant and other North Shore summer places not yet conceived; they were at home, worrying.  They intimated to the newcomers that Boston did not have food and employment enough for a swarm of strangers, and pointed to the frontiers which actually were not very far away.  Behind their hands they whispered among themselves that the "mere Irish" were likely to prove a burden if allowed to stay in the community.

The device of shooing Ulster-Scottish immigrants to the frontiers beyond the settlements was generally adopted later in other colonies, as an excellent means to set up a human barrier against the Indians.  Men who could hold and save Londonderry could be just as useful in holding frontier settlements and saving established dwellers in coastal regions.

We may be quite sure that when Alexander and Barnard McNitt and their wives arrived in Boston in 1720 they were under no illusions; they asked nothing but a chance to get going.  Probably the two wives -- the old one and the younger one -- murmured that the clothes they all were wearing didn't look just right for Boston.

Without doubt they knew exactly what they were about and where they proposed to go.  Quite possibly they had with them several others of the clan: the McKnights or McNights who appeared soon at Bedford, New Hampshire, and the McKnights who settled in Berkshire

(end of page 27)

County in western Massachusetts.  It is almost safe to say that Alexander and Barnard went straightway to Worcester to join friends who had preceded them.

Worcester was the chief frontier town, a community of about fifty houses located forty-five miles west of Boston.  Some of the newcomers in 1718 had gone to Worcester, but many more had chosen southern New Hampshire and set up a community in a grove of nut trees that they called Nutfield.  In a little while they changed the name of the place to Londonderry, in honor of the city back home.  What Plymouth means in the English settlement of New England, Londonderry means for the coming of the Ulster Scots.

Let us say that after reaching Worcester, the McNitts found preferable the nearby community of Rutland as a home for a few years.  They may not have been in the neighborhood in 1740 when the Presbyterians of Worcester decided to build a church of their own.  This move looked like rebellion to the English Puritans, who felt certain the tough-minded newcomers would refuse to contribute to the established church when they had one of their own to support.  Indignation grew as the frame of the new church rose.  Then one dark night a mob appeared with axes, tore down the timbers, and set fire to them.  This act persuaded the Presbyterians they could do better in new communities of their own.  They began to move away, some to Spencer, some to Rutland, and some to Connecticut and New York.

The Ulster Scots constituted in fact an unpopular racial minority group.  In 1720, the year Alexander and Barnard McNitt arrived in Boston, the General Court adopted a resolution ordering that one of their settlements be broken up within seven months; otherwise prosecution would ensue.  Jacob B. Moore in his "Sketch of Concord" relates that when plans were made in 1725 for the settlement of the town, restrictions were placed on sales of land to exclude Ulster Scots, "against whom a strong national prejudice existed."

A considerable group from Worcester removed to a new district about thirty-five miles to the west called The Elbows, from bends in the Quabaug River.  This neighborhood also was known for a while as Kingstown or Kingsfield, thus informally named for the first settler, John King, who had arrived in 1716. After local government had been set up the town became permanently known as Palmer.  It was named by Governor Shirley in honor of a Scottish friend, Thomas Palmer.

To be direct about it, the McNitts came to The Elbows, where Barnard bought a farm of 100 acres on January 24, 1732, and paid  L110 in cash for it to John Moor, a weaver.  He found he had a small house

(end of page 28)

beside a brook.  He built a large barn in 1735, and probably a larger house in a higher location to replace the one at the brookside.  The house now on the premises was built in the period of 1760.

Alexander McNitt was seventy-six years old when his son bought the farm, and Barnard must have been about thirty-two.  Fourteen children were born, which meant a sure-enough career for Jean.  She also was called Jane, and the fact that one of her sons was christened Adam Clark may indicate Clark was her maiden surname.  An interesting big family grew up on this place, and stories of its members will appear.

When Barnard first came to The Elbows, land ownership was in a state of confusion.  In 1686 Joshua Lamb and several associates from the older part of Massachusetts Bay Colony had made a deal with sachems of the Nipmuck Indian tribe to purchase a tract eight by twelve miles in area for L20.  The promoters didn't bother to get their purchase approved or legalized by the colonial government.  Years passed and all the speculators but one were dead when Ulster Scots and other settlers began moving into the district in the decade between 1720 and 1730.  Then the heirs of Lamb & Co. became interested in the possibilities of the tract their fathers had got from the Indians for the frugal price of  L20.  They sent surveyors and agents to The Elbows to sell plots averaging 100 acres to the newcomers.

Temple's History of Palmer relates at length how everyone escaped from the predicament; here the story may be summarized briefly.  In June 1733, after the Gentlemen Claimers had renounced pretense to an honest claim to the Nipmuck lands and had been given instead a tract embraced in the present township of Hardwick, nearby, the colonial government yielded to the humble petition of Barnard McNitt and fifty-six other landholders and granted them the farms on which they were established on condition that they pay into the public treasury in the course of a reasonable time the sum of  L500, plus an additional L67 representing the cost of surveying.  The settlers paid up the L67, but they showed no inclination to hurry the L500.  Years passed before final payment was wrung from the settlers, reluctant to pay twice for their farms.

Barnard's ownership of his farm was definitely confirmed to him by the action of the General Court or legislature and Governor Jonathan Belcher in June 1733, to which reference already has been made.  On June 12 of the previous year, when all the uneasy landholders were considering what to do to get clear titles, they held a "toun metten" with Samuel Shaw as moderator.  When it was decided to petition the General Court, this action was recorded in the minute book:

(end of page 29)

"Voted by the Inhabaints that seven men should determen how should be ptitioned, to wit, Samill Shaw, John King, James Maklelan, Joseph Wright, Bingmin [Benjamin] Parsons, Barnett Macknet, Tomas Littel."
Their petition was humble enough, but months passed before it received any notice.  Then a legislative committee visited the district, gathered a complete list of settlers with descriptions of lands they occupied, and submitted a report recommending that ownership be officially confirmed to the petitioners.  Barnard's name appeared with a few others at the top of the list; men whose ownership was so clearly justified by their manner of purchase that their lands were confirmed to them without limitations.

Barnard's farm lay on both sides of the old Boston road and extended southward to the Quabaug River.  The small house John Moor had built was on the east side of Wigwam Brook about 150 feet north of the road.  Traces of the old cellar may still be seen.  A well with sweep and bucket was located a few feet north of the house.

Across the river to the south there rose a long, high hill that ran away to the southeast to join the Brimfield mountains.  In times since it has been called Sawmill Hill.  Almost opposite the house Barnard presently built was the first low hill in a succession of rising peaks known as the Cedar range, extending to the northeast.  Less than a mile to the northwest, Barnard could look up to Tamar Hill.  Rising from springs on the westward slope of the Cedar range, Wigwam Brook made its way southward in a little valley of its own and emptied into the Quabaug.  That is the landscape Barnard and Jean found, and there it remains for future generations to enjoy: a green bowl in the hills, with the brook and the Boston road running through it.  Westward the road follows the river through a low pass toward Palmer and Springfield.

The community was growing and Barnard was ambitious to get ahead and make the most of his new farm.  The buildings were too small, he must have concluded, and the house was too close to the brook.  The bottom of the cellar was lower than the level of the stream and the place must have been damp the year around.  Across the road and about 215 yards away to the southeast was a fine knoll that offered a much better site for buildings.  Barnard began making plans.

In the year 1733 a new road was brought through the woods from the north, running from Greenwich and Enfield, Massachusetts, to Monson and Stafford, Connecticut.  It came down along the eastern edge of Barnard's land to the old Boston road, which it joined for about half a mile westward to the side of the river; then it departed to the southwest over

(end of page 30)

the hills to Monson.  The new turnpike undoubtedly seemed a great improvement to Barnard, as it was used for heavy hauling between the settlements in Connecticut and northern Massachusetts.  Today it is a minor back road.  Another highway branched off to the southeast from the new turnpike at Barnard's corner, and ran to Brimfield and Sturbridge.  Hardly a trace of it remains now.  Two miles north on the turnpike was the little settlement that became known as Palmer Old Center.  The Presbyterian church and cemetery presently were to be established there.

So Barnard found himself at a busy crossroads point.  To the northward, the turnpike gave him access to Steward Southgate's new sawmill at Pottaquattock Pond, adjacent to the Ware River.  He meant to be using considerable lumber very soon, and he could choose among two or three mills that were hurried into activity to take care of the needs of the rush of settlers.  Grain mills also were being set up beside the small streams.

The year 1735 marked the realization of the first of Barnard's plans.  Then it was he built his new barn, fifty feet long and thirty feet wide, with two great doors at the front, each wide enough to admit a load of hay.  It must have seemed a large barn for those days of comparatively small beginnings.  The frame was constructed of heavy hewn timbers, well mortised together and solidly braced.  Room was provided for hay and grain in large bays at either side of the two driveways.  The ground sloped downward from the front to the rear, making possible a large stable for horses and cattle beneath the planked main floor of the barn.

The year of building has been established in recent times by the discovery of the date 1735 painted on a board inside the barn.  This dated board was seen while the barn was still standing, by Frank S. Keith of Palmer, whose family lived for a number of years on the farm.  The barn survived until 1922, when its sagging roof invited demolition to make room for a garage.  Had it been known then that Barnard had made the barn his first project, it would have been spared and restored.  All that is left of it now is a large wrought-iron door handle of interesting design that was placed on the front door of a summer cottage built in 1922.

(end of page 31)

Return to the Table of Contents

Send e-mail