Saturday, April 14, 2012

James Thornton of Ireland and Massachusetts

Thornton Family from Londonderry, Ireland to Brookline, Massachusetts

James Thornton, Jr.

My Thornton family history begins in Londonderry, Ireland, now part of Northern Ireland.  During the reigns of James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, land in Northern Ireland was confiscated by the Crown and given to English/Scottish settlers.  The Thornton family immigrated from Argyleshire, Scotland (according to one source, other source says England) to Northern Ireland at some point during the mid seventeenth century.  The family were staunch Presbyterians and it is probable that they left Scotland to avoid persecution for being nonconformists.   
Family tradition states that James and Nancy Smith Thornton and family were living on a farm during the siege of Londonderry in 1689.  Their son James, Jr. was born in 1684.  James and Nancy as well as their son James and his wife Elizabeth Jenkins Thornton and family were part of a group of about 120 families who sailed to New England, arriving in Boston, Massachusetts in August 1718. These settlers were part of a larger group of immigrants that are known as the Scots-Irish.  
Apparently the welcome mat was not laid out for these immigrants and by 1720 the provincial legislature ordered them to get out of Boston.  It was hoped that the new immigrants would head for the frontier of Massachusetts and act as a barrier from the Indians. The frontier was only forty miles away in Worcester.
After spending the winter of 1718 aboard ship at Falmouth, Maine, the family settled at Wiscasset, Maine.  According to tradition James Thornton, Sr. died in 1722 and Samuel Thornton, his grandson was born the same year.  There is no documentation for any of these events. Besides Samuel, James and his wife Elizabeth had the following children: James, Andrew, Matthew ( bn. 1714 in Ireland), Agnes, William, Hannah, and Esther. James and his family lived for a few years in Maine and at some time left for Worcester, Massachusetts.  The continuing danger from Indian attack was one reason for leaving Maine.
Worcester, Massachusetts at that time was definitely a frontier town.  It had been settled twice and destroyed twice by Indians.  The third settlement was begun in 1717 by 200 English Puritans.  In 1718 about 50 Scots-Irish arrived to reinforce the settlement. The  new residents tried to build their own Presbyterian Chapel but it was burnt to the ground  by the Puritans. This set the tone for things to come.
 James Thornton’s name first appears in the town records in 1730 when he purchased land.  His occupation is listed as “Weaver”.  James and his family live at the foot of Tatuck Hill in Worcester, he continued to buy land to enlarge his farm. The Scots-Irish grew potatoes and flax which they spun into cloth. It is said they they were taller than the average Colonist, spoke with an Irish brogue, were extremely tightfisted and incredibly clannish. 
Unfortunately for the Presbyterian Scots-Irish the Puritans taxed them to pay for the Puritan Ministers and would not let them hold their own services. The "Irish" as they were called, attended the Congregational Church, except when an itinerant Irish Preacher was in the area.  In 1633 an agreement was reached, the Irish would be assigned meetinghouse seats and would be allowed to hold an occasional Presbyterian service.  James Thorington (Thornton) was assigned a seat in the forth row of the "fore seet". The "occasional" service was never allowed. In 1737, the Irish again petitioned to be exempt from the ministers rate and were again voted down.  Finding life in Worcester intolerable many of the Scotch-Irish left for predominantly Irish settlements like Londonderry in New Hampshire.
By this time, land beyond Worcester was open to settlement and James Thornton had his own plan. James and Robert Peoples, also a Scotch Irishman from Worcester, bought thirty thousand acres of that land to settle families: 
"such as were from the kingdom of Ireland or their descendants, being Protestants and none admitted but such as bring good and undeniable credentials or cerficated of their being person of good conversation and of the Presbyterian persuasion as used in the Church of Scotland and conform to the discipline thereof."

the original Pelham Meetinghouse, 1740
James and his sons William and Matthew Thornton each owned multiple lots in the new town, eventually called Pelham. The town became a de facto Presbyterian settlement and they were able to build their meeting house and employ the minister of their choice. 
James and his son William are mentioned frequently in the Pelham records, James was a leading citizen and owned 14/60 of the town lots. His son Samuel Thornton was mentioned only once in the town records, when the town owned him money for work rendered. There is no marriage recorded for him, but his sister Hannah married James Ferguson in 1746 and remained in the Pelham area for the rest of her life. Matthew Thornton did not live in Pelham, he had trained as a doctor and set up practice in Londonderry, New Hampshire.  

In 1748, James Thornton left Pelham and moved to Londonderry, New Hampshire to be near his son Matthew.  It is unknown when his wife Elizabeth died.  A wife did co-sign a land deed  and the signature was Ketiran Thornton, it might have been a nickname for Elizabeth or it could have been a second marriage. James lived in East Derry until his death in 1754.  James was  buried next to his daughter Hannah.
James Thornton headstone
James’ son William left Pelham for Schenectady New York, but was forced out by Indian raids, he also lived in the Londonderry area on land owned by his brother Matthew. He finally moved to Thornton, Grafton County, New Hampshire, where he died.
Next up: Samuel son of Samuel

Are you a Thornton Cousin? I'd love to hear from you, i'm working on a James Thornton family tree!

Related Posts:

Scotch-Irish Pioneers in Ulster and America, Charles Knowles Bolton
Wandering Souls: Protestant Migration in America, S. Scott Roher
Shay's Rebellion: The American Revolutions Final Battle, by Leonard L. Richards
Thornton Family History

Have a great day!