Irish Beginnings

As family historians, we know that our heritage helps make us who we are. That is certainly true of this family as well. We have focused our efforts in gathering history on one particular family, that of John Nay, Jr. However, our experience has shown us that there is much to be gained by additional research, even when we have believed the records were “too far back,” non-existent, or sketchy. In that sense, we offer these brief paragraphs in the hope that they will aid the researchers of the future in their endeavors.

We have little or no information on John Nay Jr.’s great-grandfather, William Nay Sr., (often referred to as Deacon William McNee) except that he was born in Ireland in the year 1711. We know that he immigrated to America, but we don’t really know when. We have a fair history of what happened in his life after emigrating and settling in New Hampshire. Family tradition says that he was Scotch-Irish, and that is very possible. The prefix “Mc” validates that tradition.

On the Ancestral File of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a father listed for William McNee Sr., another William, but after some study and speaking personally to the submitter of the information, we are convinced that it is in error. The person who submitted the additional William said plainly that she now believes it was incorrect, so let this writing set the record straight in her behalf.

One source of information that may prove helpful is the writings about the “Scottish Clearances.” There were several migrations of people from Scotland to Ireland, for different reasons, including political pressure, economic suffering, family, and religious issues. From an article compiled by Ian Kerr, we find possible explanations for our ancestors’ movement.

Some movements have sometimes been loosely referred to as clearances; there were several actual clearance campaigns in Scotland and in Ireland, conducted either directly by the English/British Crown or by substantial land-owners on with the tacit support of a benign government. Although history and romantic fiction tend to focus on the Highland Clearances in Scotland, they were effected across the whole of Scotland; evicting, if not wiping out, the resident Highlander, Lowlander or Border populations.[i]

As early as 1542, the Scots were defeated by the English at Hadden Rig near Berwick, leaving open an area called the Border Marches, where neither the English nor Scottish crown had power. This became a haven for “border reivers” or raiders. They survived through plundering and caused much distress for the English for many years. In fact, the English eventually “shipped” many of them off to some of the northern parts of Ireland after the death of Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1544, King Henry VIII invaded Scotland using indiscriminate extermination in the form of brutal slaughter and burnings. This wasting of southern Scotland chased some of the border population deeper into Scotland or across the sea to Ireland. Another time of movement to Ireland was immediately following the battle of Dunbar in 1651, when the Scottish survivors were sentenced to exile as indentured servants in the Plantations of Ulster (in Ireland) and the Americas.

The Clan name MacNee is a sept, or subclan of the MacGregor clan. It is important to note a fact or two about this clan. They were associated with the Campbell clan through marriage. However, through a series of events, the MacGregors became angry with the Campbells because they felt the Campbells had stolen their land and inheritance away from them. An event of perceived retaliation against the King brought forth an edict by the King that abolished the name MacGregor. This meant that to carry that name was punishable by death. The Clan leaders were hanged in Edinburgh, and the rest of the Clan scattered, taking other Highland names to conceal their lineage. A historically famous person was born during this time in 1671, Rob Roy MacGregor, who assumed his mother’s name of Campbell to stay alive. The problem with inheriting the name “MacGregor” was reason enough for some to emigrate to Ireland, and some even to North America.

This little parcel of Scottish history gives us a few possible reasons for the immigration of the MacNee family, puts a time frame around the immigration, and creates a few clues as to their possible whereabouts. Another clue for possible research is information gathered by Jeanette Taggart Holmes, a seasoned researcher in this area. When McNees and Taggarts emigrated, they came to America together along with other members of their parish. The name of one of their settlements, Antrim, New Hampshire, could have been named after the county Antrim or the town Antrim, both in Northern Ireland. A recent visit by Beth Breinholt to the church in the town of Antrim, Ireland, built in 1595, revealed that the commencement of record keeping there was in the year 1750, and even then it is somewhat haphazard for the first twenty years or so.

American Beginnings: Peterborough, New Hampshire

Close to Antrim, New Hampshire is the town of Peterborough, settled largely by the Scotch-Irish who emigrated from Ireland.  They were among the middle class of emigrants, moderately well-educated, and could read and write. They were rigid Presbyterians who balked at the rules of the Church of England.  The tax burdens were heavy, and, they could only lease the land.    They were also hardy souls who clearly understood their civil and religious rights, and sought freedom from the restraints of protestant England.  The prospects of new freedoms and great quantities of land in America brought many to the New World.  Most emigrants from Ireland started in Massachusetts then spread out building communities.  Two of these settlements-Antrim and Peterborough-about 75 and 80 miles northwest of Boston became home to many of the Nays in America. Peterborough became the larger of the two.

The town of Peterborough-probably named in honor of the Earl of Peterborough-first appears in records in 1756, but many people were laying stake to the land as early as 1718.  The first settlement of the area was attempted in 1739, but were likely driven away by Indians.  Again in 1742 a party of men cleared a small patch of land but abandoned the settlement.

“In the year 1745 or ’46, William McNee, in company with John Taggart and William Ritchie, looked out a place in town to settle, selected lots on the south part of the farm subsequently known as the Shedd farm, and the adjoining lands.  Here they cut a strip of woods twenty rods wide, cutting out the small growth and girdling the large trees, then left it, and did not return till 1752 with their families.  This chopping had been burnt over by hunters or Indians, and was in good order for a crop of corn or rye.  They had, in consequence, an abundant crop the first year.”[ii]

William McNee was a leader among the citizens of Peterborough.  He was reverently referred to as Deacon McNee, owing to his position of regard in the local church.  He is said to have been born in Ireland in 1711, and married Mary Eckless  Brownley there before coming to America. Their first son, Robert McNee was killed in the fight of Rodgers’ Rangers at Ft. George in 1757 (French and Indian War).  After Mary died in 1759, William married Sarah Smith Bell who outlived him by many years. (See photographs of headstones at the end of this chapter.)

His second son, also named William, was born in 1740 and married Betsey Russell.  This William, also elected a deacon in the local church, is often referred to as William “Jr.”  and is considered by many (including those who erected his headstone in the old Peterborough Burial Ground) to be the person with whom the McNee name evolved to Nay. His home is still standing in Peterborough. (See map on p. 6.)

William Jr.’s third child was John Nay [Sr.], born in 1765 and married to Betsey Puffer.  In Albert Smith’s History of the Town of Peterborough, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, a brief story appears about John Nay, Sr.

He [John Nay, Sr.] had the misfortune, early in life to lose one of his legs by falling from a frame he was assisting in raising in Concord, Mass.  He substituted a wooden leg of soft white pine, of his own manufacture, which answered a good purpose all his life.  He learned the trade of cabinet-making, after the accident.  He was a man of great natural abilities, and but for his intemperate habits might have attained to a high position in society.  He became most thoroughly reformed before his death, and gave unmistakable evidence of the Christian character, in his humble, meek, and loving spirit to all those around him.[iii]

John Sr.’s wife, Betsey Puffer, was descended from the immigrant ancestor, George Puffer, who settled in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1639.[iv] Betsey’s father was Elijah Puffer who was born in Wrenthan, Massachusetts August 18, 1737, and served in the French and Indian War 1759-60.  Elijah Puffer married Elizabeth Jackson May 20, 1764, and they settled in Peterborough, New Hampshire that same year.  They had 12 children, six boys and six girls.  Their third child, Betsey, married John Nay, [Sr.]. Many of the headstones of these people are still standing in the old Peterborough Burial Ground on the East Hill.

John Nay, Sr. and Betsey Puffer had 12 children.  The seventh child, a son, named John Nay Jr., married Thirza Angelina Hale in the Reverend Elijah Dunbar’s Presbyterian church in Peterborough, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire on May 28, 1833.

So our story begins  . . . .


[i] The Scots and the Clearances,  The Movement of People Between Scotland and Ireland, and onward emigration to North America, Australia and New Zealand.  Compiled by Ian Kerr – email

[ii]2.  Smith, Albert.   History of the Town of Peterborough, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire. Boston: Press of George H. Ellis, 1876.  p. 211.

[iii] Ibid, p. 213

[iv] Nutt, Charles.  Descendants of George Puffer of Braintree, Massachusetts 1639-1915. Worcester: n.p., 1915.  p. 13.


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