The Longford Link

Longford people played a huge role in early American history.

The Longford townland of Clonbroney may seem like a world apart from the power centre of Washington’s Capitol Hill, but a local history enthusiast currently tracing the journey of Longford emigrants during the 1700’s has revealed a collection of influential characters including Longford links to a US Vice President and Newtownforbes descendants who played a role in the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Former secondary school teacher at St Felim’s College, Ballinamore and a native of Ballinalee, Gerry Brady is currently investigating the fate of numerous Longford families who migrated to America on the ‘George and Anne’ ship in the summer of 1729.

A life long history enthusiast, Gerry has long been intrigued by the tales of the Denniston brothers Alexender and Hans who took a leadership role in the Battle of Granard in 1798. As Gerry discovered the Denniston brothers escaped the massacre and fled to America where Alexander opened a store in the town of Newbury, NY.

While it was widely known that the Dennison brothers had escaped to America it was not clear why they had chosen to settle in that particular area of the United States but as Gerry discovered they were in fact following the path of their Longford cousins as he explained “Everyone knew that the Denniston brothers escaped to America but what is interesting is the fact that they had headed for the area near Little Britain where in fact their cousins, the Clintons had previously settled. The Clinton family of course produced George Clinton who went on to become Vice President and of the US from 1804 to 1812 and the present day Longford Denniston family are directly related to this revolutionary war hero.”

So what exactly was the Denniston-Clinton relationship and why has the Longford connection to a former Vice President of the USA been largely ignored?

Gerry believes that the reason may partly lie in the particular era and distance which was not conducive to maintaining family ties in the homeland. “You have to remember we’re talking about the 1700’s and once a family made the journey to the US little was known about them afterwards. Of course, a huge amount of George Clinton’s private papers were lost when a fire broke out in the Library of Congress some time around 1910/1911 so the link may have been lost or overlooked.”

Indeed the hugely influential character of George Clinton upon US history has perhaps been lost to his Longford ancestors as Gerry explained his important role saying “As a general in the revolutionary war, George Clinton was a hero and indeed after Washington he was probably the best known of the revolutionary generals. In fact one of the reasons he remained in politics in New York for so long was due to his impressive war record. When the British evacuated New York on 25 November, 1783, Washington and Clinton, as commander-in-chief and governor, side by side on horseback, led the American forces as they took over the city.”

In tracing George Clinton’s rise to Vice President of the USA, Gerry explained how the Clinton family made the transition from Clonbroney to America during the 1700’s. George Clinton’s grandfather Alexander Denniston was a Scottish soldier of fortune who came over to Ireland towards the end of the seventeenth century and settled on the County Longford estates of Arthur Forbes, first Earl of Granard. Alexander and his wife, Catherine Montgomery, had eight children, one of whom, Elizabeth, married a Charles Clinton c 1722. Charles Clinton (unrelated to the recent President of that name) who was born in Co. Longford in 1690, also belonged to an immigrant family with Scottish links who had settled somewhat earlier on the same Granard estates.

The early decades of the eighteenth century were the years of the Penal Laws. As Presbyterian’s, the Clintons and the Dennistons did not escape the rigours of the Penal Code, although the disabilities suffered by Dissenters were not as severe as those experienced by their Catholic neighbours. “These laws, coupled with economic hardships, crippling taxation and high rents, were greatly resented by ambitious families like the Clintons and the Dennistons. The years 1725-29 saw an astonishing wave of Presbyterian emigration to America from all the northern counties of Ireland. In the early summer of 1729, Charles Clinton engaged a ship, the George and Anne, and together with his wife and family and some one hundred and sixty of his Presbyterian relations and neighbours from the Longford area, set sail from Dublin for Pennsylvania,” explained Gerry.

Following an horrific voyage of four and half months during which half of the crew and passengers perished including two of the Clinton’s three children, the George and Anne landed off the shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The Clinton party subsequently founded a tiny colony which they named Little Britain upriver from New York on the Hudson river. George Clinton was born to Elizabeth Denniston and Charles Clinton in 1739. As a lawyer, soldier and politician, George Clinton became one of the great popular heroes of the Revolutionary War against England. He was New York’s first governor and indeed is known as the Father of New York having served a total of twenty one years, the longest any person has held that office.

George Clinton has long-held ambitions for the Presidency (he sought election several times) but these were never fulfilled. He was, however, elected Vice President of the United States in 1804 as a Republican and served four years under Thomas Jefferson. In 1808 he was re-elected and served under James Madison and he died in office in 1812.

George Clinton was widely regarded as a forceful and straightforward type of man as indeed anecdotal evidence suggests. “He was a shrewd man who was said to be very tight with money. Clinton was also a partner with Washington in several profitable land deals and in 1805 he sold half of his Greenwich Village farm on Manhattan Island to John Jacob Astor for $75,000 of the Astor millionaire fame. Other stories suggest that at one stage when he was allocated a certain amount of money to entertain visitors and dignitaries, he didn’t use it but indeed kept it all for himself. Noted for his carefulness with money, he died one of New York’s wealthiest men,” explained Gerry.

A grandson of the Longford born Charles and Elizabeth Clinton, De Witt Clinton, son of General James, also became one of the great figures in nineteenth century New York. Politician, scholar and scientist (there is a genus of herbs, CLINTONIA, named in his honour) he was Governor of New York State, mayor of the city of New York on several occasions, state senator and unsuccessful candidate for the Presidency in 1812. He was mainly responsible for the construction of the Erie Canal (nicknamed Clinton’s Ditch) which greatly contributed to the growth of New York as America’s leading Atlantic port. DeWitt Clinton also served as secretary to his uncle George Clinton during his terms as Vice President from 1804-1812.

Other interesting Longford links include the famous McCloughrys from Newtownforbes who also travelled on the George and Ann ship to the USA in 1729 as Gerry explained. “The McCloughry’s from Cleghill, Newtownforbes travelled with the Clinton party on the George and Ann. Interestingly, some one hundred and fifty years later, two direct descendants of that family, the brothers Frank and Tom McLaury (their father had altered the family surname) who were members of the notorious Clanton Gang, were controversially gunned down by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, during the famous Gunfight at the O.K Corral on the afternoon of 26 October 1881,” said Gerry.

Emigrant Longford families undoubtedly left their mark on American history and the Clinton’s are perhaps one of the unsung heroes of the past. Today a statue of George Clinton represents New York state in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, while served counties, townships and other landmarks in the US bear the Clinton name. As history enthusiast Gerry Brady concluded “It is important to realise the importance of the Clinton-Denniston descendants who are directly linked to the present day Longford Dennistons. Regrettably, the contribution of the history of the United States of these distinguished Longford exile families is today largely unknown or forgotten in their county of origin and I suppose I’m just trying to shed some fresh light on the past.”

- courtesy of The Longford Leader and Mairead O’Shea