The Origins of the Armstrongs

 
 Chapter 1  
Page Last Revised: 12/31/99

Historical Facts, Fiction and Folklore

Return to Prologue | Go to Chapter 2

Most people in English speaking nations are familiar with the surname Armstrong, and foreign language variations such as Fortenbra in French and Fortebraccio in Italian are also not altogether uncommon. An Armstrong, known as Fortebraccio, was a mercenary in the service of the Medici in Florence during the middle ages where a street named in his honor exists to this day. Where, however, did the Armstrongs come from? What is their history and where is their homeland?

Although there is more than one story about the origins of the Armstrongs, perhaps the most widely accepted is the saga of Siward, The Viking, also know as Siward Fairbairn of the Strong Arm (see General Reference Listing - #1). Siward was the son of a Danish King and lived in England from about 995 till his death in 1056. In those days, the ruler of any small territory was a king, so exactly where his father, Hringo, King of Upland, also known as Earl Beorn, would fall on the yardstick of earthly royalty is not clear; however, at the very least, he would be considered of noble birth.

Whether Siward was born in England is also not known for certain. However, he was the first to carry the name of Armstrong and was listed in the History of England as having earned the right to the title of Earl of Northumbria (Northumberland) having been conferred the title by Edward the Confessor.

Siward, the Fairbairn, was said to be of giant-like stature and a strong man, blue-eyed, very fair with light hair and beard. The legend goes that Siward took ship and sailed with 50 of his men from Danemark, arriving at what is today called the Shetland Islands, where he is said to have encountered a dragon which he slew in single combat. Dragons, as most of us know, are mythical creatures which the dictionary states were first defined as a large serpent. He apparently got a kick out of killing serpents, as he put out to sea again and finally landed in Northumbria where he began looking for another one to fight with. Here he met an old man who he thought was his god, Odin, who told him he had already killed the dragon and for him, Siward, to sail southward to the mouth of the Thames river which could bring him to the wealthy city of London (one would think that there would have been plenty of serpents there). The old man then gave him a standard (flag) to carry which signified The Raven of Earthly Terror (Edgar Allen Poe must have read about our ancestor!). He was received by Edward the Confessor, the King of England, with much ceremony and was made many promises if he would stay with the King and help him fight to retain his kingship.

The following story about Siward has endured. One day, as he was leaving the court after an audience with King Edward, it is said that he was confronted by Tostig, Earl of Huntington, on a bridge, who insulted him by throwing dirt upon him. Siward took no offense at the time, but on confronting him on his return on the same bridge, the story goes that he decapitated Earl Tostig and carried his head back to the King. The King, being suitably impressed by this brawny warrior with violent tendencies, wisely awarded Siward the Earldom of Huntington in addition to Northumbria.

As Siward's reputation as a brave and valiant knight continued to increase, so also did the Kingdom of Edward continued to be visited by other Danes who held him and his people in much less esteem than did our good Siward. In fact, they became an ever-growing nuisance-- arriving by ship and plundering the eastern coast of England. As the most of the havoc they created was located in Westmoreland, Cumberland and Northumbria Counties, some wise soul counseled the King to put Siward in charge of defending this area. While perhaps properly descriptive if not overly flattering, it was reportedly stated that it was best that the little devil should be first exposed to the great devil.

Siward governed in peace the territory of Northumbria which extended from the Humber River to the Tweed River on the border of Scotland, and was greatly respected and loved by the Northumbrians who were chiefly of Danish extraction (better a Danish devil than an English saint?). He orchestrated several forays from Northumbria to the north and was successful in putting all territory under the command of the King of England.

The surname of Siward was Beorn (meaning bear) and relates to the Nordic legends of the Fairy Bear or Fay Bairn, from which the Border name of Fairbairn, originated. The name was applied to the stories of Siward and his father and were called the Fairy Bear Stories.

Siward had a sister (who's name is not known) who married Duncan, the King of Scotland from 1034-1040 AD. Prior to his death in 1056, Siward supported his nephew Malcolm, the rightful heir, against Shakespeare's famous King Macbeth of Scotland who had killed Malcolm's father King Duncan.

By 1070, the Battle of Hastings (1066) was over and England had been conquered by William of Normandy. Malcolm III had been on the Scottish throne since the death of Macbeth in 1057 and Siward has been dead since 1056. His first son, Osberne Bulax, was killed in the battle of Macbeth in 1054, some say by the hand of Macbeth, himself. Osberne is also said to have married the daughter of Lady Godiva. Siward's second son, Waltheof (which means forest thief - nice name!) is alternately in and out of favor with William the Conqueror. For example, his wife, Juditha, is a niece of William and in 1069 we find that King William restored the earldom of Northumbria to Waltheof. However, in 1076 he was betrayed by King William and brought to the outskirts of Westminster where he was beheaded.

Osberne Bulax had two sons named Siward Barn the Red and Siward Barn the White (Fairbeorn). Not much is known of Siward the Red, but it is known that Siward Barn the White became a refugee and fled to Scotland with many other men of distinguished renown including Edgar, the Atheling, the rightful King of England.

Waltheof left no male descendant. However, Matilda (called Maude), his daughter (after her first husband died) married King David I, the son of King Malcolm of Scotland and his wife Margaret, who was the sister of Edgar the Atheling mentioned above. Both the Scottish and English royalty are thus said to have descended from Waltheof to the present day.

Malcolm III, the 85th King of Scotland greeted Siward Barn the White (his cousin) with great kindness, and together they fought against William the Conqueror, driving him out of Northumbria. An interesting story apparently involves Siward the White Fairbeorn during a battle against England. During this battle, King Malcolm's horse was killed under him partially crippling him and young Siward fought his way to the King's side. Passing his left arm around the King's body under his arms, he reportedly fought his way with a great Sword through the enemy to a place of safety. For his courageous act he was knighted by the King, given land and a castle on the Scottish border, and from that time on was referred to as the Sword of the Strong Arm (or Armstrong). This was how he and his descendants came to inherit the lands of Mangerton in Liddesdale.

These lands, known as the Debateable Land, were disputed for centuries by both Scotland and England. As time went on they were protected by neither nation and, as the Armstrongs were of both Anglo and Danish descent, they were entirely different from the Celtic Clans of Northern Scotland. As a result of blood ties and loyalties not unlike those of the Mafia in Sicily some centuries later, these Clans avenged blood for blood for centuries. In this environment it is not hard to understand how a reputation for plundering, bloodshed, and violence came to be tied to these marauders of the border lands.

Little is said about the Armstrongs after the building of the Mangerton Tower, probably in 1135. Apparently no Chief was immediately recognized until 1300 when Alexander became the first Lord of Mangerton. Stories abound of the enmity between the Armstrongs and their neighbors the Lords of Soulis. For example, Alexander, the second Lord of Mangerton, was treacherously killed by William, Lord Soulis, after being invited to a feast at his castle. The Armstrong Clan flourished, however, and by the early 1500s, the Laird of Mangerton was able to gather 3,000 mounted fighters. One Scottish king said that while there were Armstrong and Elliots on the Border, Scotland was safe. The Armstrongs were ambassadors, earls, knights, farmers and above all, fighters. For example, Gilbert Armstrong, third son of Alexander, the second Lord of Mangerton, a distinguished clergyman and diplomat was the Canon of Moray from 1361 to 1375. In 1363 he served as a Commissioner to England for the ransom of King David II of Scotland who was held as a prisoner in England. In all there were ten Lairds of Mangerton from Alexander through Archibald Armstrong who was denounced as a rebel in 1603, deprived of his lands in 1610, and executed at Edinburgh.

What happened to change our fortunes so greatly? James IV of Scotland was on good terms with the Scottish Border chiefs and he regularly visited and was entertained by them. His son, James V of Scotland, on the other hand, ruled by decree from distant Edinburgh and did little to protect his Border subjects or support them against repeated English incursions. In fact, in 1530, James V, with some 8000 men at arms surged into the borderlands and the betrayal of the Armstrongs began. Johnnie Armstrong, Laird of Gilknockie, was a much beloved and highly respected member of the Armstrong Clan, who James V invited to parlay. Accepting the King's invitation, he and 50 of his men went to meet with the King in good faith. Instead, they were seized and summarily executed. This incendiary act outraged the Armstrongs and their allies and set the Borders ablaze with rage and indignation-- increasing the violence and bloodshed it was intended to suppress. At the prodding of the King, the Church also entered the fray and the Armstrong's and other Border reivers were cursed by the Church excommunicated enmasse. The Armstrongs, with other Borderers, were thus left to their own devices so far as mutual self-defense was concerned.

Receiving neither aid nor comfort from the Scottish or from the English Crowns, the Armstrongs and other Border clans were forced to become makers of their own laws and protection. After Edward I of England slaughtered thousand of Scots at Berwick, self-defense and preservation became their paramount endeavor. The Borderers were forced to become the best in what for them become a profession of necessity - a greater thief (raider) did never ride was one complimentary description of an Armstrong, Jock O'Syde, in Liddesdale. They would raid by night and attend Carlisle Market by day, greeted by all who knew them. Unable to do more than bare subsistence farming, the cupboard was frequently bare. When the lady of the house served her Laird a pair of spurs on a plate, this meant it was time to ride and raid the other side of the Border yet again.

The bloodshed and violence continued. In 1603, Elizabeth I died and James VI of Scotland (James I of England) was declared her heir. After a splendid coronation at Westminister Abbey, James settled down to life at the English Court. One of his highest priorities was the suppression of the Border families like the Armstrongs, as he was afraid that their incursions would make him unpopular in England. As a result, he established powerful landlords in the Debatable Land around Liddesdale and Eskdale, and appointed Sir William Cranston to put to death all within two miles of the Border. A large number of Armstrong reivers were tortured and hung at the Market Cross in Edinburgh, at Carlisle and no doubt on a number of local gibbets. The last Armstrong raid of any importance took place in 1611 and for it, Lance Armstrong of Whithaugh - along with others - was executed a year later. Cranston generated the first forced migrations to Ireland and the subsequent Undertaking of the Plantation of Ulster in 1608. In the 18th century, farms were merged and more migrations followed.

The Armstrong lands of Mangerton passed into the hands of the Buccleuchs. Many members of the once powerful Armstrong Clan were shipped off to Ireland, including Johnnie Armstrong's grandson, William who settled in Fermanagh. Thus, many who had survived found themselves on the Solway shore waiting for emigrant ships to take them from an inhospitable homeland. Homeless, leaderless, and sometimes penniless, they went westward to Ireland and North America, and south to Australia and New Zealand in search of new beginnings. Perhaps the most famous descendent of the Fermanagh Armstrongs was Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut and the first human to set foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

The dissolution and dispersal of the Armstrongs followed some two hundred years of Border brigandage and treachery, ending in the depopulated areas and vast estates of the present day Whithaugh, Mangerton and Gilknockie, which had at one time been the Clan's greatest strongholds. A proud and courageous family had been reduced to a smattering of broken men. The Armstrongs have been scattered and now have neither chief nor recognized leader. However, as individuals the Armstrongs have survived and have lived up to their clan motto of "Invictus Maneo" or "We Remain Unvanquished."

Clan Armstrong Trust Findings

How much of the above in mere folklore and how much is actual fact?  Perhaps we will never know for sure, but through correspondence with the Clan Armstrong Trust, the self-proclaimed voice of the Armstrongs in Scotland, I learned that they had expended a great deal of time and effort in researching the etiology and verifiable history of the Armstrong Clan.  The following is a letter I received from J. Alan Armstrong, Laird of Nether Thorniewhats, Guardian of Langholm Castle, and the former Chairman of the Clan Armstrong Trust of Scotland.  In the letter, the Laird provides his findings concerning the origins of the Armstrongs:

"The principal purpose of the Trust apart from its place as the acknowledged Armstrong Clan Society in
Scotland is to "advance public education in the history and culture of the Scottish Border Area." Much has been written which is historically incorrect, some sheer fantasy, based on the writings of numerous Victorian writers to whom, many of the records now available to us were not then available.

Over time, through our activities and the good offices of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms in Scotland, The Trust has become the acknowledged Clan Society of the Armstrongs. We commenced by examining original source documents lying in the various archives in both Scotland and England. The earliest record we examined was the Anglo Saxon Chronicles written by a series of monks of the times, to ascertain the origins of the tradition of the descent from Siward Beorn, following through with State Papers, Charters and such other material. Much of what you find in the Chronicles of the Armstrongs, regarding Siward, are basically correct but as for our descent from this man I can assure you that it is totally incorrect, The earliest reference to this descent came in the 18th century out of Ireland as a result of certain correspondence between certain Parsons. The legend that Siward was our first Chief of Mangerton is truly incorrect. If you examine the dates of Siward and the date of the second Laird of Mangerton, one lived in the llth century and the next in the 14th century. A three hundred year gap! The
earliest reference to anyone using the name in historical documents is in the 13th century and appears in a charter relating to a monastic settlement in Cumberland. The earliest reference to the Armstrongs in Scotland appears in a land rent roll of the 14th century.

Over the past ten years five of us have worked on the early years of the Armstrongs from the 13th century until the 15th century. Through examination of Royal Land Grants of the 13th century it is now found that the name of our family before Adam Armstrong of Ousby, was De Ireby, which family stems from the 1lth century and descends from Ivor Taillbois a Norman knight who was awarded lands in Cumberland and the Midlands of England by William the Conqueror. The Armstrongs of Ousby sold their lands and received land from Robert the Bruce, and one of the female members of the De Ireby family married the Grandfather of Robert the Bruce. She inherited land from her husband in the Liddel valley, which land subsequently came into the hands of her relatives, the Armstrongs. I am presently writing this evidence up into a book for publication by the Trust. There is a connection with Siward but it is very tenuous and only arises through a succession of female marriages and linked with the Bruces.

The story you mention in your notes on the Internet regarding the beheading of Tostig by Siward is likewise incorrect. Tostig was still alive after the death of Siward. Charles Kingsley who held the Chair of History at Oxford University did a tremendous amount of work researching Siward and his second son Waltheof, who had no sons, only daughters. Of the first son Osbeorn and his supposed two sons, there is little evidence.

Actually there were eleven Lairds of Mangerton recorded in State Papers and elsewhere. The Armstrongs of Mangerton were never "Lords". There is in Scotland, a great deal of difference between "Lords" and "Lairds."

Like yourself, until I commenced to question many of the records, by date, source document and the like, having read much of the supposed history of the Armstrongs, I believed what I read. Colourful, interesting it really is, but the true historical story is even more so."

The Lairds of Mangerton

The following is intended to provide at least a minimal insight into the history of the Armstrong Clan of the Scottish borderlands. It is intended to summarize the commonly understood history and succession of the Lairds of Mangerton.  Many books are available about this period of Armstrong borderland dominance, and although Alan Armstrong above makes reference to 11 Lairds during this era, the Armstrong Chronicles and other publications commonly list the following 10 Lairds of Mangerton (the Laird being the head man or leader of the family or clan, who lived in the castle called Mangerton, situated in Liddesdale on the Liddal River in Scotland).

1st Laird -- Alexander Armstrong -- known to have inhabited Mangerton Castle prior to 1320.
2nd Laird -- Alexander Armstrong -- known as "The Young Laird." Murdered by Lord Soulis at Hermitage Castle in 1320.
3rd Laird -- Alexander Armstrong -- known to be a bondsman for the Earl of Douglas in 1398.
4th Laird-- Archibald Armstrong -- charged on 11/19/1493 as an outlaw for slaying the Laird of Ealdmer.
5th Laird  -- Thomas Armstrong -- called "Bell the Cat." In 1482, for unknown reasons, he gave up the deed to Mangerton Castle.
6th Laird -- Alexander Armstrong -- his 7 sons are represented by the seven branches of the Oak Tree used on the Armstrong's Shield or Coat of Arms. Father of Johnnie of Gilnockie.
7th Laird -- Thomas Armstrong -- participated in the English raid on Scotland in 1548.
8th Laird -- Archibald Armstrong -- In 1547 captured Lord Johnstone of the West Marches for the English.
9th Laird -- Simon Armstrong -- called "Simon of Tweeden." In 1583 rebuilt Mangerton Castle.
10th Laird -- Archibald Armstrong -- declared a rebel in 1610, was deprived of his lands and executed at Edinburgh in 1610.
 

The Scot-Irish Migration


One source -- "Notable Southern Families" by Zella Armstrong, states that "All the Armstrongs of Ireland in the Seventeenth Century are descended from John (nie of Gilnockie) and all the American Armstrongs, who trace through the Scotch-Irish Clan." We have seen above why many of the Armstrongs chose to leave Scotland, but what caused their mass exodus from Ireland?

The contributing factors for the Scot-Irish exodus from Ireland were numerous and complicated. Loss of the one hundred year leases they were originally granted by the King of Ireland, high taxation, fever and sickness and, most importantly, religious persecution, combined to make their adopted homeland a less than hospitable host. The 18th century witnessed a steady migration of the Protestant inhabitants of Ulster, and by estimation a third of the population crossed the Atlantic between the years 1718 and 1758. This exodus was led in large part by several energetic and non-conformist Presbyterian ministers who maintained ongoing communications with supporters in New England from as early as the 1630s (see Martin - #34). In fact, records indicate that the first Armstrong known to arrive in America was a man named Gregory Armstrong who arrived in Plymouth in 1630. This man later married Elinor Billington in 1638, the widow of Mayflower passenger John Billington who had been executed for committing murder (see General Reference Listing - #2). One lesser known fact is that Gregory Armstrong was the sixth of seven sons born to Christopher Armstrong, the only son of the famous border reiver, Johnnie of Gilnockie.
 
On the map of Ireland the province of Ulster gathers into a circle nearly a quarter of the territory of the island. Its southerly boundary runs from Donegal Bay on the west to Carlingford Bay on the east. In the center of Ulster lies County Tyrone, with the counties of Donegal, Londonderry and Antrim along its northern borders to fend the sea. This is the heart of Scotch Irish country. South of County Tyrone are Fermanagh, Monaghan and Armagh, counties not so closely associated with the early Protestant migration. South of Monaghan, bordering the Roman Catholic province of Leinster, is Cavan, and to the east touching Armagh, lies County Down whose shores are less than a dozen miles from Ayrshire in Scotland (see Martin - #34).

Throughout the reign of Charles II, the harshness of the law in Scotland and Ireland led to many plans for removal to America, and it is known that small settlements of immigrants from these countries were established in Maryland, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas prior to 1685. Under Queen Anne (1702 - 1714) the Presbyterians in Ireland again lost almost every advantage that had been gained, and became by the Test Act of 1704 virtually outlaws. Their marriages were declared invalid and their chapels were closed. They could not maintain schools nor hold office above that of a petty constable. During these years the Rev. Cotton Mather was in close touch with religious and political affairs in both Scotland and Ireland. At the time, he was the leading clergyman in Boston where religion was the foremost force in education, society and official life. It was his plan to settle hardy families on the frontiers in Maine and New Hampshire to protect the towns and churches of Massachusetts from the French and Indians. With the support of Mather in New England and fellow Presbyterian ministers in Ulster, interest in emigration to America began to build. By 1718, it raced through Ulster like a fever and five ships with 200 emigrants were known to have arrived in Boston harbor between July and September of that year. Cotton Mather's dream of a great migration from Protestant Ireland was coming true.

As in several such great adventures, Armstrongs were very much in evidence as related in the following narrative (see Martin - #34, Chapter 8): Ferguson, captain of the Robert, was in town October 7th to attend court; and this suggests that he may have lain in the outer harbor during the time intervening between his clearing from Boston and his attendance at court. With him on the voyage from Ireland came John Armstrong, his wife and five children, who were unable to convince the authorities in Boston that they were self-supporting. Captain Ferguson was ordered before the Court of General Sessions of the Peace to answer "for bringing in his vessel and landing in this Town John Armstrong, his wife and five children who cannot give Security to Indemnify the Town as the Law requires." Ferguson's explanation that three of the children were servants by indenture did not entirely satisfy the Court, and it was Ordered that the said Ferguson carry the said Armstrong wife and two youngest Children out of the Province or Indemnify the Town." Finally the Captain and William Wilson, at whose wharf they probably landed, became sureties in L100 each that the Armstrong family, would not come back upon the town for support. If this is the same John Armstrong who later in the year heads a petition from the Scot-Irish settlers at Falmouth, this is very good evidence that he, who certainly came over from Belfast in the brigantine Robert, soon after went in her to Casco Bay with the little company from the Bann Valley (Ireland).

Later, the author goes on to say the party that left Boston for Casco Bay, arrived there late in the season, and it proving to be a very early and cold winter, the vessel was frozen in. Many of the families, not being able to find accommodations on shore, were obliged to pass the whole winter on board the ship, suffering severely from the want of food, as well as of convenience of situation. Prior to this period, the village of Falmouth, located on the site of the present city of Portland, Maine, had suffered from Indian raids, intense cold in winter, and the poverty of its fishing population.

Upon their arrival at Falmouth, John Armstrong and others at once sent a petition to the government at Boston. This John Armstrong is no doubt the indigent voyager on the Robert; in the wild life on Cape Elizabeth his ability brought him forward.

Unfortunately, his petition was denied, and the development of Falmouth languished. History and tradition have left some record of those who remained in Falmouth after the winter sojourners had gone on to Nutfield. John Armstrong, signer of the petition, with Robert Means, who had married his daughter, were certainly there, and Means settled at Stroudwater, a village near Falmouth. The descendants of Means became very prominent later in Massachusetts. Armstrong is said to have had brothers Simeon, James and Thomas, who had grants in or near Falmouth before 1721.

John Armstrong had an infant son, James, and a son Thomas, born in Falmouth in 1719. His brother, James, had Thomas, born in Ireland in 1717, as well as John, born in 1720, and James, in 1721, both in Falmouth.

As is apparent from the above, the "welcome" received by our ancestors was not always a warm one (either figuratively or literally).

Early Scot-Irish settlements were established at Worchester, MA, at Falmouth, and at nearby Merrymaker Bay, which is formed by the Androscoggin River entering the Kennebec. Several of these immigrants faced extreme hardships from weather, low provisions and unfriendly townspeople. While some took up permanent residence, several of these early settlers are believed to have moved on to places such as Londonderry in New Hampshire, Sutton, MA, Charleston, SC, and elsewhere throughout Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut and North Carolina. Several Scotch Irish settled in areas where few of their countrymen lived and merged with the more English Congregationalists (see Martin - #34).

Now that we have some idea as to the circuitous Colonial America migration of many of the Scot-Irish Armstrong forefathers, let's take a look at the extremely interesting accumulation of family research and folklore amassed by several generations of genealogy researchers of our ancestral bloodline. Through published narratives and family folklore, we'll be introduced to our enigmatic earliest known colonial ancestor, Martin Armstrong, and follow his descendants as they disperse throughout the United States during the final quarter of the second millennium. Let's go on to Chapter 2.

1