The Legend of Ocean-Born Mary

By Fionnuala McNicholl

Trials, tribulations and tragedies were endured by many leaving these shores as immigrants to the New World, whether fleeing religious unrest or famine. The raging Atlantic Ocean was in itself a significant obstacle for sailing vessels, crew and passengers alike.

Although feared, many faced the treacherous sea seeking a new and different life. From the early 1600 days of the Ulster Plantation, many Scottish descendants and native Irish chanced the Atlantic’s perils, with dissenters availing of granted settlement lands in the eastern colonial area of New England. Many sailed from the port of Derry, or Londonderry, as it became known, when the cities name changed by Royal Seal in 1613, following London’s role during Ulster’s Plantation.

In 1720, Scottish plantation descendants James and Elizabeth Wilson, a young married couple, ventured the gruelling voyage. At the quays in Londonderry, the couple boarded a sailing ship, thought to be named the Wolf, bound for the port of Boston, Massachusetts. As colonial settlers to the New World, they aimed to set up home in the evolving town of Londonderry, New Hampshire. There they would build a house for themselves and the child they were expecting. Like most developing New England colonies, Londonderry derived its name from the departure port from where its immigrant inhabitants had sailed.

Having ploughed the North Atlantic’s arduous waves for around six weeks, America’s north-eastern rugged seaboard emerged in the distance. However, as the ship’s captain steered his galleon towards land, an unidentifiable craft approached alongside.

Excitement on viewing the Massachusetts shoreline abated, realising the unidentifiable vessel didn’t arrive with a welcome greeting as its crew of ruthless armed pirates clambered on board the Wolf. Within minutes the tyrants had overwhelmed Wolf’s captain, crew and passengers, pulling gold wedding rings from ladies fingers, ripping timepieces and chains from the waistcoats of any wealthy gentlemen. Even the steerage passengers on board had to part with what little belongings they had. The renegades tied passengers to the ship’s rigging, intent on leaving them to perish, threatening to sink the Wolf as soon as they’d flee with their loot.

The pirate captain, said to be a ferocious individual, continued his rampage of the lower deck. As he ransacked bunks and cabins, plundering anything of value, the whimpering cries of a baby thwarted his pillaging. Pushing open a cabin door, he found a terrified Elizabeth Wilson cowered in a bunk, cradling her newborn daughter.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” the gruff young, swarthy stranger asked a trembling Elizabeth.

“A girl,” Elizabeth whispered in disquiet response. The callous pirate captain softened his demeanour. He asked Elizabeth if she would name the child in honour of his mother. If so,  in return, he would requite the possessions he and his henchmen plundered, together with the unhindered onward passage of the ship to its destination. Without hesitation, Elizabeth nodded in agreement, promising to name her baby Mary.

Back on deck, true to his word, the marauder ordered his malefactors to release passengers from their shackles and return all confiscated property. Permitting the Wolf safe onward journey, the pirate captain and his henchmen disembarked to reboard their piratical boat empty of any loot. On hearing Elizabeth’s explanation of what happened, the crew and passengers celebrated in prayer, giving thanks for Mary’s birth and Elizabeth’s deliverance of them from sure death.

However, as the Wolf navigated into Boston Harbour, the corsair ship again drew alongside. This time, their captain boarded the galleon immigrant ship alone. Rather than boarding with weaponry and vicious intent, he carried only a parcel and went to Elizabeth’s cabin. There he unwrapped a web of the finest, green silk brocade. He asked Elizabeth and her husband, James, if they’d promise to have a gown made from the precious silk for Mary to wear on her wedding day. The couple agreed and accepted the gift for their daughter. He took his leave from the ship, never to be seen in their company again.

The testing voyage saw James Wilson succumb to illness shortly after they arrived in Boston. Elizabeth, then a young widow and mother, later journeyed onward with her baby daughter, Mary, to New Hampshire. There, Elizabeth claimed the colonial settler land in Londonderry, granted to her husband before leaving Ireland. Fellow immigrants, and in particular, those passengers and crew aboard the Wolf, looked upon Mary as ‘special’ to them.

Affectionately she became known to all as Ocean-Born Mary. So thankful were they, each year on Mary’s birthday, July 26, they celebrated as a day of thanksgiving for the preservation of their lives. Sometime later, Elizabeth remarried another Scots-Irish immigrant, James Clark. They remained in Londonderry, where they and Mary led an unremarkable life.

History tells us that Mary grew up into a tall, pretty red-haired lady with elegant deportment and a pleasant manner. At aged twenty-two in 1742, she married Thomas Wallace, a Scots/ Irish immigrant residing in Londonderry, New Hampshire. As promised by Elizabeth, her mother, on the day of her daughter’s birth, Mary wore a wedding gown made from the silk brocade gifted by the pirate captain. However, Mary may not have been the first to marry wearing a gown made from delicate green silk. Ocean-Born Mary’s mother, Elizabeth, reputedly wore the exquisite silk when she remarried some years before.

Mary and her husband, Thomas, went on to have four sons and one daughter. Thomas died in October 1781. Mary remained in Londonderry until 1798, when, aged seventy-eight, she moved to nearby Henniker, spending her final years with her son, William. Ocean-Born Mary passed away on February 13 1814, aged ninety-three. Her body is interred in the Wallace family plot in Centre Burying Ground, Henniker.

Mary’s wedding gown is said to have also been worn by her daughter, Elizabeth, and her four daughters-in-law on their wedding day. Today remnants of Ocean-Mary’s teal green silk brocade trousseau are artefacts of the Daughters of American Revolution Art and History Museum in Washington DC and the public library of Henniker, New Hampshire.

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