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Margaret Sullivan – the Irish Mother of New England  

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When it comes to impact of the Irish on early America, it’s hard to top Margaret Sullivan, mother to governors of two and possibly three states.


John and James Sullivan portraits

Margaret Sullivan came to America from Ireland in 1723 along with her future husband, Owen. Though Owen belonged to the minor gentry, the British Penal Laws had reduced his status to peasant. Settling in Berwick, Maine, Owen taught school  and Margaret set about running the family farm.

The couple’s stormy marriage created five sons and a daughter.

Margaret Sullivan

Margaret, or Margery, had a quick temper and a great deal of grit. She ran the farm while her husband taught school. He was 20 years older than she and they quarreled often. Once, after a fight, he left home. She published a letter on July 25, 1743 in the Boston Evening Post, asking him to return. It began:

Your abrupt Departure from me, and forsaking of me your Wife and tender Babes, which I humble acknowledge and confess I was greatly if not wholly on the Occasion of, by my too rash and unadvised Speech and Behaviour towards you; for which I now in this publick Manner humbly ask your Forgiveness, and here-by promise upon your Return, to amend and reform, and by my future loving and obedient Carriage towards you, endeavour to make an Atonement for my past evil Deeds, and manifest to you  and the whole World that I am become a new Woman, and will prove to you a loving dutiful and tender wife.

Perhaps apocryphally, Margaret joked in her old age that she could remember working her fields carrying the governor of Massachusetts while the governor of New Hampshire and Vermont toddled along behind her.

John Sullivan

John, the oldest son and a lawyer, would win favor with New Hampshire’s colonial governor. But as Massachusetts radicals began protesting British rule, Sullivan began to shift his sympathies.

He represented New Hampshire in the Continental Congress. Then he joined the Continental Army, serving as a general. He participated in the Siege of Boston, but then got captured during the Battle of Long Island. After his release he led several unsuccessful operation, then a scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois in New York state.

Congress frequently criticized the ambitious and arrogant Sullivan, which stung him badly. He resident and went back to New Hampshire. There he rebuilt his fortunes and his ego. Viewed in New Hampshire as a hero, he won election as governor of the state.

James Sullivan

James, meanwhile, would develop the finest mind of the family. He suffered an injury to his foot during work on the farm and he never fully regained use of it.

In addition, he suffered from epilepsy. With military service out of the question, James applied himself to studying and preparing for a legal career.

Sullivan earned himself a small fortune acting as agent for Boston traders. He would go on to win election as governor and attorney general of Massachusetts. Much of his time in office was spent in wrestling property away from Loyalists after the end of the Revolution.

Three States?

As for the claim that Margaret raised governors of three states. The third state is probably a reference to Vermont. Both New Hampshire and New York claimed ownership of Vermont prior to 1790, when it was known as the New Hampshire Grants. Though John Sullivan likely had little to do with actually running the state.

Samuel Wells

Daughter Mary, who, like her father, taught school, had a grandson, Samuel Wells, who won election as governor of Maine in 1858.

This story was updated in 2022.

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