John and Nancy May
of Crawford County, Pennsylvania

John May was born about 1754 in Ireland, and was still in his teens when he joined the wave of 40,000 Scots-Irish immigrants who swept into America in the early 1770s. The Scots-Irish – an ethnic group that originated after the migration of Scots into northern Ireland in the early 1600s – came to the New World to escape religious persecution and economic difficulties. The majority entered through Philadelphia and eventually pushed their way into western Pennsylvania through the Cumberland Valley.

Like most Scots-Irish who immigrated in this period, John appears to have first settled in southern Pennsylvania. Evidence for this comes from his will which mentions a judgement on the docket of Justice Black of York County, as well as a lot on Howard's Hill in Baltimore, Maryland just south of York.

Having been a young man at the time of his immigration, John may have come with his parents or other relatives. His father may have been Charles May of Menallen Township, York County, who died before May 26, 1785 naming a son John and grandson William in his will.

About 1775 John married 16-year-old Nancy W. whose parents are also unknown. It was the custom, during colonial times, for American brides to marry young. An English traveler in the back-country remarked, "It is not uncommon to see a mother of 13 or 14 years of age, and it is rare to see a maid unmarried at 18." Between 1776 and 1801 Nancy and John had eleven children:

Children of John and Nancy May
Sally Burchfield in 1811
John Porter in 1804
John Moore in 1809
John Jr.
Jane Dean in 1818
John McClelland in 1817
Samuel Evans in 1834
Mary Merriman in 1845
William Porter in 1824
Jane Moyers in 1824

The first years of Nancy and John's marriage coincided with the beginning of the Revolutionary War and, according to his obituary, John was "the first to take up arms in that glorious struggle." Muster and pension rolls show at least eight John Mays who fought in the Revolution, so further research would be necessary to determine our John's service record.

After the war, John appears to have returned to his family in York County. A review of 1790 census records turns up a matching family in Warrington Township with a John May as the head of household, 3 males under the age of 16 (possibly Hugh, William, and John Jr.), and 3 females (possibly Nancy, Mary, and Elizabeth).

A few miles from Warrington Township, in the village of Dillsburg, lived John Porter, the future husband of the May's oldest daughter Mary. A family bible shows that Mary and John were married in 1804 by the Reverend Samuel Waugh. Although the wedding location was not noted, Rev. Waugh was known to be the pastor of the Monaghan Presbyterian Church at Dillsburg. This is further evidence that John and Nancy lived in York County for the first 20 years of their marriage.

Migrating to Western Pennsylvania

Around the time of Mary's marriage, the entire family picked up and moved to the wilderness of northwestern Pennsylvania. With three adult children, John and Nancy were likely in search of a larger parcel of land that would allow the entire family to stay together. They were patented a tract in the northern part of Fairfield Township in Crawford County which they named "Mayfield."

Attempts at settling this area had begun as early as 1787, but had been met with great resistance by several Native American tribes. The area was on the border between the peaceable eastern tribes (Six Nations), and the western Indians (Wyandotts, Shawnees, etc.) who were disturbed by the flood of settlers encroaching on their prime hunting grounds.

Thomas Fleming writes in Liberty, "Many of these newcomers were unruly, combative Scots and Irish from the borderlands of Scotland and England and from the province of Ulster . . . Clashes between these settlers and neighboring Indians were frequent and alarming."

The Indians held their ground for almost ten years before they were defeated by the United States Army. They signed a peace treaty with General Anthony Wayne at Greeneville, Ohio in August 1795, bringing an end to the bloodshed.

By the time of the Mays arrival in Crawford County, the threat of Indian attack had passed, but the area was still considered a dangerous wilderness. The rolling hills were covered with thick forests of oak, chestnut, and hickory, and populated by a variety of animal life including deer, elk, wolves, bear, and panthers. The valley had rich, loamy soil that was ideal for farming, and much of it had already been cleared of trees by the Indians.

Settling in Crawford County

Fairfield township was just beginning to take shape with a sawmill, gristmill, several churches, two taverns, a school, a general store, and a post office which received weekly mail deliveries from Pittsburg. The township's population also supported several blacksmiths, tanners, and weavers.

Around the time of the May's arrival, Crawford County began publishing the first newspaper in western Pennsylvania. The Crawford Weekly Messenger's opening editorial stated that it would be republican in its politics, but that its columns would be "open to all who think their principles or political connexions injured, as freely to the one side as the other, with the wholesome restriction, that the discussions should be liberal, candid, and decent." Seventy-five years later, the May's grandson, Thomas Madison May, would publish one of the first republican newspapers in another frontier – Washington Territory.

Most Scots-Irish immigrants, such as the Mays, were Jeffersonian Republicans. Party alignments of national consequence began to form before the end of George Washington's first administration in 1793. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was the master politician of the Federalist party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson led what came to be the first loyal opposition in national affairs – the Democratic-Republican party. The Federalists were conservative, anti-Irish, and generally suspicious of anyone not of old-stock Anglo American, while Jefferson spoke on behalf of interests of farmers, veterans, and urban immigrants.

After John and Nancy were settled in Crawford County, they purchased a grist-mill and ferry at the mouth of the Conneaut, an Indian word meaning "place of lingering snows." A description of the mill appears as follows in the History of Crawford County, "The stream was sluggish and the dam, which afforded a water-fall of about five feet, kept the waters back a distance of several miles. A turbine wheel was used and with the two run of stone in use, an extensive milling business was done."

Much of the grain ground at John and Nancy's mill likely went into the distillation of whiskey which was much easier to transport over mountainous roads to markets in the east, than were wagon loads of grain. John May, Jacob Moyers, and John Porter all operated stills for this purpose. John's will reveals that some of the whiskey was reserved for home consumption and probably did much to liven up meals that generally consisted of milk (a substitute for tea and coffee), wheat or corn-bread, mush and milk, vegetables, and a scant amount of meat. One writer has remarked that early Americans, perhaps because life was so difficult, drank enough hard cider in a single day to make modern Americans "woozy for a week."

Daily Life

Several histories of Crawford County describe John as a "prominent citizen" and it appears that the whole family was active in the community. The younger May children likely attended Fairfield's first school, a little cabin which stood at the roadside in the northwest part of the township. The History of Crawford County describes it as a "typical pioneer school-room, a round-log cabin perhaps 16x24 feet, with newspaper windows, the opening made by withdrawing a log from one side of the building and replacing it with paper. A large fire-place, extending across one end, helped very materially to supply the room with light."

Nancy and John attended Conneaut United Presbyterian Church which was organized in 1811 by Rev. Robert Johnson. The primitive log church sat on an acre of land a short distance south of the mouth of the Conneaut Creek. Many of the old settlers of Fairfield Township, including the Mays, are buried in its graveyard.

The family also participated in the Crawford County Library Association which was established sometime before 1816. The books that they and others donated eventually developed into a large library which was kept in the cabin of one of the members.

Census records reveal that by 1810 Fairfield township had 400 white inhabitants and, although they were not counted, probably twice as many Native Americans. It appears that all the children but Mary were living at home, including Hugh and William who were in their late 30s. Mary and her husband John Porter, a blacksmith, were living on a neighboring farm with their two boys.

Also living on a neighboring farm were our ancestors Jacob and Barbara Moyers, who were said to be of German descent. They had married in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania in 1788, so were about 10 years younger than Nancy and John. Their children were Elizabeth, Salley, Polley, William, John, Thomas, George, Jane, Rebecca, Eliza, and Perlina. Their daughter Jane was just a few years younger than Thomas May, and the two children undoubtedly grew up playing together and attending the same one-room school house. They were married in 1824, and their fifth child was my great great grandfather, Thomas Madison May.

The daily life of the Mays and other residents of Crawford County was interrupted in 1812 when the United States again went to war with the British. One of the causes of the War of 1812 was Great Britain's refusal to withdraw from American territory along the Great Lakes, so the main land fighting of the war occurred in this area. Crawford County is within 10 miles of Lake Erie, and it appears that John, who was almost 60, was again enlisted to fight the British.

The following passage about the war appears in the History of Crawford County. "During the war of 1812 all the able bodied citizens in this [Fairfield] township as well as elsewhere throughout this region were pressed into service at Erie. Robert Young, then an old man, was the only resident of Fairfield whom it is remembered was not enlisted. The old State road extending from Pittsburgh to Erie traversed the township and over it the munitions of war were transported to Erie, and the soldiery passed over it to and from that place. The women were obliged to look after the farms and, taking their infants and young children with them to the fields, they gathered in the crops of wheat which had been left standing."

Muster rolls show three John Mays (one captain and two privates) enlisted in Pennsylvania and serving under Lieutenant Colonel John Lotz, Colonel Louis Bache, and Major David Nelson. More research would be necessary to determine if any of these are, in fact, our John May. It appears that John and Nancy survived the two-year ordeal and resumed their life on the farm after the war.

John's Will

On September 25, 1825, John wrote a rather complex will appointing James Cochran and James Cochran, Jr. the executors and giving the farm to his children at the time of signing. The farm in Fairfield township consisted of four lots and was divided as follows.

Lot 1 went to son John. He was also given the "stills and all the vessels belonging there to now in or about the still house." John was to make three barrels of whiskey a year for his parents as long as they lived, and was directed to pay the executors $300.

Lot 2 went to son George Washington who was to pay the executors $200.

Lot 3 was to be divided equally between daughters Elizabeth Moore and Ann McClellan unless the lawsuit that Elizabeth's husband John had pending in the court of common pleas in Mercer County should prove unsuccessful. In this case the lot would go entirely to John, and he would be responsible for paying the executors $250.

Lot 4 was given to daughter Sally May who was to pay the executors $500. She was also given use of the timber "15 perches" (250 feet) deep along on the south end of lots one and two.

The owners of each lot were to give John and Nancy an annual payment of 20 bushels each of wheat, corn, and oats, in addition to 10 bushels of rye and buckwheat, and 1 ton of hay to be "cured and put in the barn in good order."

After John's death, the sums collected from the owners of the four farm lots would first be used to pay his debts and funeral expenses. Then the money was to be divided as follows – $100 to daughter Mary Porter, $300 to daughter Ann McClellan, $100 to son Thomas, $100 to William Porter, husband of daughter Isabella, and $20 to son William.

Nancy was to be given "one horse creature with a saddle and briddle, two cows . . . and six sheep" and her choice of "one bed and bedding and such a portion of the household and kitchen furniture as shall be considered sufficient." She was also to receive half of the proceeds from the sale of land to Daniel Turner. The other half was to go to daughter Ann McClellan.

Son Hugh was freed from paying all current and future interest on a debt he owned his father, and son William was to receive the "amount of a judgement obtained by award of arbitration upon the docket of Justice Black of York County."

The lot on Howard's Hill in Baltimore was to be sold and equally divided between sons John, George, and Thomas. The land in the eighth donation district in Rockdale township (lot no. 1574) was to be divided equally between son Thomas and daughter Isabella's husband William Porter. The land in the fifth donation district, French Creek Township of Mercer County (lot no. 1060) was to be divided equally between grandsons John May Porter (Mary's son), John Carson May (William' son) and John McClelland Jr. (Ann's son). Four shares of stock in the Mercer and Meadville Turnpike Road Company were to go to grandson John May (John, Jr.'s son).

Perhaps anticipating discord, John's final directive stated that if any of his heirs chose to contest the will, their share would automatically be forfeited and divided among the other heirs. John died at home a few months later at the age 73. Nancy lived for another twelve years, and was close to 80 when she died on July 1, 1838. Both are buried in Conneaut Cemetery where John's square, sandstone tombstone reads:

to the memory of
John May
who departed this life Jan 2 1826
in the __ year of his age
his sleep ___he sinks to rest
with heaven's approving sentence blest.


Crawford Messenger Newspaper, Crawford County, Pennsylvania, January 5, 1826.

Everyday Life in Early America by David Hawke, Harper and Ross, New York, 1989.

History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania Warner, Beers, and Co., Chicago, 1885. Reprinted Salem, Mass: Higginson Book Co., 1990.

Incidents in the Early History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania by Alfred Huidekoper, Meadville, Pennsylvania, 1846.

Liberty! The American Revolution by Thomas Fleming, Viking, New York, 1997.

Our Country and Its People: A Historical and Memorial Record of Crawford County, Pennsylvania by Samuel P. Bates, Boston: W.A. Ferguson & Co., 1899. Reprinted Salem, Mass: Higgison Book Co., 1993.

Vital Records from the George W. May Family Bible and The Descendants of John May of Fairfield Township by William B. Moore, Crawford County Genealogy Journal, Crawford County Genealogical Society, Meadville, Pennsylvania, Volume 16, No.2, 1993.

A special thanks to Randy May of Carlsbad, California for providing many of the materials for this story.

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