Magruder-McGregor family papers

The Huntington Library–in San Marino, California, by Pasadena–has scanned and made public a small collection of papers from the family of Roderick McGregor. This is the younger Roderick, son of Nathaniel M. McGregor and Susan Euphemia Mitchell, and grandson of John Smith Magruder, who in 1820 changed the surnames of his children to McGregor in the mistaken belief that Alexander Magruder the Immigrant was a member of Clan Gregor in Scotland. I have written elsewhere on this site about Nathaniel’s brother, the first Roderick McGregor, and other members of the family, and of those they enslaved. (See John S. Magruder & McGregor Slaves, under Slavery’s Legacy.) The elder Roderick lived on and farmed their father’s plantation in Prince George’s County, MD, while Nathaniel was a businessman in Washington, D.C.

The heart of the Huntington collection is a group of family letters from 1860-1862 (+ one each from 1857 & 1864). By that time, the elder Roderick had died and Nathaniel’s family was living at the plantation. Nathaniel himself went back and forth between “home,” as he calls it in the letters, and his official residence in a business district of Washington, D.C. Nathaniel’s son, the younger Roderick, was attending the brand-new Maryland Agricultural College, now the University of Maryland, and his absence from home occasioned the exchange of numerous letters with this father, mother, and siblings. The few surviving letters are deeply interesting, containing snippets of family life, with mention of a few of the family’s enslaved laborers, house servants, and runaways (including some identified elsewhere in family wills and estate papers). Here, too, are the various anxieties of wartime–approach of the war, efforts to find a political compromise, Union troops in the neighborhood, closed bridges and check-points, unrest among the enslaved, and, finally, a prediction that the plantation will yield no harvest as slaves begin leaving and Emancipation approaches.

We learn, too, that Roderick was nearly killed in some sort of accident in 1857; that one of his sisters was thrown from an overturning carriage; that his mother Susan (who had given birth ten times, with seven living children aged 12-31) was often unwell; that one young woman in the family’s social circle was “the most affected creature” ever seen; that the parents were religious and worried that Roderick was not; that Nathaniel generally frowned on the theater, but allowed his daughters to attend an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy; and that Uncle Alerick (another of Nathaniel’s brothers, a school teacher) “has recovered from his frolic.” Sadly, we never find out what that frolic included, only that a man of his age should have known better.

I am working on updates to Magruder’s Landing, and will include some excerpts and analysis of the contents of the letters, but in the meantime you can read them yourself, right here: McGregor Family Correspondence.

Names in the letters include: Nathaniel Mortimer McGregor; his wife Susan Euphemia Mitchell McGregor; their children Helen Woods McGregor Ewell (Roderick’s oldest sister, married to her first cousin, John Smith Magruder Ewell), Margaret Eliza McGregor (married to her first cousin John Ridout “Ridy” McGregor, son of Alerick McGregor & Martha Potts Key); Susan Euphemia McGregor; Isabella “Bell” McGregor (later married to Thomas Somerville Dorset); Roderick Mortimer McGregor (later married to Margaret Elizabeth Bowie, d/o Richard Bowie, a relative); Agnes Woods McGregor (later married to Thomas Trueman Somerville Bowie, another relative); John Francis McGregor (later married to Frances Ellen Wallace); Susan E.M. McGregor’s brothers William Mitchell and John Mitchell (Uncle William & Uncle John); John Ridout “Ridie” McGregor; various neighbors and acquaintances; enslaved men Jack Bowie, Ned [Dodson], John Henry, George, & Sam; enslaved woman Bity or Bittie.

The collection also includes some later family material (up to the 1980s), a photograph of Roderick, and two of his report cards from the MAC.

For those interested in the Magruder/MacGregor question…

Please see comments by Jim Magruder on the page (under Alexander) called “Alexander’s Family Tree.” Continuing that conversation, I have updated the page (under Scotland) called “McGruder / McGregor / Campbell / Drummond: Are you confused yet?” I haven’t changed the argument I make there, but I have added more details, some sources, and some clarifications.

To all who still believe, or want to believe, in the Magruder-MacGregor connection: your comments are welcome. More welcome still would be evidence to back up the legend.

Jim Magruder says in his comments that belief in the connection goes back to the 17th c. I know of no evidence before the 19th; and the 19th c. Magruders whose writing I’ve seen, or whose stories have been published, make no claim pointing farther back than the late 18th.

When I first started researching Alexander and all these related histories, a long, long McGruder-MacGregor tradition was exactly what I expected to find…but I didn’t. I read about Alexander’s life, and I read about Clan Gregor, and I couldn’t find any intersections between them. Likewise, when Don McGruther began researching in Scottish historical records, he expected to prove the McGruther-MacGregor connection: instead, he wound up proving that there is no evidence.

So, really, if you have older evidence from Maryland, I can’t wait to see it. And if you have evidence from Scotland, bring it on! We can start the hunt all over again.

McGruder / McGregor / Campbell / Drummond : Are you confused yet?

The more I learn about the McGrouther/McGruther/McGruder family in Scotland the more outlandish it seems to imagine they were part of Clan Gregor or that Alexander ever identified himself as a MacGregor. The Drummond family, to whom the McGruders were connected for many generations, were closely allied with the Glenorchy Campbells, with whom the MacGregors feuded bitterly. And, more particularly, the Drummonds and McGruthers had a powerful reason to feud with Clan Gregor themselves. See the new page I’ve just put up, with the same title as this post, under the heading Scotland.

American Clan Gregor Society Yearbooks…& how to use them

You may be surprised to find a link to the ACGS Yearbooks, given that I have confessed my lack of belief in Alexander Magruder’s Clan Gregor origins; but the ACGS was founded by Magruders and Magruders still make up a large portion of its membership, so it follows that the yearbooks are full of information by and about Magruders.

Unlike recent yearbooks, which focus on activities in the present, the early yearbooks were full of historical articles, family histories, memorials to individual ancestors, transcriptions of wills, and the like. All are available as PDFs from the ACGS Library, now in the care of Special Collections at the Langsdale Library of the University of Baltimore.

Use these articles with caution! The authors were not professional historians or genealogists. Some were careful and reasonably skilled, others appallingly bad on both counts, and nearly all the articles contain errors of omission if not outright wrong “facts.” In these old publications, legend and pure speculation enjoy equal status with research. For most, the goal was celebration of a heritage, not its verification.

Check the evidence, corroborate, and correlate. Look for original records and for multiple sources.

Be particularly cautious when you notice that the writers cite each other as authorities. Most of the historical articles were penned by three or four men, who are content to rely on each other without risking any further inquiry. These guys were friends and colleagues, working together to establish a historical grounding for the ACGS. You can’t blame them for accepting each other’s word–but you don’t have to.

For example, you may be excited to see that both Mr. A and Mr. B make the same claim about such-and-such…then find, on closer scrutiny, that Mr. B’s authority is Mr. A. So all you have, after all, in Mr. A’s assertion, for which he offers no evidence.

Phrases like “it is traditional” also should set off alarm bells. Most assertions that follow that phrase will turn out to have no basis in the historical record, and some will turn out to have no basis in oral history either. Such phrases can be used to cloak speculation in an air of authority.

Ask where the “tradition” comes from and who has handed it down.

The prime example for us, of course, is the “tradition” that Magruders/McGruders were part of Clan Gregor, which has flourished among American Magruders for around 200 years but is unknown to McGruders in Scotland. The idea was introduced to Scottish MacGregors in the 20th century and many have accepted it, but neither the historical record nor DNA has thus far supported it. Alas!

So where did this belief come from? When, where, and why did 19th c. Magruders adopt this belief? That’s worth finding out.

Don’t be intimidated by sources that sound antique and grand. Try a web search to find out the exact nature of these old books. Who wrote them? Who published them? For what audience and for what gain? Look for critical views and academic assessments. Dare to read what modern historians have to say on the same subjects.

For example, Sir Robert Douglas’ Baronage of Scotland (1798) was taken as authoritative by 19th and early 20th c. researchers and enthusiasts. Now available on line, it is offered by its editors as a sociological document–a snapshot of the beliefs of its day–and, at best, only a starting point for research. The Clan Gregor entry, often cited in support of the most grandiose claims about the clan chiefs’ genealogy, has been described by historian Martin MacGregor as “a work of sustained fiction.”

In short, be skeptical of claims that are not backed up by citations of sources. Be proactive in following up on those sources. Compare and correlate different sources, making sure they are independent of each other–that is, not all relying on the same prior source. On some questions, you may never have a hard and fast proven fact, but multiple independent sources that suggest the same conclusion will give you far more certainty than one self-confident writer who offers no evidence for his or her claims.

And above all, enjoy the hunt!

Why you won’t see much about Clan Gregor on this site

Like many American Magruders, I was raised in the belief that Alexander Magruder was a member of Clan Gregor. I love MacGregor history and have studied it in detail all my life. Sadly, modern research makes clear that we Magruders are not related to Clan Gregor.

In Scotland, Don McGruther has ransacked the historical records for evidence of association between that clan and McGruders, and has found none. Nor is there any tradition in Scotland associating the two lineages. This lack of connection is confirmed by a small Magruder-McGruther DNA Project, which shows no close relation between well-established MacGregor markers and a small number of McGruder / Magruder men who volunteered to be tested.

The American Clan Gregor Society was founded in 1909 by descendants of Alexander Magruder, including my great-grandfather, and the ACGS is still family to me; but I can’t pretend that I still believe in our Clan Gregor descent.

I am, however, very interested in how, why, and when American Magruders came to believe it. We know that in 1820 one John Smith Magruder, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, changed all his children’s surnames to McGregor. (It took a special act of the Legislature.) There are claims that the belief dates back to Revolutionary times, but as yet I have found no evidence for that.

(If you are a Magruder, and somewhere in your family is a record showing an early belief in the MacGregor connection, please share!)

It could not have been handed down from Alexander himself, nor from anyone who knew him, because it is clear that 19th c. American Magruders believed they were descended from MacGregors who had survived the rigors of the Proscription–the details of which they probably drew from the writings of Sir Walter Scott. (John S. Magruder read Scott’s books aloud to his children, for example.) It is also possible they got some of their details from early tartan books published by Scottish woolen mills from the early 19th c. on. The mills had an interest in spooning every Scottish surname into a Highland clan, to sell more tartan, and their information was often spurious.

As for the “traditional” belief that the Magruders/McGruders/McGrouthers were descended from Gillespie the Cruiter, or Harper, a younger son of a 14th c. Clan Gregor chief, I can trace it no further than the speculations of Henry Latham Magruder, of Chicago, who undertook in the last years of the 19th c. to find evidence for the MacGregor-Magruder connection. It is clear from his correspondence that he found no such evidence, but instead formed a theory that the name evolved from a patronymic, MacCruiter or MacCruither, meaning “Son of the Harper.” He never says anything more certain than “It is my belief..” and he does not say from what source he derived his conviction. Gaelic linguists deny that this is the meaning or origin of our name, in any of its spellings.

In fact, in his correspondence with ACGS founder Dr. Edward May Magruder, Henry Latham Magruder argued passionately for the founding of a Magruder society, not a MacGregor society. When he could not prevail, and the ACGS went forward as Clan Gregor organization, he asked that his correspondence be preserved in the society’s archives. Thus, you can read it yourself, right here–

Henry Latham Magruder corr 1

Henry Latham Magruder corr 2

It is clear in the correspondence that Edward May Magruder, the principal organizer of the ACGS, sought information from Henry because his research, conducted in Scotland with help from a researcher there, was more extensive than that of any other American Magruder. Before this time, Magruders had believed their name was a variation or corruption of MacGregor, or that it had been adopted when the name MacGregor was proscribed in 1603. Once researchers like Henry Latham Magruder had traced the McGruther / MacCrouther name to at least the middle of the 15th c (150 years before the Proscription) and uncovered Alexander’s true origins–in a family and community far removed from Clan Gregor’s troubles–they had to find another way to connect him to the MacGregors. We have to remember that they worked under the assumption that the connection was true, an assumption that influenced their interpretation of facts.

Thus was the “Son of the Harper” born, and Gilane or Gilawnene McCrouder–our first documentable ancestor, who signed a document in 1447–was claimed to be his son. Henry Latham also filled in a genealogy between Gilawnene and the next documented man of the name: James McGruder, who in 1547 was pardoned for having taken part in a Protestant attack on Queen Mary’s governor the previous year. James was a page to to David, the second Lord Drummond. And if we are correct in our identification of Alexander Magruder’s parents, this James was his great-grandfather.

We can’t blame the founders of the ACGS for believing what their families had taught them. Even Henry Latham Magruder, as he argued for a Magruder society, was vehement in his continued belief in the Clan Gregor story, claiming it went back in his family to Revolutionary times. But we have resources they did not have and we cannot ignore what both the historical record and the DNA record tell us. We should take Henry’s advice and embrace our Magruder heritage for its own sake.

Maybe someone should design a Magruder family tartan, to ease the way.


Don McGruther: MacGrouthers in Scotland before 1855. Self-published, 2007. Issued jointly with Sue Emerson’s CD, Magruders in America, under the title Wha’s Like Us?

Henry Latham Maguder: Correspondence 1894-1909. American Clan Gregor Society Collection, Series IX, Box 10. University of Baltimore, Langsdale Library Special Collections. Used with permission.

Magruder-McGruther DNA Project