Friday, July 2, 2010

Fourth of July - Matthew Thornton- Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Matthew Thornton's gravesite at Merrimack, NH

Fifteen or twenty years ago, when my daughter was in elementary school, we visited Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We toured the city, saw the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin’s house, and ate some cheese steak sandwiches. Of course, we didn’t miss Independence Hall, either. The tour was guided. When we came to the room where the Continental Congress delegates met, my daughter raised her hand and asked to see in which chair Matthew Thornton sat. The other tourists looked puzzled but the guide smiled and said “YOU must be from New Hampshire!”

He is not as famous as Thomas Jefferson, or John Hancock, or Benjamin Franklin, but nonetheless little Londonderry, New Hampshire produced Dr. Matthew Thornton. Like many other Nutfield Settlers, he was born in Northern Ireland, and immigrated when only three years old first to Wiscasset, Maine and then to Worcester, Massachusetts before settling in a part of Londonderry now known as Derry in 1740. He was a physician, justice of the peace, and a member of the militia. Locally, he was a Londonderry selectman, a representative to the Provincial Assembly, and the first President of the Committee of Safety which produced New Hampshire’s first draft of its constitution after the royal government was dissolved.

Later he was elected to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He arrived too late to participate in the debates, but he did sign the Declaration of Independence. He became the first president of the new New Hampshire House of Representatives. He retired from his medical practice in 1780 and removed across the river to the part of Merrimack, New Hampshire known as Thornton’s Ferry. He died on 24 June 1803 whilst staying with his daughter in Newburyport, Massachusetts, but he is buried in the Thornton Cemetery in Merrimack with his wife and other members of the family.

According to myth, Dr. Thornton had promised Hannah Jack he would marry her when she was a child unwilling to take some nasty medication. She was 18 and he was 46 years old when they married. Her family members were also Scots-Irish Presbyterians.

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, six arrived in time to only sign (not participate in drafting the document), eight were foreign born (three were born in Ireland), and four were doctors. Matthew Thornton was all three of these! There is a memorial to Dr. Thornton along Rt. 3 in Merrimack, a plaque in front of his home in Derry, and a school named in his honor in Londonderry. The town of Thornton, New Hampshire was named for Dr. Matthew Thornton.

Across the street from this graveyard on Daniel Webster Highway stands the Thornton homestead.  It was a tavern style restaurant in named “Hannah Jack’s” but it is now part of the Common Man Restaurant chain.  If you stop by the restaurant, the rooms are decorated with information and images from the Thornton family, especially Matthew Thornton.  The staff will gladly show you around!

Matthew Thornton’s family tree:

Generation 1: James Thornton, born about 1684 in Northern Ireland, died 7 November 1754 in Londonderry, New Hampshire; married to Elizabeth Jenkins, arrived in Boston on 17 August 1718 from Northern Ireland. Eight children, including:
Generation 2: Matthew Thornton, born about 1714 in Northern Ireland and died 24 June 2803 in Newburyport, Massachusetts; married in 1760 to Hannah Jack, daughter of Andrew Jack and Mary Morrison of Chester, New Hampshire, born 1742 and died 5 December 1786, Five children:

1. James, b.20 December 1763 in Londonderry and married to Mary Parker
2. Andrew, b. about 1766 in Londonderry, died 22 April 1787
3. Mary, b. 1768 in Londonderry, married to Hon. Silas Betton of Salem, New Hampshire
4. Mathew, b. 1770 in Londonderry and married to Fanny Curtis
5. Hannah, b. 25 Jul 1774 in Merrimack, married to John McGraw, of Newburyport, Massachusetts

For more information: Family Trees of Merrimack, New Hampshire from the Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress


Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Excellent post, thank you Heather. It's interesting to learn more about Mathew Thornton's life.

  2. That was interesting. When I saw the name Hannah Jack I wondered if there was a connection. Thanks for the thorough piece of history from your area.

  3. Looking to see where Hannah Jack and her father Andrew and her grandfather Andrew Jack fit into my tree. My Jack's fled from Ireland, who fled Scotland, who fled France persecution. Any help on her ancestry would be appreciated. I know she fits in there somewhere.

    1. I don't know much about the JACK family of Chester. Possibly Scots Irish/ Ulster Presbyterians like most of the families around here? Does anyone know?

    2. Hi Ginny! I just consulted with Janice Webster Brown, the author of the genealogy blog "Cow Hampshire". She lives right in Merrimack, NH. She recommended this link to an article about the Jack and Thornton families
      Also, check out Janice's blog at