THE FIRST AMERICAN CONNECTION
Joseph Reagh a grandson of Matthew Rhea was ordained at Fahan in August 1748. The Rheas were descended from the Campbell clan in lowland Scotland and the family line was started by a Matthew Campbell who moved to Fahan around 1655 after being involved in an abortive rebellion against the government of King Charles II. On arrival in Ulster, Campbell changed his name to Rhea and it is known that two of his sons settled in Belfast and another at Kennecalley near St Johnston, Co Donegal. Matthew Campbell Rhea took a prominent part in the Siege of Londonderry in 1688-89.
Joseph Reagh was a son of Matthew Reagh of Taboyne and educated at Glasgow in1742. He was licensed to Letterkenny Presbytery and it is marked that he first preached at the little church at Barracranaugh or Bun Cranaugh (now Buncrana) before he became the faithful pastor of Fahan and Inch. He was a scholarly man well versed in philosophy, theology and the Hebrew and Latin languages. He was spoken of as one of the most eminent clerics in the North of Ireland. He was large in stature, (six feet in height) with a cheerful disposition, full of Irish jokes, pleasant in manner and kind and charitable to a fault. He had been known to take off his shirt and give it to the needy. He resigned his post at Fahan and Inch on August 16th 1769 after a disagreement over his annual salary of £24.00. It would appear that in Mr. Reagh's time Presbyterianism was very weak in this locality, or else the Presbyterians were very indifferent regarding their pastor's welfare. His resignation to the congregation read: -
" As I received the congregation of Fahan from the Presbytery of Londonderry, I have laboured in the work of the ministry above twenty years in that place and as the congregation has fallen into very long areas and has been very deficient in the original promise to me which was £24.00 yearly. I am unable to subsist any longer among them and I do hereby demit my charge of them and deliver them into the hand of them from whom I received them.
P.S. I have only this further to request of the Presbytery that they will see justice done me in that congregation in my absence."
So we find that in 1769 this supplication was presented by the Rev Reagh to the General Synod representing his circumstances to be so necessitous that he cannot live any way decently or comfortably in this part and he must transport himself and his family to some of the American colonies. Rev Robert Huey of Knowhead Presbyterian Church submitted a similar petition. The Synod ordered each congregation under its care to take up a collection to enable these two ministers and their families to emigrate to America. The members present at that meeting of Presbytery subscribed the sum of £2.18.9½.
Rev Reagh asked that the money he had already paid into the Widows Fund might be refunded to him again. This request at first was refused; but was resolved that a collection should be made for him in the various churches and be divided between him and Rev Robert Huey of Knowhead. It was with the understanding that if the two ministers and their families did not go to America the money subscribed by the various congregations would be allocated to the Synod of Ulster Widows Fund.
On September 1769 he sailed from Londonderry to America with his wife Elizabeth McIlwaine (she came from Lisfannon) and their seven children. He arrived in Philadelphia and joined the Synod of New York and Philadelphia in 1771. He preached at Piney Creek near Taneytown in Maryland for four years on an annual salary of £112.00.
In 1775 Rev Joseph Rhea preached at the settlement on the banks of the Holston River which was in North Carolina and today is in East Tennessee. He was a gifted preacher and as a man of 60 embraced every opportunity of preaching to the settlers and soldiers in their wilderness homes and forts. Accompanied by his eldest son he purchased lands at Beaver Creek in 1777 and was hoping to bring his family on wagon train trek to the new lands on the frontier. But after selling his property in Maryland he took ill with pneumonia and died aged 62. The family moved to Holston and the field behind the Rhea house served as training grounds of the militia before the Revolutionary War. Both Presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnston were frequent guests of the family. Of the direct descendants of Rev Joseph Rhea, 21 became ministers of the gospel, Presbyterian, with a single exception and 54 were soldiers in the Confederate Army during the Civil War from 1861-65.
Footnote - Mr. and Mrs Rhea from Oklahoma, USA (ancestor or Rev Joseph Rhea) visited Fahan on Wednesday 8th June 1994.