David Steel was born, likely around 1761, in County Donegal, Ireland, at Fannett, near the north coast. He was the son of John Steel and Sarah Stewart, and was said to be a fourth-generation descendant of Capt. John Steel of Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, Scotland, a local leader in the Covenanter uprising of 1679. According to his youngest son the Rev. David Steele (1803-1887), David Steel was one of seven sons and a daughter, most of whom emigrated to America:
A descendant of Alexander Steel has collected, from unknown sources, information on this family that varies in some particulars from the Rev. David Steele's account. A third account, also showing minor variations, stems from the Rev. Dr. David Steele (1826-1906) and may be seen in Rev. Robert Hunter's 1906 memorial sermon and in a 1922 history of Passaic, New Jersey.
David Steel married Sarah Gailey (born 1760), daughter of Andrew Gailey (Gaily) of Killylastin (Conwal Parish). At some time before 1792 they moved to Upper Creevagh, near Londonderry, and there had six sons. Soon after the birth of their youngest son in 1803, the family moved to a farm in Altaghaderry, just up the Foyle River from Londonderry, where the family held a lease "for thirty years or three lives" on a farm of 140 acres. In February 1805, David Steel died at Altaghaderry, leaving his wife Sarah to raise the six boys and operate the farm, with the help of two hired men, a girl, and a seasonal herd-boy. Sarah died around 1838. David and Sarah were both Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterians). Their children were:
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