Scotch-Irish Emigration to America

Henry Jones Ford

The beginnings of the Ulster Plantation coincided with the beginnings of the American plantation, so that migration across the Atlantic was from the first a known recourse if conditions in Ulster became too hard. When the Presbyterian ministers in Ulster began to suffer from Strafford's vigorous measures against nonconformity a start was made that but for a mischance might have set in motion at that early period the stream of Scotch-Irish emigration to America. In 1635 work was begun on the building of a ship of 115 tons burden at Groomsport, on Belfast lough. The ship was called the Eagle Wing in allusion to the text, Exodus XIX., 4: "I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself." A number of Presbyterian ministers, among them Livingston and Blair, were interested in this enterprise. On September 9, 1636, a company of 140 persons set sail for New England, the number being increased on the voyage by the birth of a child who named Seaborn. After some hindrance at the start, the ship had fair weather until more than half the distance had been traversed when severe storms were encountered and the ship became leaky, so that it was decided to put back to Ireland.

In reading the account of this voyage as given in the Life of Robert Blair by his son-in-law one gets the impression that signs and omens had more to do with the failure than the weather. The account says that when the storm struck the vessel they were "nearer the bank of Newfoundland than any part of Europe." The decision to return was reached after "Mr. Livingston proponed an overture," which was that if in twenty hours the Lord "were pleased to calm the storm and send a fair wind, they might take it for an approbation of their advancing, otherwise they should return." But the storm grew worse, and the matter was then put to Mr. Blair to decide, whereupon he did "fall into a fit of fainting or a kind of swarf [Scot for swoon], but shortly recovering, he was determined to be of their mind." They made their way without further mishap, arriving on November 3 in the harbor whence they had started. Mr. Blair took the affair as a sign against emigration to America, "seeing the Lord, by such speaking providences and dispensations, had made it evident to them that it was not His will they should glorify Him in America, He having work for them at home." What troubled them most about the affair was that "they were like to be signs and wonders, and a very mockery to the wicked, who did laugh and flout at their enterprise."

There is remarkably little of organized exodus on religious grounds from Ulster. There were times when it seemed that one was about to take place, but before it actually started conditions were relieved sufficiently to cause action to be deferred. Instead of seeking refuge in far places the habitual inclination of the Presbyterians of Ulster was to stand their ground and abide results in common with the Presbyterians of Scotland. The Ulster settlers regarded themselves as being Scotch Presbyterians just as much as though resident in Scotland. The short sea-ferry between the two countries made intercourse easy and there was close ecclesiastical fellowship. Scotland was a regular source of ministerial supply to Ulster and Presbyterian ministers harassed in Ulster could count upon welcome and favor in Scotland. Among the Independent sects ecclesiastical influence could readily tend to emigration by groups and companies, but among the Ulster Presbyterians it tended to knit the community together and to hold them to their place.

Ulster emigration upon any important scale is to be attributed to economic and not to religious causes. While the conditions were taking form that eventually produced a great migration of Ulster Scots, facilities of transportation were developed that familiarized the people with the possibilities of emigration and acquainted them with the means. After the first difficulties of planting colonies in America had been overcome and the settlements had taken root, popular appreciation of the New World as the land of opportunity spread rapidly. The State Papers of so early a date as 1649 contain a petition from Captain John Bayley setting forth that he has a scheme for ship building in Ireland, in connection wherewith he will be able to plant in Virginia "100 poor people yearly with all necessary provisions." He says he has already done much work in explaining the scheme and interesting people in it, and asks permission to collect funds for it in all parishes of England and Ireland.

The first notice in the State Papers of any considerable emigration from Ulster to America appears in May, 1656. A letter written from Lisnegarvy says: "We are very full of soldiers come from all parts to ship at Carrickfergus and where eight or ten are appointed out of a company commonly three times as many are offering and desiring to go." The soldiers referred to presumably belonged to the Cromwellian army in Ireland which the Government was endeavoring to disband. Land in Ireland was offered to them but they showed no disposition to settle on it, though it appears from the letter quoted that a chance to get to America was eagerly seized. But emigration of this character could not be properly described as a movement of Ulster Scots. The true beginning of that probably took place in connection with the growth of the trade between Scotland and America, in which Ulster naturally participated. Scotch mercantile enterprise which had long been noted for its bold activity and wide range was not likely to neglect such a promising field as America, and there are many indications that a brisk trade between Scotland, America and the West Indies was established the latter half of the seventeenth century. The English State Papers record urgent complaints from English merchants that Scotch ships were spoiling their trade with the American plantations.

In 1695 Edward Randolph, a Maryland official, recommended that in order to check Scotch trade the three lower counties of Delaware should be annexed to Maryland, West Jersey to Pennsylvania, East Jersey to New York and Rhode Island to Massachusetts. The obnoxious trade must have been going on a long time before it could have acquired such extent and importance as to provoke such sweeping measures. Scotch predilection for American adventure was strikingly illustrated by the unfortunate Darien expedition of 1698. Three quarters of a million sterling were subscribed with the idea of establishing a New Caledonia on the Isthmus of Darien. Fleets carrying first 1,200 men and later 1,500 men were sent out to occupy the country, the result being disastrous failure and complete abandonment.

The first distinctively Scotch-Irish settlements known to have taken place in America were on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. That colony, granted to Lord Baltimore in 1632, was prior to that time chiefly known for its trade in beaver skins obtained from the Indians. St. Mary's, the first capital of Maryland, was located on the site of a trading post. Religious toleration was one of the inducements to settlers offered by the Proprietors. It was hoped by this means that people would be attracted from other colonies as well as from Europe. In 1643 Lord Baltimore wrote to Captain Gibbons of Boston describing the land grants Maryland was offering to settlers, "with free liberty of religion."

The records are silent as to when and how the Scotch-Irish entered Maryland but it was a natural consequence of the large inducements which the Maryland Proprietary was offering to settlers. In 1648, when commissioning William Stone as Governor of Maryland, Lord Baltimore set forth that Stone "hath undertaken in some short time to procure five hundred people of British or Irish descent to come from other places and plant and reside within our said province of Maryland for the advancement of our colony there." Stone, a Protestant, who had himself come into Maryland from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, is known to have promoted a Puritan emigration from that section into Maryland. In 1649 Lord Baltimore offered 3,000 acres of land for every thirty persons brought in by any adventurer or planter. The influx of settlers that resulted from such measures is doubtless accountable for the beginnings of Scotch-Irish settlement in Maryland. The known facts all harmonize with this supposition. The earliest notice of an American minister from Ireland appears in a letter of April 13, 1669, from Matthew Hill, an English non-conformist minister, to Richard Baxter, on whose advice Hill had gone to Maryland. Describing the situation in Maryland, Hill remarked: "We have many also of the reformed religion who have a long time lived as sheep without a shepherd, though last year brought in a young man from Ireland who hath already had good success in his work."

The Irish minister thus referred to has never been identified. Dr. Briggs in his American Presbyterianism thinks he may have been one of those driven into exile from Ireland by the persecutions beginning in 1663. This is quite likely but the fact cannot be established. The first Presbyterian minister of whom there is certain knowledge was William Traill, who, in 1672, was ordained pastor of the Presbyterian congregation at Lifford, in the Presbytery of Laggan, Ireland. He was clerk of the Presbytery and was one of five ministers prosecuted in 1681 for observing a special fast appointed by the Presbytery. The ministers were sentenced to pay a fine of twenty pounds each and on their refusal were sentenced to prison. Reid says: "They were confined in Lifford, though not very rigorously, for above eight months, when they were released by the sheriff, and their fines afterward remitted by the court of exchequer on payment of their fees." It is probable that upon his release from prison in 1682 Traill went directly to Maryland where he knew he would be among friends. The records of Somerset county, Maryland, show that he acquired 133 acres on the Pocomoke River near Rehoboth on May 8, 1686, and it is probable that he was the founder of the Presbyterian Church at Rehoboth. He was evidently held in marked esteem as he received bequests from John White in 1685 and from John Shipway in 1687. In November, 1689, he was one of the signers of a petition to William and Mary asking "protection in securing our religion, lives and liberty under Protestant Governors." Somerset County records show that in February, 1690, he gave a friend a power of attorney to convey land, which was doubtless done as an incident of his return to Scotland, where on September 17, 1690, he became pastor of the church of Borthwick, near Edinburgh.

It is highly probable that Thomas Wilson, another minister known to have been in Somerset County at this period, was also from the Laggan Presbytery. The Presbytery records have several entries in regard to Thomas Wilson between 1674 and 1678. It appears that he was pastor of Killybegs, a parish on the western coast of Donegal, where he was having great difficulty in getting a living. An entry of July 3, 1678, notes that Killybegs has paid him only twelve pounds a year for the past two years, with no prospects of improvement. From 1681 to 1691 there is a blank in the Presbytery minutes, but when they resume there is no further mention of Killybegs or Wilson. But a Thomas Wilson appears in the Maryland land records as acquiring from Colonel William Stevens on May 20, 1681, a parcel of land called Darby, containing 350 acres. He was the first pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Manokin, and as its pastor is mentioned in the will of John Galbraith, 1691, and the will of David Brown, 1697.

Samuel Davis, another Maryland minister at this period, is supposed to be an Irishman, as it seems probable that he is meant by a reference made in 1706 to "an Irish Presbyterian" who preached in Delaware for some years. A "Samuel Davies," who was residing in Somerset County in 1678, may have been the same person. In 1684 a marriage was celebrated by the Rev. Samuel Davies in Somerset County, and in September of that year he received from Colonel Stevens a warrant to have laid out a tract of 500 acres upon St. Martin's Creek, southeast side of the Pocomoke River. He was pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Snow Hill in 1691, remaining there until 1698 when he removed to Hoarkill, now Lewes, Delaware, where he resided and preached for a number of years.

The Colonel Stevens who appears in the records as a conveyer of land to the early Presbyterian ministers of the Eastern Shore of Maryland seems to have been active in promoting immigration in pursuance of Lord Baltimore's policy. He was one of the earliest settlers in Somerset County, and was for 22 years a judge of the county court. In 1684 he was appointed by Lord Baltimore Deputy Lieutenant for the province. He died on his plantation near Rehoboth December 23, 1687, aged 57 years. The interest he took in procuring Ulster ministers for the Eastern Shore of Maryland indicates the existence of Scotch-Irish settlements there. An entry of December 29, 1680, on the minutes of the Laggan Presbytery says:

"Collonell Stevens from Maryland beside Virginia, his desire of a godly minister is presented to us, the meeting will consider it seriously and do what they can in it. Mr. John Hoart is to write to Mr. Keip about this and Mr. Robert Rule to the meetings of Route and Tyrone, and Mr. William Traill to the meetings of Down and Antrim."

No action in response to this application is recorded, the minutes discontinuing in 1681 and not resuming until 1690. But the removal of Traill to Maryland, and the subsequent removal of Makemie is doubtless to be ascribed to this call. Francis Makemie, famous as a pioneer organizer of the Presbyterian Church in America, was born near Ramelton, Ireland, and was educated at the University of Glasgow. When the letter from Colonel Stevens arrived, Makemie had been for some time preparing for the ministry under the supervision of Laggan Presbytery. The minutes for 1681 note that he submitted a homily which was approved, and presumably he was licensed soon thereafter. Owing to the discontinuance of the minutes there is no official record of the date, but it must have been prior to April 2, 1682, as it is known that on that date he preached at Burt, Ireland. He is next heard of in Maryland, whither he went probably in 1683. He did not settle permanently for some years, but carried on an itinerant ministry in Maryland, Virginia and the Barbadoes. A letter of July 22, 1684, mentions that he was then on the Elizabeth River, Virginia (near the present site of Norfolk), ministering to a congregation "who had a dissenting minister formerly from Ireland until the Lord was pleased to remove him by death in August last." The name of this Irish minister has not been discovered, and no reference to him has been found other than that made by Makemie.