The Scotch-Irish on the New England Frontier

Henry Jones Ford

The early ties of religious sympathy and common purpose of the two countries were such that it was natural for Ulster emigration to set strongly toward New England. But when the Scotch-Irish began to arrive in Boston in large numbers, they were not entirely welcome. Their ministers were received with marked courtesy by such leading citizens as Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, but in general the large arrivals of 1718 appear to have been viewed with anxiety. In July and August Scotch-Irish arrivals in Boston numbered between five and seven hundred. On August 13 the selectmen chose an agent to appear in court, "to move what he shall think proper in order to secure this town from charges which may happen to accrue or be imposed on them by reason of the passengers lately arrived here from Ireland or elsewhere." In the course of the winter a number were warned to leave or find sureties for their support. If one had to depend upon such records alone it would be natural to infer that emigration from Ulster was throwing paupers upon the community, but there is ample evidence that such was not the case. The Surveyor-General of Customs at Boston, Thomas Lechmere, was a brother-in-law of John Winthrop of Connecticut, who requested him to get a miller from among the immigrants. John Winthrop, son of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, acquired an extensive estate in Connecticut in 1646, at a place then known as Pequot and later as New London. John Winthrop, the younger, was Governor of Connecticut in 1657-58, and again in 1659-76. The John Winthrop who corresponded with Lechmere in 1718 was a grandson of this John Winthrop the younger, and he was interested in developing the family estate at New London. Writing about this business on August 11, 1718, Lechmere remarks:

"Whoever tells you that servants are cheaper now than they were, it is a very gross mistake, & give me leave to tell you your informer has given you a very wrong information about ye cheapness thereof, for never were they dearer than now, there being such demand for them, & likewise pray tell him he is much out of the way to think that these Irish are servants. They are generally men of estates, & are come over hither for no other reason but upon encouragement sent from hence upon notice given that they should have so many acres of land given them gratis to settle our frontiers as a barrier against the Indians."

In another letter Lechmere says: "There are none to be sold; have all paid their passages sterling in Ireland." Nevertheless there were doubtless some among them who had exhausted their means in scraping up their passage money, or who had come upon agreement to pay for their passage by sale of their services, as was the custom of the times. Shortly after the arrival of a shipload of immigrants the Boston News-Letter contained an advertisement offering for sale, together with linen and woolen, "sundry boys' times by indentures, young women and girls by the year." This, with great probability, is taken to refer to some of the Scotch-Irish immigrants, but such indigent persons were comparatively few in number. The great mass were not adventurers, but were people of settled character, seeking a new field of labor. In departing from Ulster they brought testimonials of their good standing in the places where they had lived. Frequent mention of such testimonials is made in New England records of this period. The usual style is exhibited in this one brought over by one of the defenders of Londonderry:

"The bearer, William Caldwell, his wife, Sarah Morrison, with his children, being designed to go to New England and America—These are therefore to testifie they leave us without scandal, lived with us soberly and inoffensively, and may be admitted to Church priviledges. Given at Dunboe, April 9, 1718, by JAMES WOODSIDE, JR., Minister."

The explanation of the antipathy excited by Scotch-Irish immigration lies not in the character of the arrivals but in the character of the economic system of the community. It was then an ordinary duty of public authority to look after supply and prices of food. There was anxiety about provision of grain before the Scotch-Irish began to arrive, and the selectmen had made purchases on public account. Before the ensuing winter was over the town authorities had to purchase grain in Connecticut to supply the needs of the community. In his letter of August 11, 1718, Lechmere remarked: "These confounded Irish will eat us all up, provisions being most extravagantly dear, & scarce of all sorts." The alarm seems to be justified, as the stock of provisions was so closely adjusted to the ordinary needs of the community, then only a few thousand in number, that the arrival of over 500 immigrants was enough to excite fear of famine. Despite the efforts of the selectmen to import grain and to moderate prices, provisions became scarce and dear. On December 18, 1718, the selectmen ordered that the public granaries should be opened for the sale of Indian corn, not exceeding one bushel to each buyer, at the rate of five shillings a bushel. Wheat went up in price from six shillings to ten shillings a bushel. The price of small fruits and vegetables, however, showed no material advance. Kitchen garden products in and about a country town are generally so ample that increase of demand can ordinarily be met by more thorough harvesting than usual.

In carrying out the design mentioned by Lechmere of sending the Scotch-Irish to the frontiers, "as a barrier against the Indians," arrangements were made for a settlement at Worcester. Although only about fifty miles west of Boston, it was then a frontier outpost. Everywhere in the English colonies at that period Indian territory lay so close to the coast settlements that any movement of settlers to the interior was apt to produce race conflict. At the end of the seventeenth century Massachusetts was slackening in growth of population owing to the desertion of frontier towns. Acts were passed prohibiting removals without leave from the Governor or Council; but nevertheless they went on, to the advantage of Connecticut and Rhode Island, whose comparative security from Indian attack was a great attraction. An official estimate made in 1702 reckons the total population of Massachusetts as being then only 50,000. It was a matter of importance to the Massachusetts authorities to strengthen the frontier towns, and particularly the fertile regions of central Massachusetts, in which Worcester is situated.

The country was attractive to settlers, but in 1675 and again in 1709 Worcester was abandoned because of Indian hostilities. The place was again occupied in 1713, and at least five garrison houses were erected, one of them a block fort. About 200 people were living in some fifty log cabins when the Scotch-Irish began to arrive. They soon became active and prominent in the affairs of the settlement, whose population was probably doubled by their arrival. It was not long before the military value of the Scotch-Irish was drawn upon. In 1722 an Indian war broke out, and as part of the measures of defense two Scotch-Irishmen, John Gray and Robert Crawford, were posted as scouts on Leicester Hill, west of the settlement. In September of the same year a township organization was effected, and that same John Gray was chosen one of the selectmen. In 1724 James McClellan was chosen to be town constable. He was the direct ancestor of General George B. McClellan.

Numerous families of the name of Young in western Massachusetts are descended from John Young, probably the oldest immigrant that ever arrived in this country. He was born in the island of Burt, near Londonderry, and he was ninety-five when he landed in Boston. He lived in Worcester twelve years before he died, June 30, 1730, aged 107. His son, David Young, who also was an old man when he landed, lived to be ninety-four. At least two of the settlers in Worcester, Abraham Blair and William Caldwell, took part in the defense of Londonderry in 1689, and other survivors of that famous siege participated in the Scotch-Irish settlements in New England at this period. These men and their heirs were made free of taxation by acts of the British Parliament, and their holdings were known as "exempt farms" in New England until the American Revolution. The lands occupied by the Scotch-Irish at Worcester, like those of their English neighbors, were generally obtained by direct grant of the General Court of Massachusetts.

As the frontier was pushed back and Indian perils were removed religious differences and probably racial differences created antipathies between the English and Scotch-Irish elements of Worcester, and these led to some migrations. In 1738 a company consisting of thirty-four families was organized to purchase and settle a new town, and this movement originated Pelham, about thirty miles west of Worcester. The principal motive of this migration is indicated by a provision of the contract under which the land was purchased. It was stipulated that "families of good connection be settled on the premises who shall be such as were the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Ireland or their descendants, being Protestants, and none be admitted but such as bring good and undeniable credentials or certificates of their being persons of good conversation and of the Presbyterian persuasion."

John Clark, whose name appears first upon a petition for himself and fellow signers for exemption from taxation for support of the Congregational Church of Worcester, was among the first settlers of the Scotch-Irish town of Colerain, fifty miles to the northwest of Worcester. This settlement, begun about 1740, was participated in by the Morrisons, Pennells, Herrouns, Hendersons, Cochranes, Hunters, Henrys, Clarks, McClellans, McCowens, Taggarts and McDowells, many of whom had previously been settlers in Worcester.

In 1741 Western (now Warren), in Worcester County, and Blandford, in Hampden County, were incorporated by Scotch-Irish from Worcester. The families of Blair, Boise, Knox, Carnahan, Watson, Wilson and Ferguson were prominent in Blandford, and some of the same names, especially the Blairs, together with Reeds and Crawfords, appear in the early records of Western. Notwithstanding these removals a strong Scotch-Irish element remained in Worcester, such family names continuing there as McClellan, Caldwell, Blair, McFarland, Rankin, Gray, Crawford, Young, Hamilton, Duncan, Graham, Forbush, Kelso, Clark, Ferguson, McClintock, McKonkey, Glassford and McGregor.

From the Scotch-Irish centers established in central and western Massachusetts, in the first half of the eighteenth century, Scotch-Irish blood was diffused throughout western Massachusetts. From western Massachusetts the Scotch-Irish spread into Vermont, along the west shore of the Connecticut River, forming strong settlements in the sections now comprised within Windsor, Orange and Caledonia Counties, and also east of the Connecticut River in the section now designated as Rockingham County, New Hampshire. The Worcester settlement was the fountain head of a distribution of Scotch-Irish blood all through the western parts of New England, and many distinguished American families trace their ancestry to this source. Matthew Thornton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, belonged to a Worcester family. He was a lad of four in 1718 when his father landed in Boston. Professor Asa Gray, the famous botanist, was a great-great-grandson of the first Matthew Gray who settled in Worcester.