Migration to the American Colonies


The following is a very brief accounting of where the Scotch-Irish started from, traveled to, and settled in. According to “The Scotch-Irish: A Social History

” by James G. Leyburn...

Ulster, one of the four traditional “kingdoms” of Ireland, was only 20 miles across the channel from Scotland. In 1603, a laird of northern Ayrshire (Scotland), Hugh Montgomery, learned that Con O’Niell was in prison. O’Niell was a chieftain of large properties in County Down, and County Antrium. Montgomery proposed to O’Niell a bargain. He could effect the escape and pardon of O’Niell, if in return, O’Niell would grant him half of his lands. The escape and pardon was achieved, but the granting of lands to Montgomery, was denied by King James. Montgomery sought the aid of another Ayrshire laird, James Hamilton, who had great influence with the King. With a new agreement drawn, giving each of the two lairds a third of O’Niell’s property, but had conditions, “that the lands should be planted with British Protestants, and that no grant of fee farm should be made to any person of mere Irish extraction.”


In 1609, the two Scots, Montgomery and Hamilton, began to induce tenants and other Scots, to come over as farmer-settlers. Within 10 years, the population of the Plantation of Ulster, had reached around eight thousand. The assignment of lands to Scottish undertakers, was to have a permanent effect on the character of Ulster. Despite every vicissitude, including massacres and war, the Plantation gradually grew strong and proved to be a success. If one cause more than any other can be singled out for its success, it would be the presence, the persistence, and the industry of the Scots in the region.


Back in Scotland, there was an increasing hardship occasioned by the spread of a form of land tenure, called the feu , which had the effect of dispossessing many farmers of their traditional lands. They were attracted to the generous lands visible across the channel from the shores of southwestern Scotland. Any Scot who had the inclination might now take the short journey across to Ulster and there, on easy terms, acquire a holding of land reputed to be far more fertile and productive than any he was likely to know in his own country. Economic distress in the Lowlands and economic opportunities in Ulster were the predominant causes for migration during the first fifty years after the plantation scheme had begun in 1610. In the Lowlands a positive fever for emigration swept. Ships were traveling back and forth with the frequency of a ferry.

From 1634 onward to 1690, life for the colonists of Ulster was to consist of a series of crises, some of them so prolonged and severe that the very existence of the Scottish settlements were threatened. The trouble had two causes: religious exactions from England and native uprisings. Under the Jesuits the Irish people had become fervently Catholic; to them the Protestants of Ulster were heretics as well as interlopers. The native Irish resented the intrusion of Scottish (and English) interlopers on their ancestral lands, and their resentment exploded in 1641 in bitter insurrection.

Between 1717 and the Revolutionary War some quarter of a million Ulstermen came to America. By the time the Great Migration began in 1717, a few Ulstermen were present in at least half of the American colonies, often alongside immigrants who had recently come directly from Scotland. It was when Ulster developed, in rapid succession, two new industries that the pinch came. Both woolen and linen manufacture grew apace in the closing years of the seventeenth century, bringing remarkable prosperity to Northern Ireland and arousing uneasiness among English competitors. Belfast, had arisen from the swamps of the Laggan Valley, giving Ulster a sheltered seaport for her growing trade. The competition of Irish cloth seemed unendurable to English cloth interests. At the Kings command, Irish Parliament in Dublin passed the Woolens Act in 1699, giving a crippling blow to the industry in Ulster. The substantial leaders of Ulster had put their primary economic faith in manufacture and trade, and their success in life now depended upon two unknown and uncontrollable factors: the arbitrary acts of the English Parliament and the ups and downs of the foreign market. A third and more immediate economic cause stimulated the first great migration of 1717. This was the suffering caused by rack-renting. The land question assuredly played a large part in driving Presbyterian Ulsterman to take the drastic step of removing to America. From rack-renting, whole villages lost their Protestant element by migration to America. The final blow was a succession of calamitous years for farmers. During the ‘teens, there were six years in succession that were notable for insufficient rainfall (1714-1719).

The first migration, then was touched off by a combination of drought, rack-renting, diminished trade in woolen goods, depression, and also religious discrimination and “persecution.” When the fourth successive year of drought ruined the crops in 1717, serious preparations began to be made for a migration. Ships were chartered, consultations were held, groups were organized, and property was sold. More than five thousand Ulstermen that year made the journey to the American colonies. There were but two real drawbacks--the perils of an ocean crossing and the expense of that passage. The practice of indenture has long been a familiar device.

​​There were five great waves of emigration, with a lesser flow in intervening years: 1717-1718, 1725-1729, 1740-1741, 1754-1755, and 1771-1775.

In 1717, at least 5000 Ulstermen left Northern Ireland. Jonathan Dickinson reported from Philadelphia in 1717, that there had arrived “from ye north of Ireland many hundreds in about four months,” and that during the summer “we have had 12 or 13 sayle of ships from the North of Ireland with a swarm of people.”


The second wave was so large, that not only the friends of Ireland, but even the English Parliament became concerned. In the Pennsylvania Gazette it was reported “that Poverty, Wretchedness, Misery and want are become almost universal among them; that...there is not Corn enough rais’d for their Subsistence one year with another; and at the same Time the Trade and Manufactures of the Nation being cramp’d and discourag’d, the laboring People have little to do, and consequently are not able to purchase Bread at its present dear Rate; That the Taxed are nevertheless exceeding heavy, and Money very scarce; and add to all this, that their griping, avaricious Landlords exercise over them the most merciless Racking Tyranny and Oppression. Hence it is that such Swarms of them are driven over into America.”


The third wave marked, on the American side, the first movement of Scotch-Irish in any numbers beyond the confines of generous Pennsylvania to the southwest. Following the path through the Great Valley, many Ulstermen now went into the rich Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, whose southern extremity opened out toward North and South Carolina. The second wave had so well established the Scotch-Irish in the southeastern tier of counties in Pennsylvania, that their influence, even in political affairs in the Quaker commonwealth was becoming impressive. Famine struck Ireland in 1740, and was certainly the principal occasion for the third large wave, which included numbers of substantial Ulstermen. An estimated 400,000 persons died in Ireland during 1740-1741; for the next decade there was a tremendous exodus to America.


The fourth exodus had two major causes: effective propaganda from America, and calamitous drought in Ulster. A succession of governors of North Carolina had made a special effort to attract to that province colonists from Ulster and from Scotland. Governor Dobbs of North Carolina, declared that as many as ten thousand immigrants had landed in Philadelphia in a single season, so that many were “obliged to remove to the southward for want of lands to take up” in Pennsylvania.


In 1717, when the leases on the large estate of the Marquis of Donegal in county Antrim expired, the rents were so greatly advanced that scores of tenants could not comply with the demands, and so were evicted from the farms their families had long occupied. During the next three years nearly a hundred vessels sailed from the ports in the North of Ireland, “carrying as many as 25,000 passengers, all Presbyterian.” Thousands of the Scoth-Irish began their New World careers as servants. In 1728, it was estimated that “above 3,200” persons had come from Ulster to America in the previous three years, and “that only one in ten could pay his own passage.” Going to America came to mean, by the middle of the century, not launching out into a vast unknown, but moving to a country where one’s friends and relatives had a home. It offered the very exciting chance to own one’s own land, instead of holding it on a lease that might end in rack-renting; it meant a heady freedom from religious and political restrictions; it even promised affluence and social prominence to those who were truly ambitious. Every group who went made it easier for others to follow. and so by 1775, probably 200,000 Ulstermen had migrated to America.


The southern provinces, Virginia and the Carolinas, were hardly considered, for the impoverished Ulstermen would seen nothing attractive in a region of plantations and slave-owning, where the Church of England was established. Maryland had been founded for Roman Catholics, was principally a plantation colony, and now had an Established Church; it was therefore no place for Presbyterians who wanted small farms. New York’s governors were reportedly hard on dissenters, and her lands up the Hudson were owned in great estates. Eliminating these, there remained the Middle colonies and New England. Reports from Penn’s settlements were enthusiastic as to the quality of land and the treatment of colonists; moreover, an invitation to settle there had come from the Secretary.


The people who entered America by the Delaware River, found a land of the heart’s desire. Their enthusiastic praise of Pennsylvania persuaded others to follow them, and then still others, until by 1720 “to go to America” meant, for most emigrants from Ulster, to take ship for the Delaware River ports, and then head west. For the entire fifty-eight years of the Great Migration, the large majority of Scotch-Irish made their entry to America through Philadelphia or Chester or New Castle.


With these towns as their starting point, and the western frontier their destination, the immigrants, as they poured in found their path of progress almost laid out for them by geography. The Great Valley lead westward for a hundred miles or more; then when high mountains blocked further easy movement in that direction, the Valley turned southwestward across the Potomac to become the Shenandoah Valley. From the southern terminus of the Valley of Virginia, it was a short trip, by the time the pioneers had reached it, into the Piedmont regions of the Carolinas, where colonists were now warmly welcomed. Within this seven hundred mile arc of back-country, therefore, from Philadelphia as far as the upper Savannah River, most of the Scotch-Irish made their homes.


It would have been difficult to imagine anywhere, in the world of 1717, conditions more attractive to discontented inhabitants of the Old World, than those which prevailed in the province of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania, among the last of the original colonies to be founded, had by 1717 been proving for thirty years its stability and prosperity, its practical liberality and hospitality. Nothing like the generosity of its appeal was known in other colonies. Penn himself and his friends, set forth to Europeans the advantages of his province. Pennsylvania became the scene of an alternating and parallel movement of two peoples. The Scotch-Irish went to one part of a river valley, Germans on the other; the next year’s arrivals advanced beyond the settlements to repeat the process.

To the three original counties of Pennsylvania, along the Delaware (Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks) the proprietors thought it wise in 1729 to add a fourth, Lancaster. The Scotch-Irish followed the river valleys, keeping north of the disputed border line of Maryland. The provincial government organized still further counties as the frontier was filled up: York in 1749, Cumberland in 1750, and Bedford 1771, not to mention other counties to the north of Philadelphia.

Chroniclers speak of the Scotch-Irish, who arrived in Cumberland during the decade after 1725 as folk “of the better sort...a Christian people.” It has been called the most important single Scotch-Irish center in America--”the seed-plot and nursery of their race...” Franklin County received its first Scotch Irishmen between 1728 and 1740, and York, whose initial settlers consisted of “families of the better class of peasantry,” between 1731 and 1735. It is said that no Scotch-Irish family felt comfortable until it had moved at least twice.