Ulster Scots and the First Great Migration

By 1775, about 200,000 men and women from the counties of Ulster had migrated to the colonies of north America. About half were indentured servants and the majority were Presbyterian of Scottish ancestry. When they arrived they were simply known as Irish – that is how they saw themselves - and later became labelled as "Scotch-Irish".

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Ulster Scots and the First Great Migration

Do you own a piece of Linen? How about Irish Linen? Maybe a nice tablecloth or even a cool dress or nice shirt? A few weeks back, I received the following email from Joan Adams:

My ancestor, William Irwin, was born in County Antrim about 1703 and immigrated about 1741. I have long wanted to find out more about him, but I don’t really know where to start.

The date of 1741 caught my attention immediately. You see, that was a very difficult year for everyone on the island of Ireland.

Ulster Linen and the Start of a Great Migration. 

Flax was grown in Ireland, and linen was woven from this flax, for many centuries. However, the quality and sizing of this linen meant it was never in demand from the larger markets across the UK and Europe. From the middle of the 1600s, the “Plantation of Ulster” was in full flight. Tenant farmers were enticed from Scotland and the border counties of England to land taken from the native Irish across the Ulster counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Monaghan, Cavan, Tyrone and Donegal.

These immigrants brought with them a skillset that was capable of manufacturing linen suitable for sale across the markets of Europe. The majority of these weavers and farmers put parts of their farms aside for the growing of flax. By the early 1700s, Huguenots were offered freedom from religious persecution on the continent and brought even more sophisticated weaving and manufacturing techniques. Shortly after, the weaving of linen became the main export activity of Counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Monaghan, Derry, Tyrone and Cavan – and accounted for 25% of all exports from Ireland.

While the flax used for manufacturing linen was grown across Ulster, the seed used for the flax was imported from the Baltic states up to the early 1700s. Then, in 1731, the colonies of north America were permitted to export flax-seed back to Ireland and the United Kingdom for the first time.

This seed from the colonies was in high demand across the farms of Ulster. Also, as the population of the colonies increased, so too did their demand for fine linen from the weavers of Ireland. As a result, ships arrived from the colonies (particularly from Pennsylvania) to the ports of Derry, Newry, Belfast and Coleraine loaded up with flaxseed for feeding into the local linen industry. They then stocked up with a return boatload of fine linen for the growing markets in the colonies.

However, the ships taking a smaller return load of this fine and light linen – and the owners looked around for additional cargo to take to the colonies on their sparsely-loaded ships.  The answer was people – new emigrants from the north of Ireland to colonies.  The shipping companies went into strong competition with each other to entice the tenant farmers of Ulster to leave their homes of several generations and strike off for a new life in the colonies of north America.

But, why would these (mainly Protestant) farmers want to leave their established homes in the province of Ulster for such an uncertain future?

An Untold Story – The Famine of 1741. 

A combination of factors gave them motive to emigrate to the colonies with the risk of losing so much. Many of the original “planters” from the north of England and Scotland were attracted to Ulster by the promise of fertile lands and steady rents. They were tenant farmers on land that was owned by the larger (and mostly absent) English and Scottish lords. As the population and economic stability of Ulster increased, it was accompanied by a steady increase of rents (what became known as “rent-racking”).

A second factor made it nearly impossible to pay these increasing rents. Nowadays, our history tells us mostly of Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. However, the years between 1726 and 1741 brought a number of droughts and frosts – with resulting food shortages that hit famine levels. In 1741 alone, about 20% of the population of the island of Ireland died through famine and related sickness. 1741 was also the year that Joan Adam’s ancestor – William Irwin – left his life in Ulster for the colonies of north America. He must have a left a very harsh life behind him that year.

By 1775, about 200,000 men and women from the counties of Ulster had migrated to the colonies of north America. About half of these were indentured servants and the majority were Presbyterian of Scottish ancestry. When they arrived they were simply known as Irish – that is how they saw themselves – and later became labelled as “Scotch-Irish”.

Their colonial attitude and skills made them suitable for living on frontiers of the colonies – western Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and on to Kentucky and Tennessee, where you will still find their ancestors today. This great migration from Ulster to the colonies came to an abrupt end in 1776 with the American Revolution.

When I started the Letter from Ireland – and began a conversation with so many of our readers, I was surprised to find that as many as 20% of all of our readers were descendants of these “Ulster-Scots”. Men and women who left the counties of Ulster through the 1700s for a new life in the colonies of north America. Readers like Joan Adams who asked her question about William Irving at the top of the letter.

Do you have an Ulster Scots ancestor in your family tree? Do let us know below.

That’s it for this week – as always, do feel free to leave a comment below to say hello, share an Irish surname or story in your family.

Slán for now – Mike and Carina.

  • Very interesting! And yes I have ancestors who were Scots-Irish.

  • Jim Moore says:

    This bit of history ties in neatly with my family story. My 4th GGF, James Moor, was a flax farmer who left Ireland from Newry in 1764. He and his family settled in northern New York state. I did not know of the underlying conditions that might have contributed to his desire to settle in America. Thank you for this information.—–JIm

  • Renée says:

    My co Antrim ancestors William Henry emigrated to Oz around the mid 1850`s after he married Sarah Ann Montgomery in Ballymena 15 mar 1854. I have their wedding licence. William is noted as a weaver & their residences as kildrum, Connor. But alas unable to find any birth certs or anything else for them . I did trawl through proni & local church records for anything further but came up with nothing.

  • Robert Spencer says:

    My Great, Great Grandfather William Carnes left Ulster through the Port of Dublin bound for St. John, New Brunswick in 1799, another difficult year for Irish Presbyterians. Thanks for this added info about my Scots-Irish roots.

  • Susan Johannes says:

    I have found my Keily (Kiely?) ancestor from the time she married a Callahan in Holyoke, Ma. in 1859, but have no idea how to find out where she came from. Her name was Katran (Katharine?) Kiely. I’ve tried the various websites with no definite hits. She was, a family member said, from around Waterford – but that is unknown for sure. Family relative deceased and there is no one else to ask. What do you suggest I do?

  • Mary Wright says:

    I have told you that I have an ancestor John Adair who came in 1774 with 5 children and one stayed in Ireland. No wife. He was a cooper.There was an Adair castle in Balleymena. they first settled near Hagerstown, Maryland. A son Blaney went to western PA after getting married. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was a Presbyterian. Another ancestor, John Barr came about 1788 and was either a weaver or dyer of cloth. He came to Chester Cty, SC. I believe he came from Cairncastle in county Antrim also a Presbyterian.

  • Harriet Myers says:

    Hello, Mike……..I’m trying to find info on my 2nd great grandmother, ,Mary McIntrye, who I believe came from Tyrone County but I’m not sure. She lived 1798-1878, married Joseph Alexander, 1785-1866. He was born in Maghereagh, Donagheady, Tyrone and died in Strabane. as did Mary.
    There seems to be no record of Mary McIntyre’s parents or even siblings. Any help here would be greatly appreciated. They were Presbyterians…..Thanks……

  • Sandy Kennedy LaFerriere says:

    Good morning all! My great great Grandparents Thomas and Elizabeth (Reid) Kennedy emigrated in 1853 from Muff, Northern Ireland. Thank you Mike and Corina for finding this information for me. Since that time I have found more info about the Reid side of my Irish family also. T.he Kennedys and REIDS settled in Victoria County, New Brunswick, Canada. My great grandfather Alexander was the youngest of the 7 children who emigrated in 1853. He was only 9 months old. I can’t begin to imagine what that journey must have been like. My GG grandfather Thomas was a Presbyterian and a weaver ….I think! Everything points in that direction !!
    I have a map of the piece of land they had in Canada. This summer or fall I hope to visit the little town of Carleton, New Brunswick and hopefully meet Reid and Kennedy relatives.
    I am sure my Kennedys were probably originally over to Ireland from Scotland. My GGG grands were John and Mary (Donaldson) Kennedy. I am still searching for more info on them.
    Being part of My Irish Heritage is wonderful! I have meant (on line) so many great people . I love reading their stories, hearing their questions. We are all traveling on this road together. In a sense, we are emigrating home.
    I wish you all well on your journey and maybe one day we will meet at the crossroad.

    Safe Home ,
    SandyKennedy LaFerriere

    • Bobbie says:

      Sandy I am also a Kennedy. I believe my GGgrandfather came from Belfast, settled in Shade Gap, PA. I also have a Alexander Kennedy in my tree. Some were in PA, NY, Iowa… I have found a few cousins through my DNA on Ancestry.com.

  • Richard Dinsmore says:

    Hello ~ My Great Grandparents, Joseph Dinsmore and Rose (Gorman) Dinsmore were married in Ballymoney, County Antrim, in 1870 and then emigrated to the U.S., settling in Brooklyn, N.Y.. Their only child, my Grandfather, James Joseph Dinsmore, was born there in 1872. My sisters and I returned to N. Ireland this past summer, visited sweet Ballymoney and had the GREAT good fortune of meeting Peter McAlister who took us to the Dinsmore Bridge – used regularly by the flax producers in the area – and later, mailed us photos of the Bridge. Many Thanks and Blessings to all those traveling on this road back to our ancestors.
    Richard Dinsmore

  • Robin Maloney says:

    Yes, My Dunn was a Rev John Dunn, married to Rosanna Martin. He was a minister . He was ordained, and later defrocked for “celebrating marriages irregularly” They had a daughter Rosanna , born abt 1774 in Muff. He ended up in KY where he died

  • Mary Ellen Trego says:

    Another good read ..while my ancestors have all been from Co Cork, its another piece of Irish history to digest as I try to put my family history together

  • Dale heenan says:

    Fantastic! I’m trying to connect with distant rels hennen from south western Pennsylvania.!!!

  • My McCrory ancestors were from Co Antrim and sailed from Belfast to Baltimore MD USA in 1774. They settled in Northern SC. They worked in the Linen Mills (I assume as weavers) in Ulster and continued their trade after they arrived in South Carolina. I did not know that the famine was why they left Ireland. They came over on the Pennsylvania Farmer with Rev. Martin (Presbyterian).

    • Mike Collins says:

      Lots of reasons to leave in the 1700s as I wrote Fran – a mixture of economic necessity and opportunity for most! Mike.

  • Lee O'Brian says:

    My grandmother always said we were Scots-Irish on her side. Recently through Ancestry.com, I found my 8th great-grandmother & grandfather, Margret Kerr (1692-1779) born in Ulster and John Hutchinson (1686-1775) born in Scotland. They immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1740. I wonder if the famine of that time caused them to leave Ireland.
    Both John and Margaret died in Virginia. Love your letters. So much to learn about our Irish heritage.

    • Mike Collins says:

      Thanks for that Lee – as you say, there is a lot for all of us to learn – and it’s not always as straightforward as we might think! Mike.

  • Lindy Moore says:

    Robert Moore b. 1664 m. Margaret Ramsey from Londonderry came to US before 1704 my 8th Great Grandparents

  • Glory Smith says:

    Enjoyed this post, thank you!

  • Carolyn Hendry born Oliver says:

    Although my ancestors didn’t emigrate until the 1920s the reason was for land and a better life.

  • patrick livingston says:

    I was always told my grandfather was from Portadown, County Armagh.
    The address that was always associated was Williams Street.
    I know that his name was John Gibson Livingston.
    My sister traced out family to a yeoman in Cromwell’s army (?).
    He came to the States in the late 1800’s.
    Would this qualify as a Scots/Irish name of Northern Ireland?

  • Linda Sherrod says:

    I was told my people were Scottish Irish, names Orr and Treat.

  • I was born in Co Armagh but we came to Canada when I was amost 3. My Mom’s surname was Armstrong and my surname was Cull. Where does Cull come from as it is not common?

  • Al McMullin says:

    This brings me tantalizingly close to finding my Ulster-Scot ancestor. Family legend has it that my McMullin’s came over from Antrim. I have documented my line to a William McMullin (g-g-g-g grandfather) who died in 1820 in St. George’s Hundred, Delaware. His grandson was married in the Presbyterian Church. He either came in via New Castle, Delaware, Philadelphia or the northeast tip of the Chesapeake Bay. I can’t get any further back but think old William might have been part of a migration from Ulster in the late 18th century or earlier. Thank you for the info!

  • Rebecca Norman says:

    I have an Irish ancestor from Down (O’Neills) who emigrated in the late 1800s to the midwestern US and Scottish ancestors (Allisons/Ellisons) who settled in Pennsylvania (I’ve traced as far back as a birth in 1804, my 5x great grandfather, Alexander – don’t know his parents names though). My dad always referred to himself as Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish. I assumed it was because he was both Irish and Scottish (mom was an O’Neill and dad was an Allison). But, I wonder if my Scottish side did pass through Ulster on their way to America … they were Presbyterian, too.

  • Reta McCollum Riley says:

    My McCollum line was always said to be Scots-Irish. They came to the States in the early 1700’s–not sure of the date. The first confirmed records we have are in South Carolina. Thanks for the information!

  • […] One of the things we were most surprised at when we started the letter, was just how many readers we had of Ulster-Scots descent. This letter gives one perspective on their story. Click here to read the letter. […]

    • Pam says:

      Hello! I am able to trace my dads direct Campbell line from TN to Coleraine Northern Ireland. John Campbell was born in 1715 there. I haven’t been able to go beyond that yet

    • Travis Anderson says:

      I’m a descendant of John Anderson who came to Pennsylvania in the mid 1770’s. I have been able to trace my lineage back to the 1600’s in Scotland ????????????????????????????. Some reference to the original Anderson clan of Scotland, i’m Sure that can be chucked up to history at this point.

    • Dorothy “Billie” Hurst says:

      My ancestors were Ulster-Scots. My grandfather emigrated from Antrim( Belfast) in the late 1800s I don’t know when they came from Scotland nor if he was the first to emigrate. However my point was …they were weavers both in Scotland and Ireland. I was very interested in the letter from Joan.

  • Nancy Brantingham says:

    My ancestor, Thomas Ramsay, came from County Tyrone to Pennsylvania in 1786. His parents had immigrated from Scotland 30years before.

  • Carla Dunlap says:

    My ancestors, William and Flora (McMullen) Dunlap, came from County Antrim in 1799 and settled in Virginia.

  • Kathleen says:

    I have weavers in family, they settled in PA around 1787 or possibly earlier. Half of the family says they couldn’t have been Ulster Scots, and the other half says yes. James Bruce settled in Bald Eagle, PA

    • carina says:

      Kathleen I hope you found the above article informative. Perhaps one day you will get to discover which half are correct!

  • […] Our Letter from Ireland all about The Ulster Scots can be found here. […]

  • Gail- IrishG says:

    My husband’s 5xgreat grandfather was John Wilson. He was born in 1709 in Antrim. In 1737 he emigrated to Connecticut in America and became a successful farmer. In her book about the Wilson family, C.W. Blower quotes “The Annals and Recollections of Oneida County” to describe the occasion of John and his wife Mary leaving Antrim. It is beautifully written: “In the year 1737, and in the north of Ireland, were witnessed the parting adieus of a young man and his lately betrothed wife, to parents, brothers and sisters, and the dear friends of their childhood and youth. The parting over, a long, long, lingering look was given to the green valley that had ever been their home, and where the shamrock covered the happy playgrounds of childhood; a long farewell was inwardly breathed to Ireland, and the journey to the harbor of embarkation was at once commenced. They had heard of ‘swate Americy,’ the home for the oppressed and poor, where labor was abundant, and wages fully compensated for its toil, and, above all, where but a small portion of the laborer’s earnings were swallowed up in rents, tithes, and taxes. To this El Dorado of their imaginations were our young emigrants about to exile themselves.”

    A story told many times over at this time in this part of Ireland, it seems. John and Mary went on to have 11 children. They eventually moved to Vermont where at least one of their sons, Joshua, fought in the American Revolution.

  • Bruce Nesmith King says:

    Enjoyed this article. I believe both sides if my family came from Ulster, my maternal many great grandfather John Nesmith about 1700 signed a lease in Charleston,SC for 500 acres in what shortly became (suprise) Williamsburg County, in an area near Indiantown. After retirement, my grandfather, Mason Davis Nesmith, sold his 33 acres inherited from this original tract, I still have cousins in the community called Nesmith, where there used to be a Post office & RR stop. Family story says he, John Nesmith, came from Derry, “from across Bann”; are there any sources of documents in Ulster to support this origin?

    • carina says:

      Bruce thanks for telling us your own family history here. We have the Green Room especially set up for queries like yours. Do have a look .

  • Gary says:

    History tells us that my wife’s family comes from Tyrone County. The flax list of 1796 lists them, at least I think it’s them because there are so many Joseph Wrights that lived in Ireland around that time frame. But family history says Tyrone County. Also joined with the family are the Eaton, Beatty, Lindsey, and Lendrum families. Trying to trace them back into Scotland but not able to make any connections. Eaton family history shows her relatives in Ireland, but they do not show the connection to earlier Eatons. We believe Joseph Wright was born in England/Scotland, but are unable to find where.

  • Maureen Callahan says:

    My Great Grandfather was from Antrim William Irving and my Great Grandmother was from Tyrone. Wasson was her last name my Grandfather also names William was born there and came to the U.S where we are today!

  • Michael Woods says:

    My Woods line were Scots/Irish (Presbyterian) and I do believe they came from the county Tyrone/Derry/Donegal area to which they moved into Pennsylvania then migrated into North Carolina, on to Tenn. and on into Arkansas, northern Texas, back up to Oklahoma then New Mexico, Colorado and finally here into Idaho. Each time the move was by a new generation for the most part. My earliest known ancestor was one John Woods father to Hugh Woods.

  • Murdo Duncan says:

    Hi and my ancestors were Prestons from Dromore or Banbridge in County Down. I’d be very interested to write to anyone who has similar ancestors.

  • […] things that surprised me when I started Your Irish Heritage was just how many readers we have of Scotch-Irish descent (and that is a subject coming soon in a Letter from Ireland!) – about 20% of all our […]

  • Susan says:

    My Father’s relatives were Milliken’s they were Quakers that came from Ireland in the 1700″s and settled in North Carolina USA . Anyonnsan

  • Bruce N King says:

    My Irish ancestor was John Nesmith who emigrated from “across the Bann.” Don’t know what that meant in 1700. He settled in the Indiantown area of what is now Williamsburg County SC having established his claim in Charleston in 1700.

  • Kim G says:

    I have a few Ulster Scot ancestors. They all congregated in North Carolina, with a few in South Carolina on the border of NC. My family on both sides has stayed in the same area. I was born there. Here are the surnames of my Ulster Scots ancestors I have found so far: Ronald, Kelso, Wallace, Cochran, Richardson, Dickey, Carson, McCarter, McKnabb, Patterson and Alexander. My genealogy research is lining up with my DNA and I find it fascinating. I believe since my family has stayed in the same area, I don’t have any DNA from countries or regions other than the UK (60% Scot), Ireland and Nordic. I’m guessing the Norse comes from vikings?

  • […] Ulster Scots and The First Great Migration. […]

  • Marilyn Ponting says:

    My grand children’s ancestors (Crow, Barnhill and Fulton) came from Londonderry to Nova Scotia with other families on the Hopewell in 1761.