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Migration from Ulster

The early migrations, 1649 – 1717

by Richard MacMaster
Richard MacMaster is co-editor of The Journal of Scotch-Irish Studies. He is affiliated with the Center for Scotch-Irish Studies and the Department of History at the University of Florida.  Richard has a Ph.D. in American history from Georgetown University; he taught U.S. history, specializing in Colonial America. He lives in Gainesville, Florida. Richard can be contacted by email at rmacmast@ufl.edu

In the seventeenth century Ulster Scots chose the Chesapeake colonies, the goal for most emigrants from the British Isles, and most of them migrated to Maryland.

The Maryland Colony and Religious Freedom
In 1634 two ships, the Ark and the Dove, arrived in Virginia from England with settlers for a new colony to be called Maryland. They then sailed up Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Potomac River and began a search for an appropriate spot for their settlement. Maryland was intended as a refuge for English Catholics, but Leonard Calvert, the first governor, had explicit instructions to "suffer no scandal nor offence to be given to any of the Protestants." To maintain this balance, Maryland authorities embraced a broad religious tolerance from the beginning.

Sir George Calvert, 1st Lord Baltimore in the Irish Peerage, died before completing negotiations. On June 30, 1632 King Charles I granted land on the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay to his son Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, as sole proprietor. This tract of some 12 million acres included a considerable part of the grant made to the Virginia Company of London in 1609. The northern boundary ran westward from Delaware Bay along the fortieth parallel to the "first fountain" of the Potomac River. The southern bank of the Potomac was the boundary between Baltimore’s domain and Virginia as far as Chesapeake Bay; the line crossed the bay to bisect the Eastern Shore between Watkins Point and the Atlantic. In theory, and to some extent in practice, Maryland was a family affair. The Calvert family, as Proprietors of Maryland, granted land to whom they pleased, drawing an income from their generosity in annual quitrents, and filled the offices of government with their relatives. In practice, Maryland benefited from the experience of Virginia, avoiding some pitfalls, and generally following patterns already established in the Old Dominion.

Settlements on the Delaware River
Maryland's northern boundary under the 1632 charter ran through the present city of Philadelphia, including a substantial swath of territory later included in Pennsylvania and Delaware and leading to a long-lived boundary dispute. Swedish colonists occupied some of this territory in 1638, establishing Fort Christina (present Wilmington) on the western shore of Delaware Bay. Later settlers allowed New Sweden to spread along both sides of the Delaware River, where the Swedes came into conflict with Dutch claims. In 1655 the Dutch from New Amsterdam (New York) conquered the Swedish colony and, in turn, surrendered it with the rest of New Netherlands to the English in 1664. King Charles II granted all of the former Dutch territory to his brother James, Duke of York, on much the same terms as their father’s grant to Lord Baltimore. Still later, in 1681, Charles II made a similar grant of Pennsylvania to William Penn and, in turn, Penn purchased the Duke of York's lands west of Delaware Bay making him absolute proprietor of Pennsylvania and the Counties on the Delaware. Penn began settlement of his proprietary only in 1682. New Castle, Delaware, and Philadelphia would be the chief destinations for Ulster emigrants in the 18th century, but they were insignificant before 1700.

Ulster Scots in Maryland
Ulster Scots came to Maryland as early as 1649, but migration really began about 1670. One factor was the greater availability of shipping due to the increased demand for Irish indentured servants. Work on Chesapeake tobacco plantations was still done mainly by free farm laborers indentured for a period of years. As English servants became scarce, merchants turned to Scottish and Irish ports to recruit workers and later shifted to unfree African labor.

Settling the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia
The Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia was then a frontier region with settlements pushing north from the early Virginia outposts in "the county or shire of Accawmack," now Northampton and Accomac counties. Maryland authorities encouraged settlers with both a liberal land policy and religious tolerance, attracting persecuted Quakers and others to settle in Somerset County in the early 1660s. Land on the Eastern Shore proved less suited to tobacco growing than other sections of the Chesapeake region, although nearly all settlers there raised Oronoco tobacco. For this reason, established planters made no effort to acquire all the best land for future use as they did elsewhere in Maryland and Virginia. Even a century after Jamestown began, newcomers could still find adequate land at a reasonable cost on the Eastern Shore.

By 1670 David Brown, a merchant with Glasgow connections, was established on the Manokin River in Somerset County. He had a tobacco plantation there as well. His brother-in-law Archibald Erskine was a merchant at Snow Hill on the Pocomoke. Brown might have been the catalyst for emigration from Ulster over the next years.

From Lifford to Manokin
The Presbytery of Laggan received an appeal in 1680 from Colonel William Stevens for a minister to serve the Presbyterian communities on the Eastern Shore. "Decem: 29, 1680 Col. Stevens from Maryland beside Virginia his desire of a godly minister is represented to us." Stevens was an Englishman from Buckinghamshire and an Anglican and was acting on behalf of many of his neighbors. That he appealed to this Presbytery in particular is an indication that these neighbors were themselves from the Laggan.

Whether they came together on a single ship or separately over a period of years, Presbyterian families from Lifford in Co. Donegal settled in Somerset County before 1680. In a later petition, twenty of them wrote as "the greatest number of us born and educated in Ireland under the ministry of Mr. William Traill presbiterian minister formerly at lifford."

Ulster Names on the Land
When land was patented in Maryland with a deed to the original owner, he gave his property a name. Many names are prosaic. Robert King, Gentleman, one of these Ulster Scots, called his 300 acres "Kingsland." Others preferred a memory of home. Wallaces had "Castle Finn," "Kirkminster" and "Camp." Caldwells called their tracts "Ballybuggin," "Desert" and "Clonlett." The Polks used "Ballendret," "Raphoe," "Moanen" and "Denegall" as well as "Polk’s Folly." Ninian Dunlap chose "Monyn." The Owens family used "Ballyshannon" and the Alexanders "Rapho." These emigrant families settled in Manokin Hundred of Somerset County together with McKnitt and Strawbridge families and others. Many of the names they gave their new homes are from townlands near Lifford. Magdalen Polk, wife of Robert Polk, for instance, inherited the townland of Moneen in the parish of Clonleigh (Lifford), Co. Donegal and left it in her will to one of their sons. The Polks were ancestors of U.S. President James K. Polk.

Appeal to Laggan Presbytery Brings Four Ministers to the Eastern Shore
Presbyterians in Ulster suffered under restrictive laws. In 1681 the Bishop of Raphoe ordered the arrest of four leaders of Laggan Presbytery, William Traille, minister at Lifford, the moderator, and the clerk and two other ministers, for observing a day of fasting and prayer set by Presbytery. They were imprisoned.

In 1683 Revs. William Traille and Francis Makemie sailed for Maryland. They were probably accompanied by two other ministers, Rev. Thomas Wilson, pastor at Killybegs, Co. Donegal, and Rev. Samuel Davis. At the end of that year Somerset County Court heard a rumor about "four Thousand pounds of tobacco raysed out of ye County for encouragement of Ministers lately arrived here." (Tobacco was used as money in Maryland and Virginia.)

Rev. William Traille became the first pastor of Rehoboth Presbyterian Church, located near and named for Colonel William Stevens’ plantation on Manokin River, in 1683. He patented land called "Brother's Love" and "Killeleagh," but he returned to Ulster in 1690, leaving his wife Eleanor to sell the property to Archibald White, a weaver, in 1691 and join him in Ireland. Rev. Thomas Wilson served the Manokin Presbyterian Church on the upper reaches of the Manokin River, near the town of Princess Anne, until his death in 1702. Rev. Samuel Davis organized the Snow Hill congregation in present Worcester County, with a meeting house in the newly laid out town of Snow Hill in 1686. He went to Lewes, Delaware, in 1698 and returned to Snow Hill for a second pastorate in 1718-1725.

After itinerating in different places for a few years, Rev. Francis Makemie settled in Accomac County, Virginia in 1687. He married Naomi Anderson, daughter of William Anderson, a merchant and planter at Onancock, and served the church there.

Ulster Scots and the Economy
Thanks in part to the Ulster Scots who settled there, Somerset County had a more diversified economy than most parts of Maryland in the seventeenth century. Farming was the major occupation everywhere and tobacco the main crop. The new town of Snow Hill became a center for trade and attracted English, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish merchants, as did the town of Princess Anne a few years later. Scotch-Irish settlers brought skills as weavers and cloth-making was important from the 1680s. "In 1688, when Maryland tobacco prices were the lowest ever over the colonial period, the Maryland Assembly sought to encourage economic diversification with acts authorizing the payment of bounties for various manufactures, among them cloth. The county courts were to levy taxes to pay these bounties. The response of the Somerset court was to seek permission from the Council to declare the act null and void in the county, where families were already producing enough cloth to make such bounties a heavy burden."

The Chesapeake region grew too much tobacco and much of what it shipped was of poor quality keeping prices low for another generation. In a pamphlet he published in 1705, A plain and friendly perswasive to the inhabitants of Virginia and Maryland, for promoting towns and cohabitation. By a well-wisher to both governments, Rev. Francis Makemie argued that more towns like Snow Hill and Onancock would improve the situation. Growers on marginal land or without resources to properly cure and pack their tobacco could produce food for town dwellers or move to town themselves and support their families as artisans or tradesmen.

Somerset County Supports King William
In 1689 an association in arms "for the defence of the Protestant religion and for asserting the right of King William and Queen Mary to the province of Maryland and all the English dominions" was formed. The associators turned out Lord Baltimore’s proprietary government as suspected Jacobites and declared for the new King and Queen. In Somerset County the Grand Jury presented a loyal address to William and Mary, asking their "Aid and Protection for securing our Religion lives and liberty under Protestant Governors and Government, and for enabling us to defend ourselves against all Invaders." It was signed by the justices of the county court and "many others that attended the court." Among the signers were many Ulster Scots, such as James Knox, William Alexander, Ephraim Wilson, John Knox, Thomas Wallis, Alexander Knox, Malcolm Knox, William Knox, William Polk, William Wilson, Richard Maklure, Alexander Mackcullah, William Alexander, Jr., Robert Polk, John McKnitt, John Strawbridge, Ninian Dunlap, James Henderson, James Duncan, William Fossit, John Starret, John Emmitt, Archibald Erskine, John Galbraith, John Macketterick, Thomas Strawbridge, Joseph Venables, [the three Presbyterian ministers:] Wm. Traile, Thomas Wilson, Samll. Davis [and justices]David Brown, Robert King and James Rounds.

Trouble in Accomac County, Virginia
Rev. Francis Makemie also sent a petition to the King in 1689, reflecting trouble in Accomac County, Virginia. His father-in-law William Anderson, a member of the Virginia Assembly, was imprisoned at the Governor’s order. Makemie asked for "restoration of his former liberty and privilege, he having formerly presented an address for six dissenting ministers in Virginia and Maryland with a petition of complaint against Lord Howard of Effingham for imprisoning William Anderson, member of the last Assembly of Virginia."

Makemie and the Presbyterian Church in Virginia
Passage of the Act of Toleration by the English Parliament in 1689 gave new rights to dissenters, allowing them to register their meeting houses and license their ministers to preach there. It was not clear whether this legislation extended to the Colonies. When local authorities challenged Makemie's right to preach ten years later, "he appealed to the Governor of Virginia and his Council for a statement to be issued proclaiming the 'freedom and liberty of conscience' allowed by the laws of England and forbidding any interruptions of any sect of dissenters in open and free exercise of religion. In response he was called before the Council in April 1699 and the Governor informed him that all dissenters 'shall have such liberty allowed them as the law directs provided they use it civilly and quietly.'" Makemie remained in Williamsburg for the session of the General Assembly and secured passage of a law permitting dissenters to be absent from the parish churches. “This was the first law in Virginia to implement the Act of Toleration. Makemie appeared in Accomac County Court, October 5, 1699, 'where he pointed out his license to preach in Barbados' and after taking the oath was certified a dissenter with legal approval to preach in three specific places in Accomac County, Virginia.”

Organizing American Presbyterians
Makemie went to London in 1704 to plead for support of Presbyterian work in America from Presbyterians there. The ministers in charge of the "Common Fund" adopted a plan to send out two ministers in alternate years, give them two years to settle, then transfer their support to two others. When Makemie returned to America, Rev. John Hampton from Ulster and Rev. George McNish, a Scot, came with him. Both men were promptly called by vacant congregations in Somerset County, Maryland. Objections by local Anglicans to construction of a new Presbyterian meeting house at Rehoboth involved Makemie in protracted negotiations with the County Court and the Maryland Governor and Council, resulting in reaffirmation of the Act of Toleration in Maryland.

A number of Ulster Scots families moved from Somerset County to Delaware to take advantage of William Penn’s generous offers to new settlers in his colony. Many of them settled in and near New Castle, where a Presbyterian church was organized before 1701. Rev. John Wilson preached for them in the New Castle Court House and at nearby White Clay Creek and Appoquinimy. The New Castle congregation included Dutch Reformed and French Huguenot families. The Ulster Scots among them petitioned the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1706 for help in building a meeting house. They were able to build the next year and enlarged the church in 1712. This building is still standing, although no longer used for worship.

With Presbyterian churches scattered on the Eastern Shore in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, Rev. Francis Makemie determined that it was time to organize a meeting of ministers and form a presbytery. In March 1706 the Presbytery of Philadelphia met for the first time. Makemie was chosen Moderator. Ten years later the Presbyterian Church had grown so rapidly, mainly with emigration from Ulster, that they needed separate presbyteries at Philadelphia, New Castle, and Snow Hill and at Long Island in New York. The Synod of Philadelphia held its first session in 1717.

Rev. Francis Makemie died in 1708 at his home in Accomac County, Virginia, but the foundations he laid for religious freedom and the organization of his church proved important as Ulster Scots emigrated to the Colonies in the eighteenth century.

1. Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo, eds., Colonial Chesapeake Society (Chapel Hill, NC, 1988), 355.
2. Howard McKnight Wilson, The Lexington Presbytery Heritage (Verona, VA, 1971), 8.
3. Rev. J. B. Spotswood, Historical Sketch of the Presbyterian Church in New Castle, Delaware (Philadelphia, 1859), 14-16.

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