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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
Ulster Roots -
Why Did They Come to America?
by Richard K. MacMaster


What led people to leave their homes and risk a long voyage across the Atlantic? The story is different for every emigrant. But for many who came from Ulster in the eighteenth century, as for many who come to our shores today, it was the hope of a better future for their children. They saw the Colonies as a promised land.

Given the large numbers who left Ulster and the small geographical area of the province, it is a reasonable guess that nearly everyone knew or knew of someone who had gone to America. When a letter from one of their old neighbors arrived in Ireland, it was quickly passed around among relatives and friends. Eighteenth-century emigrant letters invariably told about the high wages and low price of land in North America and the great crops raised there. Quite a few wrote home, however, to warn against coming to the Colonies without money or a skilled trade.

In some cases, merchants or shipowners arranged to have letters published in the Belfast News Letter or one of the Dublin papers or they paid to have the letter printed as a handbill and distributed around the country. Sometimes the printed letter found its way back to America in the hands of a newly-arrived immigrant. It was in this way that a letter from James Murray to his Presbyterian pastor came to the attention of the editor of the Williamsburg Virginia Gazette, who introduced it with these words.

"The following Letter is said to have been sent from a Person settled in New-York, to his Countrymen, to encourage them to come over thither; which, that it might have the better Effect on the People, was printed and dispers'd in Ireland. A Copy of which being brought over, in one of the late Ships, We present our Readers with it." (Virginia Gazette, October 7, 1737.) Although the printed letter came originally on one of the immigrant ships arriving at Newcastle and Philadelphia that summer, Ben Franklin reprinted it in his Pennsylvania Gazette a month later from the Virginia paper. (Pennsylvania Gazette, November 3, 1737.)

Murray sent his letter to the Rev. Baptist Boyd, Presbyterian minister at Aughelow, near Aughnacloy, County Tyrone. He told his pastor: "Read this Letter, and look, and tell aw the poor Folk of your Place, that God has open'd a Door for their Deliverance; for here is ne Scant of Breed here. . . ." His reasons for encouraging emigration are not just that no one goes hungry, but that there are no landlords or tithe collectors to take away what the poor man has raised. "for here aw that a Man warks for is his ane, there are ne ravenus Hunds to rive it fre us here, ne sick Word as Herbingers is kend here, but every yen enjoys his ane, there is ne yen to tak awa yer Corn, yer Potatoes, yer Lint or Eggs."

I trust Family Tree readers will be able to understand Murray's use of the Scots language. His letter is unusual in that it is written in Ulster Scots rather than in standard English as are most business and personal letters surviving from that time. For that reason, Murray's letter has attracted a good deal of scholarly attention. As long ago as 1925 Earl Gregg Swem of the Virginia State Library published it with his notes and just last year Michael Montgomery reproduced the text in his essay "On the Trail of Early Ulster Immigrant Letters" (in Patrick Fitzgerald and Steve Ickringill, Atlantic Crossroads: Historical connections between Scotland, Ulster and North America [Newtownards, Co. Down: Colourpoint Books, 2001]).

One of the first questions scholars asked was whether it was a real letter. Newspapers sometimes printed "letters" written in dialect or colloquial speech to make a point or as an attempt at humor. Jonathan Swift, for instance, published a "letter" from a fisherman in the Ards peninsula telling about his supposed visit to the Dublin Cathedral. But an essay by Dean Swift or someone like him would not tell us what a Scotch-Irish settler thought about his new home, even if the real author pretended to be such a settler.

Too many small details ring true for this letter to be the work of a newspaper essayist in Virginia or an editor in Dublin. I'm convinced James Murray was a real person, anxious to bring his family to the new land that he found so full of promise. James Murray wrote that he had found employment as clerk of the Presbyterian congregation at "York Meeting House," now First Presbyterian Church in New York City, and as a schoolmaster there. He urged his old pastor and other friends to write him in care of "Mr. John Pemberton, Minister of the Gospel in New-York." But in 1737 there was no Presbyterian minister named John Pemberton in New York or elsewhere in the Colonies. Was the letter a hoax? No, because the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton served the First Presbyterian Church in New York in 1737. A careless typesetter in Ireland might have read Eben as John.

There are other clues that this is a real letter. Murray suggested he might be coming home before long as he had made other contacts in New York. An attorney in the city who traded to Ireland offered to send him with a cargo as his agent. "I think to gang there as Factor for a Gentleman of this City of York, he is my Relation by my Father, he is Returney of the Law here." He was not a close relative, not an uncle, but just "a Relation by my Father." There were only seven lawyers in New York City in 1737, three were Scots and one came from Ireland. The Irish-born attorney was Joseph Murray. He was the most-successful and wealthiest member of the New York bar and had various other business interests, just the sort of "Relation" a newly-arrived immigrant would want to claim. Joseph was the son of Thomas Murray of Queen's County, Ireland, but could well have been related to Murrays in County Armagh.

James Murray was particularly interested in getting word to his brother-in-law to come to New York with his family. "Desire James Gibson to sell aw he has and come, and I weel help him too." He asked Reverend Boyd "to send this Letter to James Broon, of Drum-ern, and he kens my Brether James Gibson, and he weel gie him this Letter." There is no townland anywhere in Ireland called "Drumern," but there is a Drumarn, a townland of 81 acres in the Parish of Clonfeacle, Co. Armagh. It lies just east of Aughnacloy and west of the cathedral town of Armagh. If James Brown lived at Drumarn, it would be easy for the minister to get a letter to him. The nearness of Armagh to Murray's friends and relations makes it clear why he used it to estimate the size of New York: "this York is as big as twa of Armagh."

What did Murray write about his American experience to encourage others to follow him to New York? First of all, there were job opportunities. Educated young men, like Reverend Baptist Boyd's sons, could earn a hundred pounds a year teaching a Latin school. Murray himself had twenty pounds a year as clerk of the Presbyterian church. "Trades are aw gud here, a Wabster gets 12 Pence a Yeard, a Labourer gets 4 Shillings and 6 Pence a Day, a Lass gets 4 Shillings and 6 Pence a Week for spinning on the wee Wheel, a Carpenter gets 6 Shillings a Day, and a Tailor gets 20 Shillings for making a Suit of Cleaths." He urged any tradesmen who came to bring their tools with them and anyone crossing the ocean needed to be well-supplied. "Now I beg of ye aw to come our here, and bring our wee ye aw the Cleaths ye can of every Sort, beth o' Linen and Woollen, and Guns, and Pooder, and Shot, and aw Sorts of Weers that is made of Iron and Steel, and aw Trades-men that comes here, let them bring their Tools wee them, and Farmers their Plough Erons."

Murray himself aimed at a life in town, as clerk and school teacher now, perhaps as a merchant later, but he promised farmers would find good land in America. "this is a bonny Country, and aw Things grow here that ever I did see grow in Ereland." He added that "Rye grows here, and Oats, and Wheet, and Winter Barley, and Summer Barley; Buck Wheet grows here, na every Thing grows here." He urged would-be emigrants to "fetch aw Sorts of garden seeds, Parsneps, Onions, and Carrots; and Potatoes grows here very big, red and white beth." They should "fetch a Spade, wee a Hoe made like a stubbing Ax, for ye may clear as muckle Grund for to plant Indian Corn, in ane Month, as will maintain Ten Folk for a Year."

Land itself was cheap. "Ye may get Lan here for 10 [pounds] a hundred Acres forever, and Ten Years Time tell ye get the Money, before they wull ask ye for it; and it is within forty Miles of this York [New York City] upon a River Side, that this Lan lies, as that ye may carry aw the Guds in Boat to this York to sell, if ony of you comes here. It is a very strong Lan, rich Grund, plenty of aw Sorts of Fruits in it, and Swin plenty enough." Murray did not specify further where this land was located. Forty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan all the land had been granted in manors, so he would be talking about becoming tenants under a long-term renewable lease there. But he could be thinking of a tract in New Jersey or on Long Island where land would still be available for purchase.

He advised his friends to bring "Hatchets, and Augers, and Axes, and Spades, and Shovels, and Bibles, and Hammers, and Psalm Bukes, and Pots." Emigrants should take a stock of provisions with them. "Let aw that comes here put in a good Store of Otes Meel, and Butter, and Brandy, and Cheese, and Vinegar, but above aw have a Writing under the Han of the Capden of the Ship ye come in." This last was presumably a receipt for the passage money, since an unscrupulous ship's captain might claim his passengers had never paid him and sell them as indentured servants.

Whatever the perils of the voyage, Ulster people would find a better life in the Colonies. Murray concluded: "Now I have geen you a true Description of this York, luke the 8th Chapter of Deuteronomy, and what it saith of the Lan there, this is far better."