During the last decades of
the 17th century and the early years of the 18th century a small but
steady stream of Ulster families sailed from Ulster to America. However,
in the year 1718 the stream was changed to a mighty torrent. Most were
the descendants of Scots Presbyterians who had left the Lowlands of
Scotland during the plantation period to find a new life in the north of
Ireland. In addition, there were a small number of native Ulster Irish
who had intermarried with these planter families as well as
the descendants of English who had settled in Ulster during the plantation
scheme. Across the sea they sailed and there in the New World they became
the pioneers and frontiersmen of early American life.
There were two main reasons for this emigration. One was economic and the
other was religious. During the reigns of Charles II (1660-85) and James
II (1685-88) the Ulster Presbyterians and other dissenters were persecuted
for their faith. That persecution reached its peak in 1684 when many
Presbyterian churches were forcibly, closed. (In that same year an Ulster
emigrant organised the first Presbyterian church in America.) William Of
Orange, a Dutch Prince, was invited by the British ruling class to
become their King in response to the ever despotic actions of James II
(particularly his intolerance toward freedom of religion). During the
Williamite War these men of Ulster displayed great heroism and loyalty for
the Williamite cause. They played a crucial role in defeating the forces
of James II. Following the defeat of James II, the Presbyterians were
treated more favourably. William III recognised his indebtedness to
them. The death of William in 1702 brought this improved position to an
end. Queen Anne detested dissenters and during her reign Ulster
Presbyterians were harassed and persecuted. In search of a better life,
they looked towards America. There were also severe economic factors
motivating them in this decision to be sure. Some would even say that
drought and a shattered economy were as much motivating factors as a
desire for religious freedom. There is no question however that those who
sailed west were sailing in search of freedom and a better life for
themselves and their families.
As they established each new settlement.. they would first build a fort
for protection from the Indians and then they would build a church and a
The Rev. Francis Makemie emigrated from Ulster and arrived in America in
1683. He organised the first Presbyterian Church in America and became the
"Father of American Presbyterianism". It was thus an Ulsterman who started
American Presbyterianism and in the years that followed, Ulstermen played
a tremendous part in the spread of Presbyterianism in America. Nearly 300
ministers of Ulster extraction served in the ministry of American
Presbyterian churches in the period 1680-1820.
In the field of education the Ulster Scots settlers made one of their most
important contributions to American life. They founded schools all over
the country. One of the most notable was the Log College which was
established at Neshaminy in Pennsylvania by William Tennent. This was in
fact the forerunner of Princeton University.
In every aspect of American life the Ulster Scots emigrants played a
significant role. The first daily newspaper ever issued in America was
printed by an Ulsterman, John Dunlap from Strabane, and another Ulsterman
Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune.
But the Ulster Scots contribution was particularly strong in the political
field and in the battle for independence and liberty. There the Ulster
influence was decisive and the Ulstermen were firmly on the side of
independence. Professor James G. Leyburn said of them: "They provided some
of the best fighters in the American army. Indeed there were those who
held the Scots-Irish responsible for the war itself".
On 2 July 1776 the American Continental Congress voted for independence.
Two days later on 4 July it published the Declaration of Independence.
Representatives from all the American colonies had come to the congress in
Philadelphia and the mood was defiant and confident. This was the most
crucial event in American history for it marked the birth of the American
nation and Ulster Scots were closely associated with it.
The original document is in the handwriting of an Ulster Scot, Charles
Thompson, who was secretary of the Congress and who was born in Maghera.
It was first printed by an Ulster Scot, John Dunlap of Strabane. It was
first read in public by the son of an Ulster Scot, Colonel John Nixon. The
first signature on it was that of John Hancock, president of the Congress,
whose ancestors came from County Down, and at least seven of the other
signatories were of Ulster Scots extraction.
One of the local forerunners of the Declaration was the Mecklenburg
Declaration of Independence. This was adopted by a convention of Ulster
Scots which met in North Carolina on 31 May 1775. President William
McKinley, himself of Ulster descent, wrote of these men that "they were
the first to proclaim for freedom in these United States". Another local
declaration was issued by Ulster Scots in New Hampshire.
Ulstermen played a major role during the American War of Independence
which lasted from 1775 to 1783. Twenty-five of the American generals were
of Ulster Scot descent as was half of the revolutionary army. One famous
force of regular soldiers was the Pennsylvania Line and it was composed
almost entirely of Ulster Scots and the sons of Ulster Scots.
The turning point in the war was the Battle of King's Mountain in South
Carolina on 7 October 1780. A body of American militiamen defeated a
British force twice its size and took 1,000 prisoners. The five colonels
in the American force were all Presbyterian elders of Ulster stock and
their men were of the same race and faith.
President Theodore Roosevelt made this comment on the Ulster contribution
to the war: "in the Revolutionary war . . . the fiercest and most ardent
Americans of all were the Presbyterian Irish settlers and their
descendants". He described those Ulster Scots as "a grim, stern people,
strong and simple, . . . the love of freedom rooted in their very hearts'
The Ulster immigrants brought with them from the shores of Ulster a love
of freedom and in America's hour of crisis they fought to defend freedom.
They had traveled far across the sea but their courage, convictions and
commitment were undiminished.