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The Ulster-Scots Society of America
Ulster Scots and the birth of America


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 school.

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' core".

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.


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