Emigration of the Scotch-Irish from Ulster to America 1717 to 1976

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The “plantation” of Ulster, in Northern Ireland, with Scottish immigrants, took place from roughly 1606 through 1700.  The “Great Migration” of Scotch-Irish to America took place from 1717 through 1776.  An estimated 200-250,000 Scotch-Irish migrated to America during this period.  The period of the “Great Migration” of Scotch-Irish took place at approximately the same time as the German Palatine migration. At the time of the Revolution, they comprised 10-15% of the population of the United States.

Chronology – Time-Line of the Scotch-Irish History

For centuries, England had tried repeatedly and constantly to subdue the island of Ireland and the Irish had stubbornly resisted.  There had been attempts over the years to transplant English settlers to Ireland in an attempt to “infiltrate” and/or “control” the Irish people and their society, but these had failed.

In the closing years of the 1500s, England had sent a 20,000 man army to Ireland to quell an uprising.  After an initial failure, the commander was replaced by a man named Lord Mountjoy, who was particularly ruthless.  He destroyed all the food, houses, and cattle he could find.  Starvation in their bellies and defeats on the battlefields finally made the Irish submit to England, just as Queen Elizabeth lay dying in 1603.

An area that had been hit hard during this destruction was the northern province of Ulster, consisting of nine counties.

In the meantime, in Scotland, times were never all that good, but the turn of the century saw the typical Scottish farmer in dire straits.  The western coast of Scotland is only 20-30 miles from the Ulster coast.

Thus, the scene was set for a series of developments leading to:

* Ireland being carved into two pieces causing disharmony and discord to this day.
* A “double emigration” from Scotland: to Ireland and then to the United States of hundreds of thousands of immigrants we have come to know as the Scotch-Irish.

1606.. The first Ulster colonies are settled ironically, by the Scottish Some Scottish entrepreneurs had come up with the idea of acquiring some land and transplanting their own countrymen to farm them.  These beginning colonies were successful and word quickly spread back to Scotland.

1607. King James I took control of 3,000,000 acres of Ulster.

1609. James I inform the Privy Council of Scotland: “the King.. out of his unspeakable love and tender affection for his Scottish subjects, has decided that they will be allowed to participate in this great adventure”.  Remember, James 1, becoming King of England in 1603, had already been King of Scotland for 35 years before that (he was crowned the King of Scotland when he was one year old.)

1620. An estimated 50,000 Scottish (and some English) settlers are now in northern Ireland (Ulster).

1625. Charles 1, tried to force the Anglican church down the throats of the Scottish people. (This led to the first flight of Puritans to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.)

1637. The Scottish people arise and overthrow the episcopacy that Charles I has tried to implement.  Presbyterianism in Scotland survived.

1640. 100,000 Scottish settlers are now in northern Ireland (Ulster).

1642. The Catholics in Ireland rebel against the north. (See “Lamberts of Athenry”) From the very start fear was in the minds of the new settlers.  Quite apart from the feelings of those original inhabitants who, as labourers or tenants, were all about them, it was well known that there were some 5,000 former swordsmen of the two Gaelic earls still lurking resentfully in the bogs and mists.  And on 23 September 1641, what Protestants had long been dreading happened: there was a great rebellion of the Gaelic Irish Catholics, who, though loudly proclaiming their loyalty to the Crown, struck swiftly and fiercely for the return of their lands.

The rebellion was directed against all new settlements everywhere in Ireland but, because the Ulster settlement was the largest, it was there that the effect was most shattering.  What made the affect so shattering were the atrocities, or more particularly the reports of the atrocities with which the rebellion’s outbreak was accompanied. For intance, one of the many colourful banners carried by Orange Lodges in 12th of July processions through Belfast to this day vividly depicts what happened on the bridge in Portadown on a cold November day in 1641. Estimates of the deaths in this suprising way, but many thousands die.) The emigration of Scots to Ireland drops off.

1650. The English Civil War ends with the victorious Oliver Cromwell who then sets out to crush the Scottish spirit.

1650. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the Irish rebellion went on for ten long years, until Cromwell came from England in 1650 and crushed the rebellion.  He took neither side, however.  He killed both Catholics and Presbyterians alike to let them know that England was in charge and wouldn’t take disobedience from either side.  He was particlularly cruel and vicious during his campaigns. In August, Cromwell came over. ‘Cromwell came over,’ wrote someone who experienced it, ‘and like a lightning passed through the land.’ He struck first at Drogheda, branding the name of the town into Irish history, as a traditionally classical example of English ‘frightfulness’ in Ireland. ‘But Cromwell’s ruthless action at Drogheda cannot be seen simply as the crude anti-Irish radicalism of Irish nationalist legend.  The garrison at Drogheda was commanded by an English Catholic, Sir Arthur Aston, and was largely under English officers – all Royalists fighting Cromwell in this the ‘last stage of the great Civil War.
Cromwell had brought over with him siege artillery superior, to anything then in Ireland and after some 300 cannon shot succeeded in breaching the walls. But on his first attempt to storm the breach his men were driven back with considerable loss. This setback so inflamed him that when his men did succeed in breaking through he behaved as he did.

‘Being in the heat of the action’, he wrote soon afterwards, ‘I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town.’ And although the order was thus theoretically confined to the garrison itself, it seems more than probable that women and children were caught up in the process.  On his own later admission no priest was left alive.

Peace did follow Cromwell’s “policing action”.  The immigration of Scots Ireland now resume in 1650.

1653. Cromwell ordered venerated leaders of their church driven from their places of meeting by English soldiers and led like criminals through the streets of Edinburgh.

1660. The Puritan Cromwell dies and Charles 11 resumes the crown.  As bad as times were for the Scots under Cromwell, worse times were ahead.  During the 1660s, the Scottish suffered through what is called the “killing times”, as the English tried again to force the Church of England down the throats of the Scots.  This was the time of the rise of the term “covenanter”, those Scots that, in effect, were guerillas fighting against the English landlords.

We have an example of the “killing times” that has been passed down in our family.  A fourteen year old girl was arrested because of her failure to give allegiance to the English King in a way that connoted his being head of the church.  This fourteen-year-old girl was ordered to DEATH BY DROWNING for refusing.  This is how cruel things were getting over there at that time.

Emigration from Scotland to Ireland increased with the killing times.

1690. The King of England, William of Orange soundly defeats James 11 at the Battle of Boyne in Ireland.  William is staunchly protestant, James is Catholic.  This assures the continuation of the protestant Irish of the north, most Scottish descendants, to continue their protestant faith.

A result of the English victory at the Battle of Boyne is responsible for the last wave of immigrants from Scotland to England in the last decade of the 1600’s.  An estimated 50,000 Scots leave Scotland for Northern Ireland.

1717. The Exodus of the Scotch-Irish from Ulster to America now begins in earnest.  Five thousand Ulstermen leave for America that year.  Between 1717 and the American Revolution, approximately a quarter of a million Scotch-Irish will leave Ireland for America.  Approximately 100 years after the original Ulster plantations have been planted they have succeeded… and they have also failed.  In 100 years, Ulster had been transformed from a totally obliterated landscape to a respectable area with an economy that produced goods.  Plagued by high rents, four years of drought, English import/export policies, and the religious factor thrown in (although religion wasn’t a prime motivating factor in the Scotch-Irish migration as it was, say, with the Puritans.), many Scots look for a better life in America.

It is interesting to note that even though the Catholic Irish endured many of the same hardships as their northern counterparts, the Catholic Irish did not participate in this Exodus.  The emigration was 99% Protestant, Ulster-Scots leaving for the America’s.  Although there were Catholic Irish who fled to other Catholic countries, principally France and Spain.

1776. The American Revolution marks the end of this immigration era.  Approximately 200-250,000 thousand Scotch-Irish have immigrated to America since 1717.  There are more than that by 1776.  If one is to assume the doubling of a population every 30 years, and a ratable rate of immigration, one could assume the Scotch-Irish comprised a half million of the total 2 1/4 million Americans, or 1/8th, or 12% of the population, in 1776.  At the time of the Revolution, the Scotch-Irish comprised the second largest ethnic group in America after the English, and ahead of the Germans.

Travelling to the Frontier

“I noticed particularly one family of about 12 in number. The man carried an axe and gun on his shoulders – the wife, the rim of spinning wheel in one hand, a loaf of bread in the other.  Several little boys and girls each with a bundle according to size. Two poor horses each heavily loaded with some poor necessaries.  On the top of the” baggage of one was an infant, rocked to’ sleep in a kind of wicker cage, lashed, securely to the horse. A cow formed one of the company.  A bed cord was wound around her horns and a bag of meal on, her back.” (Rev. David Mc Clure 1773)

Wagons were also used to carry people to the frontier, although this depended on the quality and width of the roads leading into the area.  About the year 1750 the German settlers developed the Conestoga wagon which became a popular method of transport for those who could afford to hire one.

Acquiring Land

Frontier land was originally Indian land and was usually acquired from the Indians who lived there by the government of the time.  The usual method by which the settlers were granted their land was as follows:

a) Obtain a warrant (i.e. permission) to settle in a particular area
b) Mark off the boundaries of the area chosen
c) Have it surveyed to find out exactly how many acres there were
d) Arrange for payment, which could usually be done over a number of years.
Land purchase inaugurate County, Virginia:

Name – Acreage – Cost – Year
John Lewis – 2071 – 14.0.0 – 1738
Patrick Martin – 321  – 9.12.7 – 1740
Andrew McClure – 330 – 11.2.0 – 1738
Finley McClure – 444 – 13.6.5 – 1739,
James McClure  – 408  – 12.4.10 – 1739
Rendles McDonnald – 141  – 4.4.7 – 1740
Samuel McKine – 230 – 6.0.0 – 1742
Joseph Mills – 660 – 20.10.0 – 1742
Martha Mitchell – 279 – 18.7.5 – 1739
Daniel Monohan  – 900 – 27.0 0.0 – 1738
James Moody – 510 – 15.6.0 – 1740
Robert Page – 202 – 6.1.6 – 1740
William Palmer – 388 – 11.0.0 – 1740
Nathaniel Patterson – 201 – 6.0.0 – 1740
James Patton – 474 – 15.17.6 – 1741


Not everyone who went to the frontier followed the rules. Often the first people into an area were squatters; ie they simply went in and settled without permission from anyone.  Various customs grew up among these illegal settlers so that they would not disagree over who settled where.

Tomahawk Right

Tomahawk right” was made by deadening a few trees near the head of a spring, and marking the bark with the initials of the name of the person who made the improvement . . . These rights were often bought and sold. Those who wished to make settlements on a tract of land, bought up the tomahawk improvements, rather than enter into quarrels with those who made them.  Others … took a very different course from that of purchasing the tomahawk rights.  When annoyed by the claimants under those rights, they deliberately cut a few good hickories, [branches] and gave them what was ca led in those days “a laced jacket”, that is a sound whipping. (Rev. Doddridge)

When the government eventually obtained ownership of this land, the squatters either moved on to new lands, or in many cases they paid up.

Clearing the land

One of the first priorities of the frontier farmer was to clear a space to plant crops for food. The simplest way was to girdle or ring the trees.

[He] kills the, trees on a few acres of ground near his cabin – this is done by cutting a circle round the tree, two or 3 feet from the ground. The ground around this tree is then ploughed and Indian corn planted. (Benjamin Rush 1786)

Some settlers used fire to help clear the land. The undergrowth and trees were cut down and burned where they lay. Any logs, which survived the first burning, were piled up and burned again. This method often left the stumps to rot in the ground over the next few years. Others especially the Germans were much more thorough.

In clearing new land, they do not girdle or belt the trees simply and leave them,
to perish in the ground, as is the custom of their English or Irish neighbours; but the generally cut them down and burn them. In destroying underwood and bushes, they generally grub them out of the ground, which means a field is as fit for cultivation the second year, after it is cleared as it is in twenty years afterwards. (Benjamin Rush 1786)

While huge numbers of trees were destroyed in order to create farmland,’ others were used to provide many of the necessities and luxuries of life.

Trees and there uses!

Red maple: saddle trees, ink, spinning wheels, dye, bedsteads, chairs
Sugar maple: sweetener
White oak: wagons, cabins
Scarlet oak: tanning
Pitch-pine: boards, fuel, tar-making shingles
Cedar: fences, posts, shingles
Black oak: fencing, firewood,
Chestnut: fence posts and rails
Black walnut: buildings, fence posts
Hickory: axle~trees, tool handles, flails, ox yokes, rake teeth
Ash: pulley blocks, hand-spikes, oars, farming implements
Elm: medicine

In the woods are the white and black mulberry, chestnut, walnut, plums, strawberries, cranberries and grapes – also peaches very good and in great quantities. (William Penn 1683)

Keeping Warm

The vast majority of the settlers in the frontier areas built cabins of wood on their own land.  The quality of cabin varied according to their skills and the amount of time and help they had. (Reynolds)

We reached our destination an hour before sunset, unloaded the horse, cut four sticks with forks, stuck them in the ground for the four corners of our tent, laid poles from corner to corner, and covered the top and sides with bushes.
The next day we cut some small trees and put up three sides of a small cabin, leaving the front open, and having our fire on the outside.

With a roof over us, we were comparatively comfortable until the weather became cool, when, one side of our cabin being open, we were glad to build it up.  Our fire was still outside. But soon the nights becoming too cold for us, we took out the side we had recently built in, and made an outside chimney of small logs and a rough stone back wall. Our kitchen, parlour bedroom and store room were all comprised within ten feet square.  At the eave our cabin was only as high as our heads.  We had not a nail in all the fabric.  The cracks between the logs we chinked with moss gathered from old logs.

A few frontier settlers did build houses with other materials, but these were not popular.  It was the log cabin which became the typical building of the frontier.

Dress during this time!


The linsey petticoat and gown [blouse] were the universal dress of our women in early times … A small home made handkerchief… ornamented the necks of the ladies.  They went barefooted in warm weather, and in cold, their feet were covered with moccasins, coarse shoes- or shoe packs.  Instead of dressing up they … had to be content with their linsey clothing and covering their heads with a sunbonnet made of linen. (Rev. Doddridge 1770’s)


The hunting shirt was universally worn. This was a kind of loose frock, reaching half way down the thighs, with large sleeves, and so wide as to lap over afoot or more when belted.  The belt, which was always tied behind, answered several purposes, besides that of holding the dress together.  In cold weather the mittens, and sometimes the bullet-bag occupied the front part of it.  To the right side was suspended the tomahawk and to the left the scalping knife in its leathern sheath. The hunting Shirt was generally made of linsey, sometimes of coarse linen, and a few of dressed deer skins. These last were very cold and uncomfortable in wet weather.  A pair of breeches and leggins, were the dress of the thighs and legs, a pair of moccasins for the feet made of dressed deerskin.
Rev. Doddridge 1770’s

Making clothes 

Our clothing was all of domestic manufacture … Linsey, which is made of flax, and wool … was the warmest and most substantial cloth we could make. Almost every house contained a loom, and almost every woman was a weaver … The women did the tailor work.  They could all cut out and make hunting shirts, leggins and drawers.  Every family tanned their own leather. Rev. Doddridge

The men with only a thin shirt and pair of breeches or trousers on – barelegged and barefooted.  The women bareheaded, barelegged and barefoot with only a thin shift and under petticoat – Yet I cannot break them of this, for the heat of the weather admits not of any but thin clothing.  They rub themselves and their hair with bear’s oil and tye it up behind in a bunch like the Indians. Rev. Charles Woodmason

Food and cooking

[At first we had to live on] the lean venison and the breast Of the wild turkey, and the flesh of the bear … After living in this way for some time we became sickly, the stomach seemed to be always empty . . . I remember how narrowly we watched the growth of the potato tops, pumpkin and squash … How delicious was the taste of the young potatoes! What a jubilee when we were permitted to pull the young corn for roasting ears.  Still more so when it had acquired sufficient hardness to be made into johnny cakes by the aid of a tin grater. Rev. Doddridge 1770

Hog and hominy” was a common dish Johnnycake and pone were at the outset’ of the settlements of the country, the only forms of bread in use for breakfast and dinner.  At supper, milk and mush was the standard dish. When milk was not plenty, which was often the case, owing to the scarcity of cattle, mush was frequently eaten with sweetened water, molasses, bear’s oil, or the gravy of fried meat.

Every family, besides a little garden for the few vegetables which they cultivated, had another small enclosure containing from half an acre to an acre, which they called a “truck patch”, in which they raised corn, pumpkins, squashes, beans, and potatoes.  These, in the late summer and fall, were cooked with their pork, venison, and bear meat for dinner. Rev. Doddridge

Hunters – Farmers

Some of the early settlers spent much of their time hunting.

These hunters or “backwoodsmen’ live very like the Indians and acquire similar ways of thinking … Hunting is what pleases them.  An insignificant cabin of unhewn logs; corn and a little wheat, a few cows and pigs, this is all their riches but they need no more. They get game from the woods, skins bring them in whiskey and clothes, which they do not care for of a costly sort. J.D Schoeph Late 18th century.

[At first we had to live on] the lean venison and breast of the wild turkey and flesh of the bear.  Rev. Doddridge

Hunting racoons in Illinois

The raccoon abounds and is very destructive to Indian corn.  A coon hunt affords sport for the boys, who when night has set in sally forth with dogs.  On arrival at a cornfield the dogs are sent in. The raccoon makes for the woods and takes to a tree. When the hunters reach the tree a fire is lit to dispel the darkness. The coon is discovered huddled in the tree and killed. Four or five are sometimes killed in a night.

Attacks by bears and wolves

Wolves and bears had within a few days done much damage in these parts among the calves, sheep, and hogs, which are let run night and day regardless in the woods.  Little thought is taken to protect these animals against danger by keeping them in stalls.

A bear steals a hog

The bear springs suddenly on his victim grasps him in his arms or forelegs with a force which is irresistible erects himself on his hindlegs like a man and makes off in an instant with his load.  The piercing squeal of the hog is the first warning of his presence to the owner.  A large bear which meets with no obstruction will make his way through a thick wood in this manner with a hog a good deal faster than a man on foot can follow.

Rewards were sometimes offered for the killing of certain animals.  These payments were known as bounties.

Fish and venison were so abundant where we lived, and very scarce at the mouth of Pine Creek, 26 miles distant, that we; exchanged them with the inhabitants there for wheat, rye, buckwheat, salt, feathers and other articles. Philip Tome 1792

Every family tanned their own leather. The tan vat was a large trough sunk to the upper edge in the ground.  A quantity of bark was easily obtained every spring, in clearing and fencing the land.  This, after drying, was brought in and in wet days was shaved and pounded on a block of wood, with an axe or mallet.  Ashes were used in place of lime for taking off the hair. Bear’s oil, hog’s lard and tallow, answered the place off is fish oil.  The leather to be sure, was coarse, but it was, substantially good … The blacking for the leather was made of soot and hog’s lard. Rev. Doddridge


Apart from the theft of their livestock by wild animals and the risk of crop failure, other problems arose. Log cabins, especially those, which were carelessly built, were liable to catch fire. The Reynolds’ cabin, which you read about earlier, burned down.

The Reynold’s Cabin burnt down!

On March 3rd our cabin with all it contained was consumed by fire.  My father and I were chopping at some distance . . . We supposed the fire communicated to the chimney and thence to the roof.  My father went to some ‘friends and stayed with them that night. In the morning they returned with him and helped us to rebuild our cabin, and in the evening it was ready.  We had no bedding, and I had the experience of two cold and comfortless nights.  The night of the 3rd March I sat all night on a log with the skin of my first killed deer for my only covering. The night was very cold. There were several inches of snow on the ground.

Even without major disasters such as Indian attacks, the first years of life on the Frontiers were often difficult ones for the new settlers. American women in particular found life very tough.  They often died at a young age and their husbands remarried.  It was quite common for one husband to be buried beside the 3 or 4 wives he had married during his lifetime.

I endeavoured to persuade them that they put too much hardship on their women. In excuse they plead that their business at certain seasons of the year is very urgent.


They are so burdened with young children that the women cannot attend both house and field – there’s not a cabin but has 10 or 12 young children in it. Rev. Woodmason 1768

The wives and daughters of German farmers frequently forsake their dairy an d spinning wheel and join their husbands and brothers in the cutting down, collecting or bringing home the fruits of the field and orchard. The work of the gardens is done by the women. Benjamin Rush 1789

Problems Illness and Disease 

For many years in succession there was no person who bore even the name of a doctor within a considerable distance of the residence of my father.

There were no doctors on the frontier.

For burns a poultice of Indian meal was a common remedy.

Cupping and sucking the wound and making deep incisions which were filled with salt and gun powder, were among the remedies for snakebites.

The croup was a common disease among the children, many of whom died of it. For the cure of this, the juice of roasted onions or garlic was given in large doses.

For fevers, sweating was the general remedy.

Often the patients were denied the use of cold water and fresh air. Many of them died. Deaths in childbed were not infrequent.

Most of the men of the early settlers of this country were affected with the rheumatism. The oil of rattlesnakes, geese, wolves, bears, racoons, groundhogs and polecats, was applied to swelled joints and bathed in before the fire. Rev. Doddridge 1770

Making life easier

When there was a number of settlers in an area, they often helped each other to do the more difficult tasks.  These occasions, known as “bees” or “frolics”, also provided the people with a form of social life. This was much the same as our “Meitheal.

In early winter the hogs were slaughtered and butchered.

Making sausages 

Indian corn was planted in the spring and harvested about five to six months later.  By that time the stalks had grown to about 3 metres tall and bore one or two good ears (what we would refer to as a “corn on the cob”).  These ears are surrounded by husks, which have to be removed before they can be ground into com-meal.  This activity was often carried out at a com-husking frolic in and around the barn. Women gathered together to make and finish off patchwork quilts.

Description of a corn-husking in Kentucky about 1795:

When the crop was drawn in, the ears were heaped into a long pile or rick, a night fixed on, and the neighbours notified … As they assembled at night-fall the green glass quart whiskey bottle, stopped with a corn cob, was handed to every one, man and boy, as they arrived, to take a drink.  Two boys, were.. . . declared captains. They paced the rick and estimated… [where] the dividing line should be… In a few minutes the rick was charged upon by rival- teams. . . The whiskey bottle circulated freely and at the close the victorious captain, mounted on the shoulders of some of the stoutest men, with a bottle in one hand and his hat in the other, was carried in triumph around the vanquished party amidst shouts of victory. Then came the supper, on which the women had been busily employed.

Our thanks to the staff of the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh for this and much more information.

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About this record

Written by Michelle O'Brien

Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published 2012

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