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Immigration and Emigration
cabin in an 18th Century ship
Cabin conditions

© Courtsey of the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh, Co.Tyrone
Hillbillies in the White House

The journey

They New World dreamers sailed in ships which were re-fitted with passenger accommodation, having originally brought cargos such as timber or flax seed from America, or the West Indies. More than one ship's captain regarded the emigrants simply as troublesome, if profitable, ballast for the return trip.

Below decks, only children could stand upright; the William, which sailed from Newry to Boston in 1766, had a height of four feet nine inches between the decks and was described as 'roomy'. Berths were crowded, and until late in the late 18th Century, there were no portholes so the only source of fresh air was a few overhead hatches.

Families ate, slept, were born and often died here. With very basic sanitary conditions, the stench was unbearable and smallpox and cholera frequently broke out.

Only the better-off tenant farmers or those who could sell the leases of their Ulster farms could afford to pay fare for the passage and raise the money to pay for land in North America. The rest went as indentured servants, who pledged themselves to work for four years for room and board alone.

The pledge was normally given to the ship's captain who, on reaching America, sold the indenture to the highest bidder. Notices of the sale of indentured servants: 'Just imported and to be sold, Irish servants, men and women of good trades from the North of Ireland', were as much a feature of the Philadelphia press, as slave auctions were in the Charleston newspapers.

Once landed

The majority of the Scots-Irish who came to America settled in Pennsylvania, Carolina and in particular Virginia. Their aim was to push past the cities and establish their own colonies in fresh and fertile land.

With the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia became home to many Scots-Irish settlers; most of whom had made the long trek from their favoured port, Philadelphia, on foot.

'Hillbillies'
The term Hillbilly has Ulster Scots roots
  • Billy, refers to William of Orange who defeated James II in Ireland in the 17th Century.
  • The Ulster - Scots emigrants settled in the hills of the Appalachian mountains – hence Hill Billy.


Philadelphia was the most popular port due to previous trading agreements, a sympathetic religious colony and the availability of farmland.

"When the English arrive they build a house, when the Germans arrive they build a barn and when the Scots-Irish come they build a distillery", or so an old Appalachian saying goes.

The Scots-Irish people made superb frontiersmen. Clearing forests, building farms and pushing further and further west. They were happy to push beyond the previous boundaries set by the English and German settlers, who feared the Native Americans.

The Scots-Irish had no such fear, as they were well used to fighting for their beliefs and land. Their experiences with the skirmishes around the Scottish Borders and the clashes with the Irish in Ulster, in the 17th Century, prepared them for the wilds of Virginia.

The Scots-Irish brought their distinctive brand of music to America too. Folk songs and ballads, which were to influence the vast genre of country and western music of today.

Fiddle, pipe, banjo and jew`s harp were played along the wagon trails, where reels and jigs added to the typically Celtic sound, which later to blended into bluegrass and country music.

Nashville performers and folk singers who can cite Scots-Irish links, include Rikky Scaggs, The Everly brothers, Crystal Gayle and even Dolly Parton.


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Your comments

1 Danette Rae Brown from Gloucester, Massachusetts - 7 November 2003
"We were taught in our scoolbooks that the term of an indenured servant was 7 yrs. Or was that just those who were "transported" as prisoners of the crown?"




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