A Narrow Sea - Episode 37

A Narrow Sea - Episode 37

‘A good wheen of ingens’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon

The journey of Ulster emigrants across the Atlantic in the 1700s was full of peril. In 1729, for example, 175 people died on board two vessels from Belfast during the crossing; and in 1741 the Seaflower sprang / lost her mast en route for Philadelphia and 46 passengers died - six of their corpses being eaten in desperation by the survivors. Sixty-four passengers died on the Sally during a passage of fourteen weeks and five days between Belfast and Philadelphia in 1762.

But for many Ulster Presbyterians these were risks worth taking. As David Lindsay explained to his Pennsylvanian cousins in 1758: The good Bargins of yar lands doe greatly encourage me to pluck up my spirits and make redie for the journey, for we are now oppressed with our lands at 8s an acre.

An early pioneer was James McGregor, Presbyterian minister of Aghadowey in County Londonderry (and a veteran of the Siege of Derry) who in 1718 organised five ships to take a large part of his congregation, along with people from neighbouring congregations, from Derry to Boston.

The New England Congregationalists tended to regard these immigrants from Ulster as uncouth, but Governor Samuel Shute set aside land north of the Merrimac River in New Hampshire for them. Reverend McGregor named the new settlement ‘Londonderry’ and from it other settlements developed with names including Antrim and Hillsborough.

Some Ulster immigrants stayed near the coast and prospered as merchants, particularly in Philadelphia. But the majority were restless, eager to seek out more land by moving into the backcountry. One commentator, William Burke, ascribed the settlement of the Southern backcountry to Irish migrants, who not succeeding so well in Pennsylvania, as the more frugal and industrious Germans, sell their lands in that province, and take up new ground in the remote counties in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. These are chiefly presbyterians from the Northern part of Ireland, who in America are generally called Scotch Irish.

Passing west through settled areas to the frontier, the Scotch-Irish settled on the Octarara Creek, between the present-day counties of Chester and Lancaster in Pennsylvania. From here pioneers pressed on in a north-westerly direction along the east bank of the Susquehanna River, founding the townships of Pequea, Donegal, Paxtang and Hanover. Crossing the river at Harris’s Ferry, they came to the fertile Cumberland Valley. By the 1740s, the Cumberland Valley and the neighbouring York and Adams counties were densely settled by Scotch Irish.

The Scotch-Irish pressed on westwards up the Juniata Valley, founding townships with names including ‘Fermanagh’, ‘Derry’, ‘Tyrone’ and ‘Armagh’ among the ridges of the Allegheny mountain range.

Others struck southward through the Great Valley, across the Potomac and into the Valley of Virginia. From this valley and the Carolina Piedmont, settlers moved into the mountain valleys of Appalachia, and from there they crossed the Appalachian range through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee.

In 1720, James Logan, the Colonial Secretary of Pennsylvania who had been brought up in Lurgan, expressed his anxiety about the aggressive movements of Indian tribes on the borders of Quaker and German settlements:

I thought it might be prudent to plant a Settlement of those who had so bravely defended Derry and Enniskillen as a frontier in case of any Disturbance.

The westward advance of the Scotch-Irish was upsetting treaties agreeing limits to white settlement made between the Native Americans and the Pennsylvania government – which was committed to the Quaker ideal of non-violence.

Also, Protestant Sects from Germany – that is the Amish, the Mennonites and the Dunkers (known locally as the ‘Dutch) - who were escaping religious persecution in their homelands were also pacifists. This was not a view shared by pioneer Scotch-Irish in the backcountry.

The Scotch-Irish drove Native Americans out of the east side of the Susquehanna and as they crossed over to seize lands on the west side of the river, many fell victim to Delaware and Shawnee war parties. Nathaniel Grubb, a Quaker who represented Chester County in the Pennsylvania Assembly, thought these pioneers to be expendable. The Pennsylvania Gazette reported that Grubb being informed that sundry of the Back Inhabitants were cut off, and destroyed by our savage Enemies, replied, “that there were only some Scotch-Irish kill’d, who could well be spared”.

Ulster Presbyterians were already accustomed to being on the move and defending their land; woodkerne, tories and raparees at home had prepared them for frontier skirmishing with Ottawas, Shawnee and other native Americans. The settlers’ pugnacious attitude is tersely expressed in an urgent message sent by the backwoodsman James Magraw to his brother in Paxtang:

Get some guns for us – there’s a good wheen of ingens about here.

Meanwhile, the French were laying claim to a vast stretch of territory extending from the St Lawrence in the north to the Mississippi delta in the south. As Scotch-Irish pioneers began hunting and settling in the heart of this territory, the French – often at war with the British Empire – engaged native Americans there to make war on them. Bloody conflicts ensued.

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