The Great Migration from Ulster to America

Immigrants from the North of Ireland | The Great Migration from Ulster to America
The Roots of Ulsters Strong Links with the White House | An Ulster-American Story
Ulster-Scots and the Birth of America | Ulster Sails West | Blood Ties

The Great Migration from the north of Ireland (Ulster) to America began in 1717. In some instances Ulster families had immigrated to the New World before 1717, but those instances were few and isolated.

Some families left Ulster in search of religious freedom, but most left in response to economic hardships. The English Parliament began to impose trade restrictions on the manufacture and sale of woolen articles in the late-1690s. Up to that time, Ulster had thrived on her wool and linen industries and had prospered more than any other province in Ireland. The arrival of the French Huguenots (French Reformed Church) in the 1680s to Ulster had strengthened her already strong wool industry by introducing some new methods for the manufacture of linen from flax. The prosperity Ulster was experiencing was seen as a threat by the English who, in 1698, petitioned the King to protect their own interests. The Irish Parliament, at the King's urging, passed the Woolens Act in the following year. The Woolens Act prohibited the exportation of Irish wool and cloth to anywhere except England and Wales. The Woolens Act resulted in a period of economic depression throughout Ulster.

Coupled with the economic hardships spawned by the Woolens Act, was a legal practice known as rack-renting which was instituted in the early-1700s. Rack-renting was the practice whereby a renter could legally raise the rent when a lease had run out. Although that practice does not seem unusual in this day and age, it was quite a departure from the traditional practice during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The traditional practice was for a lease to run approximately thirty years with the option of being renewed at the same rate. The renter would be inclined to improve the property under the assumption that he would be able to reside there indefinitely and then pass the lease on to his own sons. Money was hard to come by and rack-renting forced many renters to default on their payments. A widespread hatred of the practice and those landlords who employed it swept through Ulster. Having received favorable reports from others who had gone to America, many families resolved to leave Ireland.

The final development which led to the Great Migration came in the form of a severe drought that stretched from 1714 to 1719. The drought affected not only food crops, but also hindered the growing of flax and thereby adversely affected the linen industry. Lack of sufficient grass for grazing, and the disease known as rot, killed the sheep needed by the wool industry. Most Ulster families came because of the droughts and the failing economy in their homeland. Altogether, nearly 250,000 people, mostly Protestant and primarily the descendants of Lowland/Border Scots and Northern English who had settled in Ulster earlier, left Ulster and sailed for America between 1717 and 1775. They initially chose the colony of Pennsylvania as their destination but later moved on to the southern colonies in search of cheaper land. Their contribution to the founding of our republic was incalculable.


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