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.