the last decades of the 17th century and the early
years of the 18th century a small but steady stream
of Ulster families sailed from Ulster to America.
However, in the year 1718 the stream was changed
to a mighty torrent. Most were the descendants of
Scots Presbyterians who had left the Lowlands of
Scotland during the plantation period to find a new
life in the north of Ireland. In addition, there
were a small number of native Ulster Irish who had
intermarried with these planter families as well
as the descendants of English who had settled in
Ulster during the plantation scheme. Across the sea
they sailed and there in the New World they became
the pioneers and frontiersmen of early American life.
There were two main reasons for this emigration.
One was economic and the other was religious. During
the reigns of Charles II (1660-85) and James II
(1685-88) the Ulster Presbyterians and other dissenters
were persecuted for their faith. That persecution
reached its peak in 1684 when many Presbyterian
churches were forcibly, closed. (In that same year
an Ulster emigrant organised the first Presbyterian
church in America.) William Of Orange, a Dutch
Prince, was invited by the British ruling class
to become their King in response to the ever despotic
actions of James II (particularly his intolerance
toward freedom of religion). During the Williamite
War these men of Ulster displayed great heroism
and loyalty for the Williamite cause. They played
a crucial role in defeating the forces of James
II. Following the defeat of James II, the Presbyterians
were treated more favourably. William III recognised
his indebtedness to them. The death of William
in 1702 brought this improved position to an end.
Queen Anne detested dissenters and during her reign
Ulster Presbyterians were harassed and persecuted.
In search of a better life, they looked towards
America. There were also severe economic factors
motivating them in this decision to be sure. Some
would even say that drought and a shattered economy
were as much motivating factors as a desire for
religious freedom. There is no question however
that those who sailed west were sailing in search
of freedom and a better life for themselves and
As they established each new settlement.. they
would first build a fort for protection from the
Indians and then they would build a church and
The Rev. Francis Makemie emigrated from Ulster
and arrived in America in 1683. He organised the
first Presbyterian Church in America and became
the "Father of American Presbyterianism".
It was thus an Ulsterman who started American Presbyterianism
and in the years that followed, Ulstermen played
a tremendous part in the spread of Presbyterianism
in America. Nearly 300 ministers of Ulster extraction
served in the ministry of American Presbyterian
churches in the period 1680-1820.
In the field of education the Ulster Scots settlers
made one of their most important contributions
to American life. They founded schools all over
the country. One of the most notable was the Log
College which was established at Neshaminy in Pennsylvania
by William Tennent. This was in fact the forerunner
of Princeton University.
In every aspect of American life the Ulster Scots
emigrants played a significant role. The first
daily newspaper ever issued in America was printed
by an Ulsterman, John Dunlap from Strabane, and
another Ulsterman Horace Greeley founded the New
But the Ulster Scots contribution was particularly
strong in the political field and in the battle
for independence and liberty. There the Ulster
influence was decisive and the Ulstermen were firmly
on the side of independence. Professor James G.
Leyburn said of them: "They provided some
of the best fighters in the American army. Indeed
there were those who held the Scots-Irish responsible
for the war itself".
On 2 July 1776 the American Continental Congress
voted for independence. Two days later on 4 July
it published the Declaration of Independence. Representatives
from all the American colonies had come to the
congress in Philadelphia and the mood was defiant
and confident. This was the most crucial event
in American history for it marked the birth of
the American nation and Ulster Scots were closely
associated with it.
The original document is in the handwriting of
an Ulster Scot, Charles Thompson, who was secretary
of the Congress and who was born in Maghera. It
was first printed by an Ulster Scot, John Dunlap
of Strabane. It was first read in public by the
son of an Ulster Scot, Colonel John Nixon. The
first signature on it was that of John Hancock,
president of the Congress, whose ancestors came
from County Down, and at least seven of the other
signatories were of Ulster Scots extraction.
One of the local forerunners of the Declaration
was the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
This was adopted by a convention of Ulster Scots
which met in North Carolina on 31 May 1775. President
William McKinley, himself of Ulster descent, wrote
of these men that "they were the first to
proclaim for freedom in these United States".
Another local declaration was issued by Ulster
Scots in New Hampshire.
Ulstermen played a major role during the American
War of Independence which lasted from 1775 to 1783.
Twenty-five of the American generals were of Ulster
Scot descent as was half of the revolutionary army.
One famous force of regular soldiers was the Pennsylvania
Line and it was composed almost entirely of Ulster
Scots and the sons of Ulster Scots.
The turning point in the war was the Battle of
King's Mountain in South Carolina on 7 October
1780. A body of American militiamen defeated a
British force twice its size and took 1,000 prisoners.
The five colonels in the American force were all
Presbyterian elders of Ulster stock and their men
were of the same race and faith.
President Theodore Roosevelt made this comment
on the Ulster contribution to the war: "in
the Revolutionary war . . . the fiercest and most
ardent Americans of all were the Presbyterian Irish
settlers and their descendants". He described
those Ulster Scots as "a grim, stern people,
strong and simple, . . . the love of freedom rooted
in their very hearts' core".
The Ulster immigrants brought with them from the
shores of Ulster a love of freedom and in America's
hour of crisis they fought to defend freedom. They
had traveled far across the sea but their courage,
convictions and commitment were undiminished.