Emigration to Colonial America

One of the historical processes most closely associated with eighteenthcentury Ulster was the large scale emigration to the American colonies. Although Presbyterians were not the only grouping to leave in this period they were by far the most numerous. Emigration to America had been taking place for some time prior to 1718 – the year in which emigration began in earnest – but it had been on the small scale. The factors encouraging emigration in this period were numerous and complex with debate focussing on the economic motivation of the migrants set against the issue of religious freedom. Both were clearly at play. In 1718 Edmund Kaine, agent on the Barrett Lennard estate at Clones in County Monaghan, noted that one hundred families had passed through his town in the past week heading for New England, adding that those departing ‘complain most the hardship of the tithes makes them all go, which is true, for the clergy [that is, the Church of Ireland clergy] is [sic] unreasonable’.

On the other hand when the Rev. Isaac Taylor, minister of Ardstraw Presbyterian church came before the presbytery of Strabane in July 1720, asking for permission to leave his flock and emigrate to America, he cited financial hardship as the principal motivating factor.

Some were concerned that emigration was draining Ulster of its Protestants and would harm the nascent linen industry. The Rev. John Wilson, Church of Ireland minister in Lettermacaward, County Donegal, referring to Protestant emigration from his own parish in 1766, wrote ‘it is to be feared, that in a few years, there will be few or none to cultivate that religion for which our ancestors gloriously and virtuously laid down their lives’. In the event the concerns raised were not realised. The numbers of people emigrating was not constant, with variations depending on economic conditions in Ireland as well as other external factors.

The outbreak of the American war of independence in the 1770s all but halted emigration, but once peace had been signed in 1783 it resumed once again.

Familia 2022 Cover Edited