From Lifford to the Chesapeake


The Advent of the Scotch-Irish in America[1]


John F. Polk, Ph.D.

Havre de Grace, Maryland




Although there were certainly Ulster Scots to be found in the colonies from the earliest days of English settlement, there was no identifiable group of them that formed a distinct and recognized element of the community until after the arrival of the Presbyterian minister Reverend Francis Makemie in Somerset County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in 1683. There is no surviving record showing that Makemie arrived with an initial contingent of followers at his side, but if not, they certainly came soon afterwards. In the decade following Makemie’s arrival there was a steady influx of Ulster Scots, or Scotch-Irish, both ministers and laity, into the county, as is abundantly clear from the land and court records of Somerset and from contemporary accounts. This migration had its origins in a letter sent by Colonel William Stevens, one of the founders and original County Commissioners of Somerset, to the Presbytery of the Laggan (Donegal) in 1680, asking that a “godly minister” be sent to supply the needs of the people of Somerset. The text of the letter has not survived, but the minutes of the Presbytery includes the following entry:


Decem: 29 1680 Col. Stevens from Maryland beside Virginia his desire of a godly minister is represented to us. The Meeting will consider it seriously and do what they can in it. Mr. John Heart is to write to Mr. William Keyes about it and Mr. Robt. Rule to the Meetings of Route and Tyrone, and Mr. William Trail to the Meetings of Down and Antrim. [2]


The motives of Colonel Stevens can be seen as both enlightened and self-interested. He had acquired very extensive land rights in the form of warrants, surveys, and patented land, certainly more than any other individual in the county at that time. More settlers would clearly increase the value of these holdings and help him realize a substantial profit. Nonetheless, one has to admire the open-minded liberality of Colonel Stevens, a member of the established church and leader of the local government, in turning to a non-conformist group with which he had no obvious ties, to provide spiritual guidance to the people of his domain. Presbyterians were certainly not known as supporters of establishment power, in fact their reputation was quite the opposite. The invitation may have actually been made at the suggestion of another Somerset County Commissioner, Captain David Brown, originally of Glasgow, who was certainly a Presbyterian himself and had attended the University of Glasgow.[3] Brown was later opprobriously referred to by one disaffected individual as the “Scotch-Irishmen’s God.”[4]


Whatever its motivation, Colonel Stevens’ letter arrived at a moment of great travail and no doubt found a receptive audience not just in the Laggan but throughout the Presbyterian community in Ulster. They had struggled through the Plantation, the Catholic uprising of 1641, the devastation of Ireland and invasion of Scotland by Cromwell, the restoration of Charles II, and faced the prospect of an outright Catholic restoration under James II, who did ascend the throne in 1685. There were many incidences of Presbyterians being charged with subversive activities. In 1663 for instance there had been an aborted plot called Blood’s Rebellion led by a disaffected Cromwellian officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Blood, for which many Presbyterian ministers in Down and Antrim were unjustly implicated and forced into exile. In addition, four ministers from Donegal were put in jail in Lifford for six years, from 1664-1670, although none had any involvement whatsoever with the plot.[5]  One of these was Thomas Drummond of Ramelton, Makemie’s home, who later presented the young licentiate to the Presbytery in St. Johnstown for his ordination in 1682.


Most noteworthy in our present context were the tribulations of Reverend William Trail (Traile), one of the individuals mentioned in the Presbytery record just cited and, as it turns out, a central figure in the initial Ulster-Scot exodus to Maryland. Trail was a scion of a prominent Scottish family whose father, Robert Trail, was himself a Presbyterian minister, while his uncle, Lt Col James Trail, was a highly esteemed officer in Cromwell’s army with a landed estate in Killeleagh, County Down.[6],[7], [8]  These two were on opposite sides of the conflict when Cromwell invaded Scotland and Reverend Trail became Cromwell’s prisoner for a while, but this did not prevent William Trail from uniting in marriage some years later with Lt. Col Trail’s daughter, Eleanor. He studied for the ministry at Edinburgh until 1661 and was licensed but could not be ordained because of the oppressive conditions prevailing in Scotland at the time. In fact, his father, Reverend Robert Trail, was tried and banished from Scotland, for life, at exactly this time for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance. He departed his country for Holland in January, 1662, nearly sixty years of age.[9]


William Trail moved to Ireland and was finally ordained in 1673 at Lifford. He served as minister in Ballindrait until his departure for America a decade later, with or just after Makemie. His decision to leave was probably the direct result of events that unfolded during 1681-82. First Trail was charged with fomenting opposition among certain officers being confined in Lifford, and inducing them to refuse the Oath of Supremacy, to which the Presbyterians could not subscribe. Then he and several other ministers issued a call for a one day fast in February 1681. This may seem a rather innocuous act in our times but it was regarded by local officials as an affront and challenge to their authority.[10] Only high officials of the established church were considered to be empowered to call a fast. Trail and three other ministers were brought before the magistrates in Raphoe to explain themselves, but the decision was postponed, and instead they were summoned to Dublin in June 1681 for an interrogation by the Lord Lieutenant and his Privy Council. This was a legalistic grilling that lasted two days. Trail’s own detailed account of the ordeal has survived and is an intriguing glimpse into the temper of those times. The picture of him that emerges is a skilled dialectician, well-able to engage with his lofty interlocutors on their own terms, and wholly uncowed by the situation.[11] The four ministers were released on bond and returned to Lifford for trial where they were convicted and fined £20 each. They refused to pay what they considered an illegal charge, and were therefore held in prison for eight months until spring of 1682.


These events were highly resented by Trail’s followers in Lifford, and no doubt throughout the entire Presbyterian community in Ulster, and gave them every reason to see their future prospects as very bleak. The embattled psyche which these people had developed since first settling there was tightened another notch, and it was during this period that Trail made his decision to embark for the colonies along with Makemie. It was in spring of 1683 that Trail left Ireland for Maryland. Makemie left at almost the same time, and it seems very likely that they actually traveled together.[12] There is no surviving record of the exact date of either one’s departure, the vessel taken, or of any companion travelers.


Upon his arrival Makemie stayed for a time at the home of Colonel Stevens, Rehobeth on the Pocomoke, where the earliest Presbyterian church in America was built. He did not remain there as a minister but very soon began missionary travels about the Chesapeake region, preaching  and establishing places of worship, first going southward into Virginia and Carolina, and afterwards into present day Delaware, Pennsylvania and eventually New York. Ministerial duties in Somerset were left to William Trail who settled only about a mile from Rehobeth on a tract named Brothers Love, which he purchased in June, 1686. He added another 25 acres in 1689, naming the parcel “Killeleah” after his wife Eleanor’s childhood home in County Down.  


Makemie and Trail were not the only ministers to come to Somerset. Reverends Thomas Wilson of Killybegs and Samuel Davis, whose origin is unknown, followed within the next two years. Wilson established a church at Manokin, or Princess Anne, which has been in continuous use ever since, and Davis settled at Snow Hill, now the county seat of Worcester County, Maryland. The impetus for their departure can be attributed to the steadily increasing difficulties for Presbyterians in Ulster. The harsh treatment of William Trail in 1681, highly successful in the eyes of the establishment prelates, encouraged them to impose their oppressive measures more forcefully. Meeting houses were closed, recusancy fines increased, and the Laggan Presbytery ceased to function for the next decade. In the Antrim Presbytery minutes of 1684 it was noted that the ministers of the Laggan were considering an exodus to America “because of persecutions and general poverty abounding in those parts, and on account of their straits and little or no access to their ministry.” [13]


We can be sure that William Trail’s decision to leave for Maryland had not been made in isolation but was shared and intensely discussed with his congregation from the environs of Ballindrait, and the possibility of their doing likewise directly considered. Some may have accompanied him when he left. In any case, as conditions worsened many made that momentous decision.[14]  It is certain that a number of the Ulster-Scot families of Donegal elected to cast their lot in the new world at this time. Among these were such families as Wallace, Knox, McKnitt, Alexander, Gray, Caldwell, Wilson, Polk, Owens, White, Galbraith, Miller, Johnson, Emmett, and many others. All of these family names are prominent in the 1665 Hearth Rolls for Donegal, particularly in Clonleigh (Lifford) and Ballindrait within the Barony of Raphoe.


The exodus was stimulated even further by the accession of James II to the throne following the death of Charles II in 1685. Repressive measures against Presbyterians in Ulster increased markedly at this time. James, an avowed Catholic, fully intended to re-institute the Catholic Church in Ireland.[15] He installed his brother-in-law Lord Clarendon as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland and, Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell, as commander of the Army. Tyrconnell, also known as “Mad Dick” was intemperate in his reinstating Catholics into positions of power in Ireland.  Protestant forces were disbanded and the openly stated policy was to drive all English and Scottish colonists out of Ireland and re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the land .[16]  The year 1685 was also notable for the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the brutal repression of Scottish Covenanters during what has become known as the “Killing Times.” This was a very dark period indeed for the Presbyterian Ulster Scots and a colony like Maryland which offered religious toleration would certainly have appeared as a welcome haven to them.[17]  


And so they came. The presence of Ulster-Scot families was so quickly established in Somerset that by 1689, when the Advice of Loyalty document was sent by its citizens to the newly enthroned sovereigns, William and Mary, the large majority of those whose religion is known among the 235 signers were Presbyterian. Torrence, the eminent historian of early Somerset, called it “preponderantly a Presbyterian document.”[18]  This influx did not escape official notice in the Chesapeake area. An interesting passage appears in a letter of Edward Randolph, a Virginia official, to the Commissioners of Customs for James City County in Virginia, dated 17 June 1692:


 I hear he has continued Majr King to bee the Navall Officer in Somerset Coty, a place pestred with Scotch & Irish. About 200 families have within the two years arrived from Ireland & settled in your County besides some hundred of family’s there before. They have set up a linnen Manufacture, Encouraged thereto by Coll Brown, a Scotchman, one of the Councill & by Majr King & other principall persons upon the place, who support the Interlopers, & buy up all their Loading upon their first arrival, & govern the whole trade on the Eastern shore, so that whereas 7 or 8 good ships from Engld  did yearly trade  & load the Tobco of that Coty I find that in these three years last past there has not been above 5 trading ships legally in all those Rivers, & nigh 30 Sayle of Scotch Irish & New Engld men.[19]



Who were these families? Unfortunately Lord Baltimore discontinued the use of the head rights system for allocating land warrants in Maryland in 1680 so the names of Ulster Scots arriving in Maryland with or after Makemie cannot be obtained directly from the warrant and survey records, as they could for arrivals prior to that time.[20]  This is a great pity since it would provide a very complete record. Instead we have to find these people one by one from citations in the other surviving Somerset records – court, land, and probate – which fortunately are well preserved and readily available at the Maryland State Archives. Torrence asserts that at least 100 of the signers in the Advice of Loyalty document, just mentioned, were Presbyterian. Makemie himself was not among them, most likely because he was elsewhere on missionary activities, but the other ministers, Trail, Wilson and Davis, were signers.[21]


And just as we see in today’s world, not all of the prior residents of Somerset were happy with this rather precipitous advent of newcomers. The court records contain one case where such resentment became very overt, and which provides us with the first known use of the term “Scotch-Irish” in the new world. The following testimony was recorded on 15 March 1689/90: 


I William Pattent (Patton) was at worke at James Minders and one night as I was at worke Mr Matt: Scarbrough came into the house of sd Minders and sett down by me as I was at work, the sd Minder askt him if he came afoot, he made answer again and sd he did, saying that man, meaning me, calling me Rogue makes me goe afoot also makes it his business to goe from house to house to ruinate me, my Wife and Children for ever.  I made answer, is it I Mr. Scarbrough(?)  And he replyed and said ay you, you Rogue, for which doing ile whip you and make my Wife whipp to whipp you, and I answered if ever I have abused (you) at any time, or to any bodies hearing, I will give you full satisfaction to your own Content. You Scotch Irish dogg it was you, with that he gave me a blow on the face saying it was no more sin to kill me then to kill a dogg, or any Scotch Irish dogg, giving me another blow in the face, now saying goe to yr god that Rogue (David Brown) and have a warrant for me and I will answer it.      Wm.Patent  [22]


The motivation to emigrate from Ireland greatly abated after the lifting of the siege of Derry in 1689 and the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The removal of the Catholic Stewarts and the ascension of a confirmed Calvinist to the English throne quite reversed the prospects of the Presbyterians in Ireland. This was a watershed moment in their history and the emigrations to Maryland probably slowed to a trickle at about the time Edward Randolph wrote his letter quoted above. All the same, the Scotch-Irish community that had established itself by this time had a growing impact on the Chesapeake region. Some of the Ulster-Scot families of Somerset moved northward to the Newcastle, Delaware, area and adjacent Cecil County, Maryland, where Makemie was establishing additional Churches.  It is difficult to say whether their relocation was purely for their own economic advantage, or was partly done in consort with Makemie’s missionary efforts. A petition from some Presbyterians in Newcastle to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in February 1705/6 provides some insight.  It begins


We undersubscribers and the greatest number of us born and educated in Ireland under the ministry of Mr. William Traill presbiterian minister formerly at liford are by a Divine providence setled with our families at Newcastle and about it in the province of pensilvania.” [23]


The petition goes on to ask if they might be supplied with a minister lest they “be cast desolate and to our great griefe we and our posterity left as a prey to superstition and heresies.” Almost all of the 20 signers of the petition (viz. Ninian Dunlop, John Stahl (Steele), various Wallaces, David and Andrew Miller, John Garner, Morgan Patton, John and Abraham Emmett) will be found in earlier records in Somerset. The mention of William Trail, who left Somerset and returned to Scotland in 1690, is strong testimony to the lasting impact he had on his flock and how his example led many of them to follow him from Lifford to the Maryland two decades earlier.


At nearly the same time, another group from Somerset, the Alexanders, McKnitts and Wallaces, moved to nearby Cecil County, Maryland, on the manor tract known as New Munster between the Big Elk and Christiana Creeks.[24]  This was located only about two miles from Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church which traces its foundation back to 1706 when it split off from the Newcastle church. Reverend John Wilson ministered both churches for a time, but the Newcastle petition was eventually answered in the person of Reverend George Gillespie. Gillespie came from Glasgow to serve as minister at Christiana from his ordination in 1713 until his death in 1760. John Steele and John Gardner/Garner, signers of the petition, were among the first elders of this church and closely associated with the Alexanders.[25] In subsequent years the next generation of these same families moved with the frontier, in the classic Scotch-Irish pattern, first to the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, then eventually on to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where they were the framers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and became the “Hornets Nest” encountered by General Cornwallis.[26]


By 1706 sufficiently many churches were established in the Chesapeake region that Makemie was able to establish the first Presbytery in America at a meeting held that year in Philadelphia. This is sometimes called the Presbytery of Newcastle, but at the time it was just known as The Presbytery. It was comprised of the churches of Philadelphia, New Castle, Rehobeth, Snow Hill, Manokin and Lewes (Delaware). This event can be regarded as the culmination of Makemie’s mission in America for he died only two years later and is buried in Accomac County,Virginia, where he had married and taken up residence.


Newcastle and Philadelphia became the major ports of entry when the great wave of Scotch-Irish migration from Ulster commenced about a decade later. This was not a matter of chance. The Scotch-Irish already in the area and the Presbyterian network created by Makemie were in place to welcome and support these new immigrants. In this way, the subsequent Scotch-Irish impact on the American frontier as it pushed through Pennsylvania, down the great wagon road into the valley of Virginia and the Carolinas, and afterwards west beyond the Appalachians, can truly be said to have its roots in the precursor arrival of the Laggan Presbyterians some thirty years earlier in Somerset.




Bolton, Charles Knowles.  Scotch-Irish Pioneers in Ulster and America. Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1967.

Hersey, James.  Works of the Late Reverend Robert Trail, A.M., Minister of the Gospel in London. M. Ogle and J. Steven & Co., Glasgow, 1810.

Kirkham, Graeme.  Migration from Ulster 1680-1720; in Ulster and North America. Curtis Wood and Tyler Blethen, Knoxville TN: UT Press, 1997.

Lecky, Alexander G., Rev.  In the Days of the Laggan Presbytery. Davidson & McCormack, Belfast, 1908.

Leyburn, James G.  The Scotch-Irish. University of North Carolina Press, 1962.

Ramsey, Robert W.  Carolina Cradle. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1964.

Reid, James Seaton, D.D.  History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. 3 Volumes; Whitaker & Co. London, 1827.

Torrence, Clayton.  Old Somerset on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  Whittet and Shepperson, Richmond, 1935.

Trail, Col. Robert Trail.  Genealogy of the Trail Family of Maryland. Typed manuscript, Maryland Historical Society Library, Baltimore, 1963.

Wilson,Walter.  The History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches and Meeting Houses, Including the Lives of their Ministers. Private printing, London, 1808. (Reproduced in Google Books.)

Maryland State Archives:

Cecil County Land Records, MSA Series C626

Maryland Prerogative Court Wills, MSA Series S538

Somerset Court Records, MSA Series C1774


Copyright John F. Polk, Ph.D.

18 August 2008


[1] Reprinted from a paper that appeared in the Journal for Scotch Irish Studies, Volume 2, No.4, Fall 2008. Copies of the Journal may be obtained from the Center for Scotch-Irish Studies, PO Box 71, Glenolden PA 19036-007, or contact   

[2] Torrence, p.215.

[3] Maryland Wills, Vol. 6, p.15. In his will David Brown bequeathed £100 sterling “to former College of Glasgow as a memorial and support to any of my relations to be educated therein.”

[4] Somerset Court Records, 1689-90, p.103; testimony from the trial of Matthew Scarbrough for assault on William Patton, 10 June 1690. See below.

[5] Reid, Vol. II, p.371-387.

[6] Wilson, p.234-240.

[7] Hersey, p.iii-iv.

[8] Trail, p.16. Cromwell himself is said to have remarked “If I had 10,000 James Trails I would drive the Pope from Italy.”

[9] There are conflicting accounts about whether Robert Trail ever returned to Scotland or died in exile.

[10] Lecky, p.115-125. The reasons for the fast were published and circulated in a leaflet, and its text has survived. They contained some anti-papist resolutions but one item was “The great danger we are and have been in, of a bloody massacre by the Anti-christian party.”  This was a point of discussion during the interrogation focusing upon the interpretation of “Anti-christian” and whether it might be aimed at the Episcopal prelates. Trail defused this issue.

[11] Reid, Vol 2, pp.506-518. During the interrogation Trail neatly sidestepped the charge of usurping prelatic authority in calling a fast by saying that their call was voluntary, and not binding on their followers.

[12] Torrence, p.221 & 532. The first actual record of Makemie’s presence in America was in fall, 1683 and Trail officiated at a marriage in Somerset in June 1683.  Eleanor Trail remained behind, and gave birth to their son, William, in Ballindrait in October 1683, so we may presume that Trail was still in Ireland in January of that year. See Trail, p.15-16.

[13] Reid, Vol. 2, p.425.

[14] Fortuitously, temporary conditions in tobacco shipping made transport to Maryland more feasible than usual during this period. See Kirkham.

[15] Reid, Vol. 2, p. 326.

[16] Leyburn, p.128, ff. Leyburn states that “The three year reign of James II (1685-88) and its immediate aftermath brought some of their hardest times to the Scottish colonists (of Ulster).”

[17] In 1649 the Maryland Assembly enacted “A Law of Maryland Concerning Religion” which provided that “Noe person or persons whatsoever within this Province professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall henceforth bee in any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion....”  Archives of Maryland, Vol. 1. p.246.

[18] Torrence, p.348; the original document is in the British Public Records Office, identified as CO 5-718, p.64.

[19] Bolton, p.25.

[20] Under the head right system surveys and patents were based on land warrants issued at rate of 50 acres for each immigrant or transportee into Maryland, and the warrant was “proved” by naming the particular individuals who had come into the Province. The warrant registers and survey records from that era are available in the Maryland State Archives and are an extremely valuable resource for identifying date of arrival for settlers up until 1680. 

[21] Torrence, ibid.

[22] Somerset Court Records, 1689-90, p.67, 103.

[23] Scottish Record Office CH 1/2/28 fol. 4; see also Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, T3762; provided to author by R. K. McMaster.

[24] Cecil County land records Vol. 2, p.202. This deed is dated August 1714 but mentions that the settlers had been on the land for some years before that. The author intends to publish a separate article on the history of the New Munster tract.

[25] MD Wills 18, p.415; will of John Garner, probated 22 October 1725.

[26] A very detailed account of the Scotch-Irish settlement of the North Carolina piedmont is given in Ramsey.