Lifford to the Chesapeake
of the Scotch-Irish in America
F. Polk, Ph.D.
de Grace, Maryland
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,
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.
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
Brown was later opprobriously referred to by one disaffected individual as the
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.
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.
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
Trail, was a highly
esteemed officer in Cromwell’s army with a landed estate in Killeleagh, County Down.,,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
There is no surviving record of the exact date of either one’s departure, the
vessel taken, or of any companion travelers.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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. 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.
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:
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
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.”
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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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
Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1967.
James. Works of the Late Reverend
A.M., Minister of the Gospel in London.
M. Ogle and J. Steven & Co., Glasgow, 1810.
Graeme. Migration from Ulster
1680-1720; in Ulster and North America.
Curtis Wood and Tyler Blethen, Knoxville TN: UT Press, 1997.
Alexander G., Rev. In the Days of the Laggan Presbytery. Davidson & McCormack, Belfast, 1908.
James G. The Scotch-Irish. University
of North Carolina Press,
Robert W. Carolina Cradle. University of North Carolina
Press, Chapel Hill, 1964.
Seaton, D.D. History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. 3 Volumes; Whitaker
& Co. London, 1827.
Somerset on the
Eastern Shore of Maryland. Whittet and Shepperson, Richmond, 1935.
Robert Trail. Genealogy of the Trail Family of Maryland.
Typed manuscript, Maryland Historical Society Library, Baltimore, 1963.
History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches and Meeting Houses, Including
the Lives of their Ministers. Private printing, London, 1808. (Reproduced in Google Books.)
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