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Origins of the Scotch-Irish

The Scotch-Irish, are neither ethic Scotch nor Irish.  In England, they are known as the Ulster Irish.  Until the large migration of the traditional Catholic Irish in the mid 1800s, they were known in America simply as Irish.  Some would use the name Scots Irish, but for this site, I choose to use the term Scotch-Irish. 

The collection of people that we know as Scotch-Irish were immigrants to Ulster, the northern counties of Ireland.  Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I,  King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England and Ireland.  England and Scotland were separate sovereign states with their own parliaments, laws and judiciary.  Ireland was defeated by forces under Queen Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War which ended in 1603.  By the end of the war, Ulster was virtually devoid of people and the farmlands were a wasteland.

In the meantime, the population living in Midland, England, an area laying between England and Scotland and occupied by the people identified as Lowland Scots was devastated because farms had been depleted by excessive farming and were torn up from use as battle grounds between England and Scotland.  Farmers no longer even tried to plant crops, as yields were low and were likely to be destroyed from use as battlegrounds.  The men were known as border reivers as they lived by raiding nearby areas, both north and south of their homes.  King James I/VI recognized the need to address issues of these people.

At the same time many men in London lacked productive employment. 

To address these problems, King James I/VI, adopted the Plantation system to colonize Ulster with the Lowland Scots along with English from London and the areas nearby.  Immigrants to Ulster were required to speak English and be of the protestant faith.  At least half of the settlers were to be from Scotland.  The plantation model was being tried in the Carolinas in America and Nova Scotia with success and was also used privately in Ulster with success as noted below.  Under the plantation model, tracks of land were leased made available with reasonable rents and the support of the King. 

Private development in Ulster was  initiated by Sir Hugh Montgomery and Sir James Hamilton.  Con O'Neil was a large land owner in Ulster.  Montgomery made a deal with Con O'Neil's wife to acquire half of his land in return for getting Con O'Neil released from prison and pardoned by the King.  He was imprisoned at

Carrickfergus Castle for instigating a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I.  Montgomery arranged an escape for O'neill and used his close connections with the King to obtain the pardon.  However, Hamilton got wind of the deal and wanted some of the action.  So, he interferred with the negotiation with the king and mangaged to obtain an interest in the enterprise for himself.  Montgomery, Hamilton and O'Neill each ended up with 1/3 of the land. Hamilton and Mountgomery then arranged for Lowland Scots to migrate to their new property using the plantation model. 

Lowland Scots generally spoke English rather than Gaelic, the language of the Highland Scots, and did not form clans. They were mostly Presbyterians and were not fond of either the Church of England or Roman Catholics.  They truly believed that Ulster was their promised land although the next century would prove quite difficult for them.

Ulster is only 12 miles across the North Channel at one point, so there had been travel and commerce between those areas for many years.  However, but with the encouragement of the Plantation model, thousands made the migration, beginning in 1609 for the Montgomery/Hamilton enterprise and 1620 for the King James I/VI settlements.

With the Plantation model, settlers were given a large measure of responsibility for the land.  They paid rent on long term leases (typically 31 years) which allowed them to benefit from their productivity as opposed to the feudal system, the norm in England.  This was very different from the feudal system, where titled land owners took all the profits and gave the workers enough for their subsistence.

Settlements in Ulster were economically successful with subsistence farming, a good wool industry and a flax industry to produced high quality linen.  The flax industry was improved by a migration of Huguenots that escaped religious persecution in France, adding to the mix of people in Ulster. The Huguenots brought a better quality of seeds and practiced new processing methods. Most of the English returned to England as they found life in Ulster more difficult than that in London, leaving the population in most areas dominated by the Scots. 

A motivation for settling Ulster in this way was to establish a large Protestant presence to anglicize and pacify the Catholic Irish who had recently been conquered.  Of course, the native Irish resented the new-comers as intruders so the situation was ripe for a centuries of conflict. 

Migration to America in large numbers began in 1717 and continued until the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  It was not very significant after the Revolutionary War as  the population of Ulster had dropped to low levels as England responded by changing policies to encourage citizens to stay. 

Reverend Cotton Mather of Salem witchcraft fame, wrote to ministers in Ulster inviting their congregations to emigrate to the Boston Area.  His motivation was to create new settlements north and west of Boston which would provide a buffer between Boston and hostile Indians who were allied with the French Canadians. 

In August of 1717, partly as the result of Cotton's invitation, there were 5 Irish ships in the Boston Harbor and this was only the beginning of a large emigration. The emigrants came mostly as congregations, and Cotton
Mather entertained some of the pastors when they arrived Mather found the new arrivals interesting and saw opportunities to assist those needing assistance, believing they would convert to the Puritan faith.  However, the Puritans found little success in converting them from their Presbyterian beliefs until several generations passed when they relaxed some and reformed as Congregationalists. 

 Crossing the Atlantic Ocean was difficult and dangerous in the small crowded ships, usually schooners which were 60 to 90 feet long.  While some emigrants could pay their passage, many simply sold themselves into bondage to the captains of the ships.  Upon arrival, the captains held these indentured passengers on the ships until someone paid their fares in return for contracts as indentured servants.  The business was lucrative for the ship captains. Contracts were normally for 7 years of indentured service although if the women became pregnant, the term was typically extended by 3 years.  Those with skills were very popular with the Boston merchants.  Many of the emigrants had skills such as carpentry, printing, tanning, etc., but most were farm laborers. 

There was great concern in Boston about the emigrants in 1717 as winter was coming and they feared many would require support, consuming food and wood supplies which were already scarce.  Some arrivals were directed not permitted to land in Boston, but were directed to go north to settle at what became Casco Bay and Nutfield. These settlers had very difficult times that first winter from raids by Indians who were supported by the French Canadians.  The settlement at Casco Bay failed with a large loss of life.  Many survivors ultimately moving west of Boston to Worcester.  The Nutfield settlement survived and  later changed its name to Londonderry. 



Why the Emigation to America?

  Conflict and war between the English and native Irish Catholics continued for the seventeenth century.  After the event known as the "Fight of the Earls" as attempt was made to obtain support from Spain to re-instate the Catholic ruling class in Ireland.  Significant support did not materialize as England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Spain did not have the ability to intervene.  

Over the next century, power in England shifted between the Church of England and Catholicism as royalty changed except during Cromwell's rule as Lord Protector.  With the Catholic Kings, moves to eliminate the Ulster Irish caused great stress, while their welfare was improved with protestant Rule.  The most notable event was the sie
ge of Londonderry in 1689.   This was followed by the battle of the Boyne between the deposed King James II/VII who was Catholic and William of Orange who was protestant.  This battle restored a degree of security to the Ulster Irish.


The wool industry in Ulster flourished but was restricted by protectionist taxes that favored wool products from England and Scotland.  Regulations required that all Ulster products for export had to be shipped through London so taxes could be collected by the Crown.  As the impact of this favoritism increased, Ulster's economy shifted toward flax and linen.  As noted Huguenots from Europe brought new skills so the linen products were greatly improved.

Beginning in the early 1700's, many of long term leases were to be renewed and London land owners began to increase rent on Ulster land.  Previously, rent agreements were routinely renewed at the original rates.  Along with the high rent increases, which were called "rack rents", the land owners began to impose severe conservation measures, such as requiring 9/10ths of the land to be left unused while rotating of the small farmed plot every year.  While it was undoubtedly true that there was danger of burning out the land by excessive farming, the new requirements severely reduced income.  A series of droughts impacted the area which also caused financial stress. 

In this era, England began to allow ships to leave directly from Ireland for voyages and trade to America.  This eased immigration and trade issues between Ireland and America.  As a result of these complex factors, in 1717, a large number of families pulled up stakes to come to America. 

  Scotch-Irish in America

Puritans who dominated Boston were quite worried about the influx of poor immigrants from Ulster and they began to discourage them.  The Delaware Valley ports became more popular.   Three surges of immigration occurred during the 1700's as the economy and weather and political issues impacted Northern Ireland.  Estimates of the number of Scotch-Irish immigrants reaching America are difficult to estimate, but it was probably between 200,000 and 300,000.  Most who arrived in the Delaware Valley moved west to occupy the abundant land in western Pennsylvania, but then expanding down the east side of the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia all the way to Georgia. 

Most of the literature that is available relates to that population as they were more numerous and did not assimilate as much as those in New England.  While their cultures were quite different, they got along reasonably well with the German's who also were immigrating to the area.  They did tend to form separate communities.  As they pushed south into Virginia some Germans followed.  Their relations with the Indians disturbed ruling factions in Philadelphia as they were aggressive in dealing with them.  Indian relations with the Germans was much better.  The traditional Quakers leaders also become concerned when the Scotch Irish became a political power which eventually outnumbered them.

The German population tended to follow the rules while the Scotch-Irish found open land, moved into it, marked their holdings with axe marks on trees, built their cabins, cleared the land and took possession.  Typically, well connected men received grants of large plots of land which could amount to thousands of acres of frontier land.  The grants required that the holders must find families to populate the land within a few years time.  As these land grants were issued, the grant holders frequently found the land already occupied by Scotch-Irish.  In many cases this worked out well, as frequently deals with the squatters were made and the occupancy requirement became easier to meet. 

Immigration south into the Appalachians was rapid as two wagon routes were cut through all the way to Georgia.  The Scotch-Irish did not use the best farming practices, so as the land was depleted from farming, they simply moved on to find richer soil and started over.

Less has been written about the Scotch-Irish who reached Boston.  Many who had trades remained in Boston.  The father of Henry Knox, who became George Washington's right hand man, who was a ship builder was possibly typical.  However, most Scotch Irish were settlers on the frontiers with settlements were such as  Nutfield (Londonderry), Worcester and the entire frontier. 


In Worcester, relations with the Puritans was difficult.  It was the practice to tax the community to build and support a town hall and house of worship.   The Scotch-Irish who still were Presbyterians objected the requirement to support the Puritan Meeting House and in Worcester, they decided to build their own Presbyterian Church.  While it was under construction, the Puritans tore it down and stole the materials. Most of the Scotch-Irish then moved and established new frontier towns.  One of the towns that resulted was Blandford, in the Berkshire Mountains 25 miles northwest of Springfield.  Blandford is of particular interest to our branch of the McConoughey family.

One can argue that the Revolutionary war may not have happened without the influence of Scotch-Irish.  While initial shots were fired at Lexington, it was the Scotch-Irish from the outlying countyside that responded, blocking the English and Loyalists in Boston during the winter of 1776, the Boston Siege.  A high proportion of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Scotch-Irish.  About 40 of Washington's Generals were Scotch-Irish, including Henry Knox, who as a 22 year old went with his brother and hauled 30 or more cannons from the abandoned Fort Ticonderoga to Boston.  In the Spring of 1776, the English and loyalists who weathered the Boston Siege, found their Navy looking up at those cannon installed on Bradford Heights and decided to abandon Boston. Henry Knox was an important assistant to General Washington and served as the first Secretary of War. 

Our McConoughey Family

David McConoughey and his wife reached Boston in 1731.  They quickly settled Waltham where they were employed on one of the farms.  The land in Waltham was owned by wealthy Boston landholders.  It is reasonable to conclude that they came as indentured servants and their contracts were bought by one of those landholders.  Three of their children were born in Waltham and are recorded in the vital statistics of the town.  The family moved to Blandford in 1742 or 1743. 

[Please note that this is a work in progress.  References and additional material will be added soon, so please stop back.] 

 








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