Scots-Irish Immigration to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1718

In the fall of 1718, a group of immigrants from what is now known as Northern Ireland arrived in Worcester after landing by ship in the port of Boston.  Worcester in that year was struggling — for the third time — to establish itself as a European immigrant settlement.  Many recent visitors to the Worcester Historical Museum’s Library have brought with them questions about the “Scotch Irish” who arrived then.  Descendants of the 1718 immigrants are especially curious during this year 2018 which marks the 300th anniversary of their arrival.

  • Who were these early settlers known as the “Scotch Irish”?
  • Why did they come to Worcester?
  • Once here, what did they do… how did they fit into their new surroundings?
  • Where did they end up?

We welcome you to our evolving online collection of information about an early immigrant group in the city of Worcester.  This is the first installment of what will be many chapters as we collect and organize information from the WHM Library collection and elsewhere in an effort to tell the story of these early colonial Americans.

Scots-Irish 1718 immigration to Worcester:  the back story

“Presbyterianism is a part of the Reformed tradition within Protestantism which traces its origins to the British Isles, particularly Scotland.”

The Scots-Irish referred to here in the context of the 1718 migration to America were individuals of Scottish origin who had been living in Ireland for some time.  Like all immigrants, they had their feet in two countries and so lived with the challenges that can come with trying to reconcile two heritages.

England had been sending natives of Scotland across the sea to Northern Ireland (known as Ulster in the early 18th century) for some years to represent its interests there, mainly with an eye toward Protestant-izing that area.  Catholics in Northern Ireland were stripped of their land holdings and some were sold into slavery, sent as far as the Caribbean to spend the rest of their lives in servitude.

The Scottish settlers encountered challenges of their own in Ulster.  A Telegram & Gazette article on this topic from 2004 explains that the “transplanted Scottish, who spoke Gaelic, were treated as second-class citizens– the Irish Catholic natives being third class.”

The Scotch-Irish in New England

written by A. L. Perry:

“We are surprised,” writes Rev. James MeGregor, the pastor of Londonderry, in a letter to Governor Shute, bearing date in 1720, “to hear ourselves termed Irish people, when we so frequently ventured our all for the British crown and liberties against the Irish papists, and gave all tests of our loyalty which the government of Ireland required, and are always ready to do the same when required.”

The people of Ireland at that time suffered from rampant disease and poor harvest returns.  If hunger didn’t get you, smallpox might.  The prospect of a fresh start in a vast distant territory appealed to a handful of brave cross-Atlantic travellers.  A. L. Perry adds another reason for the move:

“the motive of the Ulstermen in coming to America was to establish homes of their own in fee simple, taxable only to support their own form of worship and their strictly local needs–to escape in short the land lease and the church tithe.”

From Ulster to Boston to Worcester, 1718

Rev. Mr. William Boyd of Ulster represented the families who wished to start a new life in America.  Three hundred and nineteen people either signed or “made their mark” on a piece of paper that exists to this day, seeking “suitable incouragement” from the governor of Massachusetts before making their move.

from A.L. Perry:

“As an assurance to the governor of the good faith and earnest resolve of those who sent him, Mr. Boyd brought an engrossed parchment twenty-eight inches square, containing the following memorial to his excellency, and the autograph names of the heads of the families proposing to emigrate:

We whose names are underwritten, Inhabitants of ye North of Ireland, Doe in our own names, and   in   the   names   of   many   others,   our   Neighbors,   Gentlemen,   Ministers, Farmers, and Tradesmen, Commissionate  and appoint  our trusty and well beloved friend, the Reverend Mr. William Boyd, of Macasky, to His Excellency,the Right Honorable Collonel Samuel Suitte, Governour of New England, and to assure His Excellency of our sincere and hearty Inclination to Transport ourselves to that very excellent and renowned Plantation upon our obtaining from His Excellency suitable incouragement. And further to act and Doe in our Names as his prudence shall direct. Given under our hands this 26th day of March, Anno Dom. 1718.‘ ”

This document from 300 years ago is now in the custody of the archives of the New Hampshire Historical Society

“August 4, 1718, five small ships came to anchor near the little wharf at the foot of State street, Boston, then a town of perhaps 12,000 people. On board these ships   were   about   one   hundred   and   twenty   families   of   Scotch-Irish.”

The governor of Massachusetts at the time William Shute sent the group west to fortify the struggling settlement of Worcester.  There are some who say that this Scotch Irish influx of the early 1700’s “saved” Worcester, that with that influx the settlement’s population doubled from 250 to 500, thus giving it the strength in numbers that it needed to fend off attacks by local native Americans.

A researcher visiting the WHM Library recently tells us that fifteen families came from Boston to Worcester during this time.  Another source provides this tally:  “More than 200 Scotch-Irish people went to Worcester in 1718; they probably outnumbering the population already there, who are represented as occupying fifty-eight log houses.”  

A. L. Perry tells us that in Worcester in 1718 there were “At least five garrison-houses, one a regular block fort.”  He says that the Scotch-Irish immigrants traveled from Boston to Worcester in the fall.

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