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How the Scots-Irish Came to America (And What They Brought With Them)

In the summer of 1718, five ships of Scots-Irish immigrants from Ulster arrived in Boston to an uncertain welcome. The Puritan leaders sympathized with their fellow Protestants who also endured Anglican intolerance.  But the newcomers came from an impoverished land, and whether they could support themselves was an open question.

northern lights cotton mather

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather wrote in his diary:

But what shall be done for the great number of people that are transporting themselves thither from ye North of Ireland?

Had he known that they brought seed potatoes for the first potato patch in America, he might have been more sanguine about their arrival.

Worse Than Peasants in Germany

Times were hard in Ireland during the winter of 1717-18. A harsh winter followed bad harvests, and smallpox and fever raged.

Jonathan Swift wrote that travelers to Ireland 'will hardly think himself in a land where law, religion, or common humanity is professed.' He blamed rapacious landlords, 'who by screwing or racking their tenants had reduced the people to a worse condition than the peasants in Germany and Poland.'

The Scots who had settled in Ulster beginning more than a century earlier were known as the Ulster Scots-Irish, or the Ulster Presbyterians. They were squeezed between hostile Irish Catholics and the Anglican Church, which forced them to pay tithes, but didn’t allow them to hold official positions.

In the spring of 1718 the Rev. William Boyd was sent from Ulster to Massachusetts to ask for land for Scots-Irish families. He brought a petition signed by the heads of 319 families, all but four of whom could sign their names. Gov. Samuel Shute was open to the idea. He envisioned Scots-Irish pioneers settling on the frontiers of Maine and New Hampshire, buffering the colony from French and Indians. They also had the support of the Revs. Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, who sympathized with their fellow Calvinists. Others were not so pleased by their arrival.

Five or six ships carrying Scots-Irish families arrived in Boston during the summer of 1718. Some of them came as congregations led by clergymen. The Rev. James McGregor was one of their leaders. Before they left, he delivered a farewell sermon emphasizing that they had been persecuted for their religion.

They were fleeing Ireland, he said, "to avoid oppression and to have an opportunity of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience and the rules of His Inspired Word."

The first ship probably arrived on July 28, 1718, according to Charles Knowles Bolton in Scotch Irish Pioneers in Ulster and America.

Thomas Lechmere greeted one ship in 1718. He'd been instructed by his brother-in-law, Gov. John Winthrop of Connecticut, to find a miller for his gristmill. On Aug. 28, he wrote,

Eleven of ye clock at night. Ships are coming in hourly, but not news; Irish families enough; above 200 souls are come in already, and many now hourly expected; so that I wish you were here; they are none to be sold, have all paid their passages sterling in Ireland.

The ship also brought young people without property who came as indentured servants.

Two ships, the Robert and the William, brought Scots-Irish congregations to Boston Harbor on Aug. 4, 1718. Part of that group, which was led by McGregor, soon settled in Nutfield, New Hampshire, which later became Londonderry. Some went north to Casco Bay, where they had been given a land grant. They would have starved during the winter, but the Massachusetts General Court granted them 100 bushels of cornmeal. They later reunited with the rest of the group in Nutfield.

Seed potatoes. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Seed potatoes. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

For years Nutfield was disputed territory between New Hampshire and Maine. What is not disputed is that McGregor planted the first potatoes in America. He brought seed potatoes from Ireland and planted them in Londonderry Common Ground in what is now Derry. They are acknowledged to be the first potatoes planted in the United States.

Londonderry became the Scots-Irish mother town, spawning new settlements in New Hampshire. According to one estimate, the Scots-Irish made up 10 percent of New Hampshire’s population in the 18th century.

More Scots-Irish

It isn’t certain when the other ships sailed into Boston that summer. They were the William and Mary, the McCallum, the William and Elizabeth and the Mary and Elizabeth.

The Ulster Scots-Irish stayed in Boston for a time, then moved to the frontier, voluntarily or not. In 1720, an ordinance passed in Boston ordering ‘certain families arriving from Ireland to move off.’ In 1723, immigrants from Ulster were ordered to register with Boston selectmen.

Fifty families moved to Worcester, where they formed a Presbyterian church. Puritan resentment against them flared in 1738, when their church was burned down.

More Scots Irish arrived in 1720-21, including Ocean Born Mary. They thrived in the frontier towns, and along with the Scots and Huguenots may have comprised 10 percent of the white population of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 18th century.

Today, many place names in Maine and New Hampshire reflect their Scots-Irish roots: Derry, Antrim and Londonderry, N.H.; Belfast and Limerick, Maine; Colrain, Mass.; and Londonderry, Vt.  (Maine today ranks seventh in the percentage of residents of Scots-Irish descent.)


  1. This article would be more appropriately titled “How the Scots-Irish Came to New England.” There were plenty of Scots-Irish who came to other parts of the country and didn’t enter via Boston.

  2. I am looking for ships that cme to Boston in 1718

    • We have a list available. What families are you looking for?

      • My ancestors were Thomson (Thompson), I was told they came over on one of the ships and ended up settling in Worcester Ma.

        • Gail:

          I am studying the Scots-Irish settlers in central Mass., including Worcester and Palmer. Do you have a first name or other information about your ancestors?

          • Dear Terry,
            I spent today reading the History of Palmer, not finished yet. I believe my ancestors might of come over on the last ship. There are James and Jannett Thompson, Samuel Thompson (their son), and Ruth Thompson (their daughter). There was also a Hugh Thompson thought to be a nephew who married Ruth.
            I know they ended up in Holden Ma. And are buried there. I would love to find out what parish in Ireland they from. Thank you for any help you can give me.
            Gail LaFortune

  3. Dorothy Theriault

    My Scots-Irish ancestors came over on the Elizabeth in 1720 and settled in Brimfield, MA. They and other towns people erected the “First Church of Scotland”

  4. There were many Scots here by the mid 1600s. A large number of whom were prisoners of the English civil wars, captured by Cromwell and shipped to the new world where they were sold into slavery.

  5. Looking for ancestor John McLaughlin who came from Ulster in 1781

  6. Looking for information on John McLaughlin arrived around 1718 from Ulster

  7. I believe I have purchased the second piece of property given by king George to Samuel Houston circa 1720 .in Nutfield now Derry NH
    The first parcel was that of Cargill (Cargill Gris mill) abutting ours which water flows into Beaver Lake.The mill stone remains on site. An old document I found in the wall while restoring the old house said the Rev Mcgregor lived here .please contact me if you have any information or photos .the 300 year anniversary of the meeting house is coming and should be a great celebration for the nutfield towns .

  8. My first ancestor in the new world was one of these Scots, a young man who was captured by Cromwell at the battle of Dunbar in 1650 and came over on the Unity in 1651. One hundred and fifty young Scots came over on that ship. They were indentured servants for seven years before being given their freedom. They were in fact sold to the colonists as slaves and the Unity was in fact a slave ship.

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