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. Anne P.

    April 6, 2015 at 8:49 am

    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.

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  6. Harriet Douville

    March 17, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I am looking for ships that cme to Boston in 1718

    • Colin Brooks

      August 1, 2016 at 11:23 pm

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

  7. Dorothy Theriault

    March 17, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    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”

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  10. Hamjack

    April 9, 2016 at 10:17 am

    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.

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