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 many Puritans questioned whether they could support themselves.
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 welcomed them joyfully.
Worse Than Peasants in Germany
The Irish went through hard times 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 settled in Ulster beginning more than a century earlier were called 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.
Land for the Scots-Irish
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 liked the idea. He envisioned Scots-Irish pioneers settling on the frontiers of Maine and New Hampshire, buffering the colony from French and Indians.
Coming to Boston
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. One congregation had the Rev. James McGregor as their leader. Before leaving Ireland, he delivered a farewell sermon about their persecution.
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.
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, led by McGregor, soon settled in Nutfield, N.H., which later became Londonderry. Some went north to Casco Bay, where they had 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.
For years New Hampshire and Massachusetts disputed the Nutfield territory. 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 (Derry today). They are acknowledged to be the first potatoes planted in the United States.
Londonderry, the Scots-Irish mother town, spawned 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.
The other ships sailed into Boston sometime that summer: 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, Boston selectmen ordered immigrants from Ulster to register their presence.
Fifty families moved to Worcester, where they then formed a Presbyterian church. But Puritan resentment against them flared in 1738, when people burned down their church building.
More Scots Irish arrived in 1720-21, including Ocean Born Mary, a New Hampshire legend. They thrived in the frontier towns. Along with the Scots and Huguenots, they 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.
You may also like this story about the Irish in colonial New England here, or this story about how the Londonderry Scots-Irish saved New Hampshire from Massachusetts here. This story was updated in 2020.