Yet for all that, the Presbyterians had long made their adjustment to religious restrictions, and most bishops of the Church of Ireland were especially tolerant in an age of bigotry. Indeed, Archbishop William King was prominent in his expression of abhorrence to the Archbishop of Canterbury, not only of the risks of increasing alienation of the Presbyterians, but of English commercial avarice in restricting the Irish Woollen trade and the practice of rack-renting by landlords, whereby a farmer’s land would be sold to the highest bidder when his lease ran out. The final straw came with the drought of the ‘teen years of the 18th century. This ruined crops, including flax, so that farmers, weavers and townspeople suffered alike. In 1716 sheep were afflicted with the ‘rot’ and many died. Severe frosts ensued, prices soared and absentee English landlords steadily increased their rents. Thus began around 1717 the great migration from Ulster to America.
An earlier emigrant to America was Francis Mackemie, born of Scottish parents near Ramelton, County Donegal. He settled in Eastern Virginia, and in 1706 was one of the most prominent members of the first Presbytery founded in America. Mackemie is justly considered to be the founding father of the Presbyterian Church in America, which was well organised to receive the new Ulster immigrants. Soon Ulster people were settling in New York State, where they founded the Orange and Ulster counties.
The first wave of migration to Pennsylvania (1717-1718) was enough to arouse the English conscience and in 1719 an Act of Parliament was passed to permit Dissenters to celebrate their own form of worship. But rack-renting continued and from 1725 to 1729 there was such an exodus of Ulster Presbyterians to the south-eastern tier of counties in Pennsylvania that their political influence was quickly becoming considerable. That influence was directed increasingly against England. A ‘feed-back’ into Ulster itself helped to make it a centre of radicalism, which was embodied in the establishment of one of the world’s first daily newspapers, the Belfast News Letter in 1737.
By 1738 these “Scotch-Irish” settlers had pioneered their way from Pennsylvania into Virginia, of which two modern counties, Augusta and Rockbridge, claim to be the most Scotch-Irish in the present United States. By 1738 their Orange County, with its country seat in the Piedmont, embraced most of the Valley of Virginia, and also much of what is now West Virginia.
The winter of 1739-40 was known in Ulster as ‘the time of the black frost’, because of the darkness of the ice and the lack of sunshine. This severe weather caused famine all over the island, and a further wave of migration from Ulster (1740-1741). The new arrivals in America now generally went through Pennsylvania down into the Valley of Virginia. Here the McDowell family especially distinguished themselves, and thus did the Ulstermen become the men of Shenandoah. Others crossed the first range of the Alleghenies to settle in the valleys of (present) Highland and Bath counties.
To be continued