By Andy O’Brien
In the summer of 1718, the first organized group of ships carrying 200 immigrants from Northern Ireland sailed into Boston Harbor. The immigrants were seeking religious freedom, economic opportunities, and a better life in the English colonies after experiencing tremendous hardships back home. Many would end up settling the cold, rocky coast of Maine.
But this wasn’t the first time these people, who later would become known as the “Scots-Irish,” had emigrated to another land. They originally came to Northern Ireland from the war-torn border region of Lowland Scotland and Northern England. James VI, King of the Scots, encouraged them to colonize and settle land that the English had confiscated from the native Gaelic Irish chiefs in the Northern Irish region of Ulster. In doing this, the king’s goal was not only to control and “civilize” Ulster, but also to ease overpopulation in the border region of England and Scotland.
The Scots-Irish had already suffered centuries of warfare between England and Scotland by the early 1600s. Because they had become so battle hardened from centuries of war, the king believed they would serve as an effective military force to conquer Ireland. But in the early 1600s, living in Ulster became intolerable for many Scots-Irish due to religious discrimination for their Presbyterian faith, rent hikes imposed by often-absentee landlords, crop failures, and the collapse of the Ulster textile industry. Presbyterian ministers led the first mass immigration of Ulster families to New England.
When the Ulstermen first arrived, they were called “Irish,” even though they didn’t necessarily have Irish or even Scottish blood. In fact, many had English and Scandinavian roots, but by the mid-19th century, they began calling themselves “Scotch” or “Scots” Irish to distinguish themselves from the “bog Irish” – a common derogatory term for the Catholic Irish.
However, their arrival coincided with smallpox epidemics and economic instability, and it wasn’t long before the other, more established colonists began resenting the new immigrants, many of whom were poor and were seen as lower class with an inferior religion. In 1720, the Boston colonists passed an ordinance ordering “certain families arriving from Ireland to move off.”
But despite their cold welcome in Boston, wealthy English merchants who claimed titles to vast tracts of land on the Maine “frontier” saw the Scots-Irish as useful. The Scots-Irish had learned pioneering skills, self sufficiency, and military discipline from colonizing Ulster and fighting what were known as “the wild Irish.” The colonizers saw the Scots-Irish as a perfect buffer against “the wild Indians,” as the colonizers called the local people who already lived there. Like the English, the Scots-Irish began using the same dehumanizing terms to describe Indigenous people that they previously had reserved for the Irish, like “savages,” “heathens,” and “barbarians.”
In 1718-19, the first Scots-Irish families settled land at Casco Bay to “replace” the Indigenous people who had once lived there in much greater numbers, as well as earlier English villages that had been wiped out by Abenaki raids. One of the ships was the Robert, which got caught in ice in November 1718 in present-day South Portland, an English settlement that had been deserted during Queen Anne’s War from 1700 to 1713. Some Ulster immigrants went ashore to build crude log huts, while others stayed aboard the ship in cramped quarters to wait until spring. With winter fast approaching and food getting low, the Massachusetts General Court granted the impoverished settlers their request for aid, and an early form of general assistance (100 bushels of cornmeal) was delivered to the colony in Maine.
The largest Scots-Irish settlements were in the midcoast, where wealthy land speculators revived land titles that originally had been secured 100 years earlier through the King of England. About 150 Ulstermen started farms in a village called Cork at present-day Dresden, but soon Abenaki tribes grew uneasy with the settlers encroaching on their land and asked them to leave or face the consequences. In the summer of 1722, Abenaki warriors came down the Kennebec River, burning homes, killing livestock, and ultimately destroying Cork. Hundreds of Scots-Irish refugees ended up scattering to other colonies.
In 1728, David Dunbar – a Scots-Irish British military officer and land surveyor – attempted to found a new province called “Georgia,” around the Pemaquid Peninsula where many Scots-Irish colonists lived. He even offered each family between 50 and 100 acres of land. But unfortunately for the settlers, he didn’t have the legal authority to make these offers, and his men got into violent skirmishes with white settlers who had already claimed title to lands in the region.
Many of Dunbar’s families would end up making a meager living by cutting timber, farming, and fishing, while periodically battling Abenaki warriors from up the Kennebec River. After fighting bloody wars with the Indigenous people and farming the land for a generation, many of the children and grandchildren of those original settlers ended up violently resisting attempts by wealthy Boston land speculators, who attempted to collect payments for the land of the hard scrabble farmers following the American Revolution. Today, their descendants still live up and down the coast of Maine, which currently has the highest percentage of people of Scots-Irish descent in the northeast.