A Voyage To The Past, Getting Our Ulster On

Podunk Pundit posts will appear less often for a few days as I go in search of my wife’s roots in the land of Drink, Fight, Sing, Pray. About fifteen years ago I got bitten by the family history bug. I realized I knew nothing about my family’s origins just about the time the last relative able to answer questions died. That figures. My scant knowledge went back only a couple generations. My wife was in the same boat.

My initial goal was to trace each of our ancestors back to their arrival in America. I figured this would lead to the Ellis Island era, but I figured wrong. I discovered every ancestor arrived here before Ellis Island even opened and only one arrived before the end of the Civil War. He came only from Quebec where his immigrant ancestor arrived from France in 1640.

Frankly, I was stunned by how long our people have been here and in some cases where they came from. My surname is from a Highland Scot, but I am almost half German, an eighth French and the rest Welsh and English. All those people mixed and mingled in Ohio beginning around 1810 when it was America’s first melting pot.

By contrast, my wife is from the South and almost entirely Scots-Irish. That hearty, feisty, independent tribe originated on the lowland Scottish and English border where they were trampled for centuries as cross border disputes ravaged their land. In the 17th century the English, seeking to colonize and subdue the rebellious Catholics of Ireland, offered these border folk cheap land tenancy and freedom of religion in exchange for serving as a kind of occupation force in the plantations (interesting word) of Ulster.

They fought and settled but the Brits reneged on both promises, penalizing non-conformist religions including their Presbyterian church and increasing rents. The Scots-Irish may never have trusted government promises again and headed for America in huge numbers. They settled in the Pennsylvania and Maryland backcountry where land was cheap and government minimal but soon filtered down the Great Wagon Road into backcountry Virginia, the Carolinas and over the Appalachians.

When the British showed up again with unwanted taxes and limits on religion, the Scots-Irish saddled up and helped win the Revolution in the south. James Webb, the soldier-politician, is one of them and has summed up their ethos as Drink, Fight, Sing, Pray. From them comes corn liquor, barbecue, the Grand Old Opry, NASCAR, evangelical religion and populist politics.

Centuries of being dissed has made them suspicious of authority, liable to go their own way, unlikely to kowtow to anybody and guaranteed to close ranks against outsiders. They have contributed an outsize fraction of our soldiers. My wife’s ancestors fought in every war we’ve had. One family lost father and all three sons in the Revolution. Luckily she descends from one of the daughters. Every one of those daughters married a man fighting against the British. Their Presbyterian preacher pointedly told all the women they would be crosswise with God (and him and their clan) if they got mixed up with anyone on the other side. Get the picture?

Her Scots-Irish people began arriving in America as early as 1680. Most came in the huge influx during the fifty years before the Revolution. We are going to go take a peek at Ulster where these remarkable people stopped for a hundred years before fetching up here — Craigs, Neels, Deans, McKnights, Spratts, Wallaces, Brownfields, Stewarts, Alexanders, Johnstons, Maxwells.

It is too long ago to suppose we will find any artifacts to commemorate their passing, but we will visit the land they abided on for awhile before going to a better place. (Not heaven, America.) Places like Ballymena, Ballymoney, Raphoe and other small dots on the map in Antrim and Down, Derry and Tyrone.

Time and technology permitting, I will try to tell you what I see. And a wee commercial announcement. The eBook to the right of this page, “Our American History,” tells the story of our ancestors. But it is less about one family than about American History from the colonial era to the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a few of us. Their history is our country’s history writ small.

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