Irish Interlude: Hunting Ancestors

I came to Ulster hoping to learn another crumb or two about my wife’s Scots-Irish ancestors, but I knew it was highly unlikely. Family history is a collaborative and accretive endeavor and many others before me have sifted through the meagre available evidence.

But I also came because, as the linguist S.I. Hayakawa liked to remind us, the map is not the territory. It is one thing to know that the Scots came to Ireland in the 17th century, it is another to feel the breeze off the water and realize Scotland is only a scant 50 miles over there.

Most of the ancestors we sought traces of settled in Antrim, the closest part of Ireland to Scotland. We know they came from Scotland, not where in most cases. We know they stayed for several generations in Ireland, not where in most cases. We know they came to America and roughly when.

Two we do now about came from the Antrim towns of Ballymena and Ballymoney. Mary, a helpful research librarian at Ballymena, told me some of the names we sought are still very common in Ireland — Craigs and Johnstons — others rare and at least one, Spratt, non-existent. But there were two Sprotts in Ulster today. That was an interesting tidbit since my wife’s ancestor, Thomas Spratt, is spelled Sprott in an early legal record. This has long been attributed to scribal error, but maybe not. Thomas Spratt was the first white man to build a cabin on the land that is now Charlotte, NC.

As to tracing specific ancestors further back, Mary gave little hope. Vital records are more or less nonexistent in the early 17th century which is when they left Ireland. Church records are spotty which leaves legal records. But as Mary and I agreed, people who left for America tended to be landless, so no land records and since they left alive, no wills.

So we found no new information of a textual sort, but we did see the land our people saw around Ballymena and Ballymoney. Beautiful rivers and streams where salmon and trout are caught. Rolling green hills where dairy and beef cattle graze, herds of sheep.

In our ancestors day similar crops and livestock were raised and flax was grown for the nascent linen milling industry. But they would have worked as tenants for big landlords, with only tiny plots for their own purposes. When they went to America they would work under a hotter sun growing different crops, tobacco and corn among them. Many, a century later, would wind up in textile mills for cotton.

First they would sail away on tiny brigs, 150 or 200 at a time below decks, for a voyage of five to 12 weeks. All of this can be experienced at the excellent Ulster American Folk Museum in Omagh. It suggests how frightening a leap into the unknown such a voyage was.

It also suggests how desperate these people were to find a life where they were not tenants on someone else’s farm but owners of their own land. How they yearned to practice their own Presbyterian faith without having to pay an annual tithe to the Church of England or put up with other onerous restrictions imposed by the crown. And so they went.

Henry Craig was from Ballymena. Born in 1729, he and his brothers and aged father went to America in the 1750s. By 1780 they were established farmers on the North Carolina-South Carolina border near today’s Charlotte. They joined their neighbors and fellow founders of Bethel Presbyterian in defending what they had built and the right to practice the religion in which they believed.

Henry was shot through the body Aug 18, 1780 in the massacre at Fishing Creek S. C. American soldiers, surprised in camp by Banastre Tarleton’s cavalry, threw down their arms and surrendered only to be cut down. Hundreds died and Tarleton won an infamy that inflamed the Scots-Irish backcounry against the British who had previously made their life unpleasant in Scotland and hen Ireland.

Two days earlier Henry’s brothers Sam and James had both been killed at the Battle of Camden. Henry was 49 at the time of Fishing Creek. He recovered from his wounds and lived another 27 years, dying during the second term of Thomas Jefferson.

Thirty minutes to the north of Ballymena is Ballymoney from which Robert Johnston set off to America as had the Craigs at about the same time. He and his son came to roost just a mile from the Craig homestead on a large plantation on the banks of the Catawba River. When the war came David served as a cavalryman under General Thomas Sumter. He too survived only to be killed in a fall from a runaway horse in 1794. His granddaughter married Henry Craig’s grandson. My wife is their great great great granddaughter.

We have visited the graves of Henry Craig and David Johnston and the families allied with them at the church they helped to found in the country they fought to possess a piece of. Now we have seen the land they left behind to do so. It is astonishingly beautiful, but it didn’t offer them economic opportunity and it didn’t offer them the religious freedom they desired. Ours did, thanks to hardheaded, uncompromising men and women like them. We take life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for granted. We shouldn’t.

Nor should we view these people through too rosy a pair of spectacles. Hundreds of years of bitter experience taught them to distrust government as the tool of the powerful and to seek to keep its hands off their money, their land, their religion. They sought personal freedom, but those who could owned slaves and fought to keep them. Theirs is the populist strain that runs from Andrew Jackson through the Tea Party. Their motto might as well be “Get off my land.” But they too are part of us and we might not be here without them.

For those interested in these tough customers, a reading list would include The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser, Born Fighting by James Webb, The Road to Guilford Courthouse by John Buchanan and The Scotch-Irish by James Graham Leyburn.

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