Early Irish Immigrants

Irish Immigrant Ancestors: Who, What, When, Where, and Why?

Review of previous post: In my first post, I recommended three Irish histories—the first two being “must reads” if you are serious about understanding Irish history and why the Irish came to America in such great numbers.

Early Irish Immigrants

If you are a devotee of the History Channel or other entertainment sources of history and culture, you might believe claims that some of the earliest explorers here were possibly Irish. It has been theorized that St. Brendan arrived before the Vikings.[i] We know monks came before Columbus. Unfortunately, some of the Runic text on North American ancient stones were hoaxes designed to make immigrants proud and to compensate for the resentments often shown them by those who had come before. People like to brag about being here before the other guys.  Kids do that in school, even if their aggressive line-up tactics put them ahead by a body count of only one—regardless of their position in a total line-up of 15 bodies.

It’s clear: The Irish did not come here first, but that’s not important. What is important is knowing when your first immigrant came and finding that paper trail that tells you what followed. Hopefully, the information I share can provide “directional” clues to help you dig out those critical details that tell your own genealogical story. Don’t make assumptions that aren’t after having completed a lot of investigation.

Northern Europeans grow restless, searching for freedom of religion and fair governance:

Jamestown Colony, Virginia 1614. Painting by Sidney King (Public domain)

The Jamestown Settlement

Established in 1607, was noted for a number of “firsts” including the arrival of an immigrant woman, the introduction of representative government, and (1619) the importation of African slaves.[ii] Apparently, historians do not agree about everyone who was or wasn’t there and when.  However, there are some who push the idea that Irish slaves came to Virginia, around Jamestown, before the African slaves. Some also believe that the Africans were “indentured servants.” I do know that Irish were sent to Barbados and Montserrat around the time of the Irish Confederate Wars (1641 – 1643). They were sent as prisoners of war to do hard labor in the colonies.  I know that some in Barbados were indentured servants, but it is reported that there were also white slaves who were Irish and Scottish.[iii]  

Scots in Ireland (including my Covenanter family) were soldiers and rebels against the English. Sending Scottish and Irish rebels to Australia and the Caribbean into hard labor prisons might be thought of as a form of slavery. That and other forms of servitude was the English practice. Political imprisonment is usually bad policy that negatively reverberates through nearly every autocratic government.

Side Note: Compulsory labor in today’s prisons without remuneration is still a subject debated in regard to whether it is a form of slavery.  In Washington State, incarcerated individuals have earned low wages. When I taught in a Correction Center for Women, many of my GED students were forest fire fighters who worked for ~ 0.42 cents per hour (2005)! Apparently, in some states the incarcerated work for no remuneration. However, such examples should not be confused with the historical African, Native American, and other such forms of slavery. It is not part of the same conversation.

To be clear: Slavery is the condition in which a person of an ethnic, religious, or other group is kidnapped (forced against his/her will) and “placed in perpetuity to the service of another.”

Once a slave, always a slave!

Nova Scotia and immigration of slaves and indentured persons.  

Though the Scots had not colonized America, Scottish ships were sailing to Nova Scotia in the service of the English and Dutch as early as 1620. The English ships carried slaves many places, and Irish and English indentured servants into Canada. The Scottish ships carried Irish indentured servants, but it is not known if they carried African slaves. The Scottish ships were not allowed, by their government, to carry any slaves or indentured persons after about 1806. (Slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania in the 1790’s by its predominantly Scottish legislature, but a person who already had a slave could keep him/her until 1800.)  

Scots were not exiled as slaves directly from Scotland to Canada or the U.S., but Scottish war prisoners were sent from Ireland, along with many Irish when they were captured in war, rebellion or were otherwise undermining the “cause” of colonization and were identified Catholic (aka “papists”).

The Scots and Irish “cousins.”  

Besides being sometimes related, they did whiskey and wool commerce between themselves centuries before 1600. The Irish went to Scotland annually to shear sheep. Some Scottish citizens settled early in Ireland. I know a family named Ireland from Scotland and my own Scott (surname) from Ireland. My Scotts had the surname of Buccleuch until the name was changed to Scott when the clan was formed in 1120.

The English went after Scots (who refused to convert) both in Ireland and Scotland if necessary. My Scott family originated in Ireland before 1100, sometime later invaded Scotland, then some Scott Covenanters (my sixth great grandfather included) were expelled to Ireland in the late 1600’s. They emigrated to Philadelphia in 1722.

In the history The Catholics of Ulster that I recommended in my previous post, Marianne Elliott states that possibly fifty members of the Grant family of Monaghan, Ireland (where my Grant great grandfather was born) were sent into Barbados in the 1600’s. They were taken prisoners and marched on to boats in Limerick that took them to Barbados. Originally, the Irish were sent to Barbados, Antigua, or Montserrat. Later, Australia and New Zealand also became Irish prisoner destinations. It is reported that some of these persons may have been slaves. Regardless of evidence they were certainly, prisoners. (Some of your DNA Irish cousins might reside in Australia.)

Side Note: My second great grandmother Mary Grant McManus, in my novel Mary Quigley’s Da, was born in Monaghan. Her mother, Martha Perkins Grogan, was the granddaughter of one of the wealthiest men in Ireland, Cornelius Grogan of the Johnstown Castle in Wexford. John Grogan, father of Cornelius, purchased the castle in 1692. They gradually engaged in rebellion against the policies of the English with other Protestant merchants whose power and wealth were being eroded. When I suggest that my great grandmother came from wealthy people in Ireland, click on these images of the Grogan wealth. There was much over which to fight. https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=johnstown+castle%2c+wexford%2c+ireland.&qpvt=Johnstown+Castle%2c+Wexford%2c+Ireland.&form=IGRE&first=1&scenario=ImageBasicHover

Contrast the above images with the typical eviction of an Irish family. (See picture.) Note that two children have no shoes, and the table, chairs and empty basket constitute their earthly belongings. Also note the thatch torn from the roof so that they could not move back in after the soldiers departed.

Eviction of Irish family. (Public domain)

Cornelius Grogan, a Protestant, was hanged on the Wexford Bridge for his part in the 1798 Irish rebellion. The English were not opposed to hanging their own if they stood up with the Irish.  I do know that the Grogans (rebellious Protestants), Fagans (Mary Fagan was the mother of Martha Perkins Grogan, my fourth great grandmother, whose family were noted Irish-born Dublin Protestants of the merchant class), and the Grants did business together.

John Grant, father of Mary Grant McManus, was a “wealthy” man (we do not know to what extent he was wealthy). His wealth was apparently in land.  He did not reside in Ireland, but having married into the Grogan family, I am led to suspicions about Grant’s political relationship with his wife’s family. Some of us theorized that great grandfather, John Grant was involved in the funding of rebellion, which was very common. Many Irish immigrants were sending money home, and there was a very tight seal of secrecy around their activities as they didn’t want to endanger family in Ireland or America. My great grandfather John took his secrets to his grave. We cousins have been very frustrated getting the Grant tree put together. Ulysses Grant’s father said he knew nothing about his family. Perhaps he was being honest. Ulysses’s mother (Simpson) is buried only feet away from my 5th great grandfather John Scott, and there is a picture of Ulysses in a Bucks County, PA bank where the Grants shared a “family” reunion with the Simpsons and Scotts more than a hundred years ago. Don’t you hate secrets?

“Funneling” money home was a public issue with Irish immigrants in the 1900’s.  I found many newspaper articles written around the turn of the century in which there was great unhappiness regarding the amount of money America was “losing” over the Irish sending money home. It was assumed that Irish Americans supported rebellion in Ireland. Naturally, most immigrants help their poor families back home.  However, the ratio of Irish immigrants to the “native”citizen population was far more significant in times of mass immigration, so they were sending a greater proportion of money out of the country in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Jamestown “Irish” slave myth.  

In regard to Jamestown and the “Irish child slaves,” apparently about 100 English children were sent to the Virginia colonies to be apprentices.  I don’t know if they had been orphaned. The English Poor Law (1601) allowed the apprentice program as a way for overseers to “provide” for impoverished children.[iv] They were as young as eight. The program was designed as more of a “foster care” arrangement in which the participants were taught a trade while with their caretakers. The point: pictures we have seen on the internet are not of Irish children slaves being freed with their African American counterparts. They were English apprenticed children in the poor laws plan.

It is important to note, however, that indentured servants were thought of in the same manner as slaves. I would think that taking their photos with African slaves might support this idea. While under contract they had no rights to speak of, and they had been bought. Many more English children servants/apprentices were forced to Jamestown later, though the early colonists complained, thinking it not a good idea. Later, the English sent children who were at least age 12.  (I taught every age throughout my thirty-five-year teaching career—12-year-olds for fifteen years. I would not necessarily think of them as easier to manage than the 8-year-olds whom I taught for seven years, or the incarcerated adult women I taught for eight years. Generally, my incarcerated students were easier than eighth graders. I had a poster in my classroom that said. “You can’t scare me, I taught eighth grade.”  The women laughed because some of them had eighth grade kids at home! Seriously.

In regard to Jamestown, however, I think it might not have been the first location of African or Irish slaves.  Columbus is thought to have had African slaves onboard. We all know what year that was—possibly the first historical date we learned.

Finding indentured servants. 

To find names of your indentured servants, go to the site: Virtual Jamestown, where you can search a list of persons sent to plantations from 1654 – 1686. If you are lucky enough to find yours from the 10,000 people, you may also find names of parents, the servant’s owner, ship of embarkation, and more. http://www.virtualjamestown.org/indentures/search_indentures.html  Good luck!

The First Catholic Immigrants

            The Spanish and French were Catholic by default. The St. Lawrence River that flowed into the Great Lakes brought French planters and fur traders—Catholics all. In 1677, they traveled down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The French who immigrated were predominantly Catholic. Christopher Columbus (1492), and Ponce de Leon (Florida 1512) set the groundwork in the south for Spanish settlement. By 1716, the French had established Catholic parishes at Old Biloxi (now Ocean Springs) and Natchez. There were later French Catholic settlements, though the ownership in the region bounced around among England, Spain and France until the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. 

In 1598 the Jesuits priests founded Catholic settlements in New Mexico. The Jesuits were expelled from Spain after which the Franciscans replaced them and the missions in Baja and southern California began.

To my knowledge there was no Irish settlement per se during this period in other than the Carolinas. The Irish into the western states came with the potato famine, the Gold Rush, and random cowboys, thrill-seekers, and entrepreneurs.

In a later post, I will provide a map with dates of the establishment of colonies and important cities and the purchases, annexations and ceding of land in the expansion of the U.S. It should help you determine when and where your ancestors might have migrated within the US.

Preview of my next post:  I will continue history of the Irish immigration to the Thirteen Colonies, elaborate on indentures, and introduce history of the forces that motivated people to escape Ireland.

An Indentured Servant contract binding Henry Mayer (signed on 12 September 1738 with an X) to Abraham Hestant of Bucks Co., PA.  Hestant paid for Mayer to travel from Rotterdam, Netherlands (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indentured_servitude_in_British_America#/media/File:Indenturecertificate.jpg)

Side Note: I looked for information on these individuals, and different spellings of Abraham Hestant did yield more than one Henry Mayer/Meyer in their trees, but I could not determine if they were relatives. It appears Henry’s indenture lasted three years, he was to serve honestly and obediently “in all things” (yikes!), and at release from his contract he was to be given two suits of apparel. I wonder if that included footwear. Germantown, the location of this indenture, was founded by German, Quaker and Mennonite families and is now a neighborhood in Philadelphia. It is the birthplace of the antislavery movement and the neighborhood where George Washington once lived.  It is also the site of a Revolutionary Battle in which the English were defeated—after they had already captured the city of Philadelphia.


i Hawley, Andrew. National Geographic Society Newsroom: “Did St. Brendan Reach North America 500 Years Before the Vikings?” https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2013/05/16/did-st-brendan-reach-north-america-500-years-before-the-vikings/ Accessed 14 July 2020.

ii Price, David. A. Britannica: Jamestown Colony, “Representative Democracy and Slavery.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Jamestown-Colony/Representative-democracy-and-slavery-1619 Accessed 31 July 2020.

iii Jordan, Dan and Walsh, Michael. White Cargo: the forgotten history of Britain’s white slaves in America. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

iv Hansan, J.E. (2011) English poor laws: Historical precedents of tax-supported relief for the poor. Social Welfare History Project. June 22, 2018 at 1:30 pm. From https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/poor-laws/

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Mary Jaffe

Mary Jaffe (neé Scott) dreamed of becoming a National Geographic journalist, but it was a dream unrealized--even though she spent her entire eighth grade summer sleeping outdoors along a river, in the woods with the bears, in a barn, in lightening storms, etc. to determine if she was made of the right stuff. Now, at age seventy-seven--after thirty-five years of teaching elementary, adolescent and adult incarcerated students; raising her family as a single mother; singing professional opera; and caring for her beloved terminally ill husband for more than a decade--she has turned to writing historical fiction.