The Earliest Identified Irish Immigrants

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

Review of my previous post: I discussed who the first Irish immigrants are and are not. Myths about the earliest Irish slaves in Jamestown were “dispelled.” Information about African American slave history was included and will continue to be included as it is essential, relevant, and affects nearly every aspect of our lives today.

Earliest immigration to the Thirteen Colonies

            It is said that the Mayflower had an Irishman named Mullins aboard. He was born in England, however, and he came with the Pilgrims. As I noted in an earlier blog, there were Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh who had lived for many generations in Ireland, Scotland and England before Europeans settled colonies in America. I’m calling a Scot or Irishman (like Mullins) who was born in England and came from England to America an English immigrant—especially if he was a Pilgrim fleeing from the Anglican church of England.

The stream of Immigrants fleeing to America for religious freedom started in the 1600’s. It started with varieties of Protestant groups, none of which were Irish. Most were Pilgrims and Puritans; others were German Anabaptists and subgroups within that movement such as Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians and Hutterites. Anabaptists were a Protestant offshoot of the Reformation.

However, by 1650, the Irish had arrived just about everywhere there were settlements, and except for refugees from Barbados, not in groups or waves.  Most came independently as indentured servants, fewer as independent merchants or entrepreneurs. I also believe that there were early Irish fishermen on the coast of Massachusetts. I have done no research on this, but I have seen Irish names on very old records (which could also be English, of course). For example, Black, Brown, and White are common surnames for both English and Irish.

My designation of Irish immigrants in this series is in regard to the Irish-born who called themselves Irish and sailed from Ireland, England or Barbados.

Scottish and Irish from Barbados.

            Ships of Irish who fought in the wars from 1641 – 1650’s against the English were expelled from Ireland to Barbados, primarily by Oliver Cromwell.  Whole families were placed into servitude but by 1678, these people began to be freed. Most fled to the Carolinas and other settlements throughout the south. The tropics were hard on these cold-climate people, and it is said many died of malaria and other tropical diseases—along with the African slaves they toiled beside while in the Caribbean. (Caribbean is the more correct, commonly used term, but West Indies was a term used on the European continent and is used in early documents regarding emigrants. It included the West Indies, Cuba, Puerto Rico and other nations.)

At least one generation of Cromwell’s Irish “refuse” had to have been born on Barbados while their parents were in servitude. Many of these, though freed indentured servants, would not be returning to Cromwell’s carnage, but would obviously sail to the closeness of Virginia and the Carolinas when given the opportunity.

A ship that arrived in 1678 brought eighty-four persons bearing sixty-eight different surnames and another ship, True Friendship, carried six individuals.[i] Michael O’Brien, author of Irish Settlers in America, reports that he found the only record of names known to be available. The list is short, though it is known that there was a steady stream of ships “dumping” off the Irish in Carolina and Virginia in 1678.

There must be a history that explains why there were so many expelled or taken away in the same time frame. Had many completed their indentures and were paid to leave the island? Were they exiled so they wouldn’t cause trouble?

The following link provides a list of 80 rebels who were sold into servitude and taken to Annapolis, MD in 1716. With the names of the “rebel” are the names of their purchasers.

https://www.immigrantships.net/v2/1700v2/friendship17160820.html [ii]

Side Note: There are two groups known on Barbados as the “Red Stockings” or “Redlegs” (named so because the harsh sun burned their fair skin so that their legs were permanently burned). The names came from both the Scottish and Irish indentured servants who were freed and walked on their own to the eastern side of the Island to live in poverty—stranded after having been released from their 1650 banishment by Oliver Cromwell to Barbados.

Here is a link that might inform you further about those whose descendants still reside in poverty there today: https://irishamerica.com/2015/10/the-irish-of-barbados-photos/   Photos include an aunt of the singer Rihanna who is a descendant of the Irish of the island. Apparently, Rihanna does not think of herself as anything other than “Barbadian” because her ancestors are a highly varied combination of the many cultures that found themselves pushed together to the peripheries of the islands. Apparently, they believe that they are no longer predominantly Irish or African. This is an opinion not verified by DNA testing to my knowledge.

What is an indentured servant?

The indentured servants were a source of free labor in the colonies. They signed contracts (See image) to come here from Europe to work for no wages for a contractual period of time. However, they worked out their passage here, room and board and, depending on their contract, freedom fees, suits of clothing, tools or weapons.[iii]

A freedom fee was much like the bus ticket or small amount of cash given to today’s prisoners for getting out of town.  A few years ago, a state hauled their freed prisoners to bridge underpasses and dropped them off! Though indentured servants were thought of as slaves in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, being an indentured servant released into the wilderness might have been a challenge more daunting than being dumped off homeless at an overpass. Maybe not.

One can see in this contract that it is well witnessed. This, of course, well-distinguishes it from slavery in which a person is taken involuntarily from family and placed to serve a master for life.

On the American Continent, some masters were very generous and paid indentured servants in land, livestock, or weapons to defend themselves or hunt. This became such an expense however, that people who had had indentured servants began buying African slaves because they were easier to deal with, would cost less, and were worth more when sold. Obviously, African slaves had neither power nor rights, they were easy to chase down because they weren’t indistinguishable, and they didn’t have well-established families to hide them as did the white Europeans. 

European indentured servants had what we would today call “white privilege”. Because they were white, who would guess that they were in servitude when they ran?  Regardless, any run-away servant might have been returned and their contract extended as punishment when a reward for capture was offered.  The following is a better example of white privilege.

Side Note: John Punch (possibly Bunch) was an African indentured servant who, with two Europeans, ran away from their servitude in Virginia. When captured, the Europeans had their contracts extended, but Punch was punished by being sent into life-long slavery. He had not been a slave before. It is believed that he was a 12th-generation grandfather to Barack Obama on his mother’s side, and a paternal ancestor of American diplomat, Ralph Bunch who was the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.[iv]

Some indentured servants ran away to hook up with relatives soon after arriving so the benefits of their hard work could go to their own family. This was true of the Scots Irish in the 1700’s.  When a relative could not afford to come here, they became an indentured servant of a family member, worked for a time, then “dismissed themselves” to join relatives. The Scots didn’t worry about the English being “stiffed” for the bill, and the Scot could say his servant ran off.  One of my Scott ancestor cousins was, apparently, such a person.

The usual period of indenture was four to seven years but could be more. Their service was not easy, and they may have been treated badly, some given only bread and water. However, it is not considered the same as slavery.  They came to the American continent voluntarily, signed a contract, and they were remunerated.

More information on indentured servants can be found in the book White Cargo by Jordan and Walsh, noted at the end of my second post.

Irish Immigrants in New England Colonies (pre-1790)

            The Catholic Irish immigrants generally sailed in the 1700’s from southern Irish ports of Cork and Kinsale (south of Cork). The numbers of immigrants vacillated but was not great. It depended on Irish politics between 1720 and 1740. After 1740 Irish immigration steadily rose, with increased numbers of the Scots-Irish leaving Ireland—still most from Ulster. 

Researcher Michael J. O’Brien provides an appendix in his work, Pioneer Irish in New England, that lists 599 Irish persons mentioned in various New England records and publications of the seventeenth century.[v] O’Brien searched Irish names casually mentioned in newspapers or local histories. Some he found as witnesses to deeds or in a church record or a will. There were very few government records maintained on immigration until the nation formed and the Census became law in 1790.

O’Brien provides narrative on their lives when the information was available. 

The first Irishman mentioned was Richard Bulgar of Boston, MA, in 1632. From 1632 to 1700, others who lived in Massachusetts came from: Newberry, Marblehead, Watertown, Ipswich, Charlestown, Topsfield, Salem, Boxford, Dedham, Lynn, Northampton, Sudbury, Cambridge, Rowley, Woburn, Lancaster, Essex County, Roxbury, Northfield, Gloucester, Eastham, Salisbury, Plymouth, Milton, Dorchester, Braintree, Mendon, Malden, Yarmouth, Cohannett, New Bedford, Scituate, Stoneham, Hadley, Reading, Newton, Danvers, Nantucket, Hingham, Taunton, Sandwich, Springfield, Brookline, Concord, and Swanzey.

Most of the 599 persons on the list came from Boston. It is difficult to assess, but the persons on O’Brien’s list represent probably more than three hundred fifty families spread throughout about ninety towns including: New London, Wethersfield, Milford, Middletown, Saybrook, Guilford, Infield, Suffield, Hartford, New Haven, Woodbury, Windsor, Stonington, Groton, Farmington, Voluntown, Hockanum, and Norwalk in Connecticuit; Rye, Oyster River, Isle of Shoals, Exeter, Hampton, Portsmouth, Dover, Cochecho, New Hampton, Great Island, and New Castle in New Hampshire; Brunswick, Kittery, York, Monhegin, York County, Saco, Pemaquid, Scarboro, and Falmouth in Maine; and Newport, Providence, Westerly, Wickford, Conanicut, East Greenwich, and Little Compton in Rhode Island.

On the list are twelve individuals whose names are spelled Murfy, Murfey, Murfee, Murphy, Murfie and, Murffey from nine towns in two states. This demonstrates the difficulty in determining either which or how many are from the same family group. I attempted to track these individuals and learned the following:

One of these Murphy individuals was on a land deed, one was an indentured servant, and one was a soldier. Margaret Murfee of Scituate was licensed to “sell spiritous liquors out of dores.” [vi]

Unlike the Scots-Irish, Quakers, Puritans or other religious groups who traveled and settled the early Irish did not form large communities together. Boston was heavily Puritan until the Irish Catholics came in greater numbers. It was not until the mid-eighteen hundreds that there were large Irish communities in which people moved in with family or with others from the same county or township in Ireland. The cities with the most before 1800 were New York, Chicago, and Kansas City.  The priests and nuns arrived soon after them to provide spiritual support and services.

The Catholic priests who came were often selected for their advanced education and training. There were Mastered and Ph.D. engineers, lawyers, political organizers and many with the capability of providing leadership in developing community as well as providing spiritual guidance and the sacraments. Among them were many educators who started schools and nuns who were nurses and helped to open hospitals. The Irish were a mix of highly educated and totally impoverished illiterates for whom school had become illegal or impossible to attend in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s in Ireland.

Irish settled early in New York along the Hudson River Valley, many via Canada. A steady population of Irish grew in Buffalo from the earliest migrations through the 1800’s.

Irish in the Revolutionary War.

There is much written about the importance of the Irish in the Revolutionary War. Though there were no all-Irish regiments, a Scottish regiment listed 114 Irish among its soldiers. There was, however, an all-Irish regiment serving in the British troops in North America.[vii]

Nine of Washington’s generals were born in Ireland. General Richard Montgomery is at the top of the list.  True, he was born in Ireland, but he was a descendant of Scottish colonists. Also, he had fought for the English before serving with the Continental Army.  Because he was not what I am calling “Native Irish” I would not include him as an Irish immigrant soldier. 

Side Note: I know that many of these “Irish” officers of Washington (either Continental Army or Revolutionary Army) were Lowland Scots-Irish as I had two great grandfathers and two great grand uncles among them. My fifth great grandfather Captain John Scott was born in Scotland; his son Dr. Moses Scott, a surgeon in the Army, was born in Ireland; Captain William Scott, son of John, was born at sea on the Atlantic; and my fourth great grandfather Captain Matthew Scott, surgeon to George Washington, was born in Pennsylvania. My family, descendants (of a Scottish Parliamentarian and Covenanter Presbyterians) did not think of themselves as Irish though they had lived on the Island for two decades. For a thorough understanding of who the very numerous culture was, watch a presentation produced through Pennsylvania State University, The Columbus Legacy: The Scotch Irish, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypk5mG5JDvk .

Preview of my next post: I will describe the pressures on the Irish that caused the Irish centuries-long diaspora.

Grave of John Scott, father of my fourth great grandfather Captain Matthew Scott of the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Regiment, Continental Line in the Revolutionary War, and surgeon to George Washington. There are unmarked graves beside him of unknown Scots-Irish soldiers who died at the Moland farm where Washington camped. The Church of Later-Day Saints has a record of this Neshaminy Cemetery, Bucks County, PA, but the book is not available online or for loan. A historian met me and a research student for two days to share the rich and amazing history of the Presbyterian Covenanters who came to William Penn’s grant land when escaping the persecution of the English in Ireland and in Scotland.
Campground at Moland farm where Washington’s troops camped in preparation for engaging the British. This is where he met the great Lafayette who came to help the soldiers of the Continental Line. My grandfather, the camp doctor, buried soldiers beside his father’s grave, up the road at the Neshaminy, Bucks Co. Presbyterian Cemetery.
Location of Log College, about two football fields from Washington’s camp at the Moland farm. The land in this view was donated to the school by John Scott, my fifth great grandfather, Captain in the Continental Army. Log College was built to educate the Covenanter Presbyterian ministers. My great grandfather, Matthew who was Washington’s surgeon and officer in the Revolution and Dr. Moses Scott (my fifth great grand uncle) attended this school and later taught here and at Princeton. Moses also taught at Rutgers. He helped found the American Medical Association, developed the first “piped” clean water system in an American city (Princeton, NJ), and started an orphanage with Dr. Bleauvelt (NY Dutch). I am taking the picture from the Old York Road. Today, York road is immediately behind this monument.
Tools in the Moland farm shop, some of which date back to Washington’s encampment there.

[i] O’Brien, Michael J. Irish Settlers in America, Volume 1: A Consolidation of Articles from the Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, Volume I., Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc 1979, pp 18-19.

[ii] Sharf, Volume I. History of Maryland from the earliest Period to the Present Day. Online data formatted by a member of the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild, 05 November 1999. Hatboro, Pennsylvania Tradition Press, 1967, pp384-387.

[iii] Zuberi, Tukufu. Oregon Public Broadcasting, History Detectives: Special Investigations. “Indentured Servants in the U.S.” https://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/indentured-servants-in-the-us/ Accessed June 14, 2020,10:06 a.m.

[iv] Abercrombie, John C. Amazing Black History. “John Punch – A strange Relationship Revealed.” https://amazingblackhistory.com/2022/01/20/punch-john-first-official-slave-in-america/  Accessed January 2022, 1:00 p.m.

[v] O’Brien, Michael J. LLD. Pioneer Irish in New England. Westminster, Maryland: Heritage Books, 2012.  Appendix, pp. 283-200.

[vi] Ibid., p. 233 (not in Appendix).

[vii] Burns, Paul.  Sligo Heritage. “Irish Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War.” Posted November 24, 2010.   http://www.sligoheritage.com/archirishsoldiersamericanwarhistory.htm Accessed 14 September 14, 2019.

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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.