From The Historian's Corner:

From Lifford to America
Scotch-Irish and Pollock Beginnings in America – Part 1

A great many of our Pollock ancestors came to America from Scotland by way of Ireland as members of the ethnic group that we now call Scotch-Irish. In Ireland they are known as Ulster-Scots. As such they were descendants of Scottish families who settled for a time in the north of Ireland, or Ulster, but eventually left for religious or economic reasons. The usual understanding of the Scotch-Irish immigration to America is the steady exodus that began around 1715, and continued unabated right up until the start of the revolution. It is estimated that about a quarter million people came during this period, filling up the American frontier and back country along the Appalachians from New England to the Carolinas. The story of these hardy pioneers and their lasting impact on American history has been told many times and is probably very familiar to most Clan Pollock members.

What is not so well recognized is the smaller precursor group of Scotch-Irish that arrived in the Chesapeake region in the late 1600’s and provided a vanguard to welcome and guide the later wave of immigrants when it began to arrive a quarter century later. This earlier group was largely from the Laggan, the eastern part of Donegal, particularly the area of Lifford, and first settled in Somerset County, Maryland, in the decade of the 1680’s. They were following the lead of Presbyterian ministers Francis Makemie and William Trail who arrived in Somerset in 1683.

Makemie is the acknowledged founder and patriarch of the Presbyterian Church in America. Trail is less well known but may have been more instrumental in inducing some of the Ulster-Scot families of the Laggan to emigrate since he was their minister. Although there were certainly other Ulster-Scots to be found in the colonies from the earliest days of English settlement there was no identifiable group of them that formed a recognized element of the community before Makemie and Trail’s arrival in Somerset. We do not know the details of their arrival – whether they came in the same ship or with an initial contingent of followers and the exact date – but in any case many Ulster-Scots appeared in Somerset at this time. In the ensuing decade there was a steady influx of these people, both ministers and laity, as can be seen in the land, court and probate records of Somerset, and from contemporary accounts. Among these early arrivals were the first members of our Pollock clan to settle in America – Robert Pollock/Polke and his wife Magdalen Tasker. Robert and Magdalen Polke were from Ballendrait near Lifford where Magdalen’s father Roger Tasker was a local official and substantial landowner. (“Polke” is the most common spelling of the family name as it appears in Somerset records, but it is also spelled Pollock, Polyke, Poke, and Polk, and many other variations.)

This migration from Ireland had its origins in a letter sent by Colonel William Stevens, one of the founders and original County Commissioners of Somerset, to the Presbytery of the Laggan (Donegal) in 1680, asking that a “godly minister” be sent to supply the needs of the people of Somerset. The text of the letter has not survived, but the minutes of the Presbytery include the following entry:

Decem: 29 1680 Col. Stevens from Maryland beside Virginia his desire of a godly minister is represented to us. The Meeting will consider it seriously and do what they can in it. Mr. John Heart is to write to Mr. William Keyes about it and Mr. Robt. Rule to the Meetings of Route and Tyrone, and Mr. William Trail to the Meetings of Down and Antrim.

The motives of Stevens can be seen as both enlightened and self-interested. He had acquired very extensive land rights in the form of warrants, surveys and patented land, certainly more than any other individual in the county at that time. More settlers would clearly increase the value of these holdings and help him realize a substantial profit. Whatever its motivation, Colonel Stevens’ letter no doubt found a receptive audience. The transplanted Scots in Ulster had struggled through the Plantation, the Catholic uprising of 1641, the devastation of Ireland and invasion of Scotland by Cromwell, the restoration of Charles II, and faced the prospect of an outright Catholic restoration under James II, who did ascend the throne in 1685.

Most noteworthy from our perspective were the tribulations of William Trail himself. Trail was the scion of a prominent Scottish family whose father, Robert Trail, was himself a Presbyterian minister, while his uncle, Lt Col James Trail, was a highly esteemed officer in Cromwell’s army with a landed estate in Killeleagh, County Down. William Trail studied for the ministry at Edinburgh until 1661 and was licensed but could not be ordained because of the oppressive conditions prevailing in Scotland at the time. In fact, his father, Reverend Robert Trail, was tried and banished from Scotland, for life, at exactly this time for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance. He departed his country for Holland in January, 1662, nearly sixty years of age. William Trail relocated to Ireland and was finally ordained in 1673 at Lifford and became the minister at Ballendrait.

Trail’s decision to leave Ireland with Makemie was probably the direct result of events that unfolded during 1681-82. First Trail was charged with fomenting opposition among certain officers being confined in Lifford, and inducing them to refuse the Oath of Supremacy, to which the Presbyterians could not subscribe. Then he and several other ministers issued a call for a one day fast in February 1681. This may seem a rather innocuous act in our times but it was regarded by local officials as an affront and challenge to their authority. Only high officials of the established church were thought to be empowered to call a fast. Trail and three other ministers were brought before the magistrates in Raphoe to explain themselves, and then summoned to Dublin in June 1681 for an interrogation by the Lord Lieutenant and his Privy Council. This was a legalistic grilling that lasted two days but the four ministers acquitted themselves well. Trail’s own detailed account of this experience has survived. They were released on bond and returned to Lifford for trial where they were convicted and fined Ł20 each. They refused to pay for what they considered an illegal charge, and were therefore held in prison for eight months until spring of 1682. These events were highly resented by Trail’s followers in Lifford, and no doubt throughout the entire Presbyterian community in Ulster, and gave them every reason to see their prospects as very bleak. It was during this period that Trail made his decision to embark for the colonies along with Makemie.

We can be sure that William Trail’s decision to leave for Maryland was not made in isolation but was shared and intensely discussed with his congregation from the environs of Ballindrait, and the possibility of their doing likewise directly considered. Some may have accompanied him when he left. In any case, as conditions worsened many made that momentous decision. It is certain that a number of the Ulster-Scot families of Donegal elected to cast their lot in the new world at this time. Among these were such families as Wallace, Knox, McKnitt, Alexander, Gray, Caldwell, Wilson, Owens, White, Galbraith, Miller, Johnson, Emmett, Polk, and many others. All of these family names are prominent in the 1665 Hearth Rolls for Donegal, particularly in Clonleigh (Lifford), within the Barony of Raphoe.

The presence of Ulster-Scot families was so quickly established in Somerset that by 1689, when the Advice of Loyalty document was sent by its citizens to the newly enthroned sovereigns, William and Mary, the large majority of those whose religion is known among the 235 signers were Presbyterian. Clayton Torrence, the eminent historian of early Somerset, called it “preponderantly a Presbyterian document.” This development did not escape official notice in the Chesapeake area. An interesting passage appears in a letter of Edward Randolph, a Virginia official, to the Commissioners of Customs for James City County in Virginia, dated 17 June 1692:

I hear he has continued Majr King to bee the Navall Officer in Somerset Coty, a place pestred with Scotch & Irish. About 200 families have within the two years arrived from Ireland & settled in your County besides some hundred of family’s there before. They have set up a linnen Manufacture, Encouraged thereto by Coll Brown, a Scotchman, one of the Councill & by Majr King & other principall persons upon the place, who support the Interlopers, & buy up all their Loading upon their first arrival, & govern the whole trade on the Eastern shore, so that whereas 7 or 8 good ships from Engld did yearly trade & load the Tobco of that Coty I find that in these three years last past there has not been above 5 trading ships legally in all those Rivers, & nigh 30 Sayle of Scotch Irish & New Engld men.

Continued in "From Lifford to America Scotch-Irish and Pollock Beginnings in America – Part 2"

John F. Polk, Ph.D.
Historian
Clan Pollock International
First published in the July 2007 Pollag.