Ulster Covenanters Migration to America

“… A country where they may enjoy the comforts of life in abundance”

By the late eighteenth century, many Presbyterian families in Ulster were in poverty and facing eviction. Land rents had risen sharply. Their main source of income, the linen trade, was in a depressed state and weavers had little, or no, regular work. In addition, for almost a century, the Anglican church in Ireland had enforced oppressive measures on all other congregations.

As a result of these hardships, the number of Presbyterians leaving Ulster for North America had reached unprecedented levels. Ships sailed from ports such as Larne, Belfast and Newry and made their way across the Atlantic. They brought hundreds of people who shared a common dream – to find a better life, own their own land and enjoy the freedom to practice their faith.

For Ulster-Scots historians, there is a particular migration event which occurred at this time that has become a focus for continued research. Between August and October 1772, five ships sailed to America packed with families from the Reformed Presbyterian Church, or Covenanters. The exodus was led by William Martin, a clergyman who ministered to the congregation in Kellswater, County Antrim. Martin had convinced his followers that the misfortune they experienced in Ireland would be forgotten if they came with him to Charlestown, South Carolina, from where he had received a calling.

Martin openly and publicly expressed his political and religious convictions and posted an advertisement in the Belfast News-letter, 31 December 1771:

“That as the Reverend Mr. William Martin of Kells-water, County Antrim, having frequently heard of the great distress many are in for want of Gospel Ordinances dispensed to them in South Carolina, and being frequently urged and pressed by many of his hearers and acquaintances to go there, has at last firmly resolved (God willing) to be ready to embark at Belfast or Larne for thence, about the beginning of September next. Therefore he thinks proper to give this public notice to his present or former hearers, or any other well-disposed families, that have a design to embrace this favourable opportunity to go to a country where they may enjoy the comforts of life in abundance, with the free exercise of their religious sentiments.
Dated Kells-water, Dec 25, 1771.”

One of the principle catalysts for this migration, according to the historian Jean Stephenson, was the murder of a rent collector. In her book, “Scotch-Irish Migration to South Carolina, 1772 (Reverend William Martin and his five shiploads of settlers)” Stephenson reported that the tragedy took place at the Beck household in County Antrim. The family were increasingly in debt and Margaret Beck was heavily pregnant. When a rent collector called at their house, Margaret’s husband (who was 6’ 4” and 20 stone) killed him, throwing him out of the house and onto his head, breaking his neck. Sadly, Stephenson also reported that Margaret and her baby later died during the birth.

The Beck family were members of William Martin’s church. A week after the murder, Stephenson tells us that Martin preached a sermon in which he predicted that life in Ulster could only get worse for the members of his congregation. He forecast that poverty and subsequent evictions would increasingly bring them into conflict with the authorities.

Martin strongly believed that their only option was emigration and his words spread through the countryside. Within a year, he had gathered together hundreds of Presbyterian families, from Ballymoney, Ballymena, Vow and beyond. Among them were other clergymen such as John Logue, from Broughshane, who travelled on the “Pennsylvania Farmer” and Robert McClintock* on the “James and Mary”.

* Robert McClintock is reported in contemporary newspapers as a Reverend, although some accounts state that he was not ordained until 1775.

The Crossing

William Martin requisitioned five ships, the first of which, “James and Mary”, sailed from Larne on the 25 August 1772.

Alexander Chesney (from Dunclug, Ballymena, County Antrim) and his family were passengers on the “James and Mary”. During their voyage, smallpox broke out on the ship. Alexander Chesney travelled with his parents and seven other siblings, including his baby sister, Peggy, who died on the voyage, aged eight months old. When they arrived in Charlestown on 18 October, the sick were accommodated in a large house on Sullivan’s Island which was adapted as a hospital and all the passengers spent 50 days in quarantine. When the quarantine was lifted they were brought ashore at Prichard’s Shipyard on Town’s Creek, Cooper River.

South Carolina Gazette, 29 October 1772:

“Proclamation by Charles Greville Montagu, Captain General, Governor.
Whereas, the snow “Mary and James [sic], John Workman, Master, is arrived at the port of Charles Town from Ireland, with several passengers who have the smallpox on board, now lying of Sullivan’s Island, I therefore strictly forbid all persons whatsoever from going on board the snow or vessel called “Mary and James or near the said island, at the peril of being prosecuted according to the laws in that case made and provided, without my express orders and directions for doing so…”

William Martin sold his property and possession at Kellswater by auction on 4 August 1772 and, under normal circumstances, he would have been expected to sail with the first ship. However, many of the families who had hoped to travel with him were experiencing difficulties selling their crops and property. Despite the obvious inconvenience, the ship owners agreed to delay the departure of the remaining ships until October. This also meant that they sailed into rough winter seas. Martin left on the second of the ships, the “Lord Dunluce”, on 4 October, with the final three departing between 16–27 October.

The four ships arrived in Charlestown within days of each other in late December.

South Carolina Gazette, 24 December 1772:

“… The same day [Saturday 19 December 1772] arrived the Pennsylvania Farmer”, Captain Robeson [sic], from Belfast; Sunday, the Lord Dunluce, Captain Gillies [sic], from Larne; on Tuesday, the Hopewell, Captain Martin, from Belfast; and the Free Mason, Captain Semple, from Newry; all with Irish passengers, above 1000 souls.”

On board the “Lord Dunluce”, William Martin would have witnessed another outbreak of smallpox among the passengers and a number of children died.  When they reached Charlestown, their captain, James Gillis, negotiated to have their quarantine reduced to only 15 days.

Ship Departure Arrival
“James & Mary” Larne, County Antrim
25 August 1772
Charlestown, South Carolina
18 October 1772
Five children died during the crossing and the ship was quarantined for 50 days to avoid the spread of smallpox.


Ship Departure Arrival
“Lord Dunluce” Larne, County Antrim
4 October 1772
Charlestown, South Carolina
20 December 1772
William Martin arrived on this ship. Smallpox broke out again during the voyage and some children died. Unlike the “James and Mary”, the passengers were only quarantined for 15 days.


Ship Departure Arrival
“Pennsylvania Farmer” Belfast
16 October 1772
Charlestown, South Carolina
19 December 1772
“The ship “Pennsylvania Farmer”, Charles Robinson, Master, arrived at Charlestown, after a pleasant passage of eight weeks, the passengers all in good health, and well pleased with Capt. Robinson’s kind and humane treatment to them on board.”
Belfast News-Letter, 5 March 1772


Ship Departure Arrival
“Free Mason” Newry, County Down
27 October 1772
Charlestown, South Carolina
22 December 1772
According to a contemporary account in the South Carolina Gazette, the “Free Mason” and “Hopewell” arrived on the same day. Later reports in the Belfast News-letter suggest the “Hopewell” may have arrived the following day.


Ship Departure Arrival
“Hopewell” Belfast
19 October 1772
Charlestown, South Carolina
22 or 23 December 1772
The date of departure of “Hopewell” varies depending on the source, ranging from 19–21 October 1772. 

As the emigrants came ashore at Charlestown, the authorities began the process of issuing land warrants to them.  They were given the land for free. In the past, settlers had also been offered a bounty to help them improve the new land; this had ceased several years before.

The families were granted land in different areas and they were not, as they had hoped, able to live in a new settlement, all together as neighbours. They were widely spread out and made their new homes in places such as Abbeville, Chester, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lancaster, Laurens, Newberry, Richland, Spartanburg, Union and York.

Land was allocated using the following system. The head of the family (generally the patriarch) was entitled to 100 acres for himself; the other adults, including his wife and adult children, were eligible to 50 acres each. If they chose, unmarried, adult sons and daughters who arrived with their parents were entitled to claim 100 acres, if they took on the full responsibility of clearing and improving that land.

In the absence of passenger lists for the five ships, Jean Stephenson compiled a catalogue of “those arriving on the respective ships who applied for free grants of land”. This list represents an incomplete record of those who made the voyage but it is a reliable and accurate source.

William Martin

The early Covenanter church in Ireland

William Martin was born in the townland of Ballyspallan, Ballykelly, County Londonderry, on 16 May 1729. He was licensed by the Reformed Presbytery of Scotland (or Covenanter church) in 1756 and ordained at the Vow, near Ballymoney, County Antrim, on 2 July 1757. He was the first Reformed Presbyterian minister to be ordained in Ireland. Scattered across Ulster were other congregations which were formed into small societies and Martin began ordaining ministers to serve these communities.

Two of the congregations were separated by the River Bann and Martin would preach to them at the crossing place at Vow. He eventually chose to serve the Kellswater congregation, Kells, County Antrim approximately six miles from Ballymena. In 1763, the Reformed Presbyterian Church had grown to the extent that the new ministers were able to establish the Reformed Presbytery of Ireland.

Over the next decade, as living conditions deteriorated for many Irish tenant farmers and linen weavers, agents from South Carolina were bringing news of a bounty and free land for settlers. Presbyterian Ulster families were tempted by the prospect of a better life and frequently emigrated.

Rocky Creek, South Carolina

In America, since the 1750s, Presbyterians (Covenanter, Burgher, Seceders etc.) from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina had been settling in Rocky Creek, a branch of the Catawba River in Chester County, South Carolina.  As the settlement grew, they combined to build a unified church which they called the “Catholic” Presbyterian Church, as all the groups worshipped together. In 1770, the Covenanters began to hold their own meetings and sent a call to Ireland for a minister. It was this call that William Martin accepted.

Although Martin led the 1772 migration, he was not the only clergyman who travelled in the five ships to South Carolina. Among the passengers were Rev. John Logue, Presbyterian minister of Buckna and Rev. Robert McClintock, each of whom were from the same region as Martin. Around the same time, two other Presbyterian ministers from Mid Antrim emigrated to America – Rev. Robert Kirkpatrick of Portglenone and Rev. Alexander McMullan of Cullybackey.

The new settlers were unable to get land together and only some of them settled with Martin in Rocky Creek. To begin with, Martin preached regularly at the Catholic Presbyterian Church. However, in 1773, the Covenanters built their own church nearby and it was in this church that Martin preached a famous sermon in 1780 during the War of Independence. He reminded his congregation of how their ancestors had been driven out of Scotland and Ireland; how they had come here and made a new life and were free, only for the British to try to deprive them of everything, again. Immediately after this sermon, two companies of men were formed from the congregation and they joined the fight for independence.

The British forces arrested Martin when they heard of his seditious sermon. His house and the Covenanter church were also burned down. After six months imprisonment, he was brought before Lord Cornwallis to plead his case and was eventually released. He returned to Rocky Creek and was appointed to the Catholic Presbyterian Church. In 1782, some Covenanters joined with other Presbyterians to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in America. Martin refused to join, remaining loyal to the tradition of the Scottish Covenanter church.

Later life

Martin continued to preach at the Catholic Presbyterian church until he was dismissed for “intemperance” in 1785. Many argued that he took whiskey when it was offered as hospitality, as did everyone else, and he was never witnessed to be drunk. Despite the accusations against him, Martin continued to accept alcohol when offered, which, it is reported, reflected badly against him.

Martin was still in demand as a preacher by Covenanter congregations. In 1793, he joined with two other clergymen who had arrived from Ireland and Scotland and formed a new committee of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. His colleagues soon turned against him and accused him, once again, of being drunk, and also on charges of selling an enslaved African American (with the result that he would not be able to free him “if the church decided such should be done”) and that he had not properly administered a matter of church discipline. Martin ignored the charges and continued to minister to his congregation until his death, after a fall from his horse, in 1806.


Newspaper transcriptions 1771-1773 (PDF - 95.05 KB)

1772 Passenger List (PDF - 259.75 KB)



BELFAST NEWS-LETTER, 1772–1773, accessed on the website www.ancestry.com

“THE JOURNAL OF ALEXANDER CHESNEY, SOUTH CAROLINA LOYALIST IN THE REVOLUTION AND AFTER”, edited by E. Alfred Jones, in the Ohio State University Bulletin, Vol.26, 1921.

This content has been provided by Keith Beattie with contributions from Doreen Larimar
Charleston, South Carolina, USA and Dr LINDE LUNNEY, Dublin, Ireland

Margaret (née Stephenson) Beck was the daughter of James Stephenson and the first cousin of Nancy Stephenson (1750–1827) who later married William Anderson (1744–1780). Both the Stephenson (or Stinson) and Anderson families sailed with William Martin to South Carolina.

No documentary evidence has been discovered to confirm the Beck story. However, in editions of the Belfast News-letter during March and April 1772, there is a case involving William Buck of Lisnevaugh in the Parish of Connor (probably Lisnevenagh) and the murder of George McMullan. Buck was later acquitted at the Easter Assizes (Belfast News-letter, 6 March, 14 & 24 April 1772).

A “snow” is a type of sailing ship.

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