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…Conestoga wagons were first made by German immigrants in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1730s. Covered at first with hemp and later with canvas, they became the characteristic shape of the great migration from Ulster in the half-century after 1718…
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Conestoga wagons were first made by German immigrants in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1730s. Longer and deeper than European wagons, covered at first with hemp and later with canvas, and having small, manoeuvrable wheels, they were capable of carrying families and heavy freight over rough terrain, making them the ubiquitous vehicle of the push by European settlers westwards across the Appalachian Mountains into the Native American-occupied territories. These wagons also became the characteristic shape of the great migration from Ulster in the half-century after 1718. In all, about 200,000 people left Ulster for colonial America, most of them Presbyterians whose origins lay in Scotland.
This exodus changed both Ireland and America. Here, it affected the balance between the Protestant and Catholic populations. On the other side of the Atlantic, the so-called Ulster Scots or Scotch-Irish destroyed British government efforts to limit the western expansion of the white colony; grabbed huge amounts of Native American land; and became one of the largest components of European settlement in Virginia, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Georgia. From the classic image of the frontiersman to country music, and from the populism of Andrew Jackson to evangelical religion, they left a huge imprint on American culture.
Why did they leave Ireland? Presbyterian ministers tended to stress religious persecution as the primary factor—the Test Act of 1704 excluded Presbyterians from public office and ended recognition of their clergy—but economics were almost certainly more important. During the 1710s and late 1720s, Ulster suffered a succession of bad harvests. Leases given in the aftermath of the Williamite victory were running out and landlords sought higher rents. Ulster migrants were not refugees. The lure of free land in America was enhanced by economic discomfort at home.
The Ulster Scots were initially welcomed by the Calvinist communities of New England, but they gradually came to be seen as burdensome and fractious. This, along with their hunger for land, encouraged them to push beyond the established frontiers, bringing them into conflict with a fellow Irishman and convert from Catholicism, William Johnson, who controlled relations between the colonists and the Native American nations. Johnson railed against the Ulster Scots who ‘think they do good Service when they Knock an Indian in the Head’. Neither Johnson’s efforts nor frequent and bloody conflicts with Native Americans could prevent the push westwards.
Their dynamism and the independent spirit of their Presbyterianism made the Ulster Scots a powerful force in the shaping of an emerging American identity. It is telling that the Declaration of Independence was printed by Tyrone–born John Dunlap; first read in public by John Nixon, a first-generation Ulster Scot; and signed by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, who was also of Ulster Presbyterian descent.