An Ulster Beginning

William McDowell c1750

William loosed the grip the wee woman had about his waist. “Mam, stop. Everyone will see.”

“And just what is the matter with that, young man? Are you ashamed to be seen hugging your mother?”

“No, Mam, but haven’t you hugged me enough?” William wriggled out of his mother’s arms, then noticed the tears staining her cheeks. “Mam, don’t cry; please don’t cry.”

She swiped a hand across her face. “I canna help it. I am never to see ye again, William. What would ye have me do, dance a jig?

“Of course not. But I’d not have ye cry either. We’ve been over this, Mam; there’s a fortune in America for those willing to work hard. Ye know I willna get that opportunity here.”

His mother nodded. Between the famine and rising rents, there was little to keep young men in Ulster. “Knowing it does not stop the tears, son. Now, kiss your mam and hug me tight enough to last a lifetime, then ye best get yourself on that ship.”

He bent down to kiss his mother’s cheek, and instead picked the tiny woman off the ground and buried his face in her shoulder. “I love you, Mam. I’ll get word to you somehow when I get settled. Dinna worry.” He set her down and turned for the ship, afraid he might lose his resolve if he lingered longer.

No point looking back; his future lay in America.

No point looking back…

williamCould you do it? Leave your family, the people you’ve known all your life, for a new life 3500 miles away and not look back?
I’ve tried to wrap my head around that idea, but still cannot imagine giving up all I know for a new start.

Yet that is what William, and thousands of immigrants from Ulster, did during the 1700s. Some came out of sheer desperation—in addition to famine and rising land rents, those not conforming to the edicts of the crown faced religious and political persecution. But I like to believe that William was the adventurous sort, giving his exile an edge of excitement he could relish. After all, what young man wouldn’t romanticize an encounter with wild Indians?

That romantic spirit, however, probably left William ill-prepared for the realities of his voyage. While I can’t be sure exactly when he traveled (before 1820, ship captains were not required to maintain passenger lists; instead they recorded only names as they related to taxable cargo on board), the fact remains that ship travel in the early 1700’s was an arduous experience. Living conditions on board were primitive, and William would have slept in narrow, closely packed bunks below deck. During storms, the door was latched closed, leaving only the stench of vomit and unemptied chamber pots. Weather and waves made even standing difficult on many days.

Food on board grew progressively worse as the journey wore on. Freshwater staled; meat, what little there was, spoiled; insects and rats infested grains. For many, though, it mattered little, since seasickness was their ever-present companion.

Worse than mundane food and cramped sleeping quarters were the life-threatening dangers encountered at sea, the most obvious of which was shipwreck. In reality, though, disease was the real danger. Illnesses—like typhus, cholera, and dysentery—spread throughout ships in epidemic proportion due to crowded and unsanitary conditions.

Of course, I can only speculate about William; records are sparse when it comes to the first member of our family tree to land in America. All I know unequivocally is

  • he arrived here before 1744, the year of his son’s birth in Spartanburg Co, SC (there is a William McDowell that landed in Virginia in 1739, but it is inconclusive that this is our William)
  • his wife’s name was Sarah, although whether he married her in the states or came with her from Ulster, again, is not known
  • he owned land in Spartanburg that he bequeathed to George when he died sometime before January 1793.

To be honest, even our roots in Ulster are conjecture, based on the fact that William settled in Spartanburg. Many of the original settlers of that region were “Scotch-Irish,” a term coined in America to distinguish the Scottish immigrants from Ulster from other people emigrating from Ireland.

Truth is, the speculation, and the research necessary in order to speculate in the first place, is what drives me to listen to these voices from our past. There are still so many things about William and his descendants I want to share: how they filled their days, encounters with Indians, wars…

But those tales will have to wait for another day.

find out more about our Ulster Roots…

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