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Reviewed by:
  • Scotch-Irish Merchants in Colonial America
  • Kenneth W. Keller
Richard K. MacMaster . Scotch-Irish Merchants in Colonial America. (Belfast, Northern Ireland: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2009. Pp. xii, 324, notes, index, bibliography. Paper £11.99.)

Richard MacMaster has written a thorough and detailed account of the role of Scotch-Irish merchants in colonial America that focuses on the history of the trans-Atlantic trade in flaxseed, Irish linen, and indentured servants before 1774. A map of Ulster, which would be helpful for American readers, is not included in the book. The author traces commercial and immigration patterns and the web of business alliances, family connections, and personal friendships that made the trade possible. His work is based on industrious research in primary source material in archives and manuscript collections at the Public Record Office in Northern Ireland and collections at the Library of Congress, the Pennsylvania State Archives, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Tennessee State Library, and several colleges and local historical societies. He also employs records of the indentured servant trade from the office of the Mayor of Philadelphia and South Carolina emigration that have not been used to study the settlement of the Scotch-Irish in America. MacMaster also places his findings in the context of work by scholars R. J. Dickson, Timothy Breen, Marianne Wokeck, Thomas Doerflinger, and Sally Schwartz, whose work he supplements but does not challenge.

MacMaster's account emphasizes how merchants and their connections directed the emigration of people from Ulster to the American colonies, the impact of the trade on the Ulster economy, the domination of Philadelphia and New Castle in the trade, and the role of merchants involved in the trade in the evolution of colonial backcountry towns like Carlisle. The names of many ship owners and captains, ships, and voyages fill this book. While Philadelphia remains the center of the trade, the author also highlights the importance of merchants from Ulster in the early growth of Baltimore and the [End Page 506] role of New York and Charleston, South Carolina, in the trade's development. Other Ulster traders established themselves in colonial New England.

The linen trade began early in the eighteenth century, and by 1731, when Parliament opened Irish ports to flaxseed from the American colonies, shipping of American seed began in earnest. So as not to return to America with empty holds, the proprietors of ships sailed for America with Irish indentured servants and redemptioners and fine Irish linen. To produce prized fine linen, Irish flax cultivators harvested their plants before they came to seed, so the Irish flax growers had to rely on the American colonies for their supply of seed even though it was less clean than the seed from Holland and the Baltic region that linen producers originally preferred. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most linen producers used American seed. The book discusses problems and setbacks in the trade that naval warfare and poor harvests produced, but nevertheless by the 1750s the trade MacMaster describes began to reach its peak, so that by the years before 1770, traders in flax had reached their "golden age." As the Philadelphia and New Castle merchants in flax and dry goods prospered, they extended their trade network into the Pennsylvania backcountry and the Valley of Virginia. The merchants in the trade were not the most well-to-do Philadelphia traders, but their growing assets allowed them to join various Philadelphia nationality social clubs and immigrant aid societies like the Hibernian Society and the St. Andrew's Society and to become influential in Presbyterian churches. With the outbreak of the violence of the Paxton Boys on the Pennsylvania frontier and these frontiersmen's march to Philadelphia, MacMaster believes the Ulster merchants began to develop a sense of "identity" as others in Philadelphia began to blame all people of Ulster background for the outrages of the Paxton trouble-makers. MacMaster agrees with Thomas Truxes's conclusion that the Philadelphia Ulster merchants had the strongest sense of unity of any group of Ulstermen in the colonies, and they seem not to have been troubled by religious divisions that vexed the Presbyterian churches. Such a finding differs from conclusions of...


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