Vance History; Ireland to America 1700-1730


The 1600s were a rough time for northern Ireland, to say the least.  Catholics and Protestants were killing each other, literally, over land and the right to live according to their convictions.  A succession of kings had constantly changed the rules and who enforced them.  It was a century long religious whack-a-mole.  At the end of the day, Ulster was Protestant and largely filled with Scottish Presbyterians.

And the Vance name was strong among them.

John Vance was the third generation Vance in Ireland.  He carved out a little piece of real estate in Coagh.  He and his wife, Mary, raised a litter of kids.  David Sr. (my direct Grandfather), Andrew, Elizabeth, William, Samuel, John and James.  As these children became adults they got to experience the next century with a whole new set of problems.

The Sacremental Test Act of 1704 excluded Presbyterians from public office and deprived the clergy of legal standing. They couldn’t even perform marriage ceremonies.  We were Presbyterians. Despite this and other harassment the Presbyterian church grew.  In 1708 there were 130 congregations.

Despite all the hardships the economy in Ulster was doing well with cattle, dairy products and the linen industry.  Three quarters of the ships coming to the ports of Ulster from America were filled with flaxseed where it was turned to linen and shipped back.

This success alarmed English merchants and landowners who persuaded Parliament to close England to Irish cattle, dairy products and to eliminate foreign markets for Irish cloth, which caused the textile industry in Ulster to collapse. In addition, between 1714 and 1719 Ulster suffered a succession of bad harvests. Then, 31 year leases expired on land contracts so higher rents were demanded.  Frankly, I think the Scots-Irish had had enough.

“Ireland in the early part of the 18th century, furnished many families renowned for their thrift and love of freedom and a desire to try their fortunes beyond the narrow confines of the Emerald Isle.” – Thomas Kemp Cartmell

During the 1680’s several Presbyterian ministers headed for the New World from County Donegal in Ireland, an area thick with Vances. Between 1688 and 1712, 12 ships left Belfast for Chesapeake Bay. Although a few hundred Ulster Scots had already traveled across the Atlantic, the first organized trip was in 1718. 5 ships left Belfast for a port in New Hampshire. Were there any Vances on it? I have no idea but I’m sure they knew about it. The migration had begun. In 1718 a minister in Ulster wrote to a friend in Scotland that “no less than six ministers had left their congregations and gone off to the American plantations taking great numbers of their people along with them”.

So 1718 was an important year and it was then that William Vance, David’s son and my direct Grandfather, was born. For a long time I was told and believed he was the first of our line to come to America but it was his father, David who lead the trip. David may have travelled with all 5 of his brothers. Maybe the famous “3 brothers” went to America first then sent for the rest. No one knows for sure but you will find the names; Andrew, William, Samuel, John and James thick through Pennsylvania and Virginia, where the families settled.

Multiple reports from the 1800s say their sister, Elizabeth, stayed back and married a Jackson, becoming the grandmother of the eventual President Andrew Jackson.  However, there is no mention of it in the official lineage of the President’s family which makes it suspect to me.

David had 3 (or 4) sons born in Ireland, David Jr. (born about 1710), James (1715) and William (1718). There was probably another John.  There were also 2 sisters, Sarah and Mary.

We know David Sr., David Jr. and James are on record on a public deed in Virginia as early as 1736. Since William was born 1718 and there were 2 more girls after him, it would be around 1723 or so when the parents stopped having children. So they could’ve traveled to America somewhere between 1726-1732.

Add famine in Ireland to the mix in 1729 and the migration swelled even more. The Scots-Irish were coming to Philadelphia in such large numbers as to alarm the Quaker and English inhabitants, for in a statement to the Council in that year the Deputy Governor of the Province said: “It looks as if Ireland is to send all its inhabitants hither, for last week, no less that six ships arrived, and every day two or three arrive also. The common fear is that if they continue to come they will make themselves masters of the province.”

According to one Irish newspaper in 1729, emigrants traveling to America faced ‘all the Tryles, Hardships, and Dangers of the Seas by storms, shipwrecks, Turks and Pyrates, to be Starved, or cast away by the Villainy of Ship Masters’. The ships they traveled in were not designed for lots of passengers so overcrowding and lack of provisions were a problem. Ships took 3 months to make the trip.  Provisions often ran out and there were usually casualties along the way.  They stayed primarily below deck.  No showers, little to no ventilation, no privacy.

As one historian has observed: ‘Their imagined America seemed to offer economic opportunities they had come to expect, religious freedom they had never enjoyed, and the unity they had lost.’

Scots at dock

Most of the Scots-Irish entered the colonies through the port of Philadelphia and from there settled in those Pennsylvania counties lying west of that city.  David’s brother, Andrew, married Jane Hoge and is on record in Chester county, PA in 1732.   From Pennsylvania, many of the immigrants took the “Great Wagon Road” south into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. This Ancient Warriors Path had long been used by the Iroquois tribesmen of the north to come to the south to trade or make war in Virginia and the Carolinas. William Gooch, the Royal Governor of Virginia from 1728-1749, had encouraged immigrants to settle in this valley hoping that they would make a valuable buffer between the Indian Tribes who lived west of the Allegheny Mountains and the English planters who resided in the Virginia Tidewater region.  The Vances were some of those immigrants.

So David Vance lead his family to the New World. They sold most of their belongings, crammed into the tiny ship and made the long journey. They most likely traveled with like-minded friends and/or extended family. If they stepped off the boat in 1730 then young William was 12. (To add perspective George Washington would not be born for another year) They would have needed a horse and wagon. They settled for a period in Pennsylvania before the several hundred mile journey to the Winchester, Virginia area.

The Great Wagon Road was a bustling frontier thoroughfare that ran west along Pennsylvania and then southwest across the Potomac river into the fertile Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Many shops traced the route so they would have been able to purchase food, supplies, tools and weapons.

Scots painting

Now imagine walking out into the wilderness with your family with just an axe, a pot and a rifle. Good luck. They didn’t fly here or take a cruise. There were no trains. It was a long, long dirt road. They were strangers in a strange land.  But it was their land.  And that was the new, great thing.  They weren’t tenants.  They were owners.  Trees were cleared, homes were built and new battles would be fought . It was the beginning of their new American life.

It’s more than history. It’s family.

Sources: Vance Family Association, Vance DNA Project, The 1718 Migration,


Published by: Jeff Vance

After 53 years of life I begin again. After 45 years in the church I've left. After 31 years of marriage I'm happier than ever. After 23 years in radio I try a new career. After 12 children I'm tired. After 2 years of writing I'm discovering.

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