Irish Origins

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The Scots-Irish

Tracing the early life of James Ferguson through records has been fraught with difficulties. His birth record does not exist; neither do census schedules, which might shed light upon where he spent his early childhood.  The only clues to guide research are to be taken from oral history. “James Ferguson was born in Scotland in 1814 and moved to Ireland after completing his grade three education.  He married Francis Ellis in Moy, County Tyrone and had 26 acres on the Blackwater River.”

The story suggests a Scottish connection yet the Ontario census records and James’ death record report he was born in Ireland in 1814.  If James was born in Scotland he may not have had any personal recollections of living there and always considered himself as Irish.  The oral account does lend credence to the fact that James’ parents were most likely of Scottish origin.

Oral history also provides a clue as to the most probable residential location of the Ferguson family in Ireland.  Moy is a small town in the County of Tyrone, Northern Ireland, about five miles southeast of Dungannon and situated on the west bank of the Blackwater River across from the village of Charlemont.   The history of Moy dates from the 1760’s when the First Earl of Charlemont returned home from a tour of Europe and was inspired by a town square he had seen and determined to design and build a functioning market around which a new village grew.

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Bridge over the Blackwater River, Moy, County Tyrone – 1890 –

As previously discussed the presence of Scottish folk in Ireland has been a feature of population dynamics of the country for over 400 years.  The Scot-Irish, or Ulster Scots population is  evident in the wide dispersion of Scottish surnames throughout Northern Ireland today.  Tyrone had been the homeland of the O’Neill clan for over 1000 years.  However, the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neil, was defeated in 1603 and his lands were confiscated.  Within ten years many Scottish Presbyterians settled there under the invite of James I as part of his Plantation Ulster colonization scheme.  This paved the way for subsequent waves of Scottish immigration until the early 1800’s when many of the Ulster-Scots were forced to migrate to the Americas as a result of growing sectarian violence.  It appears that the exodus of James Ferguson and his family was one such example of this population turmoil.

In 1973 the administrative districts of Ulster were re-organize dividing the old county of Tyrone into various smaller units.  However, local identification with the county remains strong.  Over a dozen Scottish surnames including Ferguson are still well represented there.  It is likely that the blood lines to James Ferguson still exist in the area since the fate of James’ parents and siblings is unknown at this time.  There were over 300 Ferguson surnames identified in the county Tyrone census of 1911!

Ulster "Northern Ireland" with county boundaries identified.

Ulster “Northern Ireland” with county boundaries identified.

The Ferguson’s Moy Farm
Since James was born in 1814 it can be assumed that his marriage to Francis Ellis probably occurred after 1834 when he turned 20 years of age.  Exactly when and how he acquired farmland near Moy is unknown.  It is highly unlikely that he owned the farm and more likely was a tenant farmer.  Oral history tells us only that he had a 26-acre farm on the Blackwater River at or near Moy, in County Tyrone.  Other oral history sources suggest that his father had a 40 acre farm in Tyrone.

At the age of about 19 James met local girl Fanny Ellis.  The two soon fell in love but had to deal with the opposition of Fanny’s mother. She seems to have spent considerable effort to dissuade Fanny from continuing the relationship.  However, her efforts were continually thwarted by the conniving pair. Realizing there was no hope of gaining acceptance of Mrs Ellis, James enlisted the help of a store keeper’s assistant into fooling Mrs. Ellis.  James developed a timely ruse to create an opportunity for he and Francis to get away and elope.  The plan put forth to Mrs Ellis involved a visit to the fair at nearby Portadown Armagh.  Fanny was able to make an excuse to go over to a nearby grocery store to make a purchase.  James was waiting out of sight and the two ran off and eloped.  Mrs Ellis made inquiries at the store when Fanny did not return and the grocery assistant assured her that he had not seen either Fanny nor James.

Despite the conniving, James seems to have been a man of moral commitment.  At an eary age James became a member of the Freemason, Royal Black Institution. The Institution was also widely known as the ‘Royal Black Preceptory’.  Preceptor is a designation borrowed from the Masonic Knights Templar. It was viewed as the respectable face of the Orange Order which, expressing more propriety, opposed physical violence.  Its members were bound to support each others activities in the community as they sought to achieve spiritual enlightenment through the Masonic degree system. Its theology and activities were hidden behind a thick cloak of secrecy including oaths, passwords, handshakes, secret knocks and threat of death. James was a loyal supporter and active member of the order at an early age.  It has been said that he attained the highest “Red Cross Degree” from the order before leaving Ireland.  James neither smoked nor drank liquor.  Later in life James’ commitment to Royal Black principles dissuaded his son Robert from following in his father’s footsteps.  Robert exclaimed “why would I join when I know I cannot follow his example.”

The genealogy research website of County Tyrone provides greater understanding of the places where James and his wife Fanny Ellis spent their early married years.
[ ]  The home page presents a wide variety of searchable resources.  A map of Northern Ireland identifies parish boundaries of Ulster.   A map of County Tyrone includes the name and boundaries of the parishes with an additional map of each parish, which includes the name of the smaller bally or townland divisions.

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Townland divisions have ancient origins with many dating back to Norman manors.  There are over 2000 Townlands within the County of Tyrone, which vary in size from about 200 to 400 acres, but several with much smaller portions.  Understanding the location and spelling variations of townlands and their association with parishes is important to researchers because all old records of estate rental, tithe applotment books and land valuations were organized according to townland names.

For most of the online resource databases it is not yet possible to complete thorough research without searching each one of the hundreds of townland districts within each of the  parishes separately. In order to narrow down the number of townland records to search for evidence of James Ferguson I targeted only those townlands, which bordered the Blackwater River in the counties of Clonfeacle and Killyman.  The town of Moy is the largest community in the vicinity and since the reference to Moy and the Blackwater River has been handed down through oral history it seemed likely that townlands bordering the Blackwater River in these two parishes would be the most likely location for the farm where James worked.

After the marriage to Francis Ellis, about 1836, James acquired 26 acres of farmland on the Blackwater River.  The couple had 3 daughters.  However, the 1830’s were a period of unrest in Tyrone and many farmers refused to pay the recently imposed tithe tax to the Anglican Church.  The tax had to be paid in cash not in kind. Civil disobedience, unrest and murder occurred in response to this tax imposed upon already impoverished farmers. This in combination with the sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants made for very threatening living conditions for all.  James was an avid Protestant and loyal Orangeman and bore scars on his back resulting from a Catholic ambush before he left Ireland.   Taxation, poverty, unreliable crop production, famine and sectarian violence all probably contributed to his decision to immigrate to Canada with his young family.

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Genealogy record searches

The following is a brief summary of the Irish records available which may in future shed new light on the early life of James and Francis in Ulster.  The extent of research into these records remains limited at present but enough clues have been gleaned to suggest that a more exhaustive review of these records could quite possibly confirm the exact farm location as well as the nature of farm production where James raised his family before emigrating.  There are three records sets I found to be the most useful in shedding light upon the early adult life of James Ferguson.  They include Griffith’s Valuation,  Tithe Applotment books and the Estate Records.

One of Ireland’s premier genealogical resources is the “Primary Valuation of Tenements” – commonly called the Griffiths Valuations.   It represents the outcome of a taxation survey conducted throughout Northern Ireland between 1827 and 1851.  Its objective was to assess the payment of various local taxes, which were linked to the value of property occupied by each taxpayer.  The value of all privately held lands and buildings in rural and urban areas was established in order to determine a rental rate of each unit of property. Its Director, Richard Griffith, after whom the project is named, undertook this massive project.

There are no early valuations for County Tyrone, which are contemporaneous with the time during James’ residency.  However, after his emigration in 1847 there is evidence of persons by the name of Ferguson in Tyrone who could very well be brothers or uncles of James.  They include an 1851 valuation in Clonfeacle of a James Ferguson at Drummond townland as well as an 1860 valuation in Moy of a Joseph Ferguson.

There is also a record of Joseph Ferguson 1860 at Moy in Griffith’s Valuation 1847-1864 in the Parish of Clonfeacle County Tyrone.   Other entries for a Joseph include one in 1856 at Cookstown County Tyrone.  This might be a brother of James.  However, at present there is no definitive information upon which to draw conclusions as to these possible relationships.  In addition, the Griffiths Valuation for 1860 identified the landlord of townlands in the parish of  Clonfeacle as either Viscount Powerscourt or the Earl of Caledon.  This should serve as a guide for researching Estate Papers.

Records for the name of tenants of the townlands within the parish are incomplete and do not include the ones most likely associated with the location where James farmed.  It should be noted that not all townland records for Clonfeacle Parish have been transcribed for publication on the County Tyrone website. Unfortunately, at this time the townlands of Derryoghill within the Parish of Clonfeacle have not been transcribed.   This is one of the most likely townlands where the Ferguson farm was located.

It is suspected that the farmland, which James occupied, lay within a townland, which was adjacent to the Blackwater River and within a couple of miles of Moy.  The townlands immediately south of Moy adjacent to the west bank of the Blackwater River include Derryoghill, Culrevog, Clar and Strangmore.  However the parish to the north of Clonfeacle also has townlands that are adjacent to the Blackwater River.  In the parish of Killyman the townland of Derrycorry South, Derrygally, and Derrycorry North also need to be considered as prime locations for the farm in future record searches.

The Tithe Applotment Books provide the earliest surviving national list of occupiers of land.
They are records of a unique land survey taken to determine the amount of tax payable by landholders to the Church of Ireland that was the established church until 1869.   The collection consists of nearly 2,000 hand-written books.  This data set represents a virtual census-like record of demographic and social conditions for pre-famine Ireland.  The enumeration included the name of the landholders along with details such as townland, size of holding, land quality and types of crops.  Most parishes had at least one tithe survey from 1820-38 while some had two or more.  These records are to be found Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. (PRONI)   However, the Tithe Applotment Books were put online as a searchable resource at NAI as of Nov. 8 2012.  Searches may be conducted by individual surname and locations .

There are no estate records available online at this time which relate to manors within the targeted parishes in either Clonfeacle of Killyman.  Future searches need to consult the records at the National Library of Ireland.  The National Library has an on-line catalogue of its holdings that includes books and periodicals, photographs, prints and drawings and manuscripts. The Library does not lend books but there is a copying service and it is possible to get photocopies, photographs, slides, or microfilm of most items in the collections.
Check their website at      Tyrone  Challenges – 1830’s

During the 1830’s tenant farming in Moy may have deteriorated for the Ferguson family.   As James entered adulthood the oppressive religious, economic, and political conditions offered little security and hope of improvement.  James, a Presbyterian, was considered a Protestant Dissenter.  Long standing Penal Laws had forced the native Irish Catholics and Scot-Irish Presbyterians Protestants to accept the reformed Christian faith of the established Church of England and its counterpart the Irish state church.  Tenant farmers, including the Presbyterians like the Fergusons, were obligated to pay tithes to the Irish Protestant church. Payment was to be made in cash or kind and was compulsory, irrespective of individual religious adherence!  A period of civil disobedience and sporadic violence occurred by tenant farmers in reaction to the enforcement of these tithe for the upkeep of the established Church of Ireland.  This “Tithe War” did eventually result in the direct removal of the tithe upon the tenants, but then was levied against the landowner who merely recouped this additional tax by increasing lease fees to their tenants.

Secondly, the Fergusons were viewed by the Catholics as Protestant Orangemen, who represented the longstanding and unwanted presence of  the old political order of the Plantation Ulster.   The Orangement excluded the Roman Catholic Irish population from political, social and economic influence.  However, even the majority of Scots-Irish Protestants, like the Fergusons, were effectively excluded from any political influence because they were too poor to vote!  In general, the privileges associated with ownership, and voting, as stipulated by the Penal Laws, were resented by Irish Catholics.  These social divisions, based on ancient origins and loyalties, fostered ill will and sectarian violence between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, there was lack of available and affordable land which would sustain food production for one family.   This, coupled with unfair and oppressive tithe taxes by the state church, and the deep seated sectarian strife among native Catholics and Protestants, created a threatening social and political environment, which likely hastened James’ decision to emigrate.

There is a fourth factor, yet to be verified, which may have played a role in James’ decision to select Upper Canada as his destination.  Irish migration into the Ottawa valley had been a feature of settlement in that area since the early 1800’s.  Perhaps there may have been a family member who had previously departed Tyrone and settled in the Ottawa valley.  This factor was so prevalent and was expressed in the Christian Examiner.  “The first act of the Irish emigrant, when he finds himself safely settled on a foreign shore, is to bring over those dear to him to share the same comforts as himself—to bring them from the land of sorrow to the land of plenty—to repay some half-forgotten act of kindness—to add a little to the widow’s store—to keep the fire lit and the pot boiling in some lone cabin in his native land.”*

In a review of the history of the western counties in the Ottawa Valley it is noted that several persons carrying the surname Ferguson are recorded as early as the 1820’s.  Perhaps one of them was a family relation.

Nineteenth century passenger ship

Nineteenth century passenger ship

Escape from the “land of sorrow” was only possible by means of a long and arduous voyage to the New World.

* (source: Christian Examiner 1852 as presented in the County Tyrone website at URL

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