A New Beginning: The Porters – Scots or Irish?

#52 Ancestors Each week of the year Amy Johnson Crow publishes a theme or prompt to provide inspiration for working on our genealogy. We can choose to write, post or do something else related to our research such as organizing family photos. Although I am a bit late in starting writing this year as I was working on other research, I will consider her suggestions each week and write about the ones that inspire me! Her first theme was “Beginnings.”

At the beginning of the new year, it is a good time to think of how our ancestors came to America for so many different reasons. One thing in common is that when they set foot on our shores, they all began a new life – a new beginning. I have been researching the Porter family ancestors who sailed from Ireland. The reason I wanted to take another look at my research was that my DNA profile showed little Irish (about 5 %) and twice as much Scottish (10-13%) ancestry. So I thought it would be good to review the ancestors I believed were Irish.

Ulster County in 1700s, now part of Northern Ireland

Among the thousands of immigrants in the 1700s, there were three clans that immigrated from Ulster County, Ireland and settled in the Maryland area, particularly Cecil County. All three clans were close neighbors and great friends and intermarried often both in Ireland and America. The clans were the Porters, the Ewings and the Gillespies families. By tracing my ancestry, I found that I am related to all three clans in one way or another. Now I had thought that they were all of Irish descent coming from Ireland but in reality many were Scots-Irish!

Scots-Irish is really an Americanism and not used in Europe and Britain where they are sometimes called Ulster Scots. The Scots-Irish refers to people whose ancestors originated in Scotland but who lived in Ireland, sometimes for several generations, before emigrating to America. The Scots started to go to Ireland starting around 1600 as an expanding population in Scotland hungered for more and better land and escape from religious persecution. The northern part of Ireland was fertile and sparsely settled and, besides, it was a short journey of just a few miles across the sea from the lowlands of Scotland. Most Scots settled in the area of Ulster and Donegal counties which includes all the counties of Northern Ireland today. Eventually the British government required all crown officials be of Anglican faith which excluded the Scots-Irish from any sort of power as they were devoutly Presbyterian. Even their clergy couldn’t perform marriages! Then came raising of land rents, drought, sheep diseases and smallpox that took a toll on the population. Of course there is much more history to this situation and too much to detail here.

The emigration to the American Colonies began around 1718 and continued until the American Revolution. Most early immigrants went to Pennsylvania where the Quakers were tolerant of other religions or to Maryland or to Philadelphia. Eventually they followed the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania into Georgia with many stopping to settle in the Shenandoah area of Virginia like our ancestors. The first Scots-Irish ancestor of ours to come to America was James Robert Porter. He was born in Coleraine, Londonderry County, Ulster, Ireland in 1699.

James Robert Porter was born in Coleraine, Londonderry, Ulster, Ireland. It probably wasn’t this developed in 1699!

James Porter was the son of Josia Porter and Margaret Ewing, both of County Donegal, Ireland. James married Ellen (also called Eleanor) Gillespie in Ireland – recall that I said the Porter, Ewing and Gillespie families were all intertwined! The Ewings, as a clan, were banned in Scotland as they were Protestants. It is thought that James Porter emigrated to the British Colony of Maryland in 1727 and that he traveled with his uncle Alexander Ewing, his mother’s brother. (Alexander and Margaret Ewing were children of Robert Milford Ewing and Rebecca Ewing. ) Later, James Porter’s wife, Ellen, traveled to Maryland to join him along with their children and her parents. I haven’t found her parents names as yet. All together, James and Ellen had ten known children, Jane, Mary, Elianor (also called Nelly), Betsey, Stephen, George, Andrew, William, James and Samuel.

The location of Cecil County in present day Maryland

The Porter family, once reunited, settled in Cecil, Maryland Colony and there is a deed recorded for James. James bought 235 acres of land for 130 pounds from Thomas Love. On the deed, James Porter reserved the liberty of having a wagon road leading from his dwelling house through the granted land to where the school house now stands. This deed was recorded on 26 Mar of 1753.

I also found a 1740 petition from the inhabitants of Little Britain ( a township nearby in Cecil County) to establish a road that ran by “James Porters store” on the Octarara Hundred (land designation in Colonial times). This indicates that James likely owned and ran a store and was a merchant. He was indicated as a merchant in several documents and listed as the “brother of Rachel Porter Ewing wife of Nathaniel Ewing.” This reveals that his sister and brother-in-law also came to America. In 1784, their daughter Jane Porter, who was married to Patrick Ewing, died and therefore was not mentioned in James’ will. James also had a ferry service and a saw mill which his children inherited.

James Porter died around 1778 as his will was probated in 1778-1780. Because he owned land that was in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and in Cecil County, Maryland, his will was probated in both counties. The will is also evidence of his prosperity in life. His wife, named Elianor in the will, got the land they lived on of course and 100 pounds of Pennsylvania currency plus her choice of one cow, horse or mare out of James’ stock. However, I found an unusual stipulation in the will stating that she was prohibited from “committing any waste or cutting any wood save what may be necessary for Rails and firewood.” Sons William and Andrew gained land, houses and building in “Peach Bottom” and that land contained a saw mill dam, races, and a ferry service. Son William also got a silver watch and other sons Stephen, James, Samuel and George received lands while the daughters Elianor, Mary and Elizabeth got sums of money.

I have not found any documentation on where James or Ellen (Elianor) Porter were buried. Judging from their prosperity though after coming to America, they did have a very good new beginning! By researching this family, I found some answers for my own ancestry too!


  • Maryland, Cecil County, Deed Book VII, page 497. (James Porter of Cecil Co.)
  • Book I; Land Commissions of Cecil Co., MD 1724-1751, pp. 265-270.
  • Fife, Margaret Ewing, Ewing in Early America; Chapter XXIV, pp. 176 & 186.
  • Cecil County, Maryland; Will Book 3, 1777-1780; pages 63-68, 78-79.
  • Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Will Book E, pages 299-301.
  • Garstka, Katharine, The Scots-Irish in the Southern United States: An Overview; Oct 16, 2009, (online).

7 thoughts on “A New Beginning: The Porters – Scots or Irish?

  1. I am researching the the Porter, Brown, Gillespie line that was in Guildford County, North Carolina.
    Reese Porter, soldier, husband of Jane Brown
    James Brown, killed by Indians traveling to Tennessee
    Jane Gillespie, wife of James Brown
    I would like to better understand the parents of each, the port of entry and path taken to North Carolina from Pennsylvania or Maryland.


    1. Thank you for commenting on my blog! Yes the Porters and Gillespies were intertwined and intermarried with the Coles and others. Now I see the Browns are in the mix too! This is very interesting and I plan to do some digging with the info you gave me. Let me know if you find anything exciting and I will share what I find too! Marilyn


    2. Sherry, I am also working on this Porter, Brown, Gillespie lines from Guilford County NC. I would love to connect and share information if you’re interested.


      1. Hi Susan! Thanks for contacting me! Yes it is always good to share! I am mostly interesting in the Porters that settled in the western counties of Virginia – Andrew Porter of Cripple Creek area and descendants. Marilyn


      2. Our Porter line came through Chester Co. PA, not sure if there was a stop along the Shenandoah Valley like our Brown and Gillespie lines. I’ve traced ours back to Hugh Porter and Violet Mackey. Feel free to contact me directly szcrandall@comcast.net


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