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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Colhouns of Donegal

The LagganThe Laggan is a fertile, low-lying area in Donegal County, Ireland, stretching from Lough Swilly south and east to the River Foyle near Strabane in County Tyrone.  It stretches from Letterkenny almost to Londonderry, and south to the Finn Valley.  Confiscated by the English, its Irish inhabitants evicted, the Laggan was awarded in 1611 to Scottish and English families for settlement as part of a widescale plan called The Plantation of Ulster.

The Laggan was divided into two precincts of 12,000 acres each; Portlough to the north, and Lifford to the south.  The appointed undertaker of Portlough was Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox in Dumbarton, Scotland, and his task was to assign estates of 1,000 acres each to Scottish families who would settle there.  All the estates were given to Stewart and Cunningham families except one which was given to Alexander, Laird of Colquhoun and Luss.

The Colquhouns had recently suffered defeat at the hands of the MacGregors (at the probable instigation of Campbell, Earl of Argyll) in a battle at Glen Fruin, and were in no position to be sending men over to Donegal.  Alexander passed the grant to his son Adam, but the only Colquhoun to settle in Donegal was Adam's sister Nancy, who was married to John McAuselan.  The settlement, named Corkaugh, was in what is now Raymoghy Parish.  Adam's son Robert was sent to live with his Aunt Nancy in 1629, at the age of seven.  When Robert was twelve, his father in Scotland died, and the grant passed to him.  Robert married one of the McAuselan girls, his cousin Katherine, in 1641.  They had four sons and three daughters.  It is said that it was Robert who officially changed the family name to Colhoun.

In 1651, Robert's eldest son William inherited an estate in nearby Tyrone County, near NewtownStewart, at the tender age of eight years.  The inheritance was from Sir William Stewart, 1st Baronet of Ireland, apparently a relative.  In order to keep the inheritance, William had to live there, so Alexander and Jennett McCausland, relatives already living in Tyrone and possibly already caretakers of the estate manor, agreed to raise William.  He, in turn, married their daughter Catherine in 1661, and took over the manor, called Crosh House.

*  *  *

In the late 1960's, a retired Orval Calhoun, who lived in Ontario, Canada, began pursuing his genealogy.  He interviewed all of his relatives, and ended up traveling to Ireland to record church records and gravestone inscriptions.  He read extensively, learning of the aristocratic Colquhoun line going back to the 13th century.  Then he published his landmark book:  800 Years of Colquhoun, Colhoun, Calhoun, and Cahoon History.  It was a single volume that grew, over the next twenty years, into four huge volumes, filled with genealogies sent to him from all over the world.

The book is still privately available, and it is held at various libraries including the LDS Family History Library and the Odom Genealogical Library in Georgia.  It is the primary source of a great number of published genealogies, especially online, and has been a fantastic inspiration for many Calhouns looking to link their line to this great big tree.

Orval was not a professional genealogist, and he worked from a lot of secondary sources that he had no way of authenticating.  The book should be read primarily as a compilation and narrative rather than as hard-nosed research, though there is some of that.  Many people use the book as their only research, which is a mistake.  As Orval himself pointed out, the book should be a starting point for further research.

This narrative that I have written about the Donegal Colhouns is largely based on Orval's narrative about the Scottish Colquhouns who came to Ulster and then later emigrated to Canada, the United States, and Australia.  In other words, it is not based on any research I have done.  One should not imagine that all Colquhouns followed this route, nor that all Colquhouns are descended from any one person.  The existence of this book does not mean that you are somehow more related to Colquhouns than to all the other lines in your genealogy, including the lines you know nothing about.

I took the time to round up this information to see if my New Brunswick Calhouns were somewhere in this group.  Sadly, I have not been able to trace them.  Though the Donegal and Tyrone Colquhouns took the name Colhoun, there were other Colquhouns in Ulster who did not, and who were not directly involved in the Plantation.  Some were bureacratic, financial, and legal professionals who came to Londonderry and Belfast for work.  Some had migrated to Counties Antrim and Down at some point after the Plantation (I have found hints that my Calhouns might be from this group).  There were Colquhouns who moved freely between Ulster, England, and Scotland, depending on the conditions.  When any of these Colquhouns came to North America, some kept the name Colquhoun, some adopted Cahoon, and others used Calhoun.  Not all Calhouns descend from the Donegal and Tyrone Colhouns.

But let us continue the narrative.

*  *  *

The most celebrated Colhoun emigrant was James Patrick, son of The Reverend Alexander and grandson of William and Catherine in Tyrone.  He may have been the earliest of the many Colhouns who left Ulster for the American colonies, and his example set a pattern that was to be followed by many others in later years.  James Patrick left Ulster in 1733, arriving most likely in Philadelphia with his wife Catherine Montgomery and their children.

Matters were quite different in Ulster by 1733 than they had been a century earlier.  Though the original intent of the Plantation was to encourage numerous settlements held by relatively small landholders, by 1733 land ownership was dominated by a few English Anglican aristocrats who were absentee landlords.  A good example was James Hamilton, the Earl of Abercorn, who controlled something like 80,000 acres in Ulster, much of it in Tyrone and Donegal.  Some of these landlords were as hostile to the Scottish Presbyterians as they were to the Irish Catholics.

The Ulster Presbyterian Scots found themselves affected by laws that disenfranchised them politically and religiously.  They found it increasingly expensive to own or rent land, while finding the land less and less able to support them through droughts and crop failures.  Having aided the English in their effort to displace the Catholic Irish, the Scots found themselves in the same boat with the Irish, with no political or legal relief.  Rebellion was one possibility, emigration another.  An entire emigration industry was to develop and prosper, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Philadelphia was the largest city in the American colonies at the time, and Pennsylvania was actively recruiting immigrants looking for religious tolerance and land.  Ulster Scots settled in Pennsylvania, and later generations looking for inexpensive land headed down the Great Wagon Road to Virginia, then to the Carolinas, or to Tennessee and Kentucky.  Some headed west to Ohio and beyond.  The irony was that these frontier settlers were once again being used by the English to displace another people, the Native Americans, particularly the Cherokee, or to fend off an ancient enemy, the French.

Abbeville DistrictThus it was that James Patrick's family, after he had died in Pennsylvania in 1741, headed down the Shenandoah Valley to claim land grants in Augusta County, Virginia.  During the French and Indian War, the family moved again, to the Abbeville district of South Carolina.  This became their ultimate settlement, in spite of a Cherokee raid in 1760 that almost wiped out the family.  This was the family whose descendants were important South Carolina politicians, especially John Caldwell Calhoun, who became Vice President of the United States in 1825, and later Senator of South Carolina.

When New France was finally taken by the English in 1763, and Ontario opened up as a frontier, another emigration route became established.  Colhouns came to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, then west to Ontario and beyond.  Orval Calhoun's ancestor George Colhoun took the route from Tyrone to Ontario in about 1860, settling in Reach Township near Toronto.  My Calhouns arrived in St John, New Brunswick, moved inland to claim land in Queens County in 1856, then migrated through Maine to Boston, Massachusetts in 1878.


Related websites:
The Ulster Plantation
The forum for Calhoun.
The Great Wagon Road on Wikipedia.
James Patrick Calhoun, with notes on the Long Canes Massacre.
Index to Orval Calhoun's Our Family History on the Clan Colquhoun Blog.
Fred and Sara Visit Ireland, sharing photos of Crosh House and Corkaugh.
Photos by Kenneth Allen of Crosh House and the Newtownstewart countryside.


  1. i don't know if there is a more up-to-date link but I am also descended from a Colhoun, my grandmother. Her brother and parents are buried in Raymoghy (Ray) churchyard. Another brother was contacted by the Pittsburg branch of the family - the John Caldwell Calhoun group - and he supplied them with some genealogical details, but as you write these would have to be authenticated.

    The Colquhouns did suffer a serious defeat by the McGregrors - a much more aggressive and lawless family, AKA 'Rob Roy' - at Glenfruin which may have encouraged the emigration of some of there clan to Ireland. And these 'Ulster-Scots' were discriminated against, hence their further move to the 'New World'. In some respects they had already developed the skills of the frontiersman in their disputes with other clans or as border rivers and they out these to good use against the native Irish and native Indians. The 'Over-Mountain Men' were largely of ulster-Scots origin as was Crockett. They were also influential in the American War of Independence, in developing their subsequent constitution and as some of the early presidents.

    Malcolm Stephenson

  2. Sadly, another Jim Calhoun married into Custer's family and died at the Big Horn.