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James VI of Scotland and James I of England
Bishop Robert Forbes: "All, all, this is owing to the exorbitant rents for land."
Pre-Revolutionary Migrations of Scottish Highlanders & Scots-Irish.
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Copyright © 2019 by McMillen Design. All rights reserved. Archival prints are available for sale.

Forbes Emigration to Colonial America


Immigration has built the United States of America throughout its history. All manner of people, from all walks of life and all cultures around the world, have come to the American shores, both voluntarily and involuntarily. This is the same for Scots and the Forbes clan. Scots arrived in colonial America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for three major reasons: religious freedom, economic opportunity, and criminal banishment.


Religious Freedom

With the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended to the English crown in 1603 as James I of England and Scotland. The countries were embroiled in religious upheaval between the strict adherents of John Calvin (1509 –1564) and other Protestants. The “pure” Calvinist believers or “Puritans” maintained that their congregations needed to be separated from the English state church. The ascension of James I prompted the Millenary Petition, a Puritan manifesto of 1603 for reform of the English church, but James wanted a religious settlement along different lines.


Starting in about 1607, many Puritans moved to Leiden, Holland, to create their own religious community. However, the community felt that they were losing their cultural identity in this more liberal environment and decided to start fresh in the English colonies under the auspices of the Plymouth Company. This was an English joint-stock company founded in 1606 to establish settlements on the coast of North America. The Pilgrims or Pilgrim Fathers were the first English settlers of the Plymouth Colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.

Economic Opportunity


The latter half of the sixteenth century was a period of economic upheaval throughout western Europe. Vast quantities of gold and silver imported from the Spanish colonies created inflation. The restructuring of the land tenure system displaced serfs from the landowners’ farms and forced them into growing cities. Demobilized and discharged soldiers, without any other means of support, also flocked to the new urban centers.

The growing merchant class, without the inherited lands of the upper class, sought new opportunities for wealth by investing in new colonies. They secured massive land grants that they would in turn parcel out to tenant farmers. For example, North Carolina Governor Gabriel Johnston attracted immigrants by making land readily available and by exempting their taxes for first ten years.  This offer was particularly attractive tenant farmers who were subject to massive taxes. Bishop Robert Forbes observed in his work Lyon in Mourning that eight hundred people had left Argyll in 1770 and 1771, "All, all, this is owing to the exorbitant rents for land." (All three volumes of The Lyon in Mourning is available for Society Members in the Resource Library.)

Criminal Banishment


Until 1776, Scots who committed crimes risked being sent to convict plantations in the American colonies. While some thieves and murderers were shipped out, the majority of Scots banished to the colonies included prisoners of war and “Jacobites” (after Jacobus, the Latin form of James) who were committed to restoring the House of Stuart to the English throne. In 1688, the Catholic monarch who ruled England and Ireland as James II and ruled Scotland as James VII, was overthrown. The English Parliament installed as King the Protestant William III, Prince of Orange, who was James's nephew and son-in-law. After several attempts (or uprisings) between 1689 and 1745, James’s grandson Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie) was decisively beaten in 1746 on the Forbes estate of Culloden near Inverness.


To prevent any other uprisings, the English Parliament considered transporting whole clans of Highlanders to the American colonies. However, Duncan Forbes, Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland, counselled shipping off "the most active and dangerous" of the Highland, rather than entire families. As a result of his persuasion, Parliament offered in 1746 special pardons to over 100 “rebels” provided they went to the plantations in the various colonies. (See Culloden Papers, page 285, in the members-only Clan Forbes Society Resource Library.)

Colonial Destinations

Whether, voluntarily or involuntarily, Scots shipped abroad to the various colonies in waves (literally.) The first migration landed in Plymouth colony in Massachusetts between 1620 and 1691. In 1718, about five shiploads landed in Boston and most went on to settle in New Hampshire and what would become Maine. Between 1717 and 1775, Scots-Irish landed in Philadelphia, Chester, and New Castle. After the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746, the Highland Clans system disintegrated and many Scots emigrated to the Cape Fear area of North Carolina. However, these were not the only destinations.

Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, 1620 – 1691. As noted, the first Puritans settled in Plymouth (named after the trading company) in 1620. More Puritans followed from Holland, England and Scotland. John Forbes, the first Forbes in America, arrived from Leiden, Holland, on the ship Little Ann in 1636.  The colony was ultimately merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other territories in 1691 to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay.


New Sweden, 1638 – 1655. The first Swedish company that aimed to trade with the Americas was the South Company of Sweden, founded during 1627, with the sole Swedish rights of commerce with "Africa, Asia, America and Magellanica or Terra Australia." Among those who subscribed capital to the company were two Scottish residents of Sweden, Dr. James Robertson and James Forbes. This company's plans for trading with the West Indies never materialized, and the company was merged into the United South Ship Company of Sweden. The company transported colonists to settlements on both banks of the Delaware River in the present-day states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.


North Carolina, 1732 onward. The date of the first settlement of Highlanders on the Cape Fear was about 1732. The first governor, William Drummond, was a Scottish Lowlander. Land-grant records name James Innes (from Caithness), Hugh Campbell, and William Forbes as the first persons with Highland names to settle on the Cape Fear River, twenty-two miles above Rockfish Creek. Campbell and Forbes secured their 640-acre grants in April and May of 1733.


Florida, 1763 – 1783. East Florida was founded by the British government in 1763. The colony spanned from the Apalachicola River through the peninsula of modern-day Florida. The capital was St. Augustine. This was ceded to Spain in 1783, after the American Revolutionary War. John Forbes, a graduate of King's College, Aberdeen, was appointed as a Church of England minister in St. Augustine in 1764.

Jamaica, 1670 – 1866. England captured Jamaica from Spain in 1655 but Spain did not cede the colony to England until 1670. In the early-eighteenth-century, many Scottish settlers were clergy, merchants and colonial officials. For example, Alexander Forbes was noted as a provost marshal. However, convicts were also sent to the island, including another Alexander Forbes in 1747.


Forbes Immigrants


Here is a listing of all known individuals with the surname “Forbes” (or derivation) that emigrated to Colonial America, some with notations. Dates are provided when known. Please see the bibliography for the sources. Most individuals are listed in Original Scots Colonists of Early America Supplement 1607 – 1707 and the prisoners and convicts are noted in Directory of Scots Banished to the American Plantations 1650 – 1775.

  • Alexander Forbes was born in 1726 and was from Wemyss, Fife. He is noted as being a “servant to the Pretender,” the nickname for the son of deposed King James II of England and James VII of Scotland.  He served in the Duke of Perth's Regiment, was captured in war, and then imprisoned at Larbert, Stirling and Tilbury Prisons. On 31 March 1747, he left London aboard the St George or the Carteret and arrived in Jamaica on 31 March 1747.

  • Alexander Forbes settled in Talbot County, Maryland, and was naturalized by order of the General Assembly.

  • Arthur Forbes was a merchant who emigrated in 1684 from Aberdeen on the Exchange of Stockton, captained by James Peacock. He arrived in East New Jersey in 1684.

  • Daniel Forbes was probably a prisoner of war who was transported sometime before 1655. He was noted as living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1660 and died in Concord, Massachusetts, on 2 October1687.

  • David Forbes (or Forbush) was noted as living in Lancaster County, Virginia, in 1655.

  • Donald Forbes was born in 1703 and became a farmer in Strathnairn. He fought as a Jacobite in McIntosh's Regiment. He sailed from London aboard the St George or the Carteret and arrived in Jamaica on 31 March 1747.

  • Francis Forbes (or Forbush) was noted as living in James City County, Virginia, in 1649.

  • George Forbes was a Jacobite prisoner who sailed from Liverpool aboard the Susannah bound for South Carolina on 7 May 1716.

  • John Forbes was the First Forbes in America. He was born in Leiden, Holland, in 1608 to Reverend John Forbes (1568 – 1634) and Christian Barclay. He sailed to the Plymouth Colony on the Little Ann in 1636. In 1637, he married Constance Mitchell (1614 - 1661), who was also born in Leiden, Holland. He eventually settled in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1645 and died in 1661.

  • John Forbes was a graduate of King's College, Aberdeen, and was appointed as a Church of England minister in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1764.

  • John Forbes was the brother of the laird of Baynlie (Barnla, Aberdeenshire.) In 1684, he purchased land in East New Jersey. He travelled there that same year with three servants.

  • John Forbes is recorded as arriving in South Carolina sometime before 1695.

  • John Forbes is noted as a “witness” in Albemarle County, North Carolina, in 1681.

  • John Forbes (or Forbush) is mentioned as living in Northumberland County, Virginia, in 1650.

  • John Forbes (or Forbush) is noted as living in Virginia in 1638.

  • Margaret Forbes was convicted as a “whore” in Edinburgh and banished to the “American Plantations” on 19 March 1695.

  • Margaret Forbes from Kirkton of Tough, Aberdeenshire, was found guilty of child murder and was transported to America in 1755 aboard the Hope.

  • Robert Forbes was a minister who emigrated to “Carolina” in 1707.

  • Thomas Forbes was a tenant farmer in Cushnie, Aberdeenshire. He was captured during the Battle of Preston during the Jacobite Uprising of 1715. He sailed from Liverpool aboard the Friendship on 24 May 1716 and landed in Maryland in August 1716. He later returned to Scotland.

  • William Forbes was an indentured servant imported into East New Jersey in 1684.

  • William Forbes secured two 640-acre grants in April and May of 1733 on the Cape Fear River, North Carolina, twenty-two miles above Rockfish Creek.

  • William Forbes was born in 1726 and became a husbandman in Fochabers, Morayshire. He fought in Lord Lewis Gordon's Regiment, captures during the last Jacobite uprising, and was jailed in Inverness and Tilbury prisons.  He was banished from London to the West Indies on 20 March 1747.

  • William Forbes (or Forbush) was born around 1630 and was captured in the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, part of the Third English Civil War. In 1650, he was transported from London to Boston on the Unity, captained by Augustine Walker. He became an indentured servant at Kittery Sawmills, wedded a woman named Rebecca, and died in 1701 in Kittery, Maine.

  • William and Margaret Forbis (with son William Jr.) arrived in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1679. (Source: Early Settlers of Maryland: An Index to Names of Immigrants Compiled from Records of Land Patents, 1633 – 1680, in the Hall of Records, Annapolis, Maryland.)

Special Thanks


The Clan Forbes Society greatly appreciates the permission of Mike McMillen of McMillen Design to share this impressive graphic depicting the Pre-Revolutionary War migrations of the Scottish Highlanders & Scots-Irish. Please note that this image is copyright © 2019 by McMillen Design. All rights reserved. Archival prints are available for saleAlso, please see Mr. McMillen’s article The Pre-Revolutionary Scots-Irish migration. 




  • Dobson, David, (1994, 2004). Scottish Emigration to Colonial America 1607 - 1785, University of Georgia Press.

  • Dobson, David, (1998). The Original Scots Colonists of Early America Supplement 1607 – 1707, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.

  • Dobson, David, (1983, 2010). Directory of Scots Banished to the American Plantations 1650 – 1775, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.

  • Meyer, Duane, (1961, 1987), The Highland Scots of North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press


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