Start My Family Tree Welcome to Geni, home of the world's largest family tree.
Join Geni to explore your genealogy and family history in the World's Largest Family Tree.

Neely Family - 1590 to 1728 - From Scotland to Ulster

« Back to Projects Dashboard

Project Tags

view all


  • Isabel Neely (c.1675 - c.1721)
    Reference: FamilySearch Genealogy - SmartCopy : Oct 30 2016, 8:46:00 UTC
  • Robert Neely (c.1675 - 1756)
    Ref: WikiTree record * Reference: FamilySearch Genealogy - SmartCopy : Oct 30 2016, 8:46:00 UTC
  • Agnes Neely (1694 - 1765)
    Updated from MyHeritage Family Trees by SmartCopy : Sep 2 2015, 20:24:29 UTC
  • Thomas Neely, I (c.1695 - 1756)
    Arrived in America about 1728, in Upper Chicheter, Chester County, PA, then moving westward in stages to end up in York Township (now Adams County), PA. ============= From James R. Neely source: 1....
  • Robert Neely (c.1690 - 1730)
    Reference: MyHeritage Family Trees - SmartCopy : Mar 18 2019, 22:46:41 UTC

Neely Family - 1590 to 1728

From Scotland to Ulster

(and their decision to come to America)

(Much of the information for this project was researched and prepared by James R. "Jim" Neely and by John Neilly, who lives in northern Ireland, for the Neely Clan 2000 Reunion at Steel Creek, North Carolina, in June of 2000. There are some discrepancies in the timelines for some of profiles, dates, and relationships within the scope of this project which could use further clarification and correction.)


This project gives a general appreciation of the life and times of these early Neelys. To avoid interrupting the narrative, sources often are not cited in detail. Although more information and sources are available on Jim Neely's website,, or from Bill Neely,, all of the contributors caution that the sources available for this early period are very limited and, therefore, some of the genealogical connections and conclusions are necessarily conjectural and subject to change based on continuing research.


The Neelys are of Ulster Scots descent and originally were Calvinists (Presbyterians). Scots-Irish is another term often used for this group of people. The Thomas Neely (1695-1756) line of Neelys spent a little more than a century in northern Ireland (Ulster) between the early 1600s, when they left Lowland Scotland as part of an English plan to establish large settlements of Scottish Protestants in Ulster, and about 1728 when Thomas Neely, Sr. decided to leave Ulster to go to Pennsylvania.

The earliest recorded Ulster Neelys

The Neelys first appear in Ulster in the early 1600s around Londonderry and also Glencull in County Tyrone. The earliest record of an adult Neely found to date in Ulster is of William Neely who is listed "with sword only" as his armament in the 1631 Muster Roll of County Donegal; he was living in Innishowen Barony on the Chichester estate. The Mormon LDS records show a William Neely of Burt born in 1621 in County Donegal who appears to be the first William's oldest son. The area where the family first lived in Ulster, therefore, was around Burt Castle on the Chichester estates, about five miles west of Londonderry. LDS records and the Register of Derry Cathedral 1635-1708 list a series of Neelys born around the general area of Londonderry from about 1621 to 1635, including John Neely of Cumber, born about 1625. These children (William, Rory, Robert, Matthew, Margaret, James, and John) appear to be those of William and indicate he was established in Ulster before 1621. The limited available evidence suggests that William Neely may have come to Ulster as a young soldier from Scotland in 1608 with William Stewart in response to an Irish uprising by Sir Cahir O'Doherty who owned Burt Castle until he was defeated in 1608. If so, William Neely was probably born about 1590 (18 years old in 1608) and married about 1620.

Why the Neelys left Lowland Scotland for Ulster

The events around Burt castle were part of a much longer history of Protestant versus Catholic struggle for control of the English Crown and, particularly when the Crown was in Protestant hands, of continuing English attempts to tightly control Ireland and eliminate a perceived Catholic threat. England had earlier conquered Ireland, seized much Catholic land, and repeatedly attempted to create English and other Protestant (French Hugenot and German as well as Scottish) settlements or "plantations" in Ireland. In 1594 a major Irish Catholic rebellion against the English began The Nine Years War (1594-1603). Although the Catholics achieved considerable success (including the overthrow of the Munster Plantation in 1598), the English forces ultimately defeated the Irish (and their fellow Catholic Spanish allies who arrived "too little and too late") at the Battle of Kinsale in December 1601. The most determined Irish resistance had centered in Ulster under the leadership of Hugh O'Neill, 2nd earl of Tyrone. The terms of the peace were so onerous that Hugh and many other Irish Catholic chieftains left for the Continent about 1607 (the "flight of the earls"). This provided the English with an opportunity to greatly expand the seizure of Catholic land and to make a major, new attempt to create friendly plantations of Protestant English and Lowland Scots settlers in Ulster. The 1609 Declaration of the Plantation of Ulster envisioned using these semi-military settlements to occupy forfeited Catholic lands to counterbalance the remaining Catholic population in Ulster.

Lowland Scots' reasons for accepting the English Crown's recruitment included promises of religious freedom and economic opportunity. Most of the Lowland Scots who came to Ulster at this time were Calvinists who did not enjoy religious freedom under the official church in Scotland; their descendants later became the core of the Presbyterian Church in America. Lowland Scotland had been a battleground for several centuries between Highland Scots raiding the English border lands and the English indiscriminately retaliating against any Scots within reach; this had reduced many proud and capable Lowland Scots to poverty. Although William's exact home in Scotland is not known, many of these settlers came from the area of Lowland Scotland along the Irish Sea north of Wigtown and south of Glasgow. There is some circumstantial evidence discovered by John Neilly that William may have come from the Portpatrick area of Wigtownshire.

Interestingly, by journeying to Ulster, William may have been returning to the home of some of his ancestors. During the late Roman period in Britain, the Scoti, one of the main components of modern Scottish people, are supposed to have come from the Ui Neill kingdom in Ulster to Caledonia (Scotland) to settle and join with the Picts in defeating the Romans. The Scoti later defeated the Picts to rule what is now Scotland. Also, between 900 and 1050 AD some of the O'Neill clan of Ulster settled the Hebridean island of Barra and formed the Scots clan MacNeil. Later, some of Clan MacNeil moved to other Scottish islands, including Gigha and Colonsay as well as to Scottish coastal areas of Galloway around Wigtownshire. The name here became variants of MacNeillie and MakNely. For example, Black's Surnames of Scotland says that Duncan M'Nely was a witness in Wigtownshire in 1426 and Ronald Maknely in Galloway in 1473. Certainly the Scots and Irish share common ancestry and movement of peoples back and forth across the Irish Sea extends back into prehistory. The differences between the Ulster Scots and the Catholic Irish of Ulster from the early 1600s onwards were, therefore, probably based less on ancestry than on different experiences over the preceding few hundred years and on resulting differences in religion, politics, and circumstance.

Initially their move in the early 1600s from Scotland to Ulster did provide the Lowland Scots with the economic opportunity they desperately needed based on grants of confiscated lands by the Crown and on their own industrious development of that land. Probably as anticipated by the English, the Scots worked and married almost entirely within their own group; certainly the Plantation system gave all of the Protestant settlers much more incentive to guard themselves and their land against the surrounding Catholic Irish than to mingle with them. Even at its most favored and prosperous, however, the Scots' situation in Ulster was tenuous and subject to arbitrary changes in Crown policy as well as to the destruction and danger of religiously and politically inspired wars.

Second and third generation Ulster Neelys.

There are records that two Neely brothers, William of Burt and John Neely of Cumber from Donegal, were in the Laggan Army and received grants of land in County Tyrone in 1650 from the Crown. The Laggan Army was formed in the Derry area under the command of Sir Robert Stewart in response to the 1641 Irish rebellion in the North against English rule. John Neely of Cumber received a Royal grant of 600 Irish acres at Glencul along with the title of Laird for his service, and William of Burt received 300 Irish acres at nearby Ballymagowan. John and William Neely also appear in the 1666 Muster Roll for County Tyrone. The 1666 Hearth Money Rolls (listing of houses with fireplaces and therefore subject to taxes) list John Neely in Tyrone and Robert and Matthew Neely in Donegal.

The register of Derry Cathedral lists another John Neely as being born on June 15, 1657 to John Neely of Cumber. We have nicknamed this John as John "Siege" Neely because of the active roll he and another relative, William (a Sergeant during the siege and possibly a son of Matthew), played in the siege of Londonderry in 1689. In 1688, John and William Neely appear on a Tyrone Muster Roll for the defense of Dungannon against the forces of James II.

In the "List of those attained in James' Dublin Parliament in May 1689," is listed John Neely of Ballynasaggart in Co. Tyrone. It is likely this was John of Cumber who was Laird of the Glencul estate and about 64 years old. John's land was confiscated. Dungannon was left to the army of James while the Protestant families of the area marched to Londonderry where they were besieged in April 1689. John "Siege" and Sergeant William Neely, are listed in the Londonderry defenders rolls. Sergeant Neely is mentioned in Captain Ash's account "Battle of the Cows" in which some of Londonderry's defenders sallied out to defeat an inattentive enemy unit and seize food for the starving inhabitants of the city. In 1690, the Protestant army under William of Orange finally defeated James IPs army at the Battle of the Boyne. It is not known if John of Cumber or Sergeant William survived the siege of Londonderry and the Battle of the Boyne since there is no further record of them. John "Siege" Neely definitely did survive and the family lands in Tyrone were returned by the new King William. It is likely that he fought in the Battle of Boyne. Evidently, his uncle, William of Burt, was able to retain his land at Ballymagowan until sometime after 1690 when he went to settle in Nottingham, England; he would have been about 70.

Why the Neelys decided to leave Ulster for America.

During the late 1600s and early 1700s the situation for the Scots in Ulster deteriorated rapidly. Religious liberties for those not belonging to the (Anglican) Church of Ireland were revoked. The Penal Laws, imposed after the English solidified their control of Ireland in the 1691 Treaty of Limerick, forbade public worship by Catholics and Calvinists alike and removed recognition of Calvinist clergy as well as handicapping non-Anglicans in property transactions, in education, and in the professions. Crown taxes and rents were raised repeatedly making the title to their land increasingly tenuous, and long periods of drought led to repeated crop failures.

Based on the limited information about the Neelys living in Tyrone at the time, Thomas Neely, Sr. may have been John "Siege" Neely's third son. The presumed oldest son, John "Original Laird" Neely, inherited his father's title and much of his property while the future economic and political situation in Ulster must have appeared increasingly threatening to Thomas. Thomas's decision to take his family to the New World, therefore, probably was made for the same reasons that his ancestor, William, decided to come to Ulster and that his descendants in America later decided to keep moving west for the prospect of better economic opportunity and greater freedom in the new location.

Thomas was not alone in his decision. From the late 1600s onwards other Neelys began to immigrate to America with the earliest waves of the Ulster Scots. Although very small by comparison with the migration of Irish Catholics in the 1800s, over 3,000 immigrants from Ulster arrived in America between 1721 and 1742. The sons of Rufus Neely may have been among the first, arriving in Ulster and Orange Counties, New York in the early 1700s. There is a record of a John Neely who purchased land there in 1705. A settlement called Neelytown or Neeleytown, New York was established, and the town records list many Neelys from 1714 onwards. As the Neelys arrived in New York and elsewhere, the spelling was done phonetically so that we have records of Neeley, Neelly, Nealy, etc., as well as Neely. More Neelys from Ulster began arriving in Pennsylvania and other eastern states around 1730, then moving south to Virginia and the Carolinas in the mid 1700s for new land. The Neelys were in the forefront of the early pioneers in American history. They were prominent in the Revolutionary War and then moved west through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, and other states.