Tracing the Scots-Irish

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Tracing the Scots-Irish

They’ve been called a people without a name. Their roots go back to Scotland, but don’t think tartans and bagpipes. They were Lowlanders, mostly coming from the border regions of Galloway, Dumfries, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Argyllshire and Lanarkshire in the west and Edinburgh, the Lothians, and Berwickshire in the east. They spoke English and were Protestant, specifically Presbyterian.

They were different from their Highland cousins. They didn’t wear kilts, didn’t belong to clans, or speak Gaelic. But they weren’t English either. They didn’t support the Anglican Church. They held onto the memory of bloody massacres that their ancestors suffered at the hands of English conquerors centuries earlier.

Their history in Scotland was not pleasant. These people were caught, both geographically and politically, between the English to the south and the Highlanders to the north.

In the seventeenth century, when Scottish and English land-grant owners sought tenants to populate the northern region of Ireland and drive out the Catholics, the Lowland Scots fit the bill. They were not Catholic and they spoke English. To the English monarchy, the Lowland Scots were preferable to the Irish Catholics. The downtrodden Lowlanders had suffered endless cattle raids, had themselves resorted to such raids because of their poverty, and had lived on infertile, over-farmed land for centuries. The prospect of large, bountiful tenant farms in Ireland, a short jaunt across the Irish Sea, was more than appealing.

But as the decades passed, the transplanted Scots became known as dissenters. They did not vow allegiance to the Church of England, detesting tithing to a church they didn’t support, and were governed by the Penal Laws. Those laws prevented dissenters from voting, bearing arms or serving in the military. Dissenters could not be married, baptized or buried with the assistance of any minister who was not ordained by the church of the state.

When rents came due on many of the farms they lived on, the cost rose double — or more. This practice was called rack-renting. Those who worked in the linen industry also suffered at this time because England had begun preventing the Irish from exporting their product beyond the mother country.

Family members who had already ventured to America sent back glowing reports about the fruitful land. Ship owners sent men to the countryside to extol the benefits of emigration to the peasants. While some departed seeking adventure, most Ulster residents didn’t want to leave Ireland, but their backs were against the wall. Ireland held no opportunities.

There were five time periods when the Scots-Irish emigrated in large numbers: 1717-18, when a destructive drought killed crops, the linen industry was crippled and rack-renting prevailed; 1725-29, when continued rack-renting and poverty prompted such a massive departure that even the English Parliament became concerned (it feared losing Protestant majority in the area); 1740-41, when a famine struck and letters from relatives living in America were persuasive; 1754-55, a time of a disastrous drought; and 1771-1775, when leases on the large estate of the marquis of Donegal in County Antrim expired and the tenants couldn’t afford to renew them. Years when economic pressures in Ireland were the greatest were when large exoduses occurred. The numbers dropped during the years of the French and Indian Wars (1754-63) and came to a crashing halt during the American Revolution.

Today, the people living in Ulster still remember their relatives who sailed for America.

The Scots-Irish, like other groups of American immigrants, came to the New World to escape economic and religious hardships. Wealthy people and people of influence rarely braved the harsh Atlantic voyage. The Scots-Irish had plenty of reason to come, and come they did. It’s estimated that between 1717 and 1775, a quarter-million people emigrated from Ulster to America. At the time of the American Revolution, at least one out of every 15 Americans was Scots-Irish.

Ocean travel was not inexpensive, and most often the people willing to make the trip were the ones who could least afford it. Most came as indentured servants. Someone in America would pay for the passage, and the traveler would labor in return for a period of time, usually between one and seven years. At the term’s end, the person usually had acquired a trade. In addition, some were given clothes and money. Not all indentured servants were treated well, however. Some were handled more harshly than slaves from Africa because indentured servants were temporary help, not valued property!

The Scots-Irish of the eighteenth century considered themselves Irish. Many came from families who had lived in Ireland for 150 years. It wasn’t until the Irish immigrants of the 1845-49 potato famine arrived that this group began distinguishing themselves as Scots-Irish. Today the distinction helps researchers identify the group. By and large, the Scots-Irish migration was complete when the American Revolution began in earnest in 1776. Conversely, nearly all of the Irish-Catholic immigrants arrived in America in the middle of the nineteenth century or later.
The early Scots-Irish pioneers to America settled in the western part of Pennsylvania, where they found the Quakers more to their liking than the Catholics in Maryland or the Anglicans in Virginia. Most of the Scots-Irish arrived in Philadelphia, so records held in that area might prove beneficial to researchers.

By 1730 the Scots-Irish had made their way into the lush Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the most western region of the British Colonies. The Scots-Irish, serving as a buffer against the Indians, enjoyed religious freedom because they were virtually ignored by the tidewater Virginians.

Always on the move, the Scots-Irish populated the Piedmont country of the Carolinas in the mid-eighteenth century. Many of these settlers were new arrivals from Ulster who found Pennsylvania and Virginia too crowded for their liking and moved southward; some were migrating from northern regions for the second, third, or even fourth time.

After the war with England ended in 1783, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had declared lands west of the mountains off-limits to white settlers, was ignored. The restless Scots-Irish led the way behind such trailblazers as Daniel Boone.

As the Scots-Irish moved into the frontier, away from the Presbyterian influence, many became Methodists or Baptists; some abandoned their faith altogether. They intermarried — the reason that so many Americans can trace their roots to this group. Most lost their native dialect or blended it with others. Today’s Appalachian dialects are forms of Scottish and Irish brogues. There are not Scots-Irish parades or ethnic neighborhoods; these people became fully American.

Many of the founding fathers, including John Hancock and Charles Thomson, were of Scots-Irish heritage. Fourteen U.S. presidents ranging from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush boast Scots-Irish bloodlines.

The Presbyterian Church had a direct influence on America’s educational system. Church members often emigrated together and the dearth of ministers in America was a problem. Presbyterian ministers were required to be educated, and there were not enough coming to America from Scottish institutions. The solution was for America to educate its own, and so universities sprung up. In addition, the Scots-Irish embraced the conviction of John Knox to put a school in every parish for the education of the general public. Most emigrants from Ulster could write their names on ships’ registers. They carried a belief in the importance of education with them into the frontier.

The Scots-Irish almost without exception supported America’s freedom fight; they were fierce patriots. Having been oppressed by Ireland by the English Parliament, they were unwilling to endure more tyranny in their new home. The Scots-Irish, however, did not come to America to escape the strict rules of their Presbyterian faith. In fact, the customs of that religion formed the basis by our government — early officials were influenced by the religion’s system of courts while building the American system.

Economically, the Scots-Irish had an impact because they practiced self-reliance — God helps those who help themselves. They can be credited neither with originating this concept nor the concept of freedom, but their large numbers at the time of the American Revolution helped to ingrain their convictions into those of America’s.

Although researchers should seek to understand their particular ancestors and their customs, convictions and motivations, all Americans can claim the Scots-Irish as their forbears, whether they find Scots-Irish blood in their lines or not.

This group has had a lasting influence on our society.

(Revised, Cindy Thompson)


2 thoughts on “Tracing the Scots-Irish

  1. Hi, this is an article I wrote a long time ago that first appeared Jan/Feb 2005 in Everton’s Genealogical Helper. It has been shared a lot, and I’m happy to share, but if you would, please use the copyright symbol with my name: Cindy Thomson. A link back to my web site is always appreciated: Happy researching!


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