The Scotch-Irish in Virginia

John Fiske
Old Virginia and Her Neighbours

Until recent years, little has been written about the coming of the so-called Scotch-Irish to America, and yet it is an event of scarcely less importance than the exodus of English Puritans to New England and that of English Cavaliers to Virginia.

It is impossible to understand the drift which American history, social and political, has taken since the time of Andrew Jackson, without studying the early life of the Scotch-Irish population of the Alleghany regions, the pioneers of the American backwoods.

I do not mean to be understood as saying that the whole of that population at the time of our Revolutionary War was Scotch-Irish, for there was a considerable German element in it, besides an infusion of English moving inward from the coast. But the Scotch-Irish element was more numerous and far more important than all the others.

A detailed account of it belongs especially with the history of Pennsylvania, since that colony was the principal centre of its distribution throughout the south and west; but a brief mention of its coming is indispensable in any sketch of Old Virginia and Her Neighbours.[1]

Who were the people called by this rather awkward compound name, Scotch-Irish? The answer carries us back to the year 1611, when James I. began peopling Ulster with colonists from Scotland and the north of England. The plan was to put into Ireland a Protestant population that might ultimately outnumber the Catholics and become the controlling element in the country.

The settlers were picked men and women of the most excellent sort. By the middle of the seventeenth century there were 300,000 of them in Ulster. That province had been the most neglected part of the island, a wilderness of bogs and fens; they transformed it into a garden.

They also established manufactures of woollens and linens which have ever since been famous throughout the world.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century their numbers had risen to nearly a million.

Their social condition was not that of peasants; they were intelligent yeomanry and artisans. In a document signed in 1718 by a miscellaneous group of 319 men, only 13 made their mark, while 306 wrote their names in full. Nothing like that could have happened at that time in any other part of the British Empire, hardly even in New England.

When these people began coming to America, those families that had been longest in Ireland had dwelt there but for three generations, and confusion of mind seems to lurk in any nomenclature which couples them with the true Irish.

The antipathy between the Scotch-Irish as a group and the true Irish as a group is perhaps unsurpassed for bitterness and intensity. On the other hand, since love laughs at feuds and schisms, intermarriages between the colonists of Ulster and the native Irish were by no means unusual, and instances occur of Murphys and McManuses of Presbyterian faith.

It was common in Ulster to allude to Presbyterians as “Scotch,” to Roman Catholics as “Irish,” and to members of the English church as “Protestants,” without much reference to pedigree. From this point of view the term “Scotch-Irish” may be defensible, provided we do not let it conceal the fact that the people to whom it applied are for the most part Lowland Scotch Presbyterians, very slightly hibernicized in blood.

The flourishing manufactures in Ulster aroused the jealousy of rival manufacturers in England, who in 1698 succeeded in obtaining legislation which seriously damaged the Irish linen and woollen industries and threw many workmen out of employment.

About the same time it became apparent that an epidemic fever of persecution had seized upon the English church. The violent reaction against the Counter-Reformation, with the fierce war against Louis XIV., had stimulated intolerance in all directions.

The same persecuting spirit which we have above witnessed as making trouble for the Carolinas and Maryland found also a vent in the severe disabilities inflicted in 1704 and following years upon Presbyterians in Ireland. They were forbidden to keep schools, marriages performed by their clergy were declared invalid, they were not allowed to hold any office higher than that of petty constable, and so on through a long list of silly and outrageous enactments.

For a few years this tyranny was endured in the hope that it was but temporary. By 1719 this hope had worn away, and from that year, until the passage of the Toleration Act for Ireland in 1782, the people of Ulster kept flocking to America.

Of all the migrations to America previous to the days of steamships, this was by far the largest in volume. One week of 1727 landed six ship-loads at Philadelphia. In the two years 1773 and 1774 more than 30,000 came. In 1770 one third of the population of Pennsylvania was Scotch-Irish.

Altogether, between 1730 and 1770, I think it probable that at least half a million souls were transferred from Ulster to the American colonies, making not less than one sixth part of our population at the time of the Revolution. Of these, very few came to New England; among their descendants were the soldiers John Stark and Henry Knox, and more lately the great naturalist Asa Gray.

Those who went to Pennsylvania received grants of land in the western mountain region. The policy of the government was to interpose them as a buffer between the expanding colony and the Indian frontier.

Once planted in the Alleghany region, they spread rapidly and in large numbers toward the southwest along the mountain country through the Shenandoah Valley and into the Carolinas. At a later time they formed almost the entire population of West Virginia, and they were the men who chiefly built up the commonwealths of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Among these Scotch-Irish were the Breckinridges, Alexanders, Lewises, Prestons, Campbells, Pickenses, Stuarts, McDowells, Johnstons, and Rutledges; Richard Montgomery, Anthony Wayne, Daniel Boone, James Robertson, George Rogers Clark, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Benton, Samuel Houston, John Caldwell Calhoun, Stonewall Jackson.

It was chiefly Scotch-Irish troops that won the pivotal battle at King’s Mountain, that crushed the Indians of Alabama, and overthrew Wellington’s veterans of the Spanish peninsula in that brief but acute agony at New Orleans.

When our Civil War came these men were a great power on both sides, but the influence of the chief mass of them was exerted on the side of the Union; it held Kentucky and a large part of Tennessee, and broke Virginia in twain.

It was about 1730 that the Scotch-Irish began to pour into the Shenandoah Valley.

“Governor Gooch was then dispensing the Valley lands so freely and indiscriminately that one Jacob Stover, it is said, secured many acres by giving his cattle human names as settlers; and a young woman, by dressing in various disguises of masculine attire, obtained several large farms.”[2]

Small farms, however, came to be the rule. The first Scotch-Irish settled along the Opequon River; and their very oldest churches, the Tuscarora Meeting-house near Martinsburg and the Opequon Church near Winchester, are still standing.

The Germans were not long in following them, and we see their mark on the map in such names as Strasburg and Hamburg.

This settlement of the Valley soon began to work profound modifications in the life of Old Virginia. Hitherto it had been purely English and predominantly Episcopal, Cavalier, and aristocratic. There was now a rapid invasion of Scotch Presbyterianism, with small farms, few slaves, and democratic ideas, made more democratic by life in the backwoods.

It was impossible that two societies so different in habits and ideas should coexist side by side, sending representatives to the same House of Burgesses, without a stubborn conflict. For two generations there was a ferment which resulted in the separation of church and state, complete religious toleration, the abolition of primogeniture and entails, and many other important changes, most of which were consummated under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson between 1776 and 1785.

Without the aid of the Valley population, these beginnings of metamorphosis in tidewater Virginia would not have been accomplished.

Jefferson is often called the father of modern American democracy; in a certain sense the Shenandoah Valley and adjacent Appalachian regions may be called its cradle. In that rude frontier society, life assumed many new aspects, old customs were forgotten, old distinctions abolished, social equality acquired even more importance than unchecked individualism.

The notions, sometimes crude and noxious, sometimes just and wholesome, which characterized Jacksonian democracy, flourished greatly on the frontier and have thence been propagated eastward through the older communities, affecting their legislation and their politics more or less according to frequency of contact and intercourse.

Massachusetts, relatively remote and relatively ancient, has been perhaps least affected by this group of ideas, but all parts of the United States have felt its influence powerfully.

This phase of democracy, which is destined to continue so long as frontier life retains any importance, can nowhere be so well studied in its beginnings as among the Presbyterian population of the Appalachian region in the eighteenth century.

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[1] In my next following work, entitled “The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America,” I hope to give a more detailed and specific account of the Scotch-Irish and their important work in this country.

[2] Conway’s Barons, p. 213; Kercheval’s History of the Valley of Virginia, Winchester, 1833, p. 65.