SCOTCH-IRISH, a term referring to a migrant group of Protestant settlers from Scotland to northern Ireland in the seventeenth century and their subsequent migration to the American colonies in the eighteenth century, is an Americanism, a term seldom heard in Ireland and the United Kingdom and seldom used by British historians. Although it was first used during the colonial period—alongside "Irish," "Ulster Irish," "Northern Irish," and "Irish Presbyterians"—to describe the Irish in America, it fell out of general use by the time of the early republic, only to be renewed after the mass migration of Irish Catholics to the United States (1846–1856) as a means of distinguishing Irish Americans in terms of religion, culture, and class.
From 1606 to the end of the seventeenth century, a large number of migrants, mostly from the lowlands of Scotland, settled in the province of Ulster, northern Ireland, where many of them became tenant farmers. Though the lands originated as a private venture for Scottish investors, James I placed them under royal authority, claiming the lands of the defeated Irish rebels for the crown in 1607 and backing the colonial scheme in a royal missive to the Scottish Privy Council in 1609. His aim was to pacify the Scottish borders, relieving the kingdom of "reivers" ("rustlers") and the dispossessed of the borderlands. What is more, he anticipated that the largely Presbyterian emigrants would provide a buffer zone against the Irish Catholics, to be God's bulldogs, as it were. His plan worked and the plantation flourished for much of the century. By 1620, as many as 50,000 lowland Scots had settled in the Ulster province, followed by another 50,000 by the beginning of the English civil wars (1640). Economic, religious, and political conditions in northern Ireland by the end of the century, however, brought the enterprise to a standstill, instigating yet another migration—this time to the New World.
The migration of the Scotch-Irish to the American colonies, sometimes called the "great migration" by American historians, took place approximately between the years 1717 and 1776 and was largely the result of high rents, low wages, and parliamentary regulation. Although small pockets of Scotch-Irish were already arriving in America during the seventeenth century, it was not until 1717, with the transplantation of 5,000 Ulstermen to Pennsylvania, that the "great migration" got underway, culminating in about 200,000 Scotch-Irishmen in America by the beginning of the Revolution. Most of them entered the colonies by way of Philadelphia and settled in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania. Others moved to the backcountry of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, where they built a buffer zone against the French and Indians as far north as western Pennsylvania and parts of New York. Smaller pockets also settled in New England and along the eastern seaboard, but their numbers were dwarfed by the migration en masse to the backcountry, where the Scotch-Irish became the dominant group and the vanguard of the frontier movement in the nineteenth century.
Culturally, the Scotch-Irish were known as independent frontiersmen who carried a rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other. As the councilman of Pittsburgh, Robert Garland, summarized their coming to America, "They were pioneers, frontiersmen, these Scotch-Irish: their general equipment consisted of a rifle, the Bible, and the Psalms of David." Most were Presbyterians, but some converted to other noncomformist religions, like Methodism and Baptism, and sided with the new side revival movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Presbyterians, the Scotch-Irish, though not with the same intensity as that of their puritan neighbors, promoted literacy and higher education—literacy, that is, in the sense of allowing one to read the scriptures, and higher education in the sense of supplying an educated ministry. Besides the dissenting academies, which were usually built in the back parts of America, the Scotch-Irish were involved in the founding of the colleges of New Jersey (now Princeton), Dickinson, Allegheny, and Hampden-Sydney, and the universities of Delaware, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. Their support of literacy and education, however, had its limits. As God's frontiersmen, they applauded virility and physical strength more profusely. "Honor in this society," as one historian described it, "meant a pride of manhood in masculine courage, physical strength, and warrior virtue" (Fischer, p. 690). Considering the long history of warfare in the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland, physical strength and manly courage were not simply a matter of honor, but a means of survival, which the Scotch-Irish transplanted to the borderlands of America during the colonial period and to the conquest of the West in the nineteenth century.
The significance of the Scotch-Irish in North America might be summarized by their numbers at the end of the "great migration." Comprising no less than 10 to 15 percent of the population in the United States by 1776, they became ardent supporters of the American Revolution and were the backbone of Washington's army. Perhaps their fierce independence and family histories of parliamentary regulation between the years 1665 and 1680—as well as the Woolens Act of 1699 and the religious test of 1704—heightened their anti-British sentiment. Whatever the case, the Scotch-Irish were ardent supporters of the revolutionary cause from the very beginning. As the historian George Bancroft summarized their support in the early years of the war, "the first voice publicly raised in America to dissolve all connection with Great Britain came, not from the Puritans of New England, nor from the Dutch of New York, nor from the cavaliers from Virginia, but from the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians."
Notable Americans of Scotch-Irish descent include the composer Stephen C. Foster, the financier and statesman Andrew W. Mellon, the frontiersman Davy Crockett, the inventors Robert Fulton, Samuel Morse, and Cyrus McCormack, and the writers Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of the U.S. presidents, those who can claim some sort of Scotch-Irish lineage are James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. That is to say, about 47 percent of U.S. presidents were of Scotch-Irish descent, and of 216 years of the presidency, 113 of those years were occupied by a president of Scotch-Irish descent.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction. New York: Knopf, 1986.
———. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Chepesiuk, Ronald. The Scotch-Irish: From the North of Ireland to the Making of America. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000.
Fischer, David H. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Garland, Robert. "The Scotch Irish in Western Pennsylvania," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 6 (1923): 65–105.
Glasgow, Maude. The Scotch-Irish in Northern Ireland and in the American Colonies. New York: Putnam, 1936.
Green, E. R. R., ed. Essays in Scotch-Irish History. London: Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.
Jackson, Carlton. A Social History of the Scotch-Irish. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1993.
Montgomery, Eric. The Scotch-Irish in America's History. Belfast: Ulster-Scot Historical Society, 1965.
"Scotch-Irish." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 8, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/scotch-irish
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