Volume 4, Number 4 - Summer 1971

Scotch-Irish Heritage
By Fred DeArmond

People who never look backward to their ancestors will never look forward to posterity. —Edmund Burke

The chief ethnic strain among native Ozarks people is called Scotch-Irish. But it’s a meaningless term to anyone who has not read about its background.

As a young and curious schoolboy in Webster County, I recall asking my grandmother DeArmond, "Granny, what were the Scotch-Irish?" Her answer was, "Lawsy, chile, I don’t know. I reckon they musta been a mixture o’ the Scotch and the Irish." The answer sounded reasonable, but it was not until I had dipped considerably into history that I understood how wrong Granny was. Although she was pure Scotch-Irish from East Tennessee, she didn’t know about her origin.

When someone explains a hereditary trait by saying "It’s the Scotch in us," he conjures up a vision of a tough-minded, tightfisted individualist. If it’s "the Irish in us," that suggests a peculiar brand of wit combined with a combative and gregarious nature. How, then, are we to describe a combination of these two?

Actually, of course, the Scotch-Irish label does not properly denote such a combination at all. Many who use the term are not aware of its origin or meaning. And yet according to John Fiske, most notable historian of our colonial era, "This sturdy population, distilled through the Pennsylvania alembic, has formed the main strength of American democracy."

In order to clarify this paradox in the "Scotch-Irish" terminology, we shall have to go back to the old Whitehall Palace in London, on a day in September 1607, only four months after the English had planted the first permanent colony in America. King James I was disturbed by reports of further turbulence in his unruly Irish dominion. He decided to act on a proposal by Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, to repeople the island with Protestants.

That was the beginning of the Ulster Plantation. What then formed nine counties of Northern Ireland (now six counties) was actually re-peopled in the 17th century with Protestants from Northern England and the Lowlands of Scotland. The proportion was roughly four Scots to one Englishman. They largely displaced what Macaulay referred to as the "aboriginal Irish," who were almost wholly Catholic. The Scots were Presbyterians and the English Anglicans with some dissenting creeds.

Thus we have the Scotch-Irish who later were to be such a large factor in settling the New World. They disliked the term because they held the native Irish in contempt as an inferior people. The Irish, on their part, were equally averse to being linked in any way with a people they hated as invaders. But language grows without consent and in spite of ordinance. And so a hyphenated term that was repulsive to both parties and misleading in context was woven into history.

The incident has a rough parallel in the Democratic-Republican Party of Madison’s and Monroe’s time.

It is one of the ironies of British empire rule that having settled Ulster with people of the Protestant faith, it was not long until the British were presecuting the residents of the Plantation for holding to their dissenting Presbyterianism. By 1715 the Anglican church establishment had been so tightened that Presbyterians could not hold civil or military office, nor be married by their own ministers.

Even more galling to the Orangemen (as they came to be called after the Revolution of 1688 when William, Prince of Orange, became joint sovereign with his Queen Mary) were the trade restrictions imposed by the English as though on "foreigners." The transplanted Scotch and English had made agriculture and stock-raising thrive on the rocky hills of Ulster. They had introduced flax growing and built a high-quality linen industry, and were engaging in superior woolen manufacture. Deprived of the right to export their goods even to the motherland or the other English colonies or to import from anywhere but England, their source of a livelihood was narrowed to bare subsistence.

It was under these circumstances that there began early in the 18th century and continued until around 1775 the great exodus of the Scotch-Irish to America. Within about


a half century, fully half of the Ulsterites had emigrated. At the time of the American Revolution they constituted no less than one-sixth of the whole population in the 13 colonies.

They came over, says W. E. H. Lecky, "their hearts burning with indignation, and in the War of Independence they were almost to a man on the side of the insurgents." It was these comparative newcomers to the colonies, or their near descendants, who contributed 12 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 12 of the 54 delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The Mecklenburg Resolves voted by Scotch-Irish in North Carolina anticipated by more than a year the famous Declaration at Philadelphia which marked the birth of our nation.

One of the interesting footnotes to history records the proposal by Benjamin Franklin that in tribute to the Scotch-Irish zeal for the cause of independence, the Continental Congress should except Ireland from the non-importation agreement by the colonies. While this idea was found impracticable, the Congress did address a special apology to the people of Ireland for the necessity that forced them "to cease our commercial connexion with your island."

Shortly thereafter the British government yielded to Ireland what it had refused the American colonies—an end to the restrictions on commerce.

As the war went on and they faced the British at Cowpens, King’s Mountain and a generation later in New Orleans, these mountain men with their precision rifles gave fearful account of their fighting prowess. They made up a good part of the Pennsylvania Line on whom Washington could rely more than on any other regiments in the Continental Army.

In large part the Ulsterites came to Pennsylvania. They had an inherent aversion to large centers of population, and so found homes to the west of the Susquehanna. This was Indian frontier and full of dangers. Accustomed as they soon became to stealthy sharpshooting and bloody scalpings, the implacable nature of the war the Scotch-Irish waged against the Red Man is understandable if not always excusable.

Forever seeking wider horizons and new clearing sites, the great mass of adopted sons of Erin trended south into the Cumberland and Shenandoah valleys and on into North Carolina. From there, during and after the Revolution, they turned their faces to the West, into Tennessee and Kentucky and thence to the Ozarks of Southern Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. Part of their tide spilled over into the highlands of Georgia and Alabama. They have always been inherently mountain men. Their ancestral "Lowlands" of Scotland were rolling hills, low only by contrast with the Trossachs and other high ranges in the north of Scotland. The Scottish "Highlands" had been peopled by a strictly Celtic race, high churchmen with a goodly sprinkling of Catholics—both traditional enemies of the Lowland Covenanters.

Stout fighters to establish the nation, the Scotch-Irish proved equally valiant in preserving it from dissolution 85 years later. In the Civil War they were predominantly loyal to the Union wherever they lived. Horace Kephart ("Our Southern Highlanders") says that the Appalachian mountain area sent 180,000 riflemen into the Union armies.

John Fox, Jr., the Kentucky novelists, described the Southern highlanders of Scotch-Irish descent as "a long, lean, powerful arm of the Union, stretched through the very vitals" of the Confederacy.

These were the men who saved Kentucky from joining the South, "seceded from secession" by splitting off the western mountain counties of Viriginia into a free state, and in cooperation with the German element in St. Louis, held Missouri for the old flag. They formed a united and unconquerable Federal island in East Tennessee. They were the main Union strength in Western Maryland.

John Fiske relates an incident in his "Mississippi Valley in the Civil War" illustrative of the loyalty of these "Yankees of the South."

When two of Foote’s gunboats ascended the Tennessee River into Northern Alabama they found in some places the shores crowded with people loudly cheering their arrival and throwing up their hats with glee at sight of the Union flag.

When we remember that the rural South was more warlike than the industrial North, and that for more than two years the war in the East, with Confederate generalship of a high order, went uniformly against the Union, it seems that these highlanders in the Union Army, together with the westerners, decided the issue in the end. Grant’s army at Shiloh and Vicksburg and Sherman’s army in the drive on Atlanta were largely composed of these western and mountain men. Speaking of Sherman’s legions, his great adversary, General Joe Johnston, said: "I made up my


mind that there had been no such army since Julius Caesar’s time."

The fighting qualities and iron resolution displayed in the Revolution and the Civil War came of a deeply cherished tradition brought over from Ulster. Twice after the plantation the Ulsterites had, with belated assistance for England, repelled fierce assaults from the southern Irish bent on expelling them from the island. In the bloody uprising of 1641, at least 8000 Scotch and English civilians were slaughtered in a no-quarter attempt at annihilating the Protestants. Then Cromwell went over from England with an army of his veteran Roundheads and put down the insurrection with equal barbarity.

Again in 1688, during the Civil War between the followers of deposed James II— last of the Catholic kings of England—and King William "of glorious memory," the Scotch and English were pushed back to the sea in the north and beleaguered within the walled towns of Londonderry and Enniskillen. The Homeric epic of that war was the long siege of Londonderry, described by Macaulay as "the most memorable siege in the annals of the British Isles."

Closely invested in this fortress by the vastly superior .army of King James, the Ulsterites repelled every assault and even made frequent brilliant sallies outside the walls, in one of which they killed the commander of the besiegers. But the defenders’ food ran out until they had to live by gnawing on old hides and consuming a few skinny horses, rats, and dogs fattened upon the blood and flesh of the dead. When the besieged were at their very last extremity, a squadron of English ships finally broke a blockading boom into the harbor to bring food and raise the siege.

Henry Jones Ford in his "The Scotch-Irish in America" tells the story of a Presbyterian preacher named Matthew Clark, a veteran of the great siege, who came to New Hampshire at the age of 70 to help settle the town of Londonderry in the New World. Clark wore a patch over his right eye to cover an unhealed wound received in one of the Londonderry sallies. When the old man died in 1735, forty-seven years after this memorable event, in compliance with a deathbed request his body was borne to the grave by survivors of the Londonderry siege.

We have seen in this sketchy account of the Scotch-Irish in war and colonization one marked aspect of their character. But men ho will fight stoutly in defense of their homes or for an idea are not rare. We can find accounts of such in the annals of all ages and nearly all peoples. What else distinguished the Scotch-Irish? What manner of men were they in other respects?

Probably their second most marked trait was religious fervor. They were Puritans in the Scotch Covenanter sense. They believed passionately in religious freedom for themselves, even though like other groups who settled in America, they were not always willing to accord the same freedom to others. It was their fortune in the lands of their fathers to be dissenters who paid a price for adherence to their faith.

Vance Randolph has described a bred-in-the-bone Ozarker as one who "always drinked his whiskey reverend and taken his quinine the same way." In a sense that is typical of the Ulster Orangeman’s religion. Even today his descendants prefer to take their religion straight. And if there is any quinine to be imbibed he is not unwilling to take it the same way.

We hear much about church "discipline," and the word is used here in quotes, by design. Among the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of two centuries or more ago, no quotes were necessary in using the word. A Reverend John Livingston thus describes church discipline in 17th century Ulster:

We (the session) met every week and such as fell into notorius public scandal we desired to come before us. Such as came were dealt with, both in public and private, to confess their scandal in the presence of the congregation at the Saturday sermon before Communion, which was celebrated twice a year. Such as after dealing would not come before us, or coming would not be convinced to acknowledge their fault before the congregation, their names, scandals and impenitency were read out before the congregation, and they were debarred from the Communion.

An example of these penalties is cited by Ford from an old 17th century record, in which a church session had prescribed "That John Cowan shall stand opposite the pulpit and confess his sin in the face of the public of beating his wife on the Lord’s Day."

A testimonial from a pastor, brought over by an Ulster immigrant to the colonies, read:


The bearer, William Caldwell, his wife, Sarah Morrison, with his children, being designed to go to New England in America—These are therefor to testifie they leave us without scandal, lived with us soberly and inoffensively, and may be admitted to Church priviledges. Give at Dunboe, April 9, 1718. —James Woodside, Jr., Minister.

This restrained style might well be emulated by writers of letters of recommendation.

The preaching of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian ministers was not milk-and-water theology or abstract philosophical discourses. A Reverend Robert Blair recorded in a letter that "The people were much affected by 2 sermons I preached in 1 day—one on heaven’s glory, another on hell’s torments."

A contemporary of Blair’s paid this tribute to his powers: "I have seen them myself stricken and swoon with the word— yes, a dozen a day carried out of doors as dead, so marvelous was the power of God smiting their hearts for sin."

That the Puritan faith of the Scotch-Irish survived on into the 20th century and even in some communities of the Cumberlands and the Ozarks today is attested by many observers. Other denominations thrived among the highlanders. Thomas Campbell, Kentucky founder of the Campbellites or Disciples of Christ, was of direct Scotch descent. Doubtless many faithful worshippers of that church and the Methodist, Baptist, and other evangelical groups are unaware that their forbears were predominantly Presbyterians.

One of the most characteristic traits of these people is a parsimony with words and emotions. Not that they are at a loss for words to express themselves. When an Ozarker tells his wife that he is "plumb bodaciously burnt out on these vittles " he leaves her in no doubt that he is demanding a change in menus. Or, when, he describes an angry neighbor as "all swelled up like a pizened pup" his simile carries more impact than a string of Latinized adjectives.

But the Scotch-Irish have ever been economical in their use of language. This faculty for salty and concise understatement is not the only respect in which they resemble the Yankee. The fact that the Scotch-Irish are in part Northern English, and that the old-time settlers in New England were strongly derived from the counties of Yorkshire, Cumberland and Northumberland, suggests a kinship with the pioneers who came West by way of Ulster.

The Scotch-Irish lineage was well exemplified in Davy Crockett. When the first popularizer of the coonskin cap was running for Congress in Tennessee he was to debate the issues at a backwoods picnic with his opponent. The latter, a great spellbinder in the region, held forth learnedly on the tariff and the national bank. Crockett knew little or nothing about either subject, but he was in no wise disconcerted. When it came his turn to speak, he made a few friendly remarks, then asked his all-male audience if they would like to wet their whistles. Their response was said to have been a spontaneous and cordial Yes. It was Crockett who won the election.

The hillmen have long been known to hold in silent contempt that sort of person who is said in immemorial metaphor to wear his heart on his sleeve. They want no kissing and dear-ing and honey-ing and back-slapping in public. A Missouri boy from one of the back southern-border counties had been away for three years campaigning in the South Pacific. When he returned to his farm home after the Japanese surrender, he felt it was sufficient to shake his mother’s hand and say, "Howdy Ma!" And Ma would have been embarrassed by any more display of affection. They spoke through their eyes and hearts.

In view of what has been said, the last distinguishing merit of the Scotch-Irish to be considered may read like paradox. This is their zeal for education. While fighting the Irish and later the Indians, and at the same time carrying on a continuous battle with an unkind Nature in their native hills, they found time to pursue the life of the mind.

John Fiske says that at the beginning of the 18th century Ulster probably had a lower percentage of illiteracy than anywhere else in the world. A petition to one of the colonial governors in America asking for advice about emigrating was signed by 322 men. Only 13 had to make their mark. Macaulay says they spoke English with remarkable purity. Authorities such as H. L. Mencken and Vance Randolph have pointed out that the native dwellers in the Appalachians and the Ozarks speak the language in purer locutions than many Londoners or Bostonians. Shakespeare is their witness.

It was the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who established Princeton as the fourth institution of higher learning in America. This was followed by a long list of colleges, including Hampden Sidney, Washington and Jefferson, The University of Pennsylvania, Transylvania, Western Reserve, and Berea. Pen-


nsylvania, original rallying ground of the transplanted Orangemen, was the first state to make provision for free public schools.

Because so much that is good can be said about the Scotch-Irish and their 20th century descendants, it must not be supposed that these people were without fault. The very merits of their character bred a stubbornness, a pride, and a capacity for hearty hating that often made them less than admirable. Although they and their direct lineage have given the country 13 of its 33 Presidents, a majority of its top military genius, and a proud list of statesmen, authors, inventors, and clergymen, we must charge against this credit a not inconsiderable debit of bigots, outlaws, and Jukeses.

In their long westward march from Ulster to the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma, the race of Orangemen experienced a continuous dilution of their Caledonian blood. It is said that emigrants are either the best or the worst of their race. Those who leave the land of their birth because they refuse to submit to oppression by church or state, and who are unafraid of the hazards waiting them in a new land, are among the best of their kind. Those who leave their old homes simply because they are incapable of holding their own in the competitive struggle for existence are among the worst.

The Scotch-Irish were screened three times—when they left Scotland for Ulster, when they quitted Ulster for America, and again when they followed the expanding American frontier to the South and West. It is significant that they were joined in Ulster by a considerable migration of Huguenots from the South of France who were forced to leave or give up their faith at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685.

Barriers of blood, nationality, and religion kept the Orangemen from intermarriage with the Irish, but in Pennsylvania they became intermingled to some extent with the German and Quaker population. Farther south in Virginia and the Carolinas they crossed the path of the English Cavalier type and the bond-servant element that formed the nucleus of what came to be known as the poor white trash of the South.

From this latter mingling there was bred into the southern highlanders a certain shiftlessness foreign to the nature of the Ulster emigrants. Perhaps we have here an explanation of why some hill farmers will still splash through the same mudhole from road to barnlot for 40 years, when a wagon load of their abundant rock crop would bridge it permanently.

We have mentioned the Scotch-Irish contribution to war of the squirrel rifle—as great a revolution as that from pike and sword to the long bow at Poitiers and Agincourt. They also brought to their new homes another innovation with equal capacity for destruction—that of Scotch whiskey. The English national drink was ale, but the Scotch, and also the Irish proper who came to America in large numbers in the 19th century, preferred whiskey. The kind made from corn is a strictly American product out of the fastnesses of the Appalachians, and even more potent in its effect than true Scotch.

So we cannot deny that somewhere along their migratory route some of the Scotch-Irish acquired a singular aptness in "moonshinin’, fightin’, and feudin!’ while their women did the work. Thus they manifested their scorn for chivalry and all too often for the majesty of the law, whether personified by revenue agents or deputy sheriffs sworn to enforce other means of settling disputes than with rifles at 100 paces.

But enough positive values in our Scotch-Irish heritage have survived the vicissitudes of war and peace to give it a large credit balance. The chief product of the region indigenous to the descendants of the Ulster Plantation colonists is still its crops of superior men and women, most of them exported to other sections of the Nation to supply leadership in business, the arts and professions, and government.


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