Scots-Irish?

This article first appeared in Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, 2012, Moorshead Magazines Ltd. ©Cindy Thomson

In genealogy research, as in most things in life, it’s helpful to have a guide. That is what magazines such as this one seek to accomplish. But when it comes to real hands-on research, there is no substitute for real, live contacts who have made this work their main occupation. So, if you are among the 22 million Americans, or several million Canadians, who have family lines labeled Ulster-Scot or Scots-Irish, go where the records and events exist.

Who Were the Scots-Irish?

Learning about the Scots-Irish with author Cindy ThomsonThese ancestors were Irish, but they were Scottish as well, and perhaps, even English. They are identified as an ethnic group coming from the English-Scottish border to Northern Ireland (Ulster) in the early 17th century.

In the 18th century, many of these people came to America because of economic or religious reasons. To understand this migration, you have to go back to the 17th century, when Scottish and English land-grant owners sought tenants to populate the northern region of Ireland and drive out the native Catholics. The Lowland Scots fit the bill. They were Protestant, mainly Presbyterian, and they spoke English. The down-trodden Lowlanders had suffered endless cattle raid, 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 because 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, which oppressed them as well as the Catholics. The British government gave these statues the title: “Law in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery”, but they were commonly known as the Penal Laws and 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 official church of the state; thus, their own church sanctions were invalid and illegal.

Inch Abbey. Learn about the Scots Irish with author Cindy Thomson

Inch Abbey, Downpatrick, County Down

Even so, by the time many of these people came to North America in the 18th century, some of the restrictive laws had loosened. The damage had been done, however, and the dissenters were bitter. To further aggravate the situation, when rents came due on many of the farms they lived on, the cost doubled, or more, in a practice called rack-renting. Those who worked in the linen industry also suffered at this time, because the Crown had begun to prevent the Irish from exporting their product anywhere but to England.

Family members who had already ventured to the New World sent back glowing reports about the ample, fertile land. Ship owners dispatched men to Ireland’s countryside peasants to extol the benefits of emigration. While some departed seeking adventure, most Ulster men and women did not want to leave Ireland, but their backs were against the wall. Ireland held no opportunities for these families.

When Did They Come?

Antrim Coast. Scots-Irish with Author Cindy Thomson

Antrim Coast

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 because concerned it might lose the Protestant majority in the area; 1740-41, when a famine struck and letters from relatives living in America were persuasive; 1754-55, the time of a disastrous drought; and 1771-75, when leases on the large estate of the Marquis of Donegal in County Antrim expired and the tenants could not afford to renew them. Years when economic pressures in Ireland were the greatest was when large exoduses occurred. The numbers dropped during the years of the French and Indian Wars (1754-63) and came to a crashing halt at the onset of the American Revolution. The Scots-Irish of the 18th 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 era arrived, that this group began distinguishing themselves as Scots-Irish. Today, the distinction helps researchers identify the group.

Where Did They Settle?

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. 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. A large number settled in the area covered today by Augusta and Rockbridge counties.

Always on the move, the Scots-Irish populated the Piedmont country of the Carolinas in the mid-18th 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 previous immigrants, pulling up roots 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.

Come back tomorrow for the rest of the article and learn where to find out more about this immigrant group.

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