The “Scotch Irish”

 Home                                                   by Donald D. Erwin

I was three, and the youngest of eight children, when my family moved to California in 1936 as part of the “Dust Bowl” migration. My four oldest siblings were already married, and three would remain in Kansas, while Raymond—the fourth oldest—was already in California with his wife and in-laws. Helen Virginia—number six—would stay in Topeka with oldest sister Goldie to finish high school, while Mary Elizabeth—who had just graduated—would travel with us to California, but planned to strike out on her own on arrival.

Prior to the move my father had been a blacksmith in Virgil, Kansas, but at one time or other he had been a farmer, a teamster, and an oilfield worker, but in fact he would, and did, do most anything to feed and clothe his family. While many farmers in the area were still using horses and mules to work their farms, mechanization in the form of tractors—both steam and gasoline powered—had gradually put my father’s blacksmith shop out of business. And those that still occasionally required his services to shoe an animal or to put a new point on a plow—more often than not—did not have any actual cash.

Our fellow migrants, for the most part, were poor white dirt farmers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. Almost all were descendants of early day English, German or Scots-Irish pioneers who had blazed their way westward in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the Great Depression of the 1930s, in combination with a drought in the Great Plains, had forced them to leave their homes and head for California where—it was said—laborers were needed to work in the cotton fields and orchards of the rich San Joaquin Valley. When they arrived in California, however, they found that few jobs were available. The migrants were, for the most part, poor with little formal education, and their baggy pants, ragged dresses, broken-down cars, bare-footed children and desperate-looking faces offended the sensibilities of native Californians. They were soon all lumped into one category and labeled “Okies.”

In California I went to school with children of many ethnic backgrounds. There were several principle groups. The Negro (the politically correct term these days is Black, or African-American) group of people had probably not arrived as the result of a mass migration, but more likely as single individuals during the time of slavery, and as family groups after the Civil War. The Chinese first arrived as laborers to work on the trans-continental railroads and in the gold fields, and later—as result of their inborn work ethic—they prospered, brought additional family members from China, and educated their children – more often than not – as professional people. The Japanese, as a group, arrived half a century or so later; first in Hawaii to work on pineapple and sugar cane plantations, and then in the central valley of California on “truck” farms, and they evolved much like the earlier Chinese. As the Chinese and Japanese second and third generations became more educated, and moved from hand-labor occupations, the Filipinos filled the void in Hawaii and on the West Coast. Other groups, such as Italian, Portuguese, Yugoslavian, Armenian, had arrived—for the most part—in California directly from their countries of origin. Then there were my just plain vanilla “American” classmates, descendants of early day soldiers, trappers and merchants who had arrived in California in small groups, as well as from the “forty-niners” of the gold rush era, many even before California became a state in 1850. Of course many of the Mexicans (the preferred label today seems to be Latino or Hispanic) preceded all of us, and their countrymen continue to pour across our southern border into California—as well as into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—seeking a better life. When I was a child they were just one of the many minorities, but today the average Hispanic population in California exceeds 51 percent of the total of all groups.

When I was old enough to think about it I thought of myself as an American, but it was common for me, and many of my close friends, to be to sneeringly called “Okies” or, more often than not, “dumb-Okies” by the children of some of the more established citizens of California. And while I might protest that I was from Kansas, and not Oklahoma, I realized early on that “Okie” was a term of derision, and not one that identified my ethnic background or where my family originated from. John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath—although a work of fiction and banned in most school districts in California at the time—helped to firmly affix the label.

As I grew older, and became more aware of ethnic differences and the immigrant beginnings of America, I wondered about my own ethnicity. When I questioned my father about our family background he told me that the Erwins were “Scotch-Irish.” I assumed that he meant that we were part Scottish and part Irish. I also found that most of my “Okie” friends also referred to themselves as “Scotch-Irish.” It never occurred to me to question the definition of the label.

It was only after I retired and became interested in genealogy and began my own family research project, that I found that my understanding of the meaning of “Scotch-Irish” was incorrect. I discovered that the term “Scotch-Irish” is an Americanism, and that it seems to have come into general use since the American Revolution. It is generally unknown in Scotland and Ireland, and it is rarely used by British historians. In American usage the term refers to people of Scottish descent who, having lived for a time in Northern Ireland—primarily in the province of Ulster—migrated in large numbers to the American colonies in the eighteenth century.

During a visit to Scotland in 1993, I discovered that citizens of Scotland would bristle if referred to as “Scotch.” Invariably an individual would say, in no uncertain terms, that he or she was a “Scot,” and that “Scotch” should only be used in reference to things or products of Scotland, such as Scotch whiskey. I was convinced; the correct term is Scots-Irish.


Chronology – A Timeline of Scots-Irish History

An overview of the evolution of the Scots-Irish group of people is necessary in order to get some idea of the impact Scotland – and the Scots-Irish – had on the United States, and the world.

For centuries – before 1603 – England had tried repeatedly and constantly to subdue the island of Ireland, but the Irish had stubbornly resisted. There had been attempts over the years to transplant English settlers to Ireland in an attempt to infiltrate and control the Irish people and their society, but these efforts had failed. By 1603 the problem had become acute. In the closing years of the 1500s, England had sent a 20,000-man army to Ireland to quell an uprising. After an initial failure the army commander was replaced with a man named Lord Mountjoy. He had more success, but his methods were very ruthless. Mountjoy used the scorched earth method to quell Irish resistance. He had his men destroy all of the food, torch all of the houses, and kill all of the cattle and sheep they could find. Starvation, and defeat on the battlefield, finally made the Irish submit to England, just as Queen Elizabeth lay dying in 1603.

The northern province of Ulster, an area consisting of nine counties, had been hit especially hard during this destruction. At the same time, in Scotland – where times had never been good – the typical Scottish farmer was in dire straits as well. The western coast of Scotland is only twenty to thirty miles from the shores of Ulster. Thus, the scene was set for a series of developments that eventually lead to Ireland being carved into two pieces. The result was an Independent Irish Republic, and the province of Northern Ireland that would remain aligned with the British Empire. This caused disharmony and discord then, and it continues even today as the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) tries to reunite British Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. There was also the "double emigration" of Scotsmen. The first was from Scotland to Ireland, and later as hundreds of thousands left Northern Ireland and spread out around the world to various British colonies. The vast majority, however, emigrated to North America and came to be known as the “Scotch-Irish.”


1603: Elizabeth I died and James VI, King of Scotland, became also King James I of England

1606: The first Ulster colonies are settled. Ironically, the settlement was instigated by private entrepreneurs and Scottish at that. Some Scottish entrepreneurs had come up with the idea of acquiring some land and transplanting their own countrymen to farm them. The initial colonies were successful, and word quickly spread back to Scotland.

1607: King James I declared that the land held by the defeated Irish rebel leaders, who had fled to the continent, belonged to the Crown. This legal action was over-reaching, but when you're the King, what the heck. King James I took control of over 3,000,000 acres of Ulster land.

1609: James I informed the Privy Council of Scotland: "…the King, out of his unspeakable love and tender affection for his Scottish subjects, has decided that they will be allowed to participate in this great adventure". Remember, James I, becoming King of England in 1603, had already been King of Scotland for 35 years before that (he was crowned the King of Scotland when he was just a year old).

1620: An estimated 50,000 Scottish (and some English) settlers are now in Northern Ireland (Ulster).

1625: King James I died and his son Charles I was crowned King. King James I was a definitely pro-Anglican and anti-Presbyterian, but at least he was somewhat of a politician about trying to convert the Scots to the more traditional Church of England. Charles I, however, had no tact, and he tried to force the Anglican Church down the throats of the Scottish people and deprive them of their Presbyterianism. (This is the same climate that led to the first flight of Puritans to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.)

1637: King Charles required changes in the churches of Scotland to more closely resemble the Church of England. The Scottish people arise and overthrow the episcopacy that Charles I that had tried to implement. Presbyterianism in Scotland survived.

1640: An estimated 100,000 Scottish (and some English) settlers are now in Northern Ireland (Ulster).

1642: England is now in a Civil War, principally over the religious issues of the day: Puritanism versus the Church of England. The Scots are on the fringes of this war. They favor the more like-minded Puritans, but, after all, Charles I is a Scot.

1642: The Catholics in Ireland rebel against the north. Estimates of the deaths in this uprising vary, but many thousands die. The emigration of Scots to Ireland drops off.

1650: The English Civil War ends with Oliver Cromwell responsible for the beheading of King Charles I. Cromwell next invaded Scotland, conquering the Scots at Dunbar. He then set out to crush the Scottish spirit.

1650: Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the Irish rebellion went on for ten long years, until Cromwell came from England in 1650 and crushed it. He took neither side, however. He killed both Catholics and Presbyterians alike to let them know that England was in charge and wouldn't take disobedience from either side. He was particularly cruel and vicious during his campaigns. One can argue whether or not the end justified the means, but at least peace did follow Cromwell's "police action". The immigration of Scots to Ireland resumed in 1650.

1653: Cromwell ordered his English soldiers to drive venerated leaders of the Scottish church from their places of meeting and marched like common criminals through the streets of Edinburgh.

1660: The Puritan Cromwell dies and Charles II resumes the crown. Here we go again, a pro-Anglican as head of the country. As bad as times were for the Scots under Cromwell, worse times were ahead. During the 1660s, the Scottish suffered through what is called the "killing times", as the English tried again to force the Church of England down the throats of the Scots. This was the time of the rise of the term "covenanter.” This described those Scots who were, in effect, guerillas fighting against the English landlords.

1679: The Covenanters (protestant rebels) are decisively defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in Scotland.

1690: The King of England, William of Orange, soundly defeats Irish King James II at the Battle of Boyne in Ireland. William is staunchly protestant while James is Catholic. This assures the continuation of the protestant Irish of the north, and allows most Scottish descendants to continue practicing their protestant faith. The English victory at the Battle of Boyne is largely responsible for the last wave of immigrants from Scotland to leave their homeland in the last decade of the 1600's. An estimated 50,000 Scots leave Scotland for Northern Ireland.

1717: The Exodus of the Scots-Irish from Ulster to America now begins in earnest. Five thousand Ulstermen leave for America that year. Between 1717 and the American Revolution, approximately a quarter of a million Scots-Irish will leave Ireland for America. Approximately 100 years after the original Ulster plantations have been planted they have succeeded... and they have also failed. In 100 years, Ulster had been transformed from a totally obliterated landscape to a respectable area with an economy that produced goods. Plagued by high rents, four years of drought, English import/export policies, and the religious factor thrown in (although religion wasn't a prime motivating factor in the Scots/Irish migration as it was, say, with the Puritans), many Scots look for a better life in America. In a sense, the emigrants of 1717 would be explorers whose report on their experiences could guide those who came after. The Ulstermen who went to Boston found unexpected difficulties and a welcome that lacked warmth. Those who followed them in the next two years were made to understand that they were not at all welcome. The people who entered America by the Delaware River, on the other hand, found a land that warmed their hearts. Their enthusiastic praise of Pennsylvania persuaded others to follow them, and then still others, until by 1720 "…to go to America" meant, for most emigrants from Ulster, to take ship for the Delaware River ports and then head south and west. For the entire fifty-eight years of the Great Migration, the large majority of Scots-Irish made their entry to America through Philadelphia or Chester or New Castle.

It is interesting to note that even though the Catholic Irish endured many of the same hardships as the Scots-Irish in Northern Ireland, they did not participate in this exodus. The emigration was 99% Protestant-Ulster-Scots leaving for America. Throughout the fifty-eight years of the Great Migration, religious liberty had been a motive only in the beginning. It is nevertheless significant, both for Ireland and America, in that almost all who left were Presbyterians. Members of the Established Church rarely emigrated, nor did Roman Catholic Irishmen.

1725: The second wave was so large that the English Parliament became concerned. Parliament appointed a commission to investigate the causes of the departures, for they had reached proportions that indicated a possible loss of the entire Protestant element in Ulster. Letters from immigrants to relatives still in Ulster spoke of excessive rents as a determining cause of this second wave; but the Pennsylvania Gazette mentioned this as only one of the "unhappy Circumstances of the Common People of Ireland" that had resulted in so great an exodus. An article in the November 20, 1729 issue reported "…that Poverty, Wretchedness, Misery and Want are become almost universal among them; that . . . there is not Corn enough rais'd for their Subsistence one Year with another…”

1740: Famine struck Ireland in 1740 (not to be confused with the potato crop failure that was the cause of the great Catholic Irish migration in 1845-47), and was certainly the principal reason for the third large wave, which included a large number of more well-to-do Ulstermen. An estimated 400,000 persons died in Ireland during 1740-41, and for the next decade there was a tremendous exodus to America. This third wave marked, on the American side, the first movement of Scots-Irish in any numbers beyond the borders of Pennsylvania to the southwest. Following the path through the Great Valley, many Scots-Irish now went into the rich Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, whose southern extremity opens out toward North and South Carolina. James N. Irvine (later Erwin) was among this group. Though a Scotsman from Drum in Aberdeenshire, he married a young Scots-Irish lady during a forced absence from Scotland, and joined his in-laws and some Irvine relatives living in Ulster when they set out for Pennsylvania about 1740.

1754: The fourth exodus had two major causes: effective propaganda from America, and a calamitous drought in Ulster. A succession of governors of North Carolina had made a special effort to attract colonists from Ulster and from Scotland. Two of these officials were themselves from Ulster, and their glowing descriptions of opportunities in the Colonies added a lot to their invitation and its appeal to those suffering in Ulster. As the drought ravaged the countryside in Northern Ireland, testimony of Scots-Irish success in American struck a particularly responsive chord. At this moment, however, the Scots-Irish pioneers had their first taste of real trouble with the Indians. The French and Indian wars broke out in the colonies and were to last for more than seven years. For the time being, these violent disturbances effectively dried up the source of new immigration. More than this, Ulster was just now undergoing a true economic recovery. Her prosperity was so pronounced that the vacuum left by emigrants began to be filled by arrivals of people from the south of Ireland, from England, and from Scotland.

1771: The last great exodus started in 1771. According to one written account: “ …and by 1770 the people of Ulster had become very poor, living chiefly on potatoes and milk and oat bread, and their little farms had been divided and subdivided until the portions were so small they cannot live on them.” There was, however, a special reason for the departure of this final wave. In 1771, when the leases on the large estate of the Marquis of Donegal in County Antrim expired, the rents were raised so high that scores of tenants could not comply with the demands, and so were evicted from farms that their families had occupied for sometimes generations. This aroused a spirit of resentment so intense that an immediate and extensive emigration was the consequence. During the next three years nearly a hundred vessels sailed from the ports in Northern Ireland, "…carrying as many as 25,000 passengers, all Presbyterian."

1776: The American Revolution marked the end of the immigration era. Approximately 200,000-250,000 Scots-Irish had immigrated to America by 1717. If one is to assume the doubling of a population every 30 years, and a ratable rate of immigration, one could expect the Scots-Irish numbered perhaps 10-25% of the 2 1/4 million Americans in 1776. At the time of the Revolution, the Scots-Irish comprised the second largest ethnic group in America after the English.


 The Same but Different – A clear distinction should be made between colonists from Scotland and those from Ulster, for the two have often, to the complete distortion of events, been thought identical. Extensive emigration from Scotland to America occurred during the eighteenth century, possibly a fourth or a fifth as large as that from Ulster; but the reasons for Scottish emigration was different and distinct. Before the union of the two Crowns in 1707, many Scots were exiled as criminals and many more arrived in the Colonies as indentured servants or as merchants. After the Union, since Scots had equal rights with Englishmen, including the right of moving to the colonies, thousands more came over to escape the grinding poverty at home. In addition, the British defeat of the Highlanders in 1746, and the collapse of the efforts of Bonnie Prince Charlie caused a further large exodus. The enclosure of lands, the dispossession of tenants, and the consequent dissolution of ties of personal loyalty binding a man to a clan chief, sent thousands more to America. The pull from the colonies was, as usual, the opportunity for a better life. At times during the nineteenth century there came to be a positive "rage for emigration" throughout both the Lowlands and the Highlands.

Scots in America, from the first, showed traits clearly different from those of the Scots-Irish. Scots were seldom explorers, Indian fighters, or frontier traders; they played only a minor role as pioneers, preferring to settle in the east and to carry on business enterprises. Their greatest difference from their Ulster cousins, however, was seen at the time of the American Revolution. Whereas the Scots-Irish were usually ardent patriots and notable fighters in the cause of the colonies, the Scots were, with notable exceptions, Loyalists faithful to the Crown. Only in their Presbyterianism and a few of their personality traits did they resemble the Scots-Irish. In North Carolina the Highland Scots, for several generations, retained their Gaelic language, and even their Highland-dress, and tended to locate in an established area and remain there.

The Scots-Irish immigrants, on the other hand, were some of the first to move immediately upon arrival to a region where there was neither a settlement nor an established European culture. They held land, knew independence, and accepted responsibilities from the very outset. As a result of their Celtic roots many spoke only Gaelic upon arrival in the New World, but they soon learned the language of their English-speaking neighbors whose communities they passed through on the way to the frontier. They did not rely on “bi-lingual education” in order to meld into the frontier society. The institutions and standards of their English and German neighbors differed only slightly from their own. The Scots-Irish were not a "minority group," and needed no Immigrant Aid Society help to tide them over a period of maladjustment so that they might become assimilated in the American melting pot.

The children and grandchildren of the original Scots-Irish settlers in America – as a result of their intrinsic wanderlust – were always among the leaders in the move to the new West, but they were no longer Scots-Irish in their social characteristics and outlook. Just as they were likely to become Methodists and Baptists instead of remaining Presbyterians, so too were they likely to marry persons whose background may have been English or German, and in many cases on the frontier they took Native American brides. By the early 1800s the memory of Ulster and its distinctions meant little or nothing to these constant pioneers. They were Americans.


The Backbone of America – The Scots-Irish brought with them a strong individualism, largely inventing America’s populist-style democracy. They gave America at least a dozen presidents, beginning with Andrew Jackson, and including Chester A. Arthur, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt (through his mother), Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan (also through his mother), and Bill Clinton.

Their unique soldierly traditions formed the backbone of our military, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps. In the Civil War they formed the bulk of the Confederate Army, and a good part of the Union forces as well. In later wars the Scots-Irish provided many of our greatest and most well-known soldiers and generals. Some of them were: Stonewall Jackson, George S. Patton, Sgt. Alvin York, Audie Murphy, as well as many of the Marine Corps commandants.

The intense competitiveness that makes those of Scots-Irish descent good soldiers has also produced a legion of memorable athletes and business leaders, and they tend to dominate the completely American pastime of  Nascar-type of racing. They also created, and continue to dominate, the country music industry in America. Many American writers have Scots-Irish roots. Among them are: Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Mitchell and Larry McMurtry. Many famous actors have Scots-Irish connections as well. Some are: Tallulah Bankhead, Ave Gardner, James Stewart, John Wayne, Robert Redford, and George C. Scott.

It is currently estimated that there are more than twenty-seven million descendants of the Scots-Irish migration living in the United States. They live predominately in the states through which they migrated in the 1700s and early 1800s, which are Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, northern Louisiana, and eastern Texas. After the Civil War, however, they tended to spread to all parts of the United States.

The traditional Scots-Irish culture, like America itself, is a study of contrasts. In general the descendants of the Scots-Irish immigrants, and later pioneers, are an intensely religious group of people. They comprise the very heart of the Protestant evangelical movement, and comprise a major part of the so-called “religious right.” They are probably the most anti-authoritarian group in America, conditioned from birth to resist, but also have the reputation as the most patriotic segment of our population. They are naturally rebellious, often impossible to control as individuals, but will follow orders in the military without question. They are filled with wanderlust, but no matter how far they roam their tradition of close family ties goes with them. Underlying these seeming contradictions is a strong unwritten code of personal honor and individual accountability.


Rednecks – Our Erwin roots are also in the “Redneck South,” since a number of our eighteenth and nineteenth century relatives settled below the Mason Dixon Line. The Scots-Irish tradition of disregarding formal education and mistrusting, even despising, any form of aristocracy has given us the group of people the elites love to hate – the uncompromising and in-your-face Southern redneck. He is an easy target, with his stubbornness, his capacity for violence and his curious social ways. His 1800s reputation is a continued target for derision because his culture became the dominant one in the South, where the economic system was based on slavery. No matter that the English aristocrats were slavery’s instigators and principal beneficiaries, or that the Scots-Irish common-person usually had no slaves.

The Southern redneck’s culture is – in large part – based on guns and the philosophy of the National Rifle Association. He considers the Second Amendment sacrosanct, and subscribes wholeheartedly to Charleton Heston’s famous statement, “From my cold dead hands...” Liberal and academic Americans see such views as archaic and threatening, and would like to see totally America disarmed, much like England and Scotland are today. The things that the redneck is known for aren’t those of the people that run our universities, or of most of the judges that interpret our rights and laws that were set down for us by the founders of our country. While we must be careful not to drift towards the radical skinhead culture, we (I’m speaking to my children and grandchildren) can nevertheless be proud that it will undoubtedly be people of our ilk – including the Southern redneck – who will struggle, and even fight, to keep our country safe.

The Scots-Irish emigrants were a fiercely independent and individualistic group of people. Their struggles to survive and prosper in the Piedmont area of the Carolina during the 1700s, and later on the frontiers of the South and West – including even the great Dustbowl migration of the 1930s – made them an important part of the backbone of America. We, as their descendants, can be justly proud that we are part of that culture.