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Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish: What's in a Name? (Page 2)

An Essay by Michael Montgomery, University of South Carolina

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The history of the term Scotch-Irish has often been poorly understood or contentious. It is sometimes said to be a designation that arose in the late-nineteenth century, which is at best an exaggeration. Rehder, for example, stated that "it was not until much later [than their arrival in America] that they would become known as the Scotch-Irish people."17 According to this view, use of Scotch-Irish expressed ethnic and religious prejudice and was popularized in America by Protestant descendants of immigrants from Ulster in order to distinguish themselves from the Catholic Irish landing in large numbers on American shores from the 1840s. The person most strongly advocating this idea was Michael J. O'Brien, long-time director of the American Irish Historical Society in the early-twentieth century, who published prolifically on early immigrants from Ireland to North America. He claimed that many American Protestants who espoused the label Scotch-Irish were unaware that they had Catholic ancestors either in the United States or in Ireland. "Nor," he believed, "can we find in the official records any reference to the 'Scotch-Irish,' for in all written documents of the Colonial period, where the immigrants from Ireland are mentioned at all, they are referred to invariably by their proper racial designation [i.e., simply as Irish]."18

O'Brien was at best unaware of the colonial-era record, though it is true that usage of Scotch-Irish increased greatly toward the end of the nineteenth century, for a variety of political and social reasons, and that both Scotch-Irish and Scots-Irish occurred less in the eighteenth century than one might have reason to expect. Leyburn, whose volume is still an authority on the subject and who provided heretofore the most comprehensive discussion of labels for Ulster immigrants in the pre-Revolutionary era, stated that "when they began to come to America, most colonial officials and others who had occasion to mention them referred to them as Irish, sometimes varying this term with 'Ulster-Irish' or 'Northern Irish,' or 'Irish Presbyterians'."19 This assessment reflects the fact that between them Leyburn and two other authors could find only nine instances of Scotch-Irish from the colonial period (two of which were from Britain).20 According to Griffin, Ulster Presbyterian immigrants as a group were distinctive, if for no other reason, in that they had "no name": "Referring to themselves simply as 'frontier inhabitants,' Ulster's Presbyterian migrants had a better idea of what they were not than what they were."21

However, Leyburn did not mine the record as well as he might have. With the help of colleagues, I have over the years collected many further examples from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. The list, which includes twenty-four of Scotch-Irish and three of Scots-Irish 22, is three times as long as that amassed by previous writers on the subject. In that period the two labels appear always to refer to Presbyterian settlers. In most cases they were used by outsiders (usually colonial officials of one kind or another). One example, from a Church of England clergyman, noted that Scotch-Irish was a term of self-reference:

The first settlers of this county were for the far greatest part originally English, but of the late number of years Irish (who usually call themselves Scotch-Irish) have transplanted themselves and their families from the north of Ireland (1723, Rev. William Beckett, Church of England clergyman, Lewes, Delaware)23

A particularly striking feature of Scotch-Irish (and to a much less extent Scots-Irish) in eighteenth-century America is the many different types of people who used the two terms. Taken together, the examples of Scotch-Irish imply that it must have been widely understood. A significant instance appeared in 1737 in the Virginia Gazette, whose anonymous editor opened a letter by an immigrant writing to a Presbyterian pastor back in County Tyrone, as follows:

We hear from Pennsylvania, That several Ships have arriv'd there, and in the Three Lower Counties, within a few Weeks past, from the North of Ireland, and from Holland, and have brought a great Number of Irish, Scotch-Irish, and Palatines, Passengers.24

This newspaper was circulated widely in Virginia and neighboring colonies. Because its editor could have used Scotch-Irish without comment only if it had been immediately interpretable and unambiguous for a broad readership, the term must have had considerable currency in the American colonies only twenty years after settlers from Ulster began arriving in America in large numbers.

Around the same time, the Scotsman Alexander Hamilton (1712-56) recorded in his diary of August 25, 1744:

I dined att Williams att Stonington [Connecticut] with a Boston merchant named Gardiner and one Boyd, a Scotch Irish pedlar. The pedlar seemed to understand his business to a hair. He sold some dear bargains to Mrs. Williams, and while he smoothed her up with palaber, the Bostonian amused her with religious cant.25

This use of the term by a native of Scotland suggests that Hamilton viewed the peddlar as belonging to a group distinct from both the Scots and the Irish. Telling quotes also come from Charles Woodmason, the Anglican clergyman sent to the interior of South Carolina in the early 1760s. With regard to the Chief Justice of the colony, he stated that "altho' he was a Gentleman of Ireland, yet he abominated these Northern Scotch Irish and they are certainly the worst Vermin on Earth" in a private journal written for either himself or fellow churchmen back in England.26 Woodmason also referred to the group as the Scots-Irish, which suggests that both terms might have been familiar in the mother country as well as in the colonies:

Such a Pack I never met with—Neither English, Scots Irish, or Carolinian by Birth—Neither of one Church or other nor of any denomination by Profession, not having (like some of the Lynchs Creek people) ever seen a Minister[.]27

Like those from Pattent and Woodmason cited earlier, some examples show that Scotch-Irish was often used as a derogatory term 28:

In case [the Swiss] should fail me a second time, I will endeavor to supply there places with Scots Irish from Pennsylvania, who flock over thither in such numbers, that there is not elbow room for them. They swarm like the Goths and Vandals of old & will over-spread our Continent soon. (1736, William Byrd, Virginia)29

Whereas some ill-disposed Persons, regardless of Truth and Honor, have industriously spread a Report very detrimental as well to the private Reputation, as Publick Character, of NATHANIEL GRUBB, one of the Members of the House of Assembly of this Province, asserting that the said Nathaniel, being informed that sundry of the Back Inhabitants were cut off, and destroyed by our savage Enemies, replied, "That there were only some Scotch-Irish kill'd, who could well be spared ..." (1756, Pennsylvania Gazette)30

But others, including the following, were simply descriptive and not derogatory:

They are a colony from Pennsylvania of what we call Scotch Irish Presbyterians who with others in neighboring Tracts had settled together in order to have a teacher, i.e., a minister of their own opinion and choice. (1755, Arthur Dobbs, Governor of North Carolina)31

On the Conewana-Creek, is another Settlement of the Scotch Irish. (1771, Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor in Virginia)32

The range of examples from a broad geographical territory shows that Scotch-Irish was more established in the eighteenth century than previously reported in the literature and that its usage defies generalizations such as that it was always derogatory and employed only by outsiders. Citations indicate that, while some settlers found the label offensive, others accepted Scotch-Irish without protest, meaning that they must have viewed the term as a neutral label.

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