Scots-Irish in America (Do You Have Scots-Irish Ancestry?)

Some of the first American immigrants were the Scots-Irish, and their arrival and culture had a huge impact on America. In this article, we explore who the Scots-Irish were, and what brought them to America.

If you have ever been researching your family history and come across the term Scots-Irish you may be a little confused. Scotland and Ireland, after all, are two different, although admittedly very closely related countries.

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Usually, you would like your early immigrant ancestors to be clearly from one place or the other but with the Scots-Irish, there is some blurring of the lines. Who then were the Scots-Irish and what brought them to America?

What Does Scots-Irish Mean?

It is first important to note that the countries of Scotland and Ireland are not only geographically close but their peoples are close as well. Both countries historically and in some cases still today speak their own version of the Gaelic language.

Settlement of people has gone back and forth between Ireland and Scotland for centuries. This is since the early Irish Gaels would raid along the west coast of Scotland and would often settle in the region.

The origins of the Scots-Irish, however, begin centuries later than these early Irish settlers. It all began in the lowland borderlands that Scotland shared with England. During the Middle Ages, almost constant war or tension made these borders a harsh place to live.

In 1603 James VI King of Scots inherited the English throne upon the death of Elizabeth I. Along with this new throne came a long-standing conflict with Ireland. Scotland and England may now be under one monarch and, in theory, the border should be at peace it in truth was still a troubled region.

Poor Scottish and English farmers who had long struggled to survive in these borderlands would maraud either north or south to steal livestock and whatever they could lay their hands upon.

In 1609 King James decided that he could kill two birds with one stone by sending protestant English and Scottish troublemakers to Ulster in Ireland. This not only brought peace to the Anglo/Scottish border but also produced a fighting force that could surpass the Irish Catholics.

These protestants settled in the region of Northern Ireland and were often at odds with the Catholics who were forced from their homes and driven south. Around 1700 many of these protestant families, Scottish and English started to make their way to the new world. Between 1700 and 1776 almost three-thirds of the protestants in Ireland left for America.

Among those thousands of immigrants were the descendants of the Scottish families. The short stopover in Ireland is the reason that these people became known as the Scots-Irish.

Where Did They Settle?

The Scots-Irish left Ireland not due to religious persecution as many of the other New World settlers did. An estimated 200,000 Scots-Irish immigrants are estimated to have arrived between 1700 and 1776. This group, in fact, was likely one of the first to make the move for the purposes of economic opportunity. These were not rich people, mainly farmers and middle-class merchants.

Upon entry into America, most of the Scots-Irish came through Pennsylvania and Delaware, before quickly moving inland in search of opportunity and land. The already established Quakers of the region urged the Scots-Irish to move Westward. This both got them out of the Quakers' land and instilled these fiery new immigrants as a line of defense against other settlements and the Native American tribes.

Initially settling in the Appalachian mountains the westward travel of the Scots-Irish took them to the southern plains, Texas and the Mississippi Valley. The presence of the Scots-Irish in these regions was so marked that even the speech patterns of the locals today were influenced. Terms such as “I ain't got none” and “fixin'” are heavily influenced by the Scots-Irish settlers.

Scots-Irish and the American Revolution

With generations-old animosity with England and by extension the British crown many Scots-Irish were very pro-Independence. Those immigrants who had established themselves in America before the outbreak of war considered themselves patriots. Later, immigrants who arrived just prior to the outbreak of war tended to be neutral and tried to stay out of the conflict.

It was a group of Scots-Irish in Virginia and North Carolina known as the “Overmountain men'' who some feel won a turning point battle in the war of Independence. Britain’s defeat at the 1780 battle of Kings' Mountain is thought to have severely compromised their southern campaign.

The Clan Mentality

The Scots-Irish held firm to their clan mentality and would often work together. This led to great success, especially for those who remained in Pennsylvania. The early 19th century iron and steel industry in Pittsburgh was largely built and controlled by Scots-Irish immigrants.

Scots-Irish Lasting Legacy

In some southern states such as Tennessee and Kentucky, hall parlor homes are a very common style. This two-room per floor layout with a chimney at each end was once very common in Ulster, Ireland. The Scots-Irish brought this building design with them and its prevalence in southern architecture lasts to this day.

The Scots-Irish influence is found in the phrases and slang terms of many southern states as are certain quilting and cultural practices.

Is Your Family Scots-Irish?

Records from the 1700s can often be difficult to find and when they are available they can be scant on the details. This means it can be difficult to determine if you do have Scots-Irish heritage and, in fact, most people don’t even realize they’re Scots-Irish.

As we mentioned, the immigrants came to America and settled very early in the history of America and most people who do have Scots-Irish ancestry will simply refer to their heritage as “American”.

As a general rule, if your first immigrant ancestor came across from Northern Ireland between 1700-1776 and has a Scottish surname or your family has a tartan then you may be of Scots-Irish heritage.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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