The Scotch & Irish on the 18th Century Appalachian Frontier

Meriwether Lewis was of Scots-Irish descent, as was his famed partner William Clark.
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In the 1600s, Lowland Scots peopled Northern Ireland in large numbers and intermarried with the Irish. Their descendants became the hardy, iconoclastic and brave people who would immigrate to British North America in the 18th century, settle in then-wild Appalachia and have a momentous effect on future generations of Americans.

1 A Flood Of Immigration

The Scots-Irish were driven from Ireland by religious prejudice -- they were not members of the Church of England, which was the dominant religion in Northern Ireland. High rents and periods of famine also caused them to leave. The Scots-Irish came to America in five successive waves in the years before the American Revolution in a number approximating 250,000. So desperate were many to escape the repression they experienced in Northern Ireland that they often sold themselves as indentured servants merely to escape.

2 Hardy And Brave

When they arrived in America, the Scots-Irish mainly populated the western frontier of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia and Alabama, although some landed in the mountainous regions of New Hampshire. They arrived in family groups that stayed together for generations and were clannish and resistant to outsiders. From the very beginning, the existence of the Scots-Irish in Appalachia was a hardscrabble one. Fighting off Indians, they farmed and hunted for a subsistence living. Living in the wilderness, however, was good training for being a soldier. According to James Webb, author of “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Saved America,” 40 percent of the colonial soldiers who fought the British were Scots-Irish. They also produced some of America’s great frontier scouts and pioneers, including Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clarke and Davy Crockett.

3 An Important Influence

Scots-Irish culture spread out from 18th century Appalachia in a number of other ways. At least a dozen American presidents were of Scots-Irish descent, including Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. And despite their continued isolation in the mountains, their language seeped out to the surrounding countryside, so that people in western Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest today use words like “diamond” to mean town square, or “jag-off” to connote a lazy person, that are of 18th century Scots-Irish origin.

4 The Haunting Fiddle

A lasting contribution of the Scots-Irish is music. The Scots-Irish brought with them ancient folk ballads, which they played when they settled in the Appalachian hills and which remained unchanged for centuries. The music, made especially haunting and evocative by the use of the fiddle, would mix with other American influences to become the immensely popular country music of today.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.