Reprise: Who Are the Scots-Irish, Anyway?

This article, originally published in June 2016, has generated more views than anything I’ve written on this blog. That makes me think I’m not the only one who has spent some time on Google learning about the Scots-Irish.  Here it is again, just in case you missed it.

Happy 2019! May your brick walls crumble …

Robin

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Introduction

This is a non-academic discussion of Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish) history from about 1600 to roughly the mid-eighteenth century. The focus is on Scots-Irish migration. The objective is to provide family history researchers an overview regarding where their Scots-Irish ancestors came from, and when and why they migrated.

When I started doing family history research, I had no idea what “Scots-Irish” meant. I had a vague idea (I must blush) that it meant one had mixed Irish and Scottish ancestry. Turns out I am an awful student of history. The Scots-Irish were Protestant Scots who settled in northernmost Ireland – specifically, in the province of Ulster – and later migrated from Ireland to the colonies.

Background

We need to start with a bit of Irish political history and geography.

Ireland was traditionally divided into four provinces: Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster. Ulster, the focus of interest in this article, was located in the northernmost part of Ireland. Nine counties made up Ulster: (1) Antrim, (2) Down, (3) Armagh, (4) Derry, (5) Fermanagh and (6) Tyrone, plus (7) Cavan, (8) Monaghan, and (9) Donegal.

Here is a map showing the four traditional Irish provinces and the counties comprising them.

The history of the relationship among Ireland, Scotland and England is way beyond my expertise. Suffice it to say that, in 1603, the Kingdom of England – which included England, Wales and those parts of Ireland controlled by the English – was united with the Kingdom of Scotland. King James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Scotland.

King James is a big star in this narrative.

Fast forward in time two centuries. In 1800, the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” came into being, composed of all of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. In 1922, the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom. Oversimplifying the matter considerably, a vocal Protestant minority whose existence can be traced back to James I (more on that shortly) wanted no part of a predominantly Catholic Ireland. Those Protestants were concentrated in Ulster. To prevent civil insurrection, the British allowed the nine Ulster counties to decide by vote whether they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The most northeastern part of Ulster (the first six Ulster counties in the list above) voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The British partitioned those six counties to form Northern Ireland. The remaining three counties which had been part of the province of Ulster – Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal – became a part of the Republic of Ireland. After the partition and Ireland’s independence, the U.K. was composed of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Perhaps you have an ancestor with a classic Scots-Irish name – Alexander, Rankin, Gillespie, Ewing, Steele, Kerr, Caldwell, McQuiston, Denny, or Wallace – who was born, say, in Letterkenny, County Donegal in the 1600s. In light of Irish history, it would be correct to say he or she was born in Ulster (the province), or (more colorfully) the “Ulster Plantation,” or (geographically) the northern part of Ireland. It would not be correct to say he or she was born in Northern Ireland, a country that didn’t come into existence for another three centuries. I am still trying to correct all the instances in which I have made that error.

But it would almost certainly be correct to say that your ancestor was Presbyterian. Solid fact #1: it is almost redundant to describe someone as a Scots-Irish Presbyterian.

The factors that drove the migration of the Scots-Irish from Scotland to Ulster and then to the colonies are more complicated. What ultimately became known as the “Irish Troubles” seems to be a cautionary tale about unintended consequences.

Original settlement of the Ulster Plantation

As noted above, James I of Great Britain, aka James VI of Scotland, became the first king of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1603. James was a Protestant rather than a Catholic or an Anglican (the official church of England after Henry VIII’s dispute with the Pope over his divorce).

Also in 1603, the leading Irish Catholic families of Ulster surrendered to end the Nine Years War, which had been an effort to stop the expansion of English power in Ireland. Large Irish landowners fled the country, leaving behind estates of roughly 500,000 acres. James appropriated those estates for the crown. In 1607, James claimed almost six counties of additional land. Not surprisingly, many of those who lost their land had been the leading opponents of English control of Ireland. They were native Irish and Catholic.

James also ordered thousands of remaining Irish Catholic tenants to move from Ulster to other parts of Ireland. This created the opportunity to repopulate land taken from rebellious Irish landowners with more reliably loyal Protestants from England and Scotland. The crown made liberal offers of land and other inducements to accomplish that end. People heard; they came.

James correctly predicted that more Scots than English would relocate to Ulster, a fairly barren place (then), too rough for what James perceived to be the more delicate English temperament. A sizeable population – notable primarily for their Presbyterianism – made the short trip across the channel from Scotland into the northern part of Ireland. During 1610 through 1612, an estimated ten thousand Scots, mostly from the Scottish Lowlands, settled in Ulster. As many as 50,000 Lowland Scots had settled in Ulster by 1620.

Needless to say, the remaining native Irish Catholics thoroughly detested the Protestant Scots settlers. The feeling was mutual.

The Irish Rebellion of 1641

It didn’t take long for this simmering caldron to boil over. Beginning in October 1641, a bloody episode called the “Irish Rebellion” began. It first erupted in Ulster, when native Irish Catholics surprised Protestant settlers and killed them in large numbers. The Irish were apparently afraid that the English Parliament was going to gin out some new repressive anti-Catholic legislation. The attacks may have been preemptive action to “disarm” the Ulster Protestants, who would have been charged with enforcing any such laws. Considering the “legacy of hatred built into the Ulster Plantation,” the violence – says The Oxford History of Britain, in a masterful case of British understatement – “inevitably got out of hand.” A Covenanter army arrived from Scotland to help protect the Ulster Scots, to little avail. “Massacre” is the appropriate term. Although estimates vary wildly, a BBC website suggests that thirty percent of the Protestant population in Ulster died.

The Irish Rebellion lasted for almost ten years, spreading to other areas of Ireland during the English Civil Wars. It ended when the armies of Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland and slaughtered the inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford, Irish Catholic towns on the east coast.

Not long thereafter, other religious persecution blossomed across the channel in Scotland. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II and James II set about trying to force Episcopacy down the throats of the Scottish. This created conflicts between Presbyterians and the Bishops of the Anglican establishment. It culminated in an intense phase of persecution in the 1680s, a period appropriately referred to as “the killing times.” The victims were Presbyterian Scots.

The killing times gave rise to the second large migration of Protestants from their homeland in Scotland to the relatively safe Ulster. Imagine thinking of Ulster as safe, after that 1641 massacre! This second migratory wave took place from about 1683 to 1689, when William and Mary (Protestants) assumed the throne.

Economic troubles

It wasn’t just religious persecution that drove these migrations. Economic issues also played a major role, of course. Both the English and Irish parliaments contributed, as did Mother Nature.

The first legislative targets were beef and beef products. After the Cromwellian civil wars of the 1640s, the export of cattle from Ireland to England increased substantially, as did exports of beef, cheese and butter. This adversely impacted English cattle raisers, who persuaded the Parliament of Charles II (after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660) to pass an act prohibiting the shipping of cattle, beef, cheese and butter from Ireland to England or to any of the English colonies. I imagine that cut into the profitability of raising Irish cattle, although I haven’t found any relevant data.

The next legislative blow was to the Ulster wool industry, which had grown rapidly in northern Ireland in the late 1600s. Irish wool and wool product exports hurt sheep raisers in England, so government swung into action. In 1698, under pressure from the English, the Irish Parliament placed heavy duties on Irish export of manufactured wool. In 1699, the English Parliament passed an act forbidding the export from Ireland of all goods made or mixed with wool – except to England and Wales. This immediately crippled the wool industries in Ulster: woolen factories closed down virtually overnight. This started the first migration of the Scots-Irish to America at approximately the turn of the century. Most of those early immigrants settled in New England.

Meanwhile, taxes on the Ulster Scots were going up, as were rents. “Rack renting” became the practice. This means that landlords raised rents on land, evicted tenants who couldn’t pay, then rented to the highest bidder. By the early 1700s, most of the leases granted to settlers in the 1680s migration from Scotland to Ulster were expiring, making this practice widespread. Annual “rack rents” were sometimes equal to the total value of the land.

1717: the “Great Migration” to the colonies begins

Religious persecution reared its ugly head again, with Anglicans back in charge in England. In 1704, the English Parliament passed the Test Act, requiring all government officials, and all town, county and army officers, and all lawyers, to take communion according to the forms and rites of the Church of England. This effectively wiped out most of the civil service in northern Ireland. In 1714, the Schism Act required all school teachers to secure a license from a bishop of the Anglican Church. A bishop could grant a license only to those who conformed to the Test Act. Goodbye, teaching jobs.

Nature piled on. There was a serious drought in Ireland caused by six years of insufficient rainfall during 1714 through 1719. That was undoubtedly the final straw. The first wave of the “Great Migration” began in earnest during 1717-1718. During 1717, more than 5,000 Ulster residents left for the colonies. During the next three years, nearly a hundred ships sailed from ports in the north of Ireland, carrying in all as many as 25,000 passengers. They were virtually all Presbyterian.

Pennsylvania was the primary destination: the Pennsylvania Secretary of State expressly invited settlement by new immigrants. By 1720, “go to America” from Ulster meant migrating to one of the Delaware River ports. For most of the Great Migration, the majority of Scots-Irish entered the colonies through Philadelphia, Chester, or New Castle, Delaware. Most of these immigrants settled in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester and Lancaster counties, Pennsylvania.

During 1725 through 1729, the exodus from Ulster became so large that the English Parliament appointed a commission to investigate the cause, fearing a loss of the entire Protestant population in Ulster. The main problems were identified as rack rents and general poverty.

The largest wave of migration began in 1740-41, when an estimated 400,000 Irish died in the famine of those years. For the next decade, Scots-Irish arrived in the colonies in huge numbers. By then, the power elite in Pennsylvania had become alarmed at the prospect that the Scots-Irish would take over the government. Consequently, Pennsylvania landowners quit selling land to the immigrants, because land ownership conferred voting rights. Fortunately, Lord Granville was advertising cheap and abundant land for sale in North Carolina. The result was a huge migration from Pennsylvania to the Piedmont Plateau of North Carolina via the Great Wagon Road of the Shenandoah Valley. One landowner on the Great Wagon Road route estimated that 5,000 wagons crossed the James River in Virginia in 1755, mostly bound for the huge area that was then Rowan County, North Carolina. Some dropped out and settled along the way, especially in Augusta County, Virginia.

In 1771, a final large wave of immigration from Ulster began, again caused by rack rents. There was some violent and ultimately useless resistance to rent increases by Ulster residents, all Presbyterians, known as the “Hearts of Steel” or “Steelboys.” Landowners, with the law and the army on their side, prevailed. In the few years left before the Revolution, an additional 30,000 Ulster residents reportedly left for the colonies.

Estimated numbers of Scots-Irish in the colonies vary wildly, and I have no knowledgeable basis for discriminating among them. One source estimates that, by 1776, 300,000 people — one-sixth of the (white) population of all the colonies — was Scots-Irish. Yet another source puts the number of Scots-Irish in the colonies at the start of the Revolution at 230,000. In any event, with a total white and black population of about 2.5 million in the mid-1770s, even the smaller of those estimates is a significant percentage of the total.

Those Ulster immigrants had no love for the English. They became the heart of the American Revolution – not the intellectual heart, but the muscle. George Washington said that, if the Revolutionary cause was lost everywhere else, he would make a last stand among the Scots-Irish of Virginia. Captain Johann Henricks, a Hessian mercenary in the British army, wrote, “[c]all it not an American rebellion, it is nothing more than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.”

Solid fact #2: “Scots-Irish” and “Tory” are mutually exclusive terms. If you have a male Scots-Irish ancestor who was in his twenties or thirties during roughly 1775-1785, you almost certainly have a Revolutionary War veteran on your family tree.

Rankins and Alexanders

My Alexander family was among those who left the Pennsylvania and Maryland area about 1740-ish, settled in Virginia during 1742-1749, and then arrived in Anson/Rowan County by 1752. See my article about them here.

My last known Rankin ancestor probably arrived in Rowan a bit later, but in any event by 1759. If you had Scots-Irish ancestors in south-central North Carolina, I would bet they also left Scotland for the Ulster Plantation in the 1600s, departed Northern Ireland for Pennsylvania between 1717 and 1750, and arrived in North Carolina about the middle of the eighteenth century. If you have a story along those lines, I would love to hear it.

Sources. Unfortunately, I clicked rapidly among websites looking for information, e.g., Googling “when was the Restoration,” without making decent notes of my sources. This list undoubtedly omits dozens of other credible websites containing historical information which I used to help prepare this post. I apologize for failing to list them.

  1. “Scotch-Irish.” Dictionary of American History. 2003. Retrieved June 19, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401803772.html
  2. “Henry the VIII and Ireland.” 2015. Retrieved June 24, 2016 from The History Learning Site.co.uk: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/tudor-england/henry-viii-and-ireland/
  3. Kenneth O. Morgan, The Oxford History of Britain (Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 1999, upated edition 2010). In 1707, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland merged. I don’t know the difference between the 1707 “merger” and the 1603 “union,” described in a couple of the articles I read as a “personal union” under the crown.
  4. Online excerpts at various websites from James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish, A Social History (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962).
  5. “Wars and Conflict: the Plantation of Ulster.” Retrieved June 25, 2016: bbc.co.uk. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/plantation/planters/es10.shtml. This location has been archived and is no longer being maintained.
  6. “Covenanters” were Scots who were opposed to interference by British royalty in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. See Scottish Covenanters Memorial Association, retrieved June 24, 2016: http://www.covenanter.org.uk/WhoWere/
  7. Ulster Historical Foundation retrieved June 25, 2016: http://www.ancestryireland.com/history-of-the-irish-parliament/background-to-the-statutes/manufacturing-mining/

 

 

Andrew Willis of Washington Co, MD

A researcher contacted me about an Andrew Willis who died in 1823 in Washington County, Maryland. My contact wondered if we could trace Andrew back to the immigrant John Willis who owned “Wantage” in Dorchester County and died in 1712. The answer is no. Revolutionary war pension files, census records, deeds, and probate filings prove that Washington County Andrew is not related to Wantage John.

Washington County Andrew served as a private in the 5th Regiment of the Maryland Line. While in Washington County he was awarded a pension paid from 31 Mar 1818 through his death on 4 Dec 1823. Beginning in 1825, his pension was paid to his wife Lettie Willis from the date of the last payment to Andrew. In an 1820 court appearance related to his pension, Andrew stated he resided in Washington County, that he was 68 years old (thus born in 1752), was impoverished, and that his wife was old and frail. He stated they lived with a son whom he did not identify.[1]

Census records in Washington County support Andrew’s statements in his pension application.

  • Andrew appears in the county for the first time in the 1800 census. That census lists Andrew heading a household with three other males and three females. The census shows that he and his wife were 26-44 years old and with two sons under 10, one son age 10-15, and two daughters under 10.[2]
  • The 1810 census shows Andrew with the same family members, whose ages track almost perfectly from a decade earlier.[3]
  • As expected from his pension application, Andrew is living with a son at the time of the 1820 census. That census lists Edward Willis as a head of household in the county for the first time. His household contains two men age 26-44 and one over 45, and three females … one 15-25, one 26-44 and one over 45.

The older man and woman in the 1820 census are Andrew Willis and his wife Lettie. The two younger men are their sons Edward and Isaac. The youngest female is their daughter Elizabeth. The woman age 26-44 is Isaac’s wife Nancy LNU.

By 1830, the family has disappeared from Washington County. Andrew died in 1823, Edward died in 1825, Lettie died probably between 1825 and 1829, and the surviving family members moved to Ohio.

A second Revolutionary War benefit application proves Isaac Willis as a son of Andrew. Isaac applies in 1850 for bounty land due Andrew for his service in the war. Isaac files from his home in Ohio on behalf of himself and the other the heirs of Andrew Willis.[4]

Deed and probate records prove Edward died with no wife or children and the name of Isaac’s wife and his sisters. In 1812, Edward purchased a small tract of land on Antietam Creek.[5]I suspect that he became head of household at about that time. He died intestate in 1825 with a very small estate.[6]

In 1829, Edward’s heirs at law sold the Antietam Creek land. The participating heirs included Hezekiah Donaldson and his wife Sarah, Nehemiah Hurley and his wife Elizabeth, and Isaac Willis and his wife Nancy.[7]Since Edward died intestate, his estate would go to any existing wife or children. Absent either, his estate would go to his siblings.

Clearly, Sarah Donaldson, Elizabeth Hurley, and Isaac Willis are Edward’s living sisters and brother. Conversely, anyone not included in the deed is not a sibling. That last point is important in eliminating as Edward’s possible siblings two Willis males who lived concurrently in Washington County. William Willis and Levin Willis who appear in census and deed records of the era are not children of Andrew and Lettie Willis. Likewise, an unnamed son of Andrew and Lettie appears with them in the 1800 and 1810 censuses but is absent from the 1820 census of Edward’s household. I conclude this son has died. If alive, he would have participated in the 1829 sale of land with the other siblings.

In sum, the evidence in Washington County proves the following nuclear family:

  • Andrew Willis       b 1752         d 1823
  • His wife:
  • Lettie LNU Willis  b 1756-65    d likely between 1825-29
  • Their children:
  • Edward Willis       b 1785-90    d 1825
  • Isaac Willis           b 1785-90    d after 1850
  • Sarah Willis          b 1791-94    m in 1818 to Hezekiah Donaldson[8]
  • Son FNU Willis     b 1791-99    d before 1820
  • Elizabeth Willis     b 1800         m between 1820-25 to Nehemiah Hurley
  • Their daughter-in-law:
  • Nancy LNU           b est. 1790   m before 1820 to Isaac Willis

We cannot track this group back to Wantage John Willis even though he had two great-grandsons named Andrew, one in Caroline County and one in Dorchester. The ages of the children in Washington County Andrew’s family disprove any connection to either great-grandson.

Caroline County Andrew

One great-grandson Andrew (the son of Isaac Willis, son of John, Jr.) lived in what became Caroline County. With a father named Isaac, this Caroline County Andrew seems a likely candidate to be the same person as Washington County Andrew, who named one of his sons Isaac. Furthermore, Caroline County Andrew appears in the 1790 census in Caroline and disappears from the county before the 1800 census. Could he have moved to Washington County?

Sure. But records argue against that possibility. The 1783 Tax Assessment shows Caroline County Andrew with no land and a household of one male (himself) and three females. That does not fit the nuclear family above where the male children are older than the girls, and where no child was born before 1785. The 1790 census for Caroline County Andrew also records a family inconsistent with the one shown in Washington County and the Caroline County 1783 Tax List. The 1790 census in Caroline lists Andrew’s household with five males age 16 or older, six males under 16, a total of four total females, and one slave. Arguably, the household could balloon from the 1783 to the 1790 level if another family (or two) moved in with Andrew. Regardless, the numbers don’t match the man who appears a decade later in Washington County with a relatively young family and no slave. I think this rules out Caroline County Andrew.

Dorchester County Andrew

The other great-grandson Andrew (son of John, son of Andrew Willis) lived in Dorchester County. One of Dorchester County Andrew’s brothers (Jarvis Willis) served during the Revolution in the same regiment and at the same time as Washington County Andrew, although in a different company. A logical theory is that after the war these two former soldiers left the Eastern Shore together. Dorchester County Andrew and Jarvis appear in the county in the 1783 Tax Assessment. Andrew has 60 acres of land called Fishers Venture with a household of seven people. Jarvis owns no land and has eight people in his household. And voila! Neither Jarvis nor Andrew appears in the 1790 census in Dorchester.

They both appear to be in Stokes County, North Carolina by 1790. That census lists Jarvis Willis with his family of eight, including two males younger than 16 years and five females. Andrew Willis does not appear in that census but shows up on a tax roll in Stokes County in 1791 with 250 acres of land.[9]By 1793, Andrew shows up on the Stokes County list of “insolvents” owing £5.10 in taxes. Often this meant that the party listed had abandoned their land and left the county.[10]It is possible, though highly unlikely, that Dorchester County Andrew had migrated back to Maryland. However, his family does not match the ages of the Washington County clan. Dorchester County Andrew apparently had six children born before 1783, per that year’s Tax Assessment, while Washington County Andrew had none.

Friendship Regulated Andrew

There is a third Andrew related to a Quaker family that lived near Federalsburg. Thomas Willis gifted 87 ½ acres of a tract called Friendship Regulated in Caroline County to his brother Andrew Willis in 1778.[11]The Tax List of 1783 shows Andrew in possession of that land and with a household of five males and five females. Andrew and his wife Sarah sell the land in 1784 to George Hutton of Sussex County, Delaware and do not appear in Caroline County again.[12]

Conclusion

None of the three men named Andrew Willis in Caroline and Dorchester Counties head a family that matches the size and structure of Washington County Andrew. That issue alone argues strongly that Washington County Andrew is not one of these three men. Additionally, the 1850 letter sent on behalf of Isaac Willis seeking bounty land states that Isaac believes his father was from Kent County. There is another Willis family in Kent that is not related to Wantage John. In sum, the evidence does not support any connection between Washington County Andrew and Wantage John.

[1]See Pension File S35141

[2]If born in 1752 per his pension application, the census understates Andrew’s age by four years, which is not a serious discrepancy.

[3]Ages of all family members track to the next appropriate age category except for the youngest daughter who remains at age under 10. I suspect she was an infant in 1800 and is actually 10 years old in 1810.

[4]31 Dec 1850 letter from Bennington & Cowan on behalf of Isaac Willis, online at Fold 3 pension file of Andrew Willis.

[5]Washington County, MD Deed Book Y: 439

[6]Washington County, MD Bond Book C: 427 and Administrative Accounts Book 7: 413. Nehemiah Hurley was administrator, Nehemiah Hurley, Hezekiah Donaldson and Isaac Willis were bonded.

[7]Washington County, MD Deed Book KK: 610

[8]Morrow, Dale W., Marriages of Washington County, Maryland, Volume 1, 1799-1830, Traces: Hagerstown, MD, 1977, D64.

[9]Harvey, Iris Moseley, Stokes County, North Carolina Tax List, 1791, Raleigh, NC, 1998, p 11

[10]Harvey, Iris Moseley, Stokes County, North Carolina Tax List, 1793, Raleigh, NC, 1998, p 43

[11]Deed Book GFA: 269

[12]Deed Book GFA: 777