Irish Settlers of the Smoky Mountains

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we would like to share some excerpts of this wonderful article about the history of the Scots-Irish settlers in Tennessee.

The Scots-Irish of Tennessee

The Scots-Irish have been back in the news recently as researchers and scholars continue discovering things about this remarkable culture that settled much of America and came to dominate Southern Appalachian culture.

An Old Appalachian HomesteadWhile other regions gave way to new influences over the centuries and the pioneering culture virtually vanished, the Scots-Irish who lived in the remoteness of Southern Appalachia held fast to their traditions and preserved their life-style well into the 21st century. What scholars are just now beginning to find out through their studies and excursions into the mountain backwoods, where the remnants of old homesteads can still be found, is the fact that the culture was not cut off from society as originally thought. Items discovered recently, such as toys, magazines, and furniture, show that they were as up-to-date on current affairs as anyone else in America. Why they chose to remain in the region long after progress supposedly seemed to pass them by is the question that many still ponder.

Scholars say the answer to that question can be found only in the origins of the Scots-Irish themselves and the matrimonial love they had for real estate and individual liberty. Those were the two things, the hybrid Celts valued above all else and the reason their story inevitably brought them to the American shores.

In April, 1717, following a drought that destroyed many of the crops in Northern Ireland, 5,000 people left Ulster bound for Boston and began one of the world’s first mass immigrations. British enforcement of taxes and confiscation of lands under new laws were coupled with devastating crop losses due to environmental conditions.

From 1717 to the American Revolution of 1776, more than 250,000 Ulstermen sailed to the North American ports of Pennsylvania, Delaware, South Carolina, and New York. The biggest wave of migration occurred in the four year period of 1725 to 1729, which made English rulers form a special investigative committee to see why the Ulster Protestants were leaving en masse from Northern Ireland. The Presbyterians, the Quakers, and others settled quickly in America and started building their fortunes.

The majority could only afford to make the trip to America by selling themselves as indentured servants. The practice was a kind of alternative slavery that contracted an individual for a period of four to seven years as a laborer in the colonies.

If the Ulstermen survived the journey and the brutal labor that followed, they were then released from the contract and allowed to settle in the new land. British rule, however, again began trying to exert itself in the American colonies and land ownership, which was a major issue with the Ulstermen, started becoming difficult and leading to a new migration beyond the British Proclamation line of 1758. The Proclamation restricted British subjects to the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains and gave Native Americans sovereignty on the western boundary.

With the prices of colonial real estate soaring along with British taxes, the Ulstermen started moving into the frontier where land was cheap or could be “squatted” – a tradition that lasted for over one hundred years in America. The Ulstermen soon showed the colonists what kind of breed had originated in the rugged lands of Northern Ireland. The Ulstermen adapted quickly to the frontier and began to flourish. They became skilled woodsmen who coexisted with some Native American tribes and skillfully fought those who didn’t want them there.

They were the textbook frontiersmen and set the standards of the craft in America. It wasn’t a trait completely admired, even by their own Ulster brethren, who feared too many of the independent settlers would upset the balance of power.

In Pennsylvania, James Logan, who was a Provincial Secretary of the region, wrote: “A settlement of five families gave me more trouble than 50 of any other people. It looks as if Ireland is to send all her inhabitants hither, for last week not less than six ships arrived, and every day two to three arrive also. The common fear is that if they continue to come they will make themselves proprietors of the province. They’re troublesome settler to the government and hard neighbors to the Indians.”

At first, the British welcomed the Ulstermen’s presence in the backwoods as a buffer between the Native American tribes and the colonies. When the American Revolution began in 1776, many of the Ulstermen, who were now second and third generation settlers had risen to prominence in colonial governments. Many had signed the Declaration of Independence and, among the one third of the colonists who actually took up arms and fought the British, the biggest contribution came from the Ulster immigrants. In addition, many congressional representatives of Ulster origins would become major players in the establishment and signing of the U.S. Constitution – a document they believed would preserve their unquenchable thirst for individual liberty and freedom from government interference.

While they considered themselves Americans, the British and other foreign colonists described them in a number of ways and one of those words was the compound term Scots-Irish – indicating they were Irish immigrants from the Ulster region. They brought with them the old hopes and dreams of owning land and answering to no one.

One of the highest concentrations of Scots-Irish were in the Carolinas and many, after fulfilling indentured service contracts, had been forced to migrate over the Southern Appalachians for new land. In 1772, it was Scots-Irish settlers who formed the first independent government in America at Watauga in what would become the state of Tennessee. They continued to settle in the Appalachian valleys beyond colonial rule and, although their loyalty was questioned by their adoptive country, the settlers proved themselves vital in the American Revolution’s victories at Cowpens and Kings Mountain. In addition, they numbered many in the Regular Colonial Army. When the war was going badly for the American colonies, then-General George Washington expressed uncompromising confidence in the Scots-Irish ranks of the American militias.

“If defeated everywhere else,” said Washington, “I will make my stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish of my native Virginia.”

In fact, following the Revolution, a British Major-General testified before a committee at the British House of Commons that “half the Continental Army were from Ireland – Scots-Irish.”

The Ulster-filled ranks in the Colonial Army were also rewarded with land contracts in lieu of pay for their service to the American cause, of which they took immediate advantage. On such an agreement did James White and three other men travel down the Tennessee River at the present site of Knoxville. Robertson traveled on to Nashville, and the Tennessee and Kentucky settlements began to grow into thriving cities west of the Appalachian Mountain range.

From that point forward, the Scots-Irish Americans became the quintessential “pioneer”. While they were only 14 percent of the American population at that time, their presence was felt at all levels of American society. The newly formed American government almost caused a rebellion among them in 1794, when then-President George Washington, taking a page from the British, decided to levy a tax on all whiskey made in the colonies. The incident that followed would become known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”. It forced numerous Scots-Irish distillers over the Appalachians and into the Kentucky frontier away from Colonial rule and taxation laws they felt resembled those of the British.

As the years passed, the frontier settlers had a chance to do something their forefathers had only dreamt of in their native land. They began to put down roots in America and owned land that would remain in their families for generations to come.

Their numbers in America and particularly the Southeast continued to grow and flourish. They served in every capacity of their communities and, while they preserved their ancient Scots-Irish traditions, considered themselves Americans. The Ten Amendments to the Constitution were as sacred to them as the Ten Commandments and Scots-Irish settlers were always among the first to volunteer for military service to defend the liberties they represented.

When the War Between the States began, Scots-Irish soldiers filled the ranks of both armies and battlefield heroics – a common practice earning the respect of Union and Southern commanders. During the height of the war, General Robert E. Lee was asked which nationality he believed made the best soldiers.

“The Scots who came to this country by way of Ireland,” said Lee. “Because they have all the dash of the Irish in taking up a position and all the stubbornness of the Scots in holding it.”

The Scots-Irish Americans continued to flourish after the war and many kept the frontier tradition alive by migrating over the Mississippi and into the reaches of the American West. Their names became icons in the history of the nation. Among them were names like Crockett and Houston. In fact, every President from Tennessee was of Scots-Irish descent. The traditions remain stronger in Tennessee than in any other state. They remained isolated in the far reaches of the Southern Appalachians for years until an age old battle over real estate began again during the 1930s. As in Ireland and early America, they were given colorful nicknames like mountaineers and “hillbillies” – often relegating them to a second-class status as citizens. While their traditions have been both glamorized and stereotyped by Hollywood in films, the Scots-Irish values and traditions continue to influence America today.

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the Scots-Irish culture thrived and evolved in the isolated mountains of East Tennessee and became something of an American curiosity around the turn of the 19th Century, when President Theodore Roosevelt wrote his book “The Winning of the West” and spoke highly of Scots-Irish accomplishments in the settlement of America. The region came into national view again in the early 1930s through President Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs and again in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson launched the “War on Poverty’” and created the Appalachian Regional Commission to help with economic development of the region.

The federal programs were a cause of concern among many American scholars, who began an all out effort to try and document the culture. Preservation of the Scots-Irish traditions in Southern Appalachia became a focus of numerous regional colleges and universities, who now offer courses and sponsor studies of the subject. Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City is among one of those colleges offering studies in Southern Appalachian culture. Their Appalachian Studies division was among one of the first in Tennessee to begin offering classes on Southern Appalachian traditions in an effort to preserve the culture.

Today about one in five Tennesseans can trace their roots to the Scots-Irish. In the 1990 figures for selective social characteristics for the State of Tennessee conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, it established that 197,942 Tennesseans were of Scots-Irish descent, 100,080 Scottish, and 875,771 Irish. With all figures totalled and the fact that most who claim Irish heritage were from the Ulster regions of Northern Ireland, it is estimated that more than 1 million Tennesseans are descended from Scots-Irish ancestry.

One of the most notable and accidental preservations of the Scots-Irish traditions can be found in the native music of the region. The traditional folk songs can still be heard in Bluegrass music and eventually laid the groundwork for the growth of Country Music in Nashville. In the 1990s, entertainer Dolly Parton released an album titled “Heartsong” with the Northern Irish group “Altan” that paid tribute to her Scots-Irish heritage in the Smoky Mountains. Other artists have released similar tributes through the years – most notably in the fields of Folk and Bluegrass music.

The ancient art of making whiskey also continued in the Southern Appalachian region until after the War Between the States when the federal government started registering and taxing distillery operations. Kentucky and Tennessee evolved the art into distinct American styles that are now prominent brands worldwide. In true Scots-Irish fashion, it also gave birth to the underground “moonshining” operations that pervaded throughout the region for generations and was a thorn in the side of law enforcement.

In addition to Tennessee’s three presidents, it is also interesting to note that more than nine other men who would serve as President of the United States could trace their ancestry to the Ulster region of Northern Ireland.

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One thought on “Irish Settlers of the Smoky Mountains

  1. Great article. The history of the Mekemson/Makemson Scotch-Irish family is quite similar to what you describe above with the exception of ending up in Kentucky instead of Tennessee.

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