Scots-Irish in Colonial America
By Kyle J. Betit
This article focuses on sources and techniques in American records for tracing Scots-Irish immigrants who came to colonial America. Many thousands of Scots-Irish immigrants came prior to 1776, with large-scale immigration beginning in 1718. Immigration to America was at a standstill during the American Revolution (1775-1783), but following the Revolution many Scots-Irish continued to come to the United States. However, this article focuses on the pre-1776 immigrants.
For the purposes of this article, the term "Scots-Irish" refers to settlers who were born in or resided in Ireland but whose earlier origins (whether personal or ancestral) were in Scotland. They have also been called "Scotch-Irish," "Ulster Scots," and "Irish Presbyterians."
Scots-Irish immigrants came from the historic province of Ulster (in the north of Ireland). Scottish settlers began to come in large numbers to Ulster in the early decades of the 1600s. James I, the English monarch, sought to solidify control by transferring land ownership to Protestants and by settling their lands with Protestant tenants (English and Scottish). Scottish settlers continued to come to Ireland throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Scots-Irish immigrants settled in the American colonies from the 1600s. However, the first major migration of Scots-Irish to America was a group that came with Rev. James McGregor from County Londonderry to New England in 1718. They arrived at Boston, and many of them moved to New Hampshire, establishing the town of Londonderry.
The majority of the Scots-Irish who came to America in the colonial period settled in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Nonetheless, there was significant Scots-Irish settlement in each of the thirteen American colonies.
Many of the earliest Scots-Irish immigrants (of the 1720s and 1730s) first settled in Pennsylvania. Many then moved down from Pennsylvania into Virginia and the Carolinas. From there immigrants and their descendants went on to populate the states of Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee in the 1780s and 1790s.
There are a myriad of possible reasons for the immigration of so many of the Scots-Irish to America in the 1700s. High rents and religious persecution have often been blamed. Most of the Scots-Irish came freely to the American colonies, although there were also some who were deported as prisoners or came as indentured servants. Others came with British Army regiments and remained in the American colonies.
It is important to keep in mind that just because an ancestor came from Ireland to America during the colonial period does not mean that he/she was necessarily Scots-Irish. Many Anglicans, Catholics, and Quakers also came from Ireland during this time period. An ancestor from Ireland can often be identified as Scots-Irish from: family tradition; the surname; the given names in the family; association with other Scots-Irish; or identification as a Presbyterian.
The Scots-Irish largely came to colonial America in family groups, often such that members of an extended family settled near one another in America, whether they immigrated together or separately. Some Scots-Irish immigrants came to America as part of larger group or congregational migrations, meaning that an entire group or congregation of Presbyterians together moved from one locality in Ireland to one locality in America. It is thus very important to trace persons that immigrated with a Scots-Irish ancestor or were associated with the ancestor in America.
In some cases, the immigrating group was led by a minister. In such instances, the minister may be traced back to the church he served in Ireland. Most of the immigrants who accompanied him would be from the same area. However, a group or congregational migration may have drawn from a larger area than just one town or parish in Ireland.