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Scots-Irish in America

The Scottish Presbyterians who settled Ulster (Northern Ireland) in the 1600's became known as Ulster-Scots. Those Ulster-Scots who left the north of Ireland to settle America a century later became known as the Scots-Irish. 

Northern Irish Presbyterian families had been sailing from Ulster to America since the 1690's, but in the year 1717 the trickle became a torrent. In a fifty year period in excess of 250,000 Scots-Irish Presbyterians had left Ulster to make a new home in America.

The reason so many left their homeland in the north of Ireland is due both to religious persecution and economic hardship. The Scots-Irish Presbyterians were often viewed by the Anglican landowners in Ireland as more of a threat than the local Irish Catholic population

The Test Act of 1704 was particularly hard on Presbyterians. Marriages conducted by Presbyterian ministers were invalid and they were unable to worship in churches or hold public office. In addition tariffs were imposed on the north of Ireland linen industry to stop the Ulster-Scots from competing on an equal footing with the linen industry in England. In this climate it is no surprise that over a quarter of the north of Ireland's Scots-Irish Presbyterian population opted for a new life in the new world.

It was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Francis Makemie who organized the first Presbyterian Church in America in 1693. The Scots-Irish are credited with the spread of Presbyterianism across the US. The fact that Presbyterian ministers were required to be university educated and bible school trained meant there was a shortage of Presbyterian clergy for the growing population. 

As Baptist pastors at the time did not need the same degree of formal training, they were more readily available and this led to the Baptist Church eventually overtaking the Presbyterian Church as the main Protestant denomination in America.

The Scots-Irish settlers made superb frontiersmen in early Colonial America. Their experiences over the previous few centuries, first in the Scottish Borders and then fighting the Irish Catholics in the north of Ireland had created a race of hardy unyielding people who were ideally suited to clearing the forests to build farms and pushing the borders further and further west.

Their experience of religious discrimination in Ulster by their Episcopal English landlords meant the Scots-Irish had no hesitation in taking the side of the rebels in the War of Independence. In the words of Professor James G. Leyburn "They provided some of the best fighters in the American army. Indeed there were those who held the Scots-Irish responsible for the war itself".


No less a figure than George Washington once said "If defeated everywhere else I will make my last stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish of my native Virginia".

The Scots-Irish provided 25 Generals and about a third of the revolutionary army. The Pennsylvania Line was made up entirely of Ulster-Scots emigrants and their sons. The Battle of Kings Mountain was a Scots-Irish battle where a militia of mainly Scots-Irish Presbyterians defeated an English army twice its size.

President Theodore Roosevelt said of the Scots-Irish "in the Revolutionary war, the fiercest and most ardent Americans of all were the Presbyterian Irish settlers and their descendants"

The Declaration of Independence was printed by an Ulster-Scot, John Dunlop, read in public by a first generation Scots-Irish American Colonel John Nixon and the first signature came from another Scots-Irish Presbyterian, John Hancock.

The Scots-Irish embraced America and gradually lost their distinct Scots-Irish identity to be Americans period. The name Scots-Irish fell out of use for a period of time until the arrival of the Catholic Irish almost a century later following the potato famine. In order to differentiate themselves from the famine refugees who were Catholic Gaelic Irish, the term Scots-Irish was reintroduced. 

The Irish tended to congregate in Catholic Irish communities in cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston and maintained their Irish identity, while the Scots-Irish population was spread throughout America, particularly in the American Mid West and the Southern States. Today there are approximately 27 million Protestant Scots-Irish Americans and 17 million Catholic Irish Americans (although a fair percentage of those from Protestant backgrounds and bearing Scottish surnames wrongly regard themselves to be Irish-Americans).

Famous Scots-Irish Americans including Andrew Jackson, Davy Crocket, Sam Houston, Stonewall Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and John Wayne are testament to the great influence of the Scots-Irish in the formation and development of the United States.