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North British Migration: From the Irish Sea to the Allegheny Mountains

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Think of a man dressed in a loose-cut shirt or leather jacket with horizontal, fringed seams running across the chest and onto the upper sleeves. The shirt narrows to a belted waist, and its wearer sports a broad-brimmed hat and either leather-stocking gaiters or boots that reach high up the leg. Quite probably, he has a weapon with him.If you think this sounds like a backwoodsman from the American frontier of yesteryear, you would be right. But the frontier that gave birth to his costume was not the Appalachian backcountry of the 18th century, nor yet the cow-punching plains that lured men forth as America's frontier marched westward. No, the frontiers that gave rise to his costume were the borders of England and Scotland and the disputed lands of Ulster. The costume came to America in the 1700s along with a quarter of a million immigrants who left the Borders and Northern Ireland for a better life.

Their homelands edge the Irish Sea. They are hilly, often bleak, and while the valleys offer pasturage for sheep or hardy cattle, the cold wet winds blowing from the Atlantic make them a poor place to grow wheat. Barley and oats are the grains of the region; cabbage, turnips and other vegetables that tolerate cold and wet are its crops.

Throughout recorded history, acquiring sufficient land to raise a family here has been difficult, and for centuries national and religious differences compounded the problem.One ancient witness to long-established border disputes is Hadrian's Wall, built between ad 122 and 126 by Emperor Hadrian to mark the outer limit of the Roman Empire (see 'Timeline, January 2006). Scotland was beyond the imperial domain, but the Scots frequently raided the lands south of the wall, and when the Romans left in the 5th century, the borderlands became chaotic, with both Scots and English fielding armies to battle for strategic outposts and to seize the land and cattle. These battles were not just fought lord against laird, earl against thane, but family against family–and never more fiercely than when the families in question were royal.

From 1040 to 1745 every English monarch but three suffered either a Scottish invasion or invaded Scotland in turn. Indeed, the Borders were called the debatable lands because both English and Scots monarchs claimed them. Border towns such as Carlisle, Newcastle and Berwick were constantly devastated, and their townspeople cruelly slaughtered. For example, England's King John tortured the burghers of Berwick to death in 1215, and set fire to the houses of the town. Again in 1286, Edward I captured the city and killed every man of military age, earning himself the nickname Hammer of the Scots. A few years later in 1297, the Scottish national hero William Wallace flayed the English officers captured when he invaded Cumberland. In 1314 Edward II tried to follow in the footsteps of his father, only to have his armies defeated at Bannockburn. The victorious armies of Robert the Bruce then raped and pillaged through northern England and Ireland. Payback time came when Edward III ascended the throne in 1327 and ravaged the Scottish lowlands as far north as Edinburgh.

Every savage act was remembered, and both sides took vengeance eagerly. While the Scots shone the glory of national pride on their victories, the English kings gave special powers to northern counties so they could defend themselves without waiting for London's approval. Thus, northern lords ruled like mini-kings–an effect recorded in Shakespeare's history plays in which the Dukes of Northumberland are usually make-or-break allies of unreliable loyalty. Macbeth is equally revealing in its depiction of the murderous ambition unleashed over the accession to the Scottish throne, which was not necessarily inherited by the eldest son but by whichever family member proved himself the most ruthless. As Shakespeare shows, during times when the Scots were thus distracted, English armies generally decided to march over the border.

Many unscrupulous people found this government-sponsored mayhem convenient. Armed gangs called reivers would descend on farms and carry off crops and cattle. Some families were even said to be Scottish when they will, and English at their pleasure–a dual allegiance that let them profit from the victories of both sides. The region never enjoyed 50 consecutive years of peace. When James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, things quieted down, but under his son Charles I hostilities broke out again, and continued in Oliver Cromwell's era and beyond. Major border skirmishes occurred in 1680, 1689, 1715 and 1745. Clearly, the chances of farming in peace were minimal.

They were little better just across the Irish Sea. Historically, the nine counties of northern Ireland, known as Ulster, were home to both the Picts and Scots, as were the southern counties of lowland Scotland, which lie only 12 miles across the North Channel of the Irish Sea. The people of the two regions therefore shared a common heritage. Scottish lowlanders seeking grazing land settled in Ulster, a practice fostered by the competing Irish warlords, who often preferred Scottish settlers on their land rather than rival Irishmen. After the Reformation, most Scots were Protestants, so the English, also mostly Protestant, encouraged ever more of them to settle in Ireland, hoping that this would help bring the country firmly under English control. To attract them, landowners granted longer leases than those offered in Scotland, thus encouraging them to improve the land. Many found they could do well growing flax and making linen.

In contrast, Catholic Irishmen often found themselves landless in their own country. Naturally, they resented this, and as the 16th and 17th centuries fueled religious enmity throughout Europe, they grew ever more outraged at both the Calvinist Scots and the Anglican English. When the forces of King William of Orange decisively defeated the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the peace that followed was bitter; indeed, it was almost as hard to find peace in Ulster as it was on the English-Scottish border.Economically, things were bad too. By the early 18th century, the long leases that had attracted the Scots were expiring, and absentee landlords took the chance to increase rents sharply and to write shorter leases. At each expiry, the rent increased dramatically in a practice known as rack-renting. Many Scots-Irish Presbyterians could not pay because groups of Irish Catholics with lower economic expectations would band together to outbid them to rent one farm among them all. Then 1714 brought a series of poor harvests leading to six years of famine. Epidemics among farm animals and a smallpox outbreak blighted 1718. With such disasters coming to a region riven by conflict, it is no surprise that the Scots-Irish of Ireland and Scotland, and the English of the northern counties, began leaving for America.

A few had arrived in the 17th century, but in 1718 a total of 10 boats with 1,000 people left Ulster for Boston. They spread to Maine, where the towns of Bangor and Belfast attest to their arrival, and westward to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. By the 1720s, vessels were bringing northern immigrants to Philadelphia, whence they were encouraged to move westward into the hills of the interior. Waves of immigration continued, reaching especially intense levels in 1729, 1741, 1755 and particularly in the decade from 1765 to 1775. The newcomers spread south from western Pennsylvania through the backcountry of Maryland and along the mountains of Virginia and the Carolinas and then into Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

By 1790 more than half the population of that vast area came from Scotland, Ireland and northern England. One hundred and fifty thousand came from Northern Ireland, with at least another 100,000 coming from the Scottish lowlands and northern England. The place names of the region show their progress. Cumberland, the extreme northwestern county of England, appears in the Cumberland River of Tennessee, the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, the Cumberland Gap through the Appalachians, and the many Cumberland counties of the southern United States. Durham, the great cathedral city of England's northeast, is another popular name, as is Galloway, one of Scotland's southern counties. Places called New Scotland and Caledonia abound, while the Irish town of Derry, called Londonderry by the English and the Protestants, appears in America under both its names. Orange was a favorite Protestant name because it was the family name of King William, the victor of the Boyne. It is commemorated in the town of Orange in western Massachusetts, where some early immigrants settled, as well as Orange County in North Carolina and Orangeburg in South Carolina.

More significantly, the many waves of northern immigrants brought their culture with them, and it differed sharply from that of the other Britons who had settled on the eastern seaboard. It was a warrior culture bred by centuries of enmity. They valued men for their strength and bravery, and often also for their cunning and even cruelty. The male dress they imported to the American frontier emphasized manliness: Its broad cut across the chest and shoulders and the heavy seams and fringes gave the impression of strength, while its narrow waist and heavy belts added to the effect. Boots and leather stockings rather than shoes suggested that the wearer was at ease in the outdoors, while the readiness to fight was emphasized by weapons, with the knives and daggers of Britain soon complemented by guns in America.

Eagerness and aptitude for fighting was mandatory. Families bonded closely, and an insult or injury to one member would be taken up by everyone else. Retribution was often severe, but rarely settled a dispute, as the loser of the encounter exacted vengeance. Thus, feuds could continue over generations. In this way the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud of Southern history saw the deaths of 20 people, though its origin was merely an argument over two hogs.

The similarity to the enmities of the British borders is clear. Less obvious perhaps are other concomitants of a warrior culture. Men who spent a lot of time fighting or readying themselves for battle did not always stoop to work. Women did that. And both in Britain and America, women bore the brunt of backbreaking farm and domestic labor. While men were valued for strength, women were valued for producing the next generation of warriors. Just as men's clothes displayed their masculinity, young women's clothes showed off their sexuality with tight waists and close-cut bodices that drew the eye to their breasts.

In England, the rates of illegitimate births were highest in Cumberland and other areas of the Northwest. This pattern continued in America, and many brides were heavily pregnant on their wedding day. Once married, the couple generally lived in a log cabin. Though such a house seems quintessentially American, historian David Hackett Fischer points out that the traditional cabin was based on the old English measurement of the rod or pole, and that like the cabins of the English-Scottish borders, it could be erected quickly. Such a home was useful when raids and home burnings were so common that investment in substantial accommodation was unwise. The immigrants to America were much safer than the relatives they left behind, but they brought with them the mentality of impermanence. Fischer notes that even today, flimsy housing such as trailers and prefabricated buildings remain most common in the Southern states where these immigrants settled.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the Southern fondness for religious revivals and field meetings also springs from the warrior culture of their British homelands. Most of the immigrants from these regions were Calvinist Presbyterians. But given their independent warrior attitudes, they had little time for church hierarchy, much preferring, both in Britain and in America, the spontaneity of outdoor meetings where fiery preachers would address their thoughts to God.

This attitude was at odds with their Calvinist co-religionists of New England. John Winthrop had reminded the people he led to Massachusetts that the eyes of the world were upon them; they were thus like a City upon a Hill, and their lives in the New World were strictly regulated. Similarly, William Penn had aimed to promote brotherly love and welcomed all who accepted God to his colony. These earlier immigrants lived law-abiding, orderly lives with religion as its core. But even though many of the newcomers from round the Irish Sea had fought fiercely for their religion and suffered persecution in its name, their motive in coming to America was not to build a religious society. They were economic migrants, anxious to find and defend land where they could settle and feed their families.

Their fighting spirit and economic distress often made them less than welcome in the earlier colonies. Prosperous New Englanders were disgusted by their deplorable smell and behavior. In 1729 an angry mob actually prevented a ship from Londonderry from docking. Pennsylvania initially offered a heartier welcome. But in 1729 James Logan, himself born in Ireland, complained that a settlement of five families from Ireland gives one more trouble than fifty of any other people. His solution was to send them westward, where they could act as a buffer between the settled towns of the East and the Indians on the frontier. Unfortunately, the immigrants knew only one way of dealing with troublesome neighbors: battle. This undermined the peaceable policies of the Quakers and disrupted the good relationships they and German immigrants to Pennsylvania had built up with the Indians.

The problem was that the warrior culture into which the waves of 18th-century immigrants were born had left them independent, hot-tempered and often rash to the extent of lawlessness. Fierce protection of one's own and taking the law into one's own hands were acceptable norms. This did not provide a stable basis for an economy, and just as their homelands were economically less developed than other parts of the British Isles, the Southern regions they inhabited in America did not become as prosperous as New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

They did, however, produce great leaders. President Andrew Jackson's father was a farmer from Ulster. His wife Rachel was descended from another Irish family. President James Polk was the great-great-grandson of Captain Robert Polk, who left Donegal in 1699. The father of Patrick Henry, the Revolutionary orator, left the Scottish borders in 1730. The Jacksons, the Polks and the Henrys were all reasonably well-to-do before they left Britain–indeed, Patrick Henry had close relations among the English aristocracy. In contrast, Thomas Mellon was 4 when he and his family left a thatched farmhouse in Omagh for Baltimore. They settled in Pennsylvania, where Thomas grew up working on the family farm, but reading books and dreaming of an education. Eventually he became a lawyer specializing in estate litigation–a position that gave him many investment opportunities. Based on this, his son Andrew Mellon founded one of the greatest fortunes in America.

The Mellon family's entrepreneurship is akin to President Jackson's enthusiasm for minimal government combined with maximum personal autonomy, and Patrick Henry's insistence on natural liberty as something every animate creature does naturally desire, yea, and even vegetables themselves. All derive from the northern warrior culture of Britain in which men demanded freedom from restraint and clung fast to the right to take care of their own affairs.

It is no surprise that some men from this culture have risen to great heights. Paradoxically, it is also no surprise that unlike the settlers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia, who had respected and powerful leaders in John Winthrop, William Penn and Sir William Berkeley, respectively, the people of the lands bordering the Irish Sea arrived as family groups, occasionally with a clergyman or some noted man of their community to whom they would be loyal, but fundamentally were too independent to array themselves under anyone's banner or to accept any hierarchical social structure.



This article was written by Claire Hopley and originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of British Heritage. For more great articles, subscribe to British Heritage magazine today!


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