1[Revised version of a paper that originally appeared in Journal of East Tennessee History



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1[Revised version of a paper that originally appeared in Journal of East Tennessee History

vol. 65 (1995), 1-33].

How Scotch-Irish is Your English?:

The Ulster Heritage of East Tennessee Speech

Michael Montgomery
Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the 1960s, I was required in the eighth grade to take a six-week course on the state’s history.1 There my classmates and I learned such memorable facts as why Tennessee is nicknamed the “Volunteer State,” what the “War of the Roses” political campaign of the late 19th century was, and who the three Presidents were the state contributed to that national office. The answer to the last question, most Tennesseans will recall, is Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson. At some point during that course we also learned that all three men were born outside the state (in the Carolinas, actually), but this mattered very little to us. Since they had adopted Tennessee, had built their careers there, and were elected from there, these men were Volunteers foremost. It was therefore a little unsettling to me, upon leaving the state in 1981 to take a job at the University of South Carolina, to learn that not only did both Carolinas fervently claim Andy Jackson, who was born in 1767 in a vaguely mapped area of the Carolina Piedmont called the Waxhaws, but that the two Carolinas were still arguing about the issue—putting forth rival claims and counterclaims—of the exact site of his nativity.

After a decade of living in Columbia and hearing the local arguments, I found that I could finally begin to concede South Carolina a partial claim to Old Hickory, but little could have prepared me for the surprise at then finding still another claimant—in what I thought was half a world away. When traveling in Northern Ireland in 1990 I discovered that the village of Boneybefore took credit for Jackson as well! Indeed, in this tiny County Antrim community, which one reaches a mile north of the medieval fortress town of Carrickfergus, fifteen miles from Belfast, one comes suddenly upon a roadside cottage which calls itself the Andrew Jackson Centre. In the summertime the site features a program of craftwork demonstrations and related events and a selection of historical videos, including “From Here to the Whitehouse,” whose account begins in 1765, when “Andrew Jackson, Snr., his wife Elizabeth and sons Hugh and Robert left Boneybefore, Carrickfergus. They emigrated from Larne and sailed to Charleston, South Carolina.” In presenting a chronology of “Andrew Jackson 1765-1845 7th President of the United States of America,” the center’s brochure asserted a local claim to be Jackson’s pre-natal home, though of course he could not even have been conceived there.2

While the effort of this small place in northeastern Ireland, in the historical province of Ulster,3 to share some of Jackson’s reputation might strike Americans as only local boosterism or an outright tourist trap, it is in fact these things and much more. Anyone who spends much time in the book shops of Northern Ireland, keeps up with the popular press there, or becomes acquainted with the activities of its local historical societies or the Ulster-Scots Agency (a government-funded body set up in 1999 as an outgrowth of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement) begins to discover an extensive popular literature and awareness on Ulster people who went to North America in the 18th or early 19th century and contributed to the developing new country of the United States of America. One comes across small books such as W. F. Marshall’s Ulster Sails West: The Story of the Great Emigration from Ulster to North America in the 18th Century. Together with an Outline of the Part Played by Ulster Men in Building the United States, Eric Montgomery’s The Scotch-Irish and Ulster: The Scotch-Irish in America’s History, Ronnie Hanna’s The Highest Call: Ulster and the American Presidency, and Billy Kennedy’s The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee.4 One finds articles in magazines, such as David Hume’s “Garden of the Waxhaw,” in which he declares that “Andrew Jackson was destined to be a great leader and to enter the White House as the first of the Ulster Presidents of the United States of America.”5 Ulster Presidents? This is a term that few Americans are familiar with. I certainly wasn’t. In Northern Ireland, though, there is an official ancestral homesite not only for him, but also for Chester Arthur and Woodrow Wilson (that this writer knows about—there may well be others).

This literature in Northern Ireland goes to considerable length to name the men of Ulster stock who signed the Declaration of Independence (at least eight, including Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, a native of County Londonderry), who printed the Declaration of Independence (John Dunlap, a native of County Tyrone), who led the assault at King’s Mountain during the American Revolution, who served as generals during the American Revolution (twenty-one, by one reckoning), who later became President of the American republic (at least eleven by one count, as many as seventeen by another), and so on. Whether such calculations reflect something of modern political and cultural currents in Northern Ireland or are the product of an intense sense of history in the province (in whose six counties today around one hundred local historical societies exist), the interest in Ulster-American connections is lively and genuine, and it represents far more than a ploy for American tourist dollars. Along with the extensive literature, there is a popular awareness, unparalleled elsewhere in the British Isles, of strong historical ties between Ulster and the United States, even though these took place many generations ago. This awareness has increased markedly in recent decades, four demonstrations of which can be cited.

In 1976 the Ulster-American Folk Park was opened near Omagh, County Tyrone, at the birthplace of Thomas Mellon, who emigrated to the United States as a child in 1818 and founded a financial empire. The outdoor portion of the museum attempts to recreate the homesteads and community life that Ulster emigrants would have known two hundred years ago. The indoor portion features conventional exhibits and a recently initiated computer database provides written records of many kinds on the process of people uprooting themselves from their families and native soil to sail to a distant, unknown land. Additionally, the park has recreated something of the voyage that emigrants would have experienced, by constructing a replica of a passenger ship, and something of the world they would have found on the other side, by building a section of the Philadelphia waterfront of the early 19th century. An expanded gallery built in the mid-1990s further documents struggles and successes of Ulster emigrants and their descendants in the new environment, featuring the Batlle of King’s Mountain, David Crockett, and Andrew Jackson, and so on. The gift shop sells a full-color pictorial map, “Ulster-American Heritage Trail,” that identifies the “ancestral home” in Ulster of, among many others, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Foster, Amelia Earhart, and Neil Armstrong.

Also in 1976 a group of historians at the University of Ulster at Coleraine organized the first Ulster American Heritage Symposium, an increasingly lively biennial gatherings that includes scholars across the humanities, amateur historians, genealogists, and the public at large. The conference alternates between Northern Ireland and the United States, with recent gathering having attendance of well over a hundred. The next symposium is scheduled for Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2006, to be hosted by the East Tennessee Historical Society.

Third, in 1989 Ulster Television broadcast the four-segment series God’s Frontiersmen: The Scots-Irish Epic, produced by Rory Fitzpatrick, who also authored a pictorial book of the same title recounting the lives of individuals of Ulster extraction such as frontiersmen Crockett and Sam Houston and Civil War generals Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant.6 The program was broadcast throughout the British Isles and was received with great interest. A final example that can be cited is a special twelve-page section titled “American Country” in 1993 (commemorating American Independence day) of the morning daily Belfast News Letter that emphasized the historical influence of Ulster on Southern Appalachian music. Among other stories, this included a long feature article on “The Queen of Tennessee” (Dolly Parton—who else?). The newspaper’s special correspondent wrote dreamily about the Smoky Mountains in an article titled “Magic in the Place of the Blue Smoke” about how East Tennessee was settled largely by men and women of Ulster ancestry whose modern-day descendants faithfully preserve the culture of their forebears.7

While these phenomena are undoubtedly important reflections of the cultural psyche of Northern Ireland today and of the conviction that the province should put on record its own unique contributions, that topic belongs to a separate essay. The purpose here is to put them into perspective with a series of historical events and to relate them to cultural developments in the United States following the emigration from Ulster. Historically speaking, two things are most important here. One is that such demonstrations of Ulster-American connections, seen most broadly, are part of a larger phenomenon—extensive annals, academic and popular, over the past century on the emigration of people, largely of Scottish heritage, from Ulster in the six decades before the American Revolution.8 Nothing comparable exists for any region of the British Isles, large or small. These are people who are called “Ulster Scots” in Ireland but in the U.S. usually “Scotch-Irish” or, much less often, “Scots-Irish.”9 Arguably the first account of their trans-Atlantic contributions was James Craighead’s Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil: The Early History of the Scotch and Irish Churches, and Their Relations to the Presbyterian Church of America.10 The most voluminous study is Hanna’s two-volume The Scotch-Irish, or the Scot in North Britain, North Ireland, and North America, 11 while the most heroic portrayal appears in The Winning of the West, by Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote that they were the “vanguard of the army of fighting settlers, who with axe and rifle won their way from the Alleghenies to the Rio Grande and the Pacific.”12

Such enthusiastic, testimonial accounts can be found today in both America and Northern Ireland) and sometimes arouse great fanfare.13 However, modern-day American versions are more often the critical work of seasoned historians who rely on original sources, quantitative methods of interpretation, and dispassionate assessment. Among the best of the latter kind from a generation ago are R. W. Dickson’s Ulster Emigration to Colonial America 1718-1775, David Noel Doyle’s Ireland, Irishmen and Revolutionary America 1760-1820, and James G. Leyburn’s The Scotch-Irish: A Social History. The first two of these cover only segments of the migration period, while Leyburn provides a detailed chronicle beginning in 16th-century Scotland. Within more recent years three important volumes that have appeared are Patrick Griffin’s The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764;, Kerby A. Miller et al.’s Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America 1675-1815; and Marianne Wokeck’s Trade in Strangers: The Beginning of Mass Migration to North America.14

The other important historical point is that although the vast majority of Ulster emigrants landed in Philadelphia or elsewhere in the Delaware Valley (Charles Town, capital of the colony of South Carolina, was a distant second in popularity), most soon migrated to what became known as the “back country,” the inland parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, as well as nearby regions like Kentucky and East Tennessee. This movement resulted in the Scotch-Irish often being the dominant settlement group in much of the territory, and their traditions had a profound formative influence on other groups, according to many historians (David Hackett Fischer, the most ambitious of these, identifies twenty-four broad cultural “ways” that connect the Scotch-Irish with Southern Appalachia in his Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America).15

Although there are many accounts of the pre-Revolutionary emigration of people from Ulster to North America, controversy remains over what label should be assigned to them (“Scotch-Irish” is employed here because it is the conventional term in the U.S.), over the size of the emigration, and over the relative distinctiveness of this emigrant stream from others that came from the British Isles. The “Scotch” (a word that represents a contraction of “Scottish” and is a traditional form for the latter) element of the population originated from the 17th-century “Ulster Plantation” of Scottish and English settlers in the north of Ireland, a process that brought them and the “native” Irish into intimate contact and often conflict from the first quarter of that century. By the year 1659 (the year of one survey, 60% of the Ulster population was Irish, 30% Scottish (primarily in the northeastern counties of Antrim and Down), and 10% English. The heaviest influx of Scots was still to come—in the 1690s, to escape economic difficulties and religious strife in the Scottish Lowlands.16
Misconceptions about the Scotch-Irish

Despite lively debates on some issues, a number of widely held ideas about the Scotch-Irish are genuine misconceptions. Among these is that they represent a mixture or interbreeding of Scottish and Irish populations in Ulster. In fact, these groups very often remained in separate communities in Ireland, though they often lived close to and worked alongside one another. A second misconception is that the Scots who came to Ulster were outcasts—deportees, criminals, and ne’er-do-wells. In fact, the vast majority were driven by economic pressures and the lure of long-term leases on good land, not by political or legal expulsion. They came because land was available on favorable terms, and they intended to stay; most of their descendants did, and it is they who constitute the bulk of the present-day Protestant population there, especially in Antrim, Down, Londonderry, and east Donegal.17

A third misconception is the view that the term “Scotch-Irish” is a 19th-century creation of Americans having Ulster ancestry who wanted to distinguish their heritage from that of Catholic Irish, who were coming en masse to the U.S., particularly as a result of the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. The term had been used, at least by outsiders (e.g. Anglican priests Jonathan Boucher and Charles Woodmason) in the 18th century. although it is not clear to what extent Ulster emigrants used it for themselves.18 At least one well-informed scholar believes that, when arriving in North America, they most likely would have labeled their ancestry as simply “Irish.”19

The consensus on the Scotch-Irish migration to America appears to be 1) that at least 150,000 people left Ulster for North America in the six decades preceding the American Revolution20; 2) that they were overwhelmingly Presbyterian (as many as ten percent of the migrants were Catholic Irish and at least as many were probably Anglicans of English ancestry; smaller numbers of Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots, and other groups came); 3) that the great majority of these were of Scottish ancestry and tradition (whose forebears had migrated from Scotland one to four generations earlier in the 17th century); and 4) that they left primarily for economic reasons. Most Ulster emigrants to North America had never owned land or enjoyed the status or security this afforded. Beginning around 1717 rents in Ulster were significantly raised (or “racked”) as leases expired, crop failures brought the scarcity of food, and downturns in trade (especially with linen, whose manufacture was the principal cottage industry) occurred, only to recur with unnerving frequency in succeeding decades. These factors tipped the balance for countless individuals who, though no doubt strongly attached to their native soil and communities, made the usually irrevocable decision to emigrate. The same factors affected all of Ireland in the 19th century, especially during the potato famine, as a result of which a million people left the Emerald Isle in the 1840s alone.21

From time to time because of their religious affiliation, Irish Presbyterians, called “dissenters” in their day, suffered a measure of political and religious discrimination (these were inseparable because of the existence of the Church of Ireland, affiliated with the Church of England). The legal disabilities and the disaffection over paying compulsory tithes for the support of another denomination and its clergy spurred Presbyterian pastors to promote emigration, sometimes leading their congregations by enlisting a ship, recruiting passengers, organizing supplies, and undertaking the voyage themselves. From their pulpits they sometimes characterized their parishioners as an oppressed but chosen people and the American colonies as a veritable Promised Land. Even so, it is doubtful that many left Ireland solely or mainly for religious reasons, even though religious “persecution” by the established church later became a strong element in Scotch-Irish mythology, the set of beliefs which developed to recount how the people survived and overcame obstacles in crossing the Atlantic and how their experience in Ulster had uniquely prepared them for life on the American frontier. This mythology, through which has run a strong element of Calvinistic predestinarianism, has been articulated by popular historians in Northern Ireland in recent decades, e.g. “Ideally suited for their new life by reason of their experience as pioneers in Ulster, their qualities of character and their Ulster-Scottish background, they made a unique contribution to the land of their adoption”22). Fitzpatrick’s God’s Frontiersmen and Kennedy’s series of volumes (which he calls the Scots-Irish Chronicles) are only two of the most recent versions of this. For 18th-century Ulster emigrants, all of these sentiments fed on existing convictions about events in the previous century, when the largely Scottish population in Ulster felt itself abandoned, particularly after the Siege of Londonderry in 1689, by the Stuart monarchy after having it induce them or their ancestors to move to Ulster in the first place. These sentiments have more recently been reinforced by a sense of political and cultural isolation of the Protestant population in Northern Ireland over the past quarter century.

The complexity of the history of the Scotch-Irish has required it to be sketched in some detail. This essay will not deal further with what happened in Scotland and Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the preceding paragraph reveals one particularly important point. In studying the different groups who came to North America and their subsequent history (especially their own versions of this history), it is often quite difficult to separate sobering fact from dramatic interpretation, or what is demonstrably true from what is widely supposed. One must always ask on what basis a statement is made. Much 20th-century literature about the settlement of East Tennessee and the rest of Southern Appalachia, for instance, states that the most numerous, and in fact the dominant, group was the Scotch-Irish:


From Pennsylvania, many found their way along Virginia’s Shenandoah and into the Valley of East Tennessee. Others who went from Philadelphia on a more direct route south into the North Carolina Piedmont were the source of subsequent migrations from middle Carolina westward into the Tennessee country. There were many English, some Germans—mainly from the Palatinate—and Welsh and Irish, a few Huguenots, but the dominant character of Tennesseans came to be identified with that of the Scotch-Irish. Fondness for migration was only one of their characteristics.23
If one were to ask how such a scenario has been determined, the answer would be that the ancestry of people is normally surmised on the basis of their surnames. This approach to gauging the ethnic derivation of a population is fraught with many difficulties, some better known than others, and many pitfalls, but it has proved to be the principal way to estimate even roughly the relative proportions of different groups among a sample population, because surnames are the least elusive cultural element to trace.24

A standard assessment of the ethnic composition of the first federal census is Surnames in the United States Census of 1790, published by the American Council of Learned Societies.25 On the basis of surnames, this lengthy report judges the population of Tennessee and Kentucky combined to have been 57.9% English, 10.0% Scotch, 7.0% Ulster Irish (i.e. Scotch-Irish), 5.2% South Irish, 14.0% German, 3.6% Dutch/French/Swedish, and 2.3% Miscellaneous (N.B.: people of African ancestry were not considered).26 Subsequently it has become clear that for a variety of reasons, the Scotch-Irish were significantly underrepresented in this calculation. Some emigrants shifted their names after migrating, for instance, to enhance their social and economic prospects in the new environment (those with the Scottish name McKean, from Mc “son of” + Ian “John,” sometimes changed it to Johnson; in like manner MacAndrew sometimes became Anderson). The ACLS study considered many names to be English (e.g. Bell, Russell, Robinson) or Scottish (e.g. Campbell, Boyd) that were and are quite common in Ulster. As a result, a reasonable estimate is that twelve to fifteen percent of the late-18th-century white population in the United States derived from Ulster, although again what is most relevant to East Tennessee and nearby regions is the fact that the Scotch-Irish and their descendants were concentrated in the back country. According to a recently published atlas based on the 1980 census, Tennessee is the state with the second-highest proportion of its population, after Massachusetts, reporting to have Irish ancestry; for nearly all Tennesseans, their Irish ancestors would have been the Scotch-Irish who left the island in the 18th century.27

It is beyond my purpose to recalculate the surname evidence or to rethink the ethnic proportions of the American population. This essay attempts to consider the Scotch-Irish emigrant stream in terms of its cultural and linguistic bequest to 20th-century East Tennessee and Southern Appalachia. Does the fact that most East Tennesseans have some, and many (like the present writer) have a great deal, of Scotch-Irish ancestry mean anything more than that many of us have names on our family trees that ultimately hark back to Ulster and Scotland? This writer has heard all of his life that most of his foreparents were Scotch-Irish, but so what? To what extent can the culture of East Tennessee be traced to Ulster?

That there is an inheritance of styles and traditions of music can hardly be disputed, but beyond such an obvious statement and a few very limited examples that can be pointed to, what more can be said? Can one make a more precise assessment? Can these musical influences be counted or measured or compared? Experts rankle, as well they should, at the notion of comparing, for instance, Celtic and African influences on country music. These are often inseparable. They have merged in many respects and taken lives of their own in others. Individual performers use and blend traditions in multiple ways. Musical styles and traditions are difficult to document before the turn of the present century, making it hazardous to identify and connect traditions that would have crossed the water in the 1700s. Besides, since the Second World War, the influence has also flowed vigorously in the other direction, to Ireland and Scotland. Appalachian Mist is a bluegrass band based in Irvine, Scotland, not in the U.S. However, there is one cultural phenomenon that, with some qualifications, is both measurable and comparable and that one can use to investigate the cultural heritage of East Tennessee.




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