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Distilling Scotch - Irish US Migration

Glass of Whiskey next to bottle

You will please forgive the visual pun! Merriam Webster Dictionary says "to distill something said or written is to reduce it but keep the most important part." Let's take a stab at distilling Scotch-Irish, or Scots-Irish, history in the settlement of America, and their migration particularly to South Carolina.

Lots of Americans, like my husband, believe that they are of Irish descent only to receive a DNA test result that says they are more Scottish or British. How did this happen? The term "Scotch-Irish" was first used by Queen Elizabeth I when trying to figure out what to do with those pesky Irish. The "plantation" of loyal Protestants had begun years before her reign in the 1570-80's in Ulster and Munster.

Map of Ireland, N Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales

Fast forward from Queen Elizabeth through King James I, King Charles I & II, and mastermind Oliver Cromwell to the late 1600's, and we find the transplanted Scots were now mostly in the sixth northern counties made of Donegal and Ulster. English landlords were raising the rents, and the thought of being able to own their own land spurred them to emigrate to the American Colonies. It is estimated that between 1700 and 1750 more than 450,000 Scotch-Irish emigrated at a time when the estimated population was 1.5 million!

The Scotch-Irish settled predominantly in the middle colonies, especially in Pennsylvania where the city of Philadelphia was a major port of debarkation. Over subsequent decades, the Scotch-Irish migration to the south following the Wilderness Road, or Great Philadelphia Road, or the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, in its various stages of development, which was the main route used for settling the interior southern colonies. Traveling down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley they reached South Carolina by the 1760's.

Map of Great Philadelphia Rd from PA to SC

This road began in Philadelphia and continued south through Big Lick, later renamed Roanoke, Virginia, through the Shenandoah Valley, and into North and South Carolina, and was the main road of travel during early settlement in the south and to the west.

Why were they leaving Philadelphia? Just as the settlers in Plymouth that we have been discussing the last couple of weeks, it was getting too crowded. All of the best land was already gone. There was growing racial tension between the English, the Irish, and the Germans, and growing religious tensions between the Anglicans, the Quakers, the Anabaptists, and the Presbyterians.

Although it was a dangerous road still under construction and barely wide enough for an oxcart to pass (sometimes they had to dismantle the carts to cross a stream and reassemble them on the other side), land in Carolina was cheap. From a blog and documentary by Michael Sheehan,

"And still south they came, often not because it was a destination, but because it was the only option. They were fleeing the north. At first they fled because they found the overcrowding and high land prices there to be insufferable. After the 1755 defeat of British forces at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh), they fled from vulnerability to French and Indian forces.

"To the west, they were hemmed in by mountainous terrain and by unwelcoming tribes. And if they veered east, they bumped into English colonists migrating west out of the Tidewater region, seeking the same farm land they sought. South was the only option open to them.

"Later, North Carolina would become a specific destination when news came back from earlier migrants that prime land was available at 3 Pounds Sterling for 100 acres. Now, in addition to being pushed south, they were pulled in that direction."

Colored map of S Carolina showing 6 geographic regions

Passenger ships began arriving in "Charles-Town" in 1735. Some passenger lists can be found at

The southerly migrating Scots-Irish settled mostly in "The Backcountry" or Piedmont regions where they acted as fine buffers between the Natives in the mountains and the developing city of Charleston.

But this worked well for the Scots-Irish they enjoyed their independence. Being so far from the colonial capital in Charleston, the Presbyterians were allowed to practice their faith and way of living without worry of interference from the British Crown or Charleston officials.

Local militias became necessary to protect their settlements from their enemies on both sides, as many still harbored great resentments against the Crown for their maltreatment in Ireland and for largely ignoring their need for protection as settlers. These militias have been called "Vigilante Justice" by some historians.

actor dressed as king george in red and gold
George III actor Groff in Hamilton Disney+

Did you know that George III considered the American Revolution as the "Presbyterian Rebellion?" Here is an excerpt from "THE 1780 PRESBYTERIAN REBELLION AND THE BATTLE OF HUCK'S DEFEAT" by Sam Thomas, Curator of History, Culture & Heritage Commission of York County:

"In the Backcountry, due to their isolation from the coast, past resentments could be put aside--at least temporarily. When war arrived after 1776, at first the Scots-Irish were rather lukewarm toward the idea of independence from Great Britain. Here they were content to remain neutral so long as they were left alone. The conflict as most of the Scots-Irish saw it was between the British Crown and the Charleston aristocrats, whom they resented as much as the British officials and so it did not involve them. But the problems between the Backcountry and the Crown finally boiled to the surface in 1780 as "The Presbyterian Rebellion." In 1778 an unknown Hessian officer recorded his observations on the war. "Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American Rebellion: it is nothing more or less than a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian Rebellion."

"George Washington also remarked on the contribution to the war effort with a tribute to the Scots-Irish from his headquarters at Valley Forge when he declared, 'If defeated everywhere else, I will make my last stand for liberty among the Scotch-Irish . . .' It is this Backcountry Rebellion which is so closely identified with the battles of Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Hanging Rock and Huck's Defeat."

In 1780 the British forces occupied Charleston. But two subsequent developments finally pushed the Scots-Irish over the edge in SC. The first was a proclamation that all eligible men would have to join the English armed forces. Later in early Summer British forces began to raid the Backcountry settlements. The defeat of Cornwallis's troops in SC was the beginning of the end for the British.

After the Revolution, emigration from Ireland continued, but with a growing number of Catholics, especially during the Famine years in the 1840's. According to author Patrick Fitzgerald in his "The Scotch-Irish & the Eighteenth-Century Irish Diaspora," the Presbyterian immigrants did not call themselves "Scots-Irish" or "Scotch-Irish" until then in order to make a distinction between themselves the very poor new arrivals.

My husband's first identified American ancestor is said to have been born in SC in 1783 (registrations not required until 1915), and might be in the census of 1830 in Abbeville, in the Backcountry. He and his family migrated west as many other South Carolinians did after the Native Tribes were forced off their lands, and came to Texas by 1836. Here is a great map I found about the removal of the Five Tribes that shows a good timeline for referencing.

"Indian Removal" Map of 1800's By User: Nikater - Own work using::Background map courtesy of Demis, www.demis.nlWashburn (Hrsg.), Wilcomb E. (1988) Handbook of North American Indians, 4: History of Indian-White Relations, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press ISBN: 0-16004-583-5., Public Domain,

In the event that you cannot find an ancestor who was "born" in SC, remember that some census responders said that they were from one state as it was the last one they had lived in. When we have migrating ancestors we need to look for births and other events on the way TO the latest abode. Your missing ancestor may have been born in VA on their way to SC or TN.

We have a lot to be thankful for to our Scots-Irish ancestors wherever they settled. In particular to those of us who partake, they are credited with the development of whiskey from unaged corn, nowadays more familiarly known as "moonshine."

Crowd in a bar raising a toast

The name "whisky" or "whiskey" comes from uisce beatha in Irish Gaelic or uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic, meaning water of life not unlike aqua vite or eau de vie. Whiskey was actually a currency used by rural farmers due to a lack of paper money or coinage, which was one of the main objections to the 1791 tax on distillation. The tax had to be paid in cash, and the smaller producers had to pay a higher tax rate than larger producers.

Hand touching water

Friends, another month and another quarter are coming to an end! Where has this year gone? I hope that the coming season of holidays and gatherings are fruitful for your family research. May the "water of life," alcoholic or not, religious or not, bring you what many cultures around the world equate with healing and energy. From the Skokomish tribe website, "People travel great distances to drink or bathe in water from mountains, wells and springs that are imbued with special energy. Many people believe that water has the ability to absorb prayers, cleanse unwanted energy, bestow good medicine," and hopefully, break genealogy brick walls!

I always offer a free quote to look at your brick walls. Thanks for sharing your time and thoughts with me again this week.

Sláinte mhath,

Leslie Ryan

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No copyright infringement is intended.

Further reading or references

Patrick Fitzgerald, "The Scotch-Irish & the Eighteenth-Century Irish Diaspora". History Ireland 7.3 (1999): 37–41.


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