Scots-Irish in the USA

"The Scots-Irish were the first to proclaim for liberty in these United States. Even before Lexington, Scots-Irish blood had been shed for American freedom. In the forefront of every battle was seen their burnished mail and in retreat was heard their voice of constancy."

                                                  - 25th U.S. PRESIDENT WILLIAM McKINLEY




Scots-Irish Ulstermen played a major role during the American War of Independence. Twenty-five of the American generals were of Ulster descent as was upto half of the revolutionary army. One famous force of regular soldiers was the Pennsylvania Line and it was composed almost entirely of Ulstermen and the sons of Ulstermen. The turning point in the war was the Battle of King's Mountain in South Carolina on 7 October 1780. A body of American militiamen defeated a British force twice its size and took 1,000 prisoners. The five colonels in the American force were all Presbyterian elders of Ulster stock and their men were of the same race and faith.


The famous Declaration of Independence is in the handwriting of an Ulsterman, Charles Thompson, who was secretary of the Congress and who was born in Maghera. A major inspiration (amongst others) on the ideology for the declaration came from the works of Ulster-Scots philosopher Francis Hutcheson.  It was first printed by an Ulsterman, John Dunlap of Strabane. It was first read in public by the son of an Ulsterman, Colonel John Nixon. The first signature on it was that of John Hancock, president of the Congress, whose ancestors came from County Down, and at least seven of the other signatories were of Ulster extraction. The first newspaper outside of the USA to print the declaration was the Belfast Newsletter in Ulster!


From 1706 to the opening of the revolutionary struggle, the only nationwide body in existence which stood for an independent republic in America was the General Synod of the American Presbyterian Church... The Congregational Churches of New England had no connection with each other, and had no power apart from the civil government. The Episcopal Church was without organization in the colonies, was dependent for support and a ministry on the Established Church of England, and was filled with an intense loyalty to the British monarchy. The Reformed Dutch Church did not become an efficient and independent organization until 1771, and the German Reformed Church did not attain to that condition until 1793. The Baptist Churches were separate organizations, the Catholics consited of less than 1% of the population, the Methodists were practically unknown and the Quakers were non-combatants.


Only the Presbyterian Church lined up solidly behind the colonists, and without them independence would not have been possible. The Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson came along a full year after Scots-Irish Presbyterians in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote their own declaration of independence. The Mecklenburg Declaration, written on May 20, 1775, "by unanimous resolution declared the people free and independent, and that all laws and commissions from the king were henceforth null and void,".


John D. Sergeant, a member of the Continental Congress from New Jersey, credited the Scots-Irish with being the main pillar of support for the Revolution in Pennsylvania. A New Englander, not supportive of the Presbyterians, agreed, calling the Scots-Irish "the most God-provoking democrats this side of Hell."


Captain Johann Heinrichs, of the Hessian Jaeger Corps in British service in the colonies, said in 1778: “Call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than an Irish Scotch (Scotch-Irish) Presbyterian rebellion”.


Indeed, Colonel A. K. McClure, the Philadelphia writer, historian & politician

commented: “It was the Scotch-Irish people of the colonies that made the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Without them it would not have been thought of except as a fancy. The actions of the Continental Congress voiced the teachings of the Scotch-Irish people of the land. They did not falter, they did not dissemble, they did not temporise. It was not the Quaker, nor the Puritan, not the Cavalier or the German, it was the Scotch-Irish of the land whose voice was first heard in Virginia”.


In 1785 when Benjamin Franklin was in the process of compiling a census for his new country it was revealed that the total number of practicing Catholic priests in the country was 20 yet at the same time there were over 200 Presbyterian ministers from Ulster alone.


In short, the Revolution of 1776, so far as it was affected by religion, was a Presbyterian measure and in the minds of the loyalists, the war was fundamentally, at bottom, a Presbyterian rebellion. It is, without question, an accurate assessment of how King George III and his advocates perceived the American war. Whether that perception was entirely accurate may be another question, but the very fact that it was how they viewed it is an important dynamic that should not be overlooked.




President George Washington:

'If all else fails, I will retreat up the valley of Virginia, plant my flag on the Blue Ridge, rally around the Scotch-Irish of that region and make my last stand for liberty amongst a people who will never submit to tyranny whilst there is a man left to draw a trigger.'


President James Buchanan:

'My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage.'


President William McKinley:

'The Scots-Irish were the first to proclaim for freedom in these United States; even before Lexington Scots-Irish blood had been shed for American freedom.'


President Theodore Roosevelt:

'In the Revolutionary war . . . the fiercest and most ardent Americans of all were the Presbyterian Scots-Irish settlers and their descendants. . . the love of freedom rooted in their very hearts' core.'


President Woodrow Wilson:

'Every line of strength in American history is a line colored with Scottish blood.'


President Theodore Roosevelt:

'It is a curious fact that in the Revolutionary War, the Germans and Catholic Irish should have furnished the bulk of the auxiliaries (mercenaries) to the regular English soldiers; but the most ardent Americans of all were the Presbyterian Irish settlers and their descendants.'


President Thomas Jefferson:

'The Scotch-Irish held the valley between the Blue Ridge and the North Mountain and they formed a barrier which none could venture to leap.'


Cpt Johann Heinriche (Hessian commander in the service of King George III):

'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.'


General Robert E. Lee:

'What race of people makes the best soldiers? The Scots who came to this country by way of Ireland.'






Ulstermen brought whiskey to America. By 1776 over a quarter of a million Scots-Irish had emigrated to the new world, with them came their tradition of making whiskey and fighting authority.


In 1791 the federal government imposed a tax excise on whiskey. The tax levvy was higher for small family run distillers than it was for bigger mass producers. This angered the mainly Scots-Irish farmers as it effectively eliminated any profit from the sale or barter of an important means of income and became the lightning rod for a wide variety of grievances against the new federal government. The settlers in Pennsylvania refused to pay... the uprising that followed was to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion.


The settlers of Western Pennsylvania whom refused to pay broke out in armed rebellion. At some times, the rebellion had a force of seven thousand armed militia troops. To restore order to the ensuing "Whiskey Rebellion", George Washington sent the Continental Army.  The 13,000 federal troops sent to the western Pennsylvania area was the first test of the power of the new  United States government.


Although the army was successful in temporarily ending the rebellion the political problem remained.  To avoid further troubles with the tough and stubborn Scotch-Irish settlers, and break up their center of resistance to taxation, Washington made a settlement with them, giving incentives for those who would move to western Virginia.


Pioneers were offered sixty acres of land in Kentucky (at that time a western part of Virginia).  To gain the land all the settler had to do was build a permanent structure and raise "native corn". No family could eat sixty acres worth of corn a year and it was too perishable and bulky to transport for sale. The Scotch-Irish in Pennsylvania knew well how to make whiskey, and they used the rye of Pennsylvania to make the beverage.  By switching the base of the beverage to corn, the problem of getting rid of a bulky grain that was too expensive to ship was solved.


Bourbon County, Kentucky, became a primary shipping port for this new corn whiskey and distillers such as Reverend Elijah Craig  began shipping their whiskey in charred oak barrels which gave it a mellow caramel colour. Soon all corn whiskey which was aged in charred oak barrels and shipped from this port became known as 'Bourbon' whiskey.


The Scots-Irish settlers who first colonised British America, and then illegally slipped across the Appalachians to live among the Indian tribes, were not out to found a new empire. Having been chased out of Scotland and Ulster for economic and religious reasons, then having clashed with the conservative English merchant elites who ran the eastern colonies, the Scots-Irish just wanted to be left to their own devices.

Scots-Irish and the Revolutionary War



Andrew Jackson

James Knox Polk

James Buchanan

Andrew Johnston

Ulysses S. Grant

Chester Alan Arthur

Grover Cleveland

Benjamin Harrison

William McKinley

Theodore Roosevelt

Woodrow Wilson

Harry Truman

Richard Nixon

Jimmy Carter

Ronald Reagan

George Bush

Bill Clinton

George W. Bush

Barack Obama

Leaving Ulster for the colonies



"It is doubtful if we have wholly realized the importance of the part played by that stern and virile people, the Scotch Irish... They were a truculent and obstinate people, and gloried in the warlike renown of their forefathers, the men who had shared in the defence of Derry and in the victories of the Boyne and Aughrim....They formed the kernel of the distinctively and intensely American stock who were the pioneers of our people in their march westward, 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."

                                         - 26th U.S. PRESIDENT THEODORE ROOSEVELT



Most of the early Irish immigrants to colonial America were Scotch-Irish (Mainly presbyterian Ulster folk with heritage in Scotland & northern England) They were pushed out of Ireland by the pressures of religious conflicts, lack of political power and harsh economic conditions, these immigrants were pulled to America by the promise of land ownership and greater religious freedom.


The first attempt at an exclusive Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scots) migration to America was an expedition led by presbyterian ministers in September of 1636 when a ship they christened Eagle's Wing left the County Down harbour of Groomsport with 140 souls onboard.  After two months at sea and on the advice of one of the ship's ministers the ship returned to Ulster damaged & battered by storms Although it had been closer to Newoundland than Europe the ministers believed it was not god's will that they should go to New England at that time.  


Although this first attempt failed, numorous Ulster-Scots did make it to the America colonies via other ports through-out the 17th century. However it was in the early 18th century that the Scotch-Irish of Ulster really began arriving in the new world in massive numbers. There were five great waves of 18th century Ulster emigration to America: in 1717-18; 1725-29; 1740-41; 1754-55 and 1771-75. In 1717 - the year ships were officially chartered for 5,000 men and women to head to Pennsylvania - a severe drought completely destroyed crops on the Ulster farmlands.The 18th century Scots-Irish emigrants sailed to America from the ports of Belfast, Londonderry, Larne, Newry and Portrush, the ships arriving on a regular basis at Philadelphia, New Castle (Delaware), New York and Charleston. It's estimated upto a quarter of a million Scots-Irish emigrated across the Atlantic from the north of Ireland through the 18th century (with an even greater amount following in the 19th century).


Most Scotch-Irish immigrants were educated, skilled workers. Even though many paid for their emigration by becoming indentured servants they were well equipped to lead successful, independent lives when their period of servitude ended. Many easily blended into American life.


The Scotch-Irish settled in the middle colonies, especially in Pennsylvania where the city of Philadelphia was a major port of entry. Over subsequent decades, the Scotch-Irish migrated south following the Great Philadelphia Road, the main route used for settling the interior southern colonies. Traveling down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, then south into the North Carolina Piedmont region, they reached South Carolina by the 1760s. Settlers here often became frontiersmen and Indian fighters.


These hardy resolute emigrants became first citizens of American frontier lands, opened up in the movement from the eastern seaboard regions of the New World and, over several generations, they created settlements that became the backbone of the United States as a nation.


The Whiskey Rebellion


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Some Calvinist Presbyterians in Ulster were forced to worship outdoors in secret.

Wagon trails used by the Scots-Irish

A social gathering at a Scots-Irish settlement to prepare raw flax to be made into linen.

George Washington quote on a mural in Ulster

Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister James Caldwell

hands out hymnals to patriot troops to use as wadding.

The Overmountain Men at the battle of King's Mountain were overwhelmingly Scots-Irish

A flag used by the Scots-Irish during the Whiskey Rebellion.