Scots-Irish were Presbyterians by Covenant and by Law

As savvy researchers, you already know that the term Scots-Irish (Scotch-Irish used by many people) is an American designation. Before they arrived here, they were called Ulster Irish and before that Ulster-Scots. And indeed, many of the more than 250,000 who emigrated to America between 1717 and 1790, considered themselves to be Irish. And called themselves Irish in their first records in America.  Many more considered themselves to be Scottish, a tradition that they passed down through their descendants.

The January-February (2008) issue of Ancestry Magazine is a special research issue featuring “12 Superheroes to the Rescue!” The article on the Scots-Irish discusses common misconceptions:

Misconception #1–All Scots-Irish were Catholics. Ulster Irish were predominantly Catholic. Scottish immigrants to the area were invariably Presbyterians, while the English were invariably members of the Church of England. Intermarriage occurred as the years passed, but the Irish partner often became absorbed into a Presbyterian congregation.

Actually, all four of these sentences are both inaccurate and misleading. Let’s look at them one at a time.

  1. All Scots-Irish were Catholics. The Scots-Irish were Presbyterians by Covenant and by Scottish law–the first Protestant settlement was made by law in 1560. And as occurred in England at the same time, the government swung back and forth between the old church and the new settlement as the strength of the monarchy shifted. Catholic France was a strong influence in both kingdoms and their kings were persuaded by their wives to be lenient. In 1603, the two crowns–Scottish and English– were joined as James VI of Scotland became James I of England. This whole history was complicated and of great trial to the Protestant converts in Scotland.
  2. Scottish immigrants to the area were almost invariably Presbyterians–Scottish migration back and forth between Scotland and Ireland was a very old trend. Many family naming patterns included Scottish variants when they lived in Scotland and Irish naming variants when they lived in Ireland.  Elizabeth I tried to plant Protestant colonies in Ireland during her reign. These colonies were not really successful. She also encouraged royal retainers in southern Scotland, like James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery, to plant their own private colonies. And these settlements became more successful–and these Scottish settlers were almost invariably Presbyterian in their worship.  Later plantations in Ulster and other parts of Ireland transplanted Scots and English Protestants. The Scots were still  Presbyterian when they left for America.
  3. In Ireland, the English settlers who were planted under Elizabeth I and later monarchs, were Protestants (many were Anglicans) and required to be members of the Church of Ireland by law. A substantial number became Quakers while in Ireland. The Roman Catholic faith, which the vast majority of native Irish followed, was banned at pain of death. These English settlers, when they moved to America (and many of them did), were Protestants and they often deserted the Anglican faith almost when they stepped on the shore. They were only Anglican and expedient members of the Church of Ireland to receive lands in Ireland. Once in America they became Presbyterians, Methodists, and very shortly Baptists and Quakers.
  4. Intermarriage occurred as the years passed, but the Irish partner often was absorbed into a Presbyterian congregation.  This of all the sentences referenced above, is the most dangerous–if you are tracing your ancestry through Ireland on the way to Scotland and England. Because: in most areas of Ireland, it has already been proven that the Presbyterian Scots did not usually marry the Catholic Irish. Nor did they look kindly on them after hundreds of years. Where the intermarriage lurks is in the already mingled families–where the blood lines had been merged for centuries of time. Scots and Irish had served as subtenants on the same farms and served side-by-side in the same militia units.  The Irish were surrounded by Presbyterians, who were given special privileges as supporters of the Crown and its Protestant demands.
  5. Intermarriage between the Catholic Irish and the English within the Pale–the area immediately around Dublin–was banned by law. In 1610, the law was lifted.  Intermarriage was still avoided for the most part, until well after the migrations of the Scots-Irish.

For a balanced and interesting discussion, see James G. Leyburn, “Intermarriage with the Irish,” The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1962). This is an older and very good history of who the Scots-Irish are and how they came to be.  Leyburn’s conclusion:

If one must give his verdict, the weight of evidence seems to be on the side of little intermixture. The Scotch-Irish, as they came to be known in America, were overwhelmingly Scottish in ancestry and Presbyterian in faith. To the extent that occasional intermarriage occurred, the Irish partner seems almost invariably to have been absorbed into the Presbyterian element.

I also recommend that you add to your Reading List another older text, carefully researched and thoroughly documented:

R.J. Dickson, Ulster Emigration to Colonial America 1718-1775. Ulster-Scot Historical Series, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Dickson quantifies the history of the Scots-Irish and identifies the ports through which they left Ireland and where they entered the American Colonies. New Castle DE was the port of choice for 1.5% of those who came; Philadelphia admitted 53%; New York City, 18.5%; and Charleston SC, 11.2%.

Appendix D includes a detailed run-down on each ship arriving from Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Larne, and Portrush, 1771-1775. These facts are taken from the Belfast Newsletter and the Londonderry Journal. These two newspapers also listed the passengers on board from signatures recorded in letters to the editor sent to Ireland upon arrival in America.

These newspapers  are indexed online: Belfast Newsletter indexed, 1737-1800.  20,000 surviving pages of the newspaper deliver a database of information which contains nearly 300,000 items of news and advertisement filled with the names of ancestors.

Irish Genealogical Abstracts from the Londonderry Journal, 1772-1784.

In a future episode I will discuss the Catholic Question for genealogy in the British Isles.  This complicated and controversial element in our British ancestry cannot be ignored.  In the records generated and the underlying legalities you will find many “lost ancestors.”  They really did leave tracks for you to find–you just have to get into the right records.  Genealogy by Religion is a reality in many ethnic backgrounds–not just British Isles.   Your favorite genealogy expert of choice,  Arlene Eakle

PS  Historical generalities quite often create research pits into which we all fall if we are not vigilant and careful.  For, as you already know, there are always exceptions to the rules.

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