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New Hibernia Review 8.3 (2004) 31-46

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Held Captive by the Irish:

Quaker Captivity Narratives in Frontier Pennsylvania

University of Texas, Austin

During the eighteenth century, an estimated 200,000 Presbyterians of Scottish descent emigrated to America from Ulster. Sometimes called "Ulster Presbyterians," sometimes called "Scots-Irish," this transatlantic "people with no name," as historian Patrick Griffin has called them, defined their identity in America through "movement, reformed Protestantism, and Britishness."1 Even more important to the construction of Scots-Irish identity was the way that this group of emigrants related to people of color in the American colonies. The Scots-Irish—despite being remembered as an exceptional class of Irish immigration by their descendents—are, indeed, sharers in the larger story of how the Irish became white in America.2

The story of "how the Irish became white," as Noel Ignatiev's influential study terms the process, centers around the experiences of nineteenth-century Irish Catholic immigrants to American cities and their interactions with African Americans. A similar story may be told of eighteenth-century Ulster Presbyterian emigrant settlers on the frontiers and their interactions with American Indians. The nineteenth-century Irish settled in the cities among African Americans, and the eighteenth-century Scots-Irish likewise found themselves in the backcountry among American Indians. Nineteenth-century Irish immigrants [End Page 31] lived in the same neighborhoods with newly freed African Americans, competed for the same jobs, married and had children with African Americans, and appropriated black expressive culture to develop the new and distinctly American cultural form of blackface minstrelsy. Similarly, eighteenth-century Scots-Irish immigrants shared and competed with American Indians for frontier lands, fought alongside and against Indians in border wars, married and had children with Indians, adopted Indian customs, and joined and obtained positions of power in Indian tribes.3 Several prominent Indian statesmen—among them Alexander McGillivray (1750-1793, Creek), Willliam McIntosh (1775-1825, Creek), and John Ross (1790-1866, Cherokee)—were the sons of Scots-Irish frontier traders. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Irish immigrants also appropriated Indian names and icons to develop new and distinctly American cultural institutions like Tammany Hall, which was named after a legendary Delaware chief.4 Just as Irish Catholic immigrants were depicted in nineteenth-century political cartoons as related to African Americans, so Scots-Irish were constructed in eighteenth-century political discourse in relation to American Indian "savages." Finally, if nineteenth-century Irish Catholic immigrants became white by rejecting their common economic and political bonds to African-Americans, as Ignatiev has compellingly argued, then the Scots-Irish became white by turning against the American Indians with whom they shared both poverty and the contested colonial frontiers.

The story of how the Scots-Irish became white thus affirms the connections between European colonialism and the construction of American whiteness. The Scots-Irish emigration to America constitutes an extension of the British imperial strategy of enlisting the Scots—against their own interests as a religiously and economically conquered people—to serve as a "martial race" against the indigenous peoples of other British colonies, as they had since the early seventeenth-century in Ulster against the Irish.5 Anglo-America, where immigrant European laboring classes chose to differentiate themselves against rather than collaborate with Blacks and Indians, was, according to historian Theodore Allen, "Ulster writ large."6 That it certainly was—but sometimes in ways unwanted by the Scots-Irish. If they imagined that their martial role on the frontiers would endear them to the Anglo-American elite and allow them to [End Page 32] transcend the second-class citizen status they experienced as dissenters and land-renters in Ulster, the Scots-Irish were soon proven wrong. In colonial and early national Pennsylvania especially—where they played a pivotal role in extending and defending the borders and economic bases of the colony—the Scots-Irish were imagined by the Anglo-American elite as a class of savages. The conflict between Anglo-Quakers, Scots-Irish borderers, and American Indians in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania...


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