- The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania: A Varied People by Judith Ridner, and: Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765–1776 by Patrick Spero, and: Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770–1830 by Peter E. Gilmore
George Chambers, grandson of the founder of Chambersburg, published A Tribute to the Principles, Virtues, Habits and Public Usefulness of the Irish and Scotch Early Settlers of Pennsylvania in 1855 to defend “the Irish and Scotch early settlers of this great State and their descendants against reproach, as well as aspersion, cast upon them in some modern compilations having pretensions to Historical accuracy.” Earlier writers, he said, either dismissed them as “a pertinacious and pugnacious race” who settled on unpurchased land and caused Indian wars, or they ignored them altogether. That is no longer the case. Numerous academic and popular titles interpret their history, but these three new books are a most welcome addition.
Immigrants from Ulster, the northern province of Ireland, began coming to North America in significant numbers early in the eighteenth century, where by mid-century they were known as Scotch-Irish.1 Edmund Burke had no doubt about the use of Scotch-Irish. He wrote in 1757 about the population increase in the southern backcountry due to “the migration of the Irish” from Pennsylvania. “These are chiefly Presbyterians from the northern part of Ireland, who in America are generally called Scotch-Irish.” Irish or Scotch-Irish? In the last years of the century, Jedidiah Morse, a New Englander, summed it up succinctly in his treatment of Pennsylvania in The American Geography: “The Irish are mostly Presbyterians. Their ancestors came from the north of Ireland, which was originally settled from Scotland: hence they have sometimes been called Scotch-Irish, to denote their double descent. But they are commonly and more properly called Irish, or the descendants of people from the north of Ireland.”2 Peter Gilmore [End Page 231] prefers to call them simply “Irish Presbyterians,” since “In Ulster ‘Presbyterian’ effectively served as a synonym for ‘Scotch’ ” (4) and “arguably, their most obvious and distinctive ‘Irish’ characteristic may well have been their Presbyterianism” (113). But these “Irish Presbyterians were significantly numerous and cohesive enough to subsume Presbyterians of various ethnicities.” Mainly Presbyterians and mostly of Scottish descent, the Scotch Irish did not always fit ethnic or religious definition; they were a varied people, backcountry settlers and traders, Philadelphia merchants and ship owners, and later mill workers and Pittsburgh industrialists.
In The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania, Judith Ridner has told their story from the Plantation of Ulster in the early seventeenth century through the Philadelphia riots in 1844. The Scottish colonization of Ulster began in 1603 with Sir James Hamilton’s and Sir Hugh Montgomery’s settlers in County Down and the Plantation of Ulster six years later. Migration from southwestern Scotland continued through the century and into the next, with at least one hundred thousand arriving between 1650 and 1700, half of that number in the 1690s. By 1715, on the eve of large-scale immigration to America, Scots and their children were a third of the total population of Ulster (13). As Sir Tom Devine noted, for these emigrants from Ulster, “an integral factor in their distinctive subculture was their Scottish roots.”3
In clear, readable prose, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania leads the reader through the ebb and flow of immigration. Many arrived in family groups, while others, mainly young men, came as indentured servants, as fluctuations in the linen industry and the flaxseed trade influenced its volume and composition. The author narrates the entry of...