Skip to content

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this website you agree to our cookie policy.

  • Log In
  • Sign Up
  • Start your family tree
  1. Blog Home
  2. History Hub

The Scots-Irish in America

Are you proud to be Scots-Irish? You should be!

The Scots-Irish are one of the most fascinating groups that Americans have descended from - they're some of the original American immigrants and their culture has had a huge impact on America.

The Scots-Irish are often lumped in with either the Scottish or Irish, but this group has such a distinct history and culture from either that they really need to count as an entity of their own.

Many people do not realize they're Scots-Irish - this group came to America very early, and settled in parts of the country where most people simply define their heritage as "American" more than anything else.

Here's a map that shows areas of America with the greatest proportion of reported Scots-Irish ancestry:


In truth, there is likely far more Scots-Irish ancestry in the southeastern US than is indicated on this map, but it gives you a good idea of regions where Scots-Irish ancestry can be found.

The story of the Scots-Irish is certainly fascinating, and is one you should know if it's part of your heritage. Here are some of the more interesting facts about this group:

The group has been irreversibly branded Scots-Irish, but this name is mainly an American expression that isn't widely recognized in Britain, and many with Scots-Irish heritage rightfully feel the name is a bit of a misnomer. In many ways though, it may be the best way we can characterize this unique group's movement throughout history.

There was a complicated flow of people between the borderlands of Scotland and England, and Northern Ireland. The (extremely) short version is that many Scotsman were moved by order of the Crown from the border region and settled in Northern Ireland. They were later forced out of Northern Ireland, and many came to America. This is a big simplification, and more details can be found in our exploration of the origins of colonial immigrants.

The peak periods of Scots-Irish migration to America occurred between 1718 and 1774. Over 250,000 people came in total - far greater numbers than the Pilgrims, Puritans and Quakers who came before them. They didn't all come at once, but rather in waves throughout the 18th century. Nearly two-thirds are estimated to have come to America in the decade immediately before the American Revolution.

The Scots-Irish weren't leaving the British Isles for religious reasons like numerous English separatist groups that preceded them, and they weren't a group of elites and their servants like the Cavaliers either.

They were the first group to immigrate to America primarily for economic opportunity. Few were wealthy, but few were totally destitute. Many were yeoman farmers or middle class merchants that felt they were getting financially squeezed back home - the great American wilderness was far more appealing than the high rents, heavy taxes and unfair land laws of the Crown.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Though they weren't the most destitute members of society, most were far from wealthy. Typically, they were to lowest of the ranks who could possibly make the journey to America - after all, the passage itself cost money, which kept the poorest citizens from crossing the Atlantic.

The Scots-Irish were notably fierce and proud people. The English immigrants that had come before them all came from generally higher social ranks and were somewhat turned-off at the confidence and pride the Scots-Irish possessed. Not only were they poor, but they were of Irish or Scottish heritage - the lofty and wealthier English weren't sure what these back-country settlers had to be proud of in the first place.

Register for a free account today - no credit card required

Most Scots-Irish came to America through Philadelphia and Delaware. They quickly moved inland (mostly settling along rivers) and simply claimed whatever vacant land they wanted. The primary settlers of this area, the Quakers, were generally overwhelmed by the numbers and culture of these newcomers.

The Quakers happily encouraged the Scots-Irish to move westward. Not only did they want to get rid of these unfamiliar people, they saw a strategic benefit - the Scots-Irish were now a nice buffer between the more established settlements and dangerous Indian tribes.

So the Scot-Irish, America's first frontiersmen, initially settled in the Appalachian mountains, but they continued to push westward in the decades that followed. These tough settlers constantly fought against Indian tribes and settled harsh terrain.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

One very tangible contribution of the Scots-Irish is one of the most distinctly American accents. What is now known today as the "southern highland accent" - common to the Mississippi Valley, Texas and the Southern Plains - was originally known as "Scots-Irish speech."

More than just the accent can be traced back to the Scots-Irish. The famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) double negative - I ain't got none - was unique to this group, as is vocabulary now typically thought of as "Southern" such as fixin, lettin' on, or scoot.

Of course once in the United States, the dialect developed with influences from Indians, Spanish, French and German. But the way of speaking clearly descended from dialects in Northern England that were commonly spoken in Ireland and the borderlands.

These snippets are really just the tip of the iceberg - the Scots-Irish have a deep, proud and influential history as a people. As they expanded into different regions in America, their individual cultures diverged in interesting ways.

There are a ton of resources that will help you learn the social history of your Scots-Irish ancestors. Browse or search the following digitized monographs to learn more about your specific ancestors today:

Search tip: To browse a full book, hit "search" on the search page but do not enter any search terms. You will be able to begin on page 1 of the book and browse from page to page.

Start your free family tree today