Pennsylvania: Scotch-Irish Centre

Henry Jones Ford

If one examines the relief map of the United States issued by the Geological Survey, it will appear that the leading position taken by Pennsylvania in Scotch-Irish settlement has a physical basis.

In the color scale of the map the tint which indicates elevation from 0 to 100 feet is a narrow fringe in New England, but south of New York it becomes a broad belt, the greatest width being in the Carolinas, where it averages about 75 miles.

During the period of colonization there were numerous swamps in this coast belt of low land, abounding with the germs of malarial fever.

This belt does not extend into Pennsylvania, and emigrants arriving in that State had immediate access to salubrious uplands.

Moreover, in Pennsylvania the Appalachian Range lies farther from the coast than it does north of Pennsylvania, and at the beginning of the eighteenth century this meant that the French were not such close neighbors as they were to New York and New England.

From central Pennsylvania broad valleys stretch to the southwest along the eastern side of the Appalachians and toward the south convenient gaps occur in the mountain barrier.

The tints on the relief map indicating elevation from 100 to 1,000 feet broaden from Pennsylvania southward and narrow from Pennsylvania northward.

It was along these broad terraces that emigration first moved to the interior of the United States, its trend being southwest.

Kentucky became a State in 1792; Tennessee in 1796; while Ohio, immediately west of Pennsylvania, did not become a State until 1803.

It was owing to her situation and not because of any favor or encouragement from the authorities that Pennsylvania became the Scotch-Irish centre in the United States, and the chief source from which the race was diffused through the South and West.

The province was so accessible either by New York harbor and across the narrow width of New Jersey, or by the Delaware Bay and River, or by Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River, that it is impossible to determine exactly where the first Scotch-Irish settlement took place.

The grant of the country west of the Delaware River to William Penn was made in 1681.

Emigrants usually landed either at Lewes or at Newcastle in Delaware, or in Philadelphia. There were Presbyterian congregations in all these ports before 1698. From any of them sections of Pennsylvania are in easy reach, a circumstance which a glance at the map makes plain at once.

The earliest record that points to Scotch-Irish settlement relates to the triangular projection between Delaware and Maryland that now belongs to Chester County, Pennsylvania.

In 1683 a tract on the east side of Elk Creek, Cecil County, Maryland, was surveyed for Edwin O'Dwire and “fifteen other Irishmen.” This tract was known as New Munster, which together with the name of the principal grantee would indicate that this group of settlers came from the South of Ireland. Nevertheless, the New Munster district received so many settlers from the North of Ireland that they founded two Presbyterian churches, “Head of Christiana” and “The Rock.”

The church at the head of Christiana Creek was organized before 1708. The Rock church, subsequently known as East Nottingham, was at the head of Elk Creek.

In the records of the Presbytery of Newcastle, May 18, 1720, the following minute occurs:

“A certain number of people, lately come from Ireland, having settled about the branches of the Elk River, have by Thomas Reed and Thomas Caldwell, their commissioners, supplicated this Presbytery, that, at what time this Presbytery think convenient, they would appoint one of their number to come and preach among them, and then to take such note of their circumstances and necessities as by his report made to this Presbytery at their next session, the Presbytery may the more clearly know how to countenance their design of having the Gospel settled among them.”

The Rev. Samuel Young was sent by the Presbytery and made such a favorable report as to the ability of the people to support a minister that the Presbytery voted in favor of organizing the congregation at the head of Elk.

The genesis of this Scotch-Irish settlement, while not definitely known, is readily explained.

The grant to Penn overlapped the previous grant to Lord Baltimore. The boundary lines between Maryland and Pennsylvania were not finally settled until 1774. The New Munster tract was claimed by both Maryland and Pennsylvania, but the Maryland authorities were in possession.

The opening of lands for settlement in that region drew Scotch-Irish families, among them four that bore the name of Alexander. John McKnitt Alexander, who was active in the Mecklenburg (N. C.) convention of 1775, was descended from one of these New Munster settlers.

The Scotch-Irish immigrants, in seeking new lands, moved north of the older Maryland settlements, entering Pennsylvania.

The early date at which a congregation is known to have existed there is a strong indication that the first Scotch-Irish settlement in Pennsylvania took place in this region, which is only about thirteen miles west of Newcastle, a port at which emigrants frequently debarked, and which was originally supposed to be in Pennsylvania territory. It was to this section of the country that Scotch-Irish immigration first turned.

Writing to the Penns in 1724, James Logan, Secretary of the Province, said that the Ulster emigrants had generally taken up lands on the Maryland line. He refers to them as “bold and indigent strangers, saying as their excuse when challenged for titles, that we had solicited for colonists and they had come accordingly.”

In a letter of November 23, 1727, Logan says:

“The Irish settle generally toward the Maryland line, where no lands can honestly be sold till the dispute with Lord Baltimore is decided.”

In this same letter Logan gives some particulars that indicate the great volume of migration from Ulster to Pennsylvania. He says:

“We have from the North of Ireland great numbers yearly. Eight or nine ships this last Fall discharged at Newcastle.”

In 1729 Logan writes:

“It looks as if Ireland is to send all its inhabitants hither, for last week not less than six ships arrived, and every day, two or three arrive also.”

It appears that from December, 1728, to December, 1729, the immigrants numbered 6,208, of whom 5,605 were Scotch-Irish.

Later on the arrivals exceeded 10,000 in the year.

Proud's History of Pennsylvania, written before 1776, mentions that in 1749 about 12,000 immigrants arrived from Germany, and he adds that there are “in some years nearly as many annually from Ireland.” He says that “Cumberland County is mostly settled by the Irish, who abound through the whole province.”

In 1735-1736 there was a great rush of emigration from Ireland through fear of restrictive legislation.

In 1749 it was estimated that the Scotch-Irish population of Pennsylvania was one-fourth of the whole, and in 1774 Benjamin Franklin computed the proportion as one-third in a total of 350,000.

The early emigration followed the river valleys.

One stream moved up the Delaware River and it could not have been much, if any, later than 1720 that Scotch-Irish settlers began to arrive in Bucks County.

In 1726 there was quite a settlement of Scotch-Irish in Warwick, Warrington, Warminster and Northampton.

Among the earliest arrivals were the families of Craig, Jamison, Baird, Stewart, Hair, Long, Weir, Armstrong, Gray, Graham and Wallace.

A venerable monument of this settlement is Neshaminy Church, established about 1726 in Warwick Township.[4]

The northern expansion of the Scotch-Irish settlements on the western bank of the Delaware River is marked by the organization of two churches in Northampton County in 1738, one the East Allen Church in the township of that name, the other at Mount Bethel.

This stream of Scotch-Irish settlement lay between the Quaker settlements in and around Philadelphia and the Quaker settlements in West Jersey.

To the northward there was great risk of Indian incursion. The Gnadenhutten massacre took place in 1755 not far west of the Northampton County line.

The principal field of Scotch-Irish occupation and settlement was the valley of the Susquehanna.

From the original settlements on the Maryland line the Scotch-Irish moved into the interior along the east side of the Susquehanna, settling by the side of the creeks whose waters they used for their mills.

Marks of these early settlements are Upper Octorara Church, organized in 1720; Donegal, in 1721; Pequa, in 1724; Middle Octorara, in 1727; Derry, in 1729; and Paxtang, in 1729.

Thus large Scotch-Irish settlements were made in Chester, Lancaster and Dauphin Counties in the first third of the century.

From Dauphin County the stream of settlement crossed to the west side of the Susquehanna.

This region was at that time Indian country, and was known as Kittochtinny, a beautiful valley lying between the Susquehanna River and the Tuscarora Mountains, extending southward into western Maryland and Virginia. It is a natural thoroughfare between the North and the South, a fact which during the Civil War made it the scene of the manoeuvres culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg.

The upper portion, now Cumberland County, was the scene of the first settlements. The provincial authorities acquiesced in the Scotch-Irish occupation after title had been obtained from the Indians by a treaty concluded in 1736.

Under date of 1743, Watson's Annals contains the following note:

“The Proprietaries, in consequence of the frequent disturbances between the Governor and Irish settlers, after the organization of York and Cumberland Counties, gave orders to their agents to sell no lands in either York or Lancaster Counties to the Irish; and also to make advantageous offers of removal to the Irish settlers in Paxton and Swatara and Donegal townships to remove to Cumberland County, which offers, being liberal, were accepted by many.”

From Cumberland County emigration turned southward.

Cumberland County was organized in 1750; Franklin County, to the southwest, in 1764; Adams County, to the southeast, not until 1800.

The main stream of Scotch-Irish emigration to the interior moved northwest up the valley of the Susquehanna to the junction with the Cumberland valley, and thence moved southwest, following the trend of the mountain ranges.

Scotch-Irish pioneers penetrated the country west of the mountains at an early date, and in 1750 there were sixty-two inhabitants of this outlying settlement. Their presence there was such a provocation to the Indians that the provincial authorities compelled them to remove, and their dwellings were destroyed.

This withdrawal was undoubtedly wise; even the Cumberland Valley settlements were such advanced outposts that they suffered severely by Indian incursions after Braddock's defeat in 1755.

All the Presbyterian congregations organized in Pennsylvania before 1760 were either in the valley of the Delaware or in the arc formed by the junction of the Cumberland valley with the valley of the Susquehanna.

From 1766 onward Scotch-Irish emigration pressed further up the valley of the Susquehanna, the familiar place names now making their appearance in the records. The congregations of Tyrone and Toboyne in Perry County were organized in 1766; Derry, Mifflin County, in 1766. Juniata County has a Fermanagh township with a congregation organized in 1766.

The Scotch-Irish settlement of western Pennsylvania did not take place until after the stream of Ulster emigration had reached the southwest.

The oldest trans-Alleghany congregations date from 1771.

The greater number of the first settlers of the southwestern counties of Pennsylvania came from Maryland and Virginia, over what was then known as Braddock's Trail. This trail extended from Cumberland, Maryland, to the valley of the Youghiogheny, crossing the country now included in Somerset and Fayette counties.

At Uniontown, Fayette County, where there was a settlement as early as 1767, there was a trail westward to the valley of the Monongahela, along which settlers moved into Greene and Washington Counties.

There was another trail, farther north, from Fort Bedford in what is now Bedford County to Fort Ligonier, and thence northwesterly to Fort Pitt. This was known as General Forbes's Route. This trail traversed Westmoreland County, and many Scotch-Irish families settled in this region.

Emigration was so heavy that the organization of counties made rapid progress, the most remote of all, Greene County, dating from February 9, 1796, at which time some of the present counties in the eastern section of the State were as yet unorganized.

It is a general rule that outside of the original counties the oldest counties lie along the track of Scotch-Irish emigration.