Why your Scotch-Irish ancestors moved so frequently

Do you have ancestors who move frequently but not far? Say, showing up in 1790s Shelby County, Kentucky, then Bullitt County in 1800, then Grayson County in 1810? Or perhaps Hamilton County, Ohio in the late 1790s then Montgomery County in 1803 and finally Darke County in 1810?

There are two factual scenarios at play here:

Fist, your ancestors stayed in place but the map changed: that’s what happened in my Ohio example. I covered this in a previous video, check it out.

Second, your ancestors really did move a lot. But why did that family move so frequently when another family in your tree stayed put for decades?

I want to thank Karla York for suggesting this as a topic for a video. She was responding to a comment where I noted that ethnic German immigrants to the United States practiced a crop rotation strategy which kept their land productive and fertile, while Scotch-Irish backcountry pioneers would farm a patch of land for a few years until it was deprived of nitrogen, and then move on to the next.

To be honest, that story is something my mother has told me for years, not something I had researched. Turns out it’s true, but it was just one factor in why some of your ancestors made lots of little moves.

What really drove this, I think, was culture, specifically Scotch-Irish culture, and specifically in the geographical region dubbed Greater Appalachia where the Scotch-Irish settled.

By culture I mean how people lived their lives, from marriage and sex, to how you built your house, to what you cooked. It’s the stuff you learn from your parents and your community about how to survive.

My favorite author on colonial culture, David Hackett Fischer, summarized Scotch-Irish culture in my favorite book on colonial culture, Albion’s Seed this way:

The [Scotch-Irish] were a restless people who carried their migratory ways from Britain to America… The history of these people was a long series of removals—from England to Scotland, from Scotland to Ireland, from Ireland to Pennsylvania, from Pennsylvania to Carolina…

Fischer cites the example of the village of Fintray: between 1696 and 1701, three-quarters of the population turned over. The same pattern showed up in Appalachian Virginia, where 80% of the people living in Lunenburg County in 1750 were gone by 1769, with half of that movement occurring between 1764 and 1769. Fischer asserts that “these rates of movement were exceptional by eighteenth-century standards.”

Those migrations, in both the borderlands between England and Scotland, and in the colonial backcountry, were short-distance, “as families search for slightly better living conditions. Frequent removals were encouraged by low levels of property-owning.”

A folk-saying from the southern highlands gives you a better idea of how people felt. “When I get ready to move, I just shut the door, call the dogs and start.”

That feels pretty extraordinary. What will you eat? How could you just walk away from your labor investment in crops? What about your tools, your plow?

The answer is culture once again. The Scotch-Irish weren’t farmers the way we might think of colonial farming, with acre after acre of corn and wheat. They combined livestock herding with vegetable gardens and some grain. And they didn’t have a lot of tools: Fischer cites an early 1700s primary source that colonial backcountry Scotch-Irish had “one axe, one broad hoe and one narrow hoe.”

When you picked up and moved, you packed up some produce, a few tools, and then herded your livestock a few miles to a new spot. In Scotland, it was sheep, in the colonial backcountry, pigs or cattle.

Of course, it wasn’t quite so unplanned as it sounds. In The Monongalia Story a history of one region of West Virginia, Earl Core wrote that:

“A small group of men might come in winter or early spring, build their first cabins, clear and fence their little fields, plant potatoes, corn, beans and pumpkins. After the crops were well started… the men would ride their horses back [to their family’s current residence], again load them with [the rest of their possessions], and return with their family.”

The collaborative nature of this migration shouldn’t be discounted. American culture lionizes the rugged individualist pushing back the frontier, but that was a myth. Frontier migrations were a community affair, and the greater the distance, or the deeper into the territory of another culture that would try to repel what to them was an invasion, the more critical it was to band together.

Fischer notes that the first settlements in Tennessee and Kentucky were centered around military-like forts and stations, where settlers living nearby could retreat for mutual defense.

Core noted that the forts were also the center of the community, where “young couples danced and courted, where marriages were performed and funerals held, where land claims were recorded and justice meted out.”

As the native populations were pushed out & settler control secured, the Scotch-Irish spread out. As one North Carolina congressman put it, “no man ought to live so near another as to hear his neighbor’s dog bark.”

There’s only so much I can pack into a video of less than five minutes. If you want to learn more, get a copy of Albion’s Seed. It’s dense and long, but I think it’s worth it.

So… what of the bit about the Scotch-Irish moving because they wore out the land? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, isn’t it? If your culture is to move frequently, you didn’t need to maintain the fertility of your land.

The Scotch-Irish did have a way to re-fertilize land, however. Fischer quoted a traveler to the southern backcountry who noted “A fresh piece of ground… will not bear tobacco past two or three years unless cow-penned; for they manure their ground by keeping their cattle… within hurdles, which they remove when they have sufficiently dunged one spot.

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