Lawrence E. Bethune's
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Scots to Colonial North Carolina Before 1775

Society and Culture in Colonial Cape Fear Valley

If one wants to trace Scottish folk song melodies from Scotland into Colonial North America, it seems logical to locate the largest concentrations of immigrant Scottish populations and to attempt to understand their culture, the cultures in which they found themselves, how they interacted with those culture and musics, and how this synthesis affected the newly created melodies.

Approximately 1.5 million Scots have immigrated to America (Gormley, 2000). Today, the state of North Carolina has more citizens of Scottish ancestry than any other state or country, including Scotland (Highlander, 2000). Where did those early immigrant Scots settle in North America, and when? How many were there? Why did they leave Scotland for such treacherous, wilderness territory?

The main thrust of this section of the study is to follow Scottish Highlanders and their music into the North American colonies. But, it is also necessary to trace Lowlanders and Scotch-Irish, as many musical characteristics of their folk songs will be found to be similar to the Highland. True, there are differences, but, together, they all form a “Celtic” influence on the new American music of the late 18th century.

Brief History of the Founding of North Carolina

Giovanni da Verrazonoa was the first European explorer of North Carolina in 1524. The territory was named Carolana after King Charles I of England. (Carolus means Charles in Latin.) In 1663, King Charles changed the spelling of the name to Carolina

In 1729, King George II took Carolina over and split it into North Carolina and South Carolina. Farmers from Virginia migrated to settle in North Carolina because it had a warm climate and good soil. Most of North Carolina became plantations.

Colonial North Carolina had three geographic regions: the Coastal Plain, the Appalachian Piedmont, and the Appalachian Mountains. These regions still exist, today.

The Immigrants of Colonial North Carolina

In addition to the Highlanders, there were several other ethnic groups who had migrated to colonial North Carolina from Europe and Africa including English, Lowlanders, Scotch-Irish, Germans, Welsh, Swiss, and Africans. While there seem to be no accurate records of the exact numbers of each group, it does appear that the English made up the vast majority of European immigrants, followed by the Scottiesh (Scotch-Irish, Lowlanders, and Highlanders), and far fewer Irish, Germans, Africans, Swiss, French, and Welsh (United States Historic Census Data Base 2002)..

There is a lot of confusion in early American history regarding the similarities or differences of the Scots. This makes it difficult to get a clear picture of “Scottish” immigration, though there are many clues that can help unravel the mess. Highlanders, Lowlanders, and Scotch-Irish are often grouped together as “Scots.” Sometimes the Irish and Scotch-Irish also get mistakenly mixed. A great number of Scotch-Irish (also often called Ulster-Scots), migrated to North America. The Scotch-Irish, Highland Scots, and Lowland Scots became a dominant ethnic group in the Colonies.

The largest influx of Irish into North Carolina was in the form of Protestants -- largely Presbyterian but also Anglican -- who became known as "Scotch-Irish" or "Scots Irish," since their ancestors originated in Scotland. (Powell, 1999) The term "Scotch-Irish" is an Americanism, generally unknown in Scotland and Ireland, and rarely used by British historians. In American usage, it refers to people of Scottish descent who, having lived for a time in the north of Ireland, migrated in considerable numbers to the American colonies in the eighteenth century.

According to the United States Historical Census Data Base (USHCDB) (2002), the ethnic populations in the American Colonies of 1775 were:
English 48.7 %
African 20.0 %
Scot-Irish 7.8 %
German 6.9 %
Scottish 6.6 %
Dutch 2.7 %
French 1.4 %
Swedish 0.6 %
Other 5.3 %
(NOTE: Combined, the total of Scots and Scot-Irish in this census is 14.4%.)

The following sections give some information about the major ethnic groups in colonial North Carolina (all the ones in the list above except Dutch and Swedish).

English and Welsh

The main English immigration to North America began in the early seventeenth century. From this time until the Revolution, the English were the largest group in the colonies and certainly in North Carolina. Due to industrialization and less religious persecution there had been an improvement in living standards in England and this led to a relative decline in the English emigration the eighteenth century.

There were English immigrants in all the North American colonies and in the West Indies. In the seventeenth century they mainly settled the East seaboard areas in the colonies. In the New England colony all the states had ninety percent or more population of English and Welsh origin. In 1790 the state of Massachusetts had the largest number of people, 93%, of English and Welsh ethnic background. In Pennsylvania, English and Welsh inhabitants made up about 58% of the total population. In the southern colonies, the British and Welsh immigrants were the majority, and in North Carolina they were 56% of the total population.

Though the governing of the colonies was mainly in English hands, there were several British government leaders from Scotland and Ulster. The culture of North Carolina was decidedly British, mainly English. The other ethnic groups maintained strong cultures within their own contained communities, but had marginal influence, at first, on English-dominated rule and society. However, little by little, the influence of the Scotch-Irish and Highland Scots in particular became evident, as we shall see later in this paper.

Scottish Lowlanders

There were Lowlanders in this area before 1700. Tracing Lowlanders is more difficult than tracing Highlanders because the Lowlanders were much more willing to disperse themselves within the various communities than were the clansmen. However, there are clear records of Lowlanders in North Carolina before 1700. Lowlander names appear in pre-1700 Carolina records and the first governor of the colony, William Drummond, was a Lowlander (Myer, 1957).

Scotch-Irish and Irish

To the west and east of these Highland settlements were large settlements of Scotch-Irish. One area directly to the west of the Cape Fear settlements was even called “Scotch-Irish Mesopotamia.” Most of the Scotch-Irish landed at Philadelphia and came south into North Carolina as early as 1740. After 1750, a steady stream flowed into the Colony. In 1751 Governor Gabriel Johnston of North Carolina reported to the Board of Trade that “Inhabitants flock in here daily, mostly from Pennsylvania and other parts of America . . . and some directly from Europe, they commonly seat themselves toward the West and have got near the mountains” (Saunders, 1886–90).

The Scotch-Irish were Protestant, as compared to the smaller number of Irish in Carolina, who were Catholic. In the seventeenth century a large amount of the Irish immigrants were situated in the West Indies, but in the eighteenth century there were Irish settlements in North America. Pennsylvania was in 1790 the colony that had most persons of Irish nationality, but it was mainly in the nineteenth century that the mass immigration of Irish Catholics to North America started.


The German immigrants came mainly from the areas of the river Rhine, the pre industrial south-west parts of Germany, but also from the German speaking areas of Switzerland.. The constant warfare in these parts of Europe made immigrants drawn towards the North Atlantic colonies.

The Germans settled mainly in Pennsylvania and by 1790, they represented more than one fourth of the total population. There were also some German settlements in Maryland, North and South Carolina and New York, but these numbers were small compared to the German population in Pennsylvania.

The following information explaining German immigration to North Carolina is from historian Guion Griffis Johnson (Johnson, 1937):

Following the same route traveled by the Scotch-Irish, several thousand Germans also came into North Carolina between 1745 and 1775. Like the Scotch-Irish, they were thrifty and fervently religious, but instead of representing one communion as in the case of the Scotch, they were members of three different branches of the Protestant church: the Lutheran, the German Reformed, and the Unitas Fratrum, or Moravian Church…Both the Scotch and the Germans preserved their native customs for several generations


There were also in this area enslaved Africans who worked in the houses and plantations of the European settlers. According to the Federal Census of 1790, one of four Highland families had slaves and, of those who owned slaves, the average was almost 5 slaves per family (Myer, 1957). In North Carolina, enslaved Africans were also about one out of every four persons (regardless of ethnicity):

North Carolina Census Data

Total 393,751
Free white persons 288,204 (72%)
All other free persons 4,975 (12%)
Slaves 100,572 (26%)

It is also interesting to note that by 1775, Africans were the second largest ethnic group (20.0%) in the United States, behind the English (48.7%), and there were three times as many Africans as Scots (6.6%). (If you combine the Scots and Scot-Irish of this census, the total would be 14.4%.) Most all Africans were enslaved and the vast majority were in the south in states like North Carolina (Meyer 1957).

French (Huguenots)

French immigrants, who were called the Huguenots, also found their way to colonial North Carolina. These French Protestants had to migrate because they were persecuted by the French king Louis XIV. French Huguenots immigrated mainly to New York and South Carolina, but some found their way into North Carolina. They assimilated easily by learning English and integrating with the other groups in the community (Meyer 1957).

Scottish Highlanders in Carolina

At the time of the first federal census in the United States, (1790) people of Scottish (including the Scotch-Irish) origins made up more than six percent of the population, numbering about 260,000. According to this census, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina had the highest proportion of Scottish stock among their populations. The settlements of the Highlanders were the Cape Fear River and its tributaries in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. A number of other Scots made their homes in the Mohawk Valley of New York, New Jersey, and the Caribbean islands such as Barbados. And, smaller numbers of Scots were found in all the 13 states.

The migration of Scottish Highlanders, in particular, to North Carolina began in about 1729 (Conner, 1919) and grew steadily until the outbreak of the American Revolution. The first few Highlanders appear to have settled in the Cape Fear area in 1732. The first large group of Highlanders settled here in 1739, numbered 350, and were from Argyllshire (Myer, 1957).

The fastest growth appears to have been just before the Revolution in the early 1770s. According to the Earl of Selkirk, by the end of the 18th century, the settlement of Scottish Highlanders in North Carolina was the largest on the North American Continent (Myer, 1957). Thomas Garnett, in his Tour, published in 1800, estimated in 1800 that 30,000 Highlanders had immigrated to America between 1773 and 1775, alone (Adams, 1919. My research uncovered estimates anywhere from 6,000 to over 50,000. The writer believes the number of 30,000 by Garnett is most accurate, if not slightly overstated. Lower estimates seem to leave out departures that list no departure port, but clearly left Scotland, or left Ireland or England as a last port and were populated with mostly Scottish surnames. The highest seem to accidentally have combined two estimates for the same period.The Highlanders settled in the sand hills area near the upper Cape Fear River of the Coastal Plain, which ran inland to about 100 miles from the ocean. Since the vast majority of Highlanders that settled in this area had come from an agricultural society, and because the land was plentiful and fertile, most became farmers.

The main trading town in the sand hills area at this time was Cross Creek. It was established in 1746 (Ashe, 1908) about 90 miles up the Cape Fear River, close to the merge of the Cape Fear River and the Cross Creek. In 1762, Campbellton was established near Cross Creek. In 1778, the towns were combined. After the Revolution, in 1783, the name Cross Creek was changed to Fayetteville, after the French general, Lafayette who assisted the Americans in defeating the British.

The Highlanders preferred to live among those who spoke their language and shared their customs, and usually settled in groups (Myer, 1957). Yet, almost immediately, Scotch-Irish slowly mixed in to the Highland settlements and continued to do so over the last half of the 18th century.

There were so many MacDonalds in the Cape Fear region that, during the American Revolution, the MacDonalds, who were loyal to the Crown of England, attempted a march to the sea, but were defeated at Moore’s Creek. This was known for generations as “The Insurrection of the Clan MacDonald” (Graham, 1956)

When Samuel Johnson made his famous journey through the Highlands with James Boswell in 1773, he remarked in his journal that there was an “epidemick of desire of wandering which spreads from valley to valley” (Johnson, 1924). Also in his journal, Johnson states that, wherever he went in the Highlands, people were contemplating emigration to America. The Reverend Alexander Pope in 1774 wrote that half the population of Caithness would have left for America if they could have obtained the shipping (Myer, 1957). James Boswell tells of people on the Isle of Skye on October 2, 1774 who were performing a dance called “America.”

Each of the couples…successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to show how emigration catches, till a whole neighborhood is set afloat. (Johnson & Boswell 1961, p346)
Many historical sources state that a good number of the Highlanders came to North Carolina after the 1745 defeat of the Highlanders at Culloden by the British government troops. It is true that many defeated Scots were banished to the colonies, but very few seem to have showed up in North Carolina, and it seems these reports of Highlanders leaving directly due to the defeat at Culloden is exaggerated.

It appears that the main cause of most of the emigration from Scotland during this period was due to the rapidly deteriorating economy and standard of living in the Highlands and the lure of economic relief and the promise of a golden future in America as communicated through letters from America to Scotland. Letters written from North Carolina to friends and relatives in the Highlands spurred an almost continuous flow of newcomers until the movement stopped by the Revolutionary War (Lefler & Powell, 1973).

An examination of ships’ records shows that most Highlanders reported leaving Scotland because of high rents on their land and “oppression” or “high rents & Better Encouragement” (Graham, 1956).

The writer’s family was part of this mass exodus of the 1770’s. The Bethunes came from Skye to Kintyre in the mid-1600s and then emigrated from the port of Greenock on August 26, 1774. They arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina on the ship Ulysses on October 17, 1774 and settled in the Cape Fear area known as the Argyll Colony (Bethune Family records).

The Highlanders did not mix easily with the other groups in the area such as the English, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Germans, or the smaller groups of Huguenots, Welsh, and Swiss. As explained in Ian Charles Cargill Graham’s Colonists from Scotland: emigration to North America, 1707-1783:

They [the Highlanders] were then as much a race apart as the Germans, less amenable to assimilation than the Lowland Scots, and far less so than the Scotch-Irish with their hostile attitude to the British government. Like the Germans, they spoke a strange tongue, but unlike them, they respected the authority of the Crown…They were clearly distinguished from other colonial peoples by their dress and demeanor. (Graham, p. 107)

Though the Highlanders spoke Gaelic, they did begin to use English more and more in order to conduct business with the majority English population and the Lowlanders and Scotch-Irish. But, in the Highland households that had slaves, the enslaved Africans even spoke Gaelic. The following excerpt tells the story of a Highland lady in Colonial North Carolina:

As she disembarked at the wharf, she was delighted to hear two men conversing in Gaelic. Assuming by their speech that they must inevitably be fellow Highlanders, she came nearer, only to discover that their skin was black. (Myer, 1957, p. 119)

Gaelic and German were rapidly giving way to English by 1825 (Gehrke, 1847). However, there are several documented reports of Gaelic still spoken in areas around the Cape Fear as late as 1886. The writer’s great-great grandparents spoke Gaelic until that time (Bethune Family History).

After the Revolution, interaction among these peoples was still not frequent. There existed a division between the eastern and western counties. They did not grow the same crops or market their produce at the same towns. The East was settled chiefly by the English, while in the West there was a large proportion of Scotch and German settlers who still retained many of their native customs. For many years after the War, poor roads and the lack of good transportation kept the two regions apart. It would be a long time before these different people would come to know one another.

Because the Highlanders were adventurous, didn’t mix well with the other populations, preferred to speak Gaelic, and were seen as supporters of the now-defeated Crown of Britain, many sought to “escape” unfriendly territory and struck out to tame the western frontier. Many became famous pioneers in Kentucky, Tennessee, and as far west as Texas. However, at the same time, Highlanders who had settled in the northern states started migrating south to North Carolina because it was seen as a land with better farming and a close-knit Highland community. Ergo, the Scottish population continued to grow in Carolina, despite the exodus of the Highland western pioneers.

Most of the Scottish (Highland and Lowland) settlers who came prior to 1854 came from the region of Glasgow, Lanark, Renfrew, and Ayr (21.7%) or Argyll (13.9%). Others came from Edinburgh and Lothians (10.6%), Inverness (9.3%), Southwest (8.9%), and Perth (8.7%) (Gormley, 2000). Many, if not most of the Highlanders in Cape Fear were from Argyllshire, which was overwhelmingly Presbyterian by 1750 (4,000 Catholics and 62,000 Presbyterians). Further, there is no evidence of any churches other than Presbyterian in this area and time (Myer, 1957). The importance of this religious distinction will be explained later in the paper where the music of the Cape Fear region will be discussed.

Myra Vanderpool Gormley (2000) explains that Scots were generally well educated and the newly immigrated Scots worked to bring even more Scots to the new land.

It was said in 1773 that the Virginians imported all their tutors and schoolmasters from Scotland. Education was widespread in Scotland and you will find most of your Scot ancestors were literate. As early as the 17th Century the immigrants were writing letters home telling of their success and prosperity and describing the beauty and richness of their settlements. Many successful settlers sent funds back to the old country to enable family members to follow -- wife or sweetheart, brothers and sisters, and sometimes ultimately the parents as well. The Scots tended to immigrate as families rather than individuals.

Scottish immigration had a fair chance of finding fellow Scots when they arrived and frequently obtained assistance from some of the Scottish societies that had been formed here to assist newcomers. Knowledge that such societies existed may well have helped to focus the minds of emigrants on certain areas. The Scots Charitable Society of Boston, founded in 1657, was the forerunner of associations whose purpose was partly charitable. These associations helped to smooth the path of emigrants from Scotland. Others were located at Philadelphia, New York and Savannah, Ga. The first St. Andrew's Society is believed to have been founded in New York in 1763. (Gormley, 2000, p. 1)

The steady flow of Highlanders into North Carolina (and into the new United States) ended with the onset of the Revolutionary War. Almost all Highlanders in North Carolina were Loyalists, supporting the Crown of Britain. During and after the War, most Highlanders emigrating from Scotland went to Canada, which was still part of the British Empire. After the War, the Whigs in North Carolina (anti-British) confiscated estates of Loyalists and many Scottish Highlanders migrated from North Carolina to Canada, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas (even though, as tensions lessened over the next generation, many Scots in Canada did make their way to the United States). Still, North Carolina maintained the greatest number of Highlanders and Scots of all the states and Canada.