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The Scotch-Irish in America
Chapter 14


Until a time quite near the civil war, the region of which I am writing was very insular, considering that it had been settled so long. It is true that for many years before that time, the famous National Road, built by the U. S. Government, ran through the heart of that region. This road was the great avenue of commerce between the east and the west, and considering its length, the perfection of its construction and the enormous volume of its traffic in people and goods, it was by far the greatest boulevard ever known in America, if not in the world. After the railway was pushed as far west as Cumberland, Md., about a quarter of a century elapsed before it came further, and during that time nearly the whole commerce between the east and the west was carried over that road from Cumberland, the end of the railroad, to Wheeling, where it struck the Ohio river. It was a sort of Broadway a hundred and thirty miles long, thronged with an enormous traffic. Big road-wagons drawn by six and eight big horses, and loaded to the top of their high covers; stage-coaches, fifty and sixty each way every day in the crowded season, making twelve miles an hour, and loaded fore and aft with passengers and baggage; express wagons with lighter loads, and travelling faster than the heavy ones; pony express with the fast special mail; droves of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, and slaves tied to a rope, two and two in a long procession; besides multitudes travelling in private vehicles and on horseback, such was the commerce of this wonderful thoroughfare for years. But this did not break up the insularity of the people and the region. People looked on while this mighty stream passed, and ministered to its needs, but seldom went from their own farms. Railroads had not touched the region until quite near the civil war, and they touched it but little till several years after the war. Up to 1860, probably not one in ten of the older people had ever been in a railway car. They went but little from home, and seldom far. They were contented to live quiet, peaceable and pious lives, far from the world's madding strife. It does not follow however, that they were a dull, ignorant and stupid people, a mere herd of drudges and dunces. Very far from it. Within certain limits, they were a well-informed and highly intelligent people, and strongly intellectual. Too many men of great distinction have sprung from them to allow the supposition that their fathers were dunces and drones. In every house you would find an assortment of books, and good ones at that. You would find very few books of fiction, and absolutely no trash, but books of travel, biography, history, popular science, and especially, works of standard value on theology, moral philosophy and practical religion, as well as on agriculture, political economy, and the like. These books were read, and studied. They cared but little for the dreams of novelists or the visions of poets, but on subjects of the first practical importance, on things pertaining to life and godliness, they were well read, and often profoundly informed. They usually subscribed for several good newspapers, religious and secular, besides a monthly magazine or two. I now have in my library bound copies of a magazine published in Philadelphia as early as 1796, inherited from my great-grandfather. It was probably the best, perhaps the only magazine then published in America.

The smart transient who grappled in debate on any serious subject with one of these plain farmers, fancying he had an easy victim, was apt to be speedily undeceived. The range of their knowledge was limited, but within that range they were studious, thoughtful and highly intelligent men.

They were by nature suspicious of anything new, and were prone to throw it off without ceremony. If they were interested in it at all, they would most searchingly scrutinize it, and if it stood the tests, it was approved, but the burden of proof was on it. It must verify and vindicate itself. If a man came along with a new plow, or lighting-rod, or patent medicine, the presumption was always against him, especially if he was a Yankee. He must substantiate his claim. If he could do that they would buy, if not, he was shouldered into the road. Particularly, any Yankee who came along with a brand new patent-churn, or washing-machine, warranted to do the work while you read a book, or with a wooden nutmeg, a new-fangled clock, or such thing, when he struck a Scotch-Irishman was instantly met with an east wind, raw and chilling. Still more, when any fakir came into the community with some new doctrine in religion, some spiritualist, mind-healer, braggart lecturer, or other such humbug, he was quickly shown the door. These people were neither credulous, sentimental, nor easily fooled. They would not jump till they saw where they where going to light. Charlatanisms and quackeries in business, religion or common life, they had no welcome for. They were hard-headed, clear-eyed, strong-minded, brave-hearted men who loved truth and righteousness as they saw it, and hated lies, delusions, superstitions and impostures.

Their vernacular was full of provincialisms, not those of ignorance, but those of race and inheritance. In fact these provincialisms reveal a good deal of the history, the type and the temperament of the race. The time of evening service was never announced according to the clock. It was fixed at "early candle-lighting." They always "lifted" the collection. Prayer-meeting was always called "society." In announcing a funeral, the minister would say, "they will lift at such an hour." By lifting, he meant taking up the body to be carried to burial. Some of the neighbors always came in and sat up all night with the dead, and this was called "the wake." There were no coffin shops where such goods were kept ready for sale, and no ceremonious undertakers with their sombre dress and solemn tones, and heavy charges. When one died, the measure was taken and the cabinetmaker engaged to make a plain coffin to order. Neighbors dug the grave, and the expense of laying away the dead was very small. Everything except the small cost of the coffin, and the attendance of the hearse, was entirely gratuitous. Very rarely was a funeral service held in the church, but almost invariably in the home, however humble. When one died, they did not say, he is dead, but "he is gone." When one was slightly ill, they would say, he is "poorly," or he is "donsie." An absent-minded, or negligent person, was said to be "glai-kit." Young children were called "weans." Their provincialisms revealed their Scotch lineage, and every one of them is to be found in the Scotch poets, especially, in Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. While there were among them wild, rough and violent men, yet profane swearing was uncommon. The genuine Scotch-Irishman believed that his simple word was good, and that it did not need to be fortified by a profane oath. It must be confessed, however, that among the baser sort coarse, vulgar, and even obscene speech was quite too common. But the more respectable always frowned on such vulgarity.

When the great war came on it brought to that whole region a mighty fermentation, and the Scotch-Irish spirit rose to the boiling point. This broke up the insularity of that section of the country. The patriotism of their fathers, and the fighting blood in their veins, immediately flamed out. While the people were hotly divided on party issues, in general they were intensely and violently patriotic, as their fathers had been. There were among them a good many who were called "rebel sympathizers, and copper-heads," but the bulk of the people was fiercely in favor of sustaining the Government. All the same, the so-called "copperheads" were numerous enough and active enough to give infinite trouble to churches and neighborhoods. Feeling ran very high, and discussions were bitter. It was a hard time for the pastors of the churches, and for others who wanted to keep peace. There are people now living, who cannot be proud of the stand their fathers took in that dark and trying hour. I doubt if any man today is proud of the fact that his father was a "copperhead." But the immense majority of these people showed their faith by their works, as was the habit of their race. Their young men rushed to arms by the thousand. Old Buffalo graveyard is full of the ashes of heroic young men from that congregation who gave their lives for their country, and only some of those who did so, were brought home for burial. I have studied the authentic statistics thoroughly, and am willing to venture the statement that no other section of this country, of equal population, gave as many of its sons to the Union Army, as did Washington county, Pa., and the region immediately adjoining. And no other gave so many to wounds and death. Quite a number of crack regiments were recruited there, regiments whose battle record is surpassed by none, and equalled by few. In like proportion, the Scotch-Irish communities of the South, furnished men for their army. They were governed by like convictions, however mistaken we may think their convictions were. These Scotch-Irishmen made the best soldiers in the world, as their fathers had done. The Scotch-Irish regiments in both armies showed as no others, their ability to stand up to their work, and give and take wounds and death. The greatest losses known to modern warfare, in proportion to the number engaged, were suffered when Scotch-Irish regiments from Pennsylvania and Ohio encountered men of the same race from North Carolina and Virginia on the battlefield of Gettysburg. Stonewall Jackson himself, and the bulk of his renowned corps, were of this blood and lineage. When men of this blood met face to face on the battlefield, the issue always was, victory or death. The churchyards of Washington county, and adjoining counties, are full of the bones of the heroic dead who gave their lives for their country, and the ashes of many others of her sons were left in southern graves. John Kelly, executive officer of the Tecumseh, went down with his ship in Mobile Bay, because he disdained to leave her when he might have escaped, and because he gave way to a subordinate officer. He was an old Buffalo boy, and a sample of his class. Very many noble and gallant fellows fell in the garb of private soldiers, while some reached command, higher or lower. One old Buffalo boy, after a distinguished career in the civil war, and later, in the regular army, won high distinction by quelling the insurrection in Manilla, and after commanding the Department of California, now wears in his retirement, the stars of a Major-General won by long and gallant service.

But that great convulsion stirred up the people of that quiet rural region and shook them out of their insularity. The young men who returned from the great war were no longer the simple rustics they had been. The great earthquake had bulged up the entire country and thrown the population out into the swirling currents of the world.

Then came on the era of railroads, of coal development of natural gas and oil, of mills and manufactures, the great growth of population and of commercial enterprise, and so the old community is no longer what it once was. An immense inundation from the swamps, offal-heaps of southern Europe, threatens to engulf what we hold most sacred and dear. The old type however, is still persistent, though it has been greatly modified by the conditions of modern life. But in fact, the Scotch-Irishman still rules the region. The sturdy, genuine and endearing elements in the blood and fibre of the people who originally settled that magnificent section, still show themselves, and it will be long before they are subdued. Let us hope they may never be. Let us hope that the shades of the faithful and heroic dead may long hover over that section, and that their memory and influence may never pass away.


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