“We ain’t never gonna change
We ain’t doing nothing wrong
We ain’t never gonna change
So shut your mouth and play along”
The plow is a weapon to the earth. The lowland Scots held ground that was poor and they steadily degraded it for centuries. Torn between warring neighbors – highlander celts to the north and English anglos to the south they were habitually troubled. Depleted and exhausted by endless waves of guerrilla war the English saw these lowlanders as an intermediate race, although certainly without culture the Scot barbarians were still a step above the savages on the Irish island.
In 1602 King James launched upon a novel scheme – these disposable people could be moved en masse and resettled in Ulster and other Irish environs. There they could farm in their own primitive fashion on land grant plantations given by the King. To earn such privileges and prove their loyalty to the King they had but one task – subdue the wild Irish horde.
By 1641 the Irish resistance collapsed. Tens of thousands of their number lay dead by cudgel and sword. The lowlanders had a new home and an identity as paramilitary farmer stock. In Europe these people became known as the Ulster Scots.
The English had an Indian problem. One hundred years after their arrival in north America they had pushed the frontier only one hundred miles west. The indigenous inhabitants held their settlement of the hinterland in check. The two most troublesome tribes – the Iroquois in the north and the Cherokee in the south were so formidable that the anglo colonists preferred bribery and flattery to cajole them over open warfare.
This “Indian hindrance,” was well noted in London. In 1725 a colonial official commented that it was safer and faster for a Virginia planter to visit London than to travel to the western frontier,( roughly the present site of Knoxville, TN.) The colonial authorities mulled over these problems with great seriousness. They decided what was needed was a “border class,” of European emigrants. A hardy folk whose inevitable sacrifice would not be a great loss to the English-speaking establishment.The English then began bringing in large numbers of Germans to the colonies. Mostly they were settled in Pennsylvania. They were orderly, industrious, excellent farmers, but they were town-folk. They had little interest or inclination to move into the wilderness and fight Indians.
As a second choice in the 1720s emigration agents began openly recruiting the Ulster Scots to move to America. The deal was one they understood quickly. As their ancestors had brought the wild Irish to heel this generation would sail to America – subdue the natives – and farm in their own fashion.
In America these people became known as the Scots-Irish. Benjamin Franklin referred to them in print as, “White savages.” They were ignorant, indolent, unmannered and irreligious. They were also hard, brutal and well accustomed to violence and deprivation. In just a few years it became clear – the anglo elite had found their Indian fighters.
The Scots-Irish traveled and warred in their own clan formations, and they could more than match their woodland foes massacre for massacre and atrocity for atrocity. In the first one hundred years the anglo colonists and advanced their realm only one hundred miles. A century after the first Scots-Irish importation the only Indian resistance east of the Mississippi River was being conducted by the Seminoles in Florida.
It was in the American south that Scots-Irish culture reached it’s logical conclusion. As long-term antagonists so often do they and the Indians began to resemble each other. This process was a two-way exchange – they taught each other about scalping and log cabins and tobacco and alcohol and ambush and deerskin clothing and agriculture and the avoidance of civilization.(1.) And they both learned quickly to set themselves apart from the African slave laborers who toiled in the anglo’s fields. By 1800 the Scots-Irish and Indians might kill each other or intermarry as circumstances dictated. But the African slaves were too valuable to kill and too lowly to marry. It was better to catch them up if possible and sell them or claim the reward. This the Scots-Irish and southern Indians did equally with great zeal.
In the 1830s the southern Indians experienced their forced removal from the American south to the Indian Territory. The Scots-Irish champion ( and first non-anglo President) Andrew Jackson provided the impetus behind this scheme, and it was fulfilled. With the south now “ethnically cleansed,” the Scots-Irish either stayed at home with their plows, jugs, axes and fiddles and devoted themselves to primitive agriculture on the margins of the slave economy, or they continued their decades long trek west.
Sam Houston (mad man, classicist, drunkard, adopted Cherokee) was sojourning amongst his Indian kin and dreaming of revolutionizing Texas, which in 1834 was still a part of Mexico. Houston had been a part of a multi-ethnic army in the Creek War of 1812 and he envisioned an army of Scots-Irish southerners, “civilized tribes,” and wild plains Indians(2.) could smash the Spanish rule of Texas and set up a provisional government. Overall, the plan had real merit. Spanish rule in Mexico had been softened up by a century of warfare with the Comanche/Kiowa. By the 1830s the Indians were winning. The Mexican army (peasants led by noblemen) was potentially genocidal but they were no match for the well mounted and armed Comanche/Kiowa.
In due time Houston did revolutionize Texas, his dream, however, fell apart. The “Civilized Tribes,” had no interest in nation-building in Texas and both the Scots-Irish and Comanche/Kiowa were uncontrollable and convinced they could each defeat the other.
And so the pattern continued. The Comanche/Kiowa soon learned that these white southerners were nothing like the Mexican army. They were willing to ride their horses to death to overtake their prey, to go for days without sleep or food. They did not hesitate to kill women and children. They possessed the field craft and social memory necessary to wage a protracted race war. They could track, shoot expertly and live off the land just as well as their enemies.
The Texas Republic was founded in 1836 and less than forty years later the great tribes were eradicated from Texas. The Scots-Irish conquest of Texas however, came at a staggering cost – on the Texas frontier each mile of western advance cost seventeen white lives.(3)
In the interim, back in Dixie, the Scots-Irish had served en masse as foot soldiers for the Confederate slave state. And of course they would eventually taste the defeat they had visited upon so many other tribes. In response to this military defeat and occupation they abandoned their traditional irreligiosity and embraced fundamentalist Christianity. In 1865 this defeat appeared total, but the Scots-Irish southerners fell back upon their clan ties and paramilitary tradition. The Klu Klux Klan was formed and in a few years the Reconstructionist state governments were overthrown one by one. Yes, the American south would be thrown open to northern capital and industrial progress, and yes, it would maintain the classic southern social dynamic – white supremacy – with the Scots-Irish as prepared as ever to kick the asses and cut the throats.
By 1910 the map was closed and the frontier existed only in isolated pockets. The “occupation” of frontiersman became defunct. Indian fighters were no longer needed. The Scots-Irish occasionally rose to middle-class prosperity but far more often sunk to squalid unsustainable agriculture practices and muddled through decades of accepted poverty.(4.)
In 1917 the United States entered World War 1. At this time the Marine Corps was a tiny organization that did little more than police ships and form color guards. Scots-Irish southerners still harbored a healthy distaste for the U.S. Army, whom they associated with “Lincoln’s Black Republicanism” Grant, Sherman, et al and the fallen Reconstructionist state governments.
As a consequence the Marine Corps was flooded with southern recruits. This was the true beginning of the Marine Corps traditions of marksmanship, fierce fighting, racism and fundamentalist Christianity. To this day the vast majority of U.S. Marines (officers and enlisted men) are white southerners.
Back home after the war these men joined the second generation KKK and carried on their long march of interpersonal and collective violence. And they (we) march right up to the present day. Take a look at any demographic data – the southern states continue to elect lunatics like Reagan and Bush, they continue to lead the nation in murder, spousal abuse, alcoholism, church-going, ignorance, racial segregation, traffic deaths, illness, crime and vice.
What can one say? We came by it honest.
(1.) Scots-Irish culture was always elastic and would envelope any who fell among them. By 1810 Germans, Dutch, Cherokees, etc. would be acculturated as Scots-Irish. To be clear though – even in the 20th century most southern “poor whites” would remain genotypic ally Scots-Irish. (As an illustration of this trend – several years ago I attended a Cherokee Nation propaganda forum masquerading as a academic conference. Two doctoral candidates, both Cherokee, gave a power point presentation on “Traditional Cherokee Culture.” With no sense of irony they told us “Traditional Cherokees,” lived in log cabins, gathered ginseng, ate deer and rabbit, tended corn patches and let their hogs run loose in the forest. It soon became clear that what the presenters were describing was not “Traditional Cherokee Culture,” but traditional southern culture. Which then, as now is multi-ethnic when it is not mulatto.
(2.) “Negroes,” would however be excluded from such a state. Houston’s radicalism was limited, Indians wielding political power was acceptable to him. Africans would remain a permanent slave-laboring class.
(3.) The best single book on the Scots-Irish/Comanche race war remains, ‘Comanches: History of a People’ by T. R. Fehrenbach
(4.) Incorporating Scots-Irish (and Indians) into the industrial working class would be a long and uneven process. Italian, Polish, Czech, even Slovenian colonies usually sprung up around southern industrial centers. Physical labor under a supervisor would remain “Nigger work,” to the Scots-Irish commoner well into the postmodern era. When eastern Oklahoma suffered limited industrialization in the1960s and 70s management personnel from out of state would often express amazement at the local’s (Scots-Irish and Indian almost to the man) lack of a work ethic and refusal to submit to authority.
Selected Readings –
‘The Mind of the South,’ by W.J. Cash
‘The Scotch Irish’ : A Social History by James G. Leyburn
‘Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South’ by Grady McWhiney
‘Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America’ by James Webb