Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksScots in the American Revolution

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

Scottish settlement in North America began during the Colonial period as early as the 1630s, with notable large migrations in the 1640s and the late 1740s. Meanwhile, between 1717 and 1775, an estimated 200,000 Ulster-Scots (Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish) immigrated to North America. The Ulster-Scots were descendants of Lowland Scots and Northern English who settled in the Province of Ulster in Northern Ireland during the “Plantation of Ulster” in the very early 1600s.

The influence of the Scottish and Ulster-Scots is found in many aspects of early American history and culture, such as explorers, traders, music, food, literature, soldiers and statesmen. Meanwhile, the age of Scottish Enlightenment contributed significantly to the early colonial American education, intellectual pursuits, art, science, economics and particularly the philosophies of man, government, sharing a humanist and rationalist outlook on society. While many of the American Founding Fathers had direct connections to Scotland, others were greatly influenced by these teachings of the Scottish Enlightenment.

John Witherspoon and James Wilson were the only Scots to sign the Declaration of Independence, while several other signers had Scottish ancestry. Other Scottish American Founding Fathers included Commodore John Paul Jones, “Father of the American Navy”, Generals Henry Knox and William Alexander, and Hugh Mercer, a soldier under “Bonnie Prince Charlie” at the Battle of Culloden. James Craik, the first Surgeon General, was born in Dumfriesshire. And Patrick Henry’s father was from Aberdeenshire. Nine of the thirteen colonial governors at this time were Scotsmen.

At the time of the American Revolution, the Scotch-Irish are the most notable settlers in the Southern States, and were the core of illegal settlers west of the Proclamation Line, in the Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee Valleys, with names like Jackson, Boone, Crocket, Calhoun, Clinton, Matthews, McDowell, McClellan and many more. Many of these western settlers were drawn into the rebellion as the war spread into the western frontier. Meanwhile, many plantations and independent farms in the back country of Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas had been financed with Scottish credit, creating a great deal of farmers deep in debt. This incentivized many to fight for separation from England.

Meanwhile, many Scottish Americans with very successful commercial ties to the old country, or bound by clan allegiances, chose to stay true to the crown. The Scottish Highland populations of upstate New York, and the Cape Fear Valley of North Carolina, were centers of Loyalist resistance to the rebellion. A small force of Loyalist Highlanders fell at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776, and another band of Scottish American Loyalists were defeated by Scots-Irish Patriots at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. Many of these Scottish American Loyalists emigrated to Canada after the war.

This FamilySearch wiki page on Loyalists in the Revolutionary War identifies numerous resources for Loyalist family history research. The FamilySearch wiki also has a page on Finding Your Revolutionary War Ancestor, and more about, and resources related to, the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, here is the fundamental page about United States Military Records, another page on Scotland Military Records, and a page dedicated to British Military Records Online.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.