From 1718 to 1775, more than 100,000 people came from Ireland to the American colonies. These Irish immigrants weren’t just Irish, they were mostly families that had moved from Scotland and the north of England to Ulster province in Ireland in the previous century or two. They were Protestants who were transplanted to Ireland by the English Crown to dilute the influence of Irish Catholics, to bring English culture to Ireland and secure it as part of the British Empire. They became known as Scotch-Irish or, more properly, Scots-Irish.
Many books have been written about the impact the Scots-Irish have had in the British Isles and in America. Last year I read a good one called Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by Jim Webb. He found the roots of many American characteristics in these families that were pioneers and warriors. The book has section titles like “Rulers and Rednecks” and “The Spirit of a Revolution” and chapters like “The Radical Individualists” and “Poor but Proud–and Stubborn as Hell” and “Fight. Sing. Drink. Pray.” It’s easy to see the American in these people.
The Scots-Irish were mostly Presbyterians, but their religious heritage became less significant when they came to America and tried to forge a life in the hills of Appalachia and the backwoods of the Carolinas. They became known more for their rifles, their whiskey and their fierce passion for freedom.
I know of two branches of my family–the Rentfrows and the Withrows–who seem to have come from Scots-Irish stock. Each branch produced at least one representative who clearly manifested the Scots-Irish character.
Moses Renfro (an alternate spelling of Rentfrow), my six-times-great grandfather, was born in 1728 in Virginia. He served as a captain in the militia and fought in the wars with the Indians around the time of the Revolution. A few years after the Revolution, Moses and a handful of family members joined Colonel John Donelson on an expedition into Tennessee. The Donelson party traveled along the Tennessee River, down the Tennessee to the Ohio River, up the Ohio to the Cumberland River to the French Lick Salt Springs at the bluffs, the site of modern-day Nashville. Donelson himself became one of the co-founders of the city of Nashville.
In the midst of their journey, on April 12, 1780, Moses and his family left the Donelson party near where the town of Clarksburg is today and traveled along the Red River to a place where they established a frontier settlement. Colonel Donelson noted in his journal:
“Proceeded on quietly until the 12th of April, at which time we came to the mouth of a little river running on the north side, by Moses Renfroe and his company called ‘Red River,’ up which they intended to settle. Here they took leave of us.”
The station, or frontier settlement, established by Moses and his party was alternatively called “Red River Station” and “Renfro Station.” Frontier stations were difficult places to live; security and provision were constant challenges for these brave souls who pushed into new lands. Several of the Renfro party were killed by Indians–Joseph, Peter, and Bartlett in just the first year or two. Moses survived and eventually moved to Lincoln County, Kentucky. Here he died at the age of 96 in 1824.
James Withrow, my seven-times-great uncle, was born in Virginia in 1746. He served as a captain in the militia and fought against the British and Tories (Americans who were loyal to Britain) at Stono, King’s Mountain and Blackstocks in the Carolinas. He also fought against the Cherokees.
The Battle of King’s Mountain was a pivotal moment in the southern campaign of the American Revolution. Major Patrick Ferguson of the British 71st Regiment of Foot had raised Loyalist forces in the Carolinas and was supposed to protect the flank of the army of Cornwallis. Ferguson issued a challenge to the rebels–the backwoodsmen of the Carolinas who supported the Revolution, many of whom were Scots-Irish. The challenge was met and in the clash on King’s Mountain on October 20, 1780, Ferguson was killed, the Tories were defeated and Cornwallis was forced to call off his invasion of North Carolina.
Speaking of the victory at King’s Mountain, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his book The Winning of the West, “This brilliant victory marked the turning point of the American Revolution.” This victory, like so many others in the American Revolution, wouldn’t have happened without the Scots-Irish. A Hessian captain wrote in 1778, “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”
Following the success of the Revolution, James Withrow served eight years in the House of Commons for the state of North Carolina. He was also one of the three Commissioners of Confiscated (Tory) Property. In 1789 he became County Sheriff, a position that included the onerous task of collecting taxes from independent-minded settlers. In 1836, he died where he had long lived–in Rutherford County, North Carolina–at the age of 90.
Whether striking out as pioneers into the unsettled lands of Tennessee and Kentucky or fighting ferociously for freedom in the battles of the Revolution, the Scots-Irish undoubtedly showed their strength of character and their fierce independence.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!