According to the US Census Bureau, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, only about 1.5 percent of Mississippians claim “Scotch-Irish” ancestry, a surprisingly low number in light of the amount of influence this group has had in the state. However, historians have noted that many or most descendants of Irish Presbyterian immigrants designate themselves simply as “Irish.” Since Mississippi did not experience a significant influx of Irish from 1845 to the mid-1950s, it is reasonable to assume that most the state’s descendants of Irish Presbyterians continue to choose that designation. By that reckoning, just over 10 percent of Mississippi’s population is of Scotch-Irish descent.
Scotch-Irish is a slippery term and carries multiple connotations that change with context. An Americanism, it refers to the descendants of people who migrated from Ireland to North America, mainly in the eighteenth century. About a century earlier, the forebears of those migrants had traveled from Scotland to northeastern Ireland, most of them during the Plantation of Ulster. Almost all of the migrants were Presbyterians at the time of their arrival in America, and although many later became Baptists and Methodists, their Calvinism has left considerable influence wherever they settled, including Mississippi.
The term Scotch-Irish did not come into frequent use until the mid- to late nineteenth century. The migrants generally described themselves as Irish, as did the colonial officials who noted their arrival. Scotch-Irish later became more common, in part because it indicated descent from the group that had originated in Scotland. Some used the term to express that they were Protestants rather than Catholics of Irish descent.
The Scotch-Irish began to arrive in the American colonies (primarily Pennsylvania) in significant numbers in 1718 and almost immediately began to spread across the continent. Some histories claim that by 1760 Scotch-Irish settlers were living in the vicinity of Natchez, and within four decades, considerable numbers of Irish- and American-born Scotch-Irish had settled the frontier lands of the Old Southwest, arriving from the Carolinas and Kentucky via Tennessee and by following trails from Georgia to Mississippi.
From the start, Scotch-Irishmen were leaders in US dealings with the Choctaw. The three men appointed by the United States to negotiate with the Choctaw and the only white signers of the 1816 US-Choctaw treaty were John R. Coffee, John Rhea, and John McKee. Both Rhea and McKee were sons of Scotch-Irish immigrants, and despite his Gaelic Irish name, Coffee was very much a part of the Scotch-Irish community in the United States. He was Andrew Jackson’s business partner and was married to a relative of Jackson’s wife: both Jacksons were Scotch-Irish. McKee and Coffee also signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek with the Choctaw in 1830.
With Jackson’s election as president, the Scotch-Irish in Mississippi and the United States became unalterably mainstream American. By the twenty-first century, the areas of the United States where the Scotch-Irish settled are the areas where the census records the highest percentages of people who declare their ancestry to be American. More than 11 percent of Mississippians described themselves that way, lending credence to the idea that the Scotch-Irish really have become the “People with No Name.”
- D. H. Akenson, The Irish Diaspora: A Primer (1996)
- R. J. Dickson, Ulster Emigration to Colonial America, 1718–1775 (1966)
- David Noel Doyle, in Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, ed. J. J. Lee and Marion R. Casey (2006)
- E. R. R. Green, ed., Essays in Scotch-Irish History (1969)
- Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689–1764 (2001)
- James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (1962)