Coming to America, 1700s-Style

A scourging at the post

A scourging at the post


Americans like to keep their foundational stories simple.  The Appalachian frontier was settled by white folks – primarily the Scots-Irish, along with a decent number of Germans.

Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone are the heroic faces of this era, although neither was a hero, nor were either of them “Scots-Irish”.

But let’s leave that by the by…

Stories of these peoples’ escape from “religious oppression” and poverty further underpins a near-mythological and moral tale of survival against all odds, with white Protestant hands hewing an existence from the wilderness in the face of floods, storms, and attacks by “savages”.

But in this day and age, even the dogs in the street know that history is almost always written by the winners.  And when it comes to winning, there are few groups of people in America outside of the planter and merchant elites who won more spectacularly than the “Scots-Irish”.

Arriving mostly in Philadelphia due to regular shipping of flaxseed between there and Ulster, many of the less-well-off “Scots-Irish” found much of the land in Pennsylvania already taken by earlier immigrants, and were quick to see the potential of the fertile lowlands of the Shenandoah Valley to the southwest.

Listeners to our “Black Paddywhackery” podcasts will have learned that the term “Scots-Irish” is in and of itself a profoundly misleading term, because the many people arriving in America from Ulster were far from being a cohesive ethnic group.  People from Ulster had ethnic roots in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Flanders, and France.  They came from different religious backgrounds.  They spoke many languages.  Their number included Jews and Romani.

While there is much to admire in the self-sufficient and doughty spirit of many of these immigrants, Presbyterians benefitted particularly from some temporal good luck, in the form of the American Revolution.

Being naturally ill-disposed to a Crown system which had squeezed them for impossibly high land rents back in Ireland (not to mention the Crown and Anglican Church’s hostility to Presbyterianism), many Ulster folk were happy to throw in their lot with the American rebels against British rule in America.

After finding themselves on the winning side of this conflict, many Ulster folk (to their consternation), found the cash-strapped nascent federal American state unable to pay their soldiers’ back wages.  And here is where the great good fortune arises.

This new American government decided to pay many of its “white” war veterans by offering highly “subsidised” land in lieu of pay.

Where did the American government get much of this land?  Why, on the Appalachian frontier, of course.  A series of extremely one-sided and contentious “land deals” with some members of the Cherokee Nation suddenly created millions of acres of cheap land with which to buy the continuing loyalty of the people who would only come to call themselves “Scots-Irish” many decades later.

And to this day, American schoolchildren picture white men in Conestoga wagons, sitting beside white women in starched bonnets, being the first to head bravely along the trails leading over the Cumberland Gap.




And this is utter whitewash.

The forefathers and mothers of the Melungeons and other “Brown People of Appalachia” had been squatting and settling this region for decades prior to any influx of people from Ulster.  A complex network of post-European contact “Old Mix American” peoples including Indian traders’ and longhunters’ families, displaced Native Americans, free people of color, escaped African-American slaves, former indentured servants of Romani ethnicity, South Asian lascars, Jewish immigrants from South America and the Caribbean, and a vast rainbow of “mulatto” and Creole children arising from all of these – THESE were the earliest “modern Americans” in Appalachia.

Being a largely illiterate underclass, even poorer than the people of Ulster, has meant that their story has remained largely untold.

What is perhaps even more ridiculous, is the fact that the vast majority of Americans today honestly believe that their forebears were invariably good, honest, God-fearing, hard-working “white” people escaping “tyranny” and “religious oppression”.

You will hear people claim their forefathers fought as “patriots” in the Revolution.  You will hear how their ancestors were among the passengers on the Mayflower.

What you almost never hear, is how England used its American colonies as a dumping ground for convicts and criminals, until the American Revolution forced them to divert this insalubrious cargo to its new colonies in Australia.

Between 1718 and 1775, AT LEAST 52,000 convicts were transported to the American colonies.  That represents more than a quarter of all immigration to America during the 18th century.

A quarter.  One in a hundred Americans today claim descent from a few dozen “Pilgrims”.  Yet nary a peep is heard from the descendants of the tens of thousands of convicts, prostitutes, and criminals…

Here is a short snippet of life among the forgotten, a glimpse of the other people who were “Coming to America”. Compare some of the names below to the people you might find in your own family history.

Note: The surname “Faa” mentioned below was also commonly rendered as “Fall” or “Falls“, a name not uncommon in Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.  The surname “Fenwick” survives today among people bearing the surnames “Penix” and “Phoenix” – it was common during the 1700s and 1800s to append a patrynomic “s” to the end of many surnames.

Thus “Cocke” might first be found varied as “Cockes“, i.e “Cox“.


Hendrick/Hendricks/Hendrix.  And so forth.

Fenwick” was thus sometimes rendered “Fenwicks“, which eventually morphed into Penix/Fenix/Phoenix, et al.




A Tale of Bridgend [along the Scottish borders]

“As stated, before Sir James Douglas bought Springwood Park it was named Bridgend and owned by Sir William Kerr of Greenhead. In 1714 he had arrested some gypsies who were going about armed and living off the land. He had them confined in the tollbooth at Jedburgh and refused to listen to the pleas of Janet Stewart, the mother of one of the miscreants.

“On the 25th March 1714 the household of Bridgend had retired for the night when there was an explosion which set the house on fire and the property was totally destroyed.

“On the 11th May at the Spring Circuit Court at Jedburgh, William Walker, Patrick Faa, Mabel Stirling, Mary Faa, Jean Ross, Elspeth Lindsay, Joseph Wallace, John Fenwick, Jean Yourston, Mary Robertson, Janet Wilson and Janet Stewart were accused of wilful fire-raising and of being ‘notorious Egyptians, thieves, vagabonds, sorners, masterful beggars and oppressors, or at least holden and in repute to be in such manner meant.’

“The sentences were varied but Janet Stewart was scourged by the hand of the common hangman with a scourge of cords on the bare back – receiving four stripes at the West Port, four at the cross and four at the Town Foot. She was then returned to the prison for three days and, thereafter, had her left ear nailed to a post, erected for the purpose, near the Town Cross and made to stand there for a quarter of an hour.

“Patrick Faa underwent the same punishment but also had both ears cut off. After this, they were transported to the American plantations. It is worth noting that Sir George Brisbane Douglas himself always maintained an affection for the true gypsy and Queen Esther Faa-Blythe [who] used to be a frequent visitor to his mother Mariquita.”

By Ian Abernethy, author of “The High Toun on the Hill“, a history of the village of Heiton, 1984, 1987, 64 pp.

#beforewewerewhite #history #romani #convicts

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