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  • Scottish Emigration to Colonial America: A Resume

    L. David Dobson, F.S.A.

    Published Date : December 1987
     Scottish emigration to colonial America began as a trickle in the early 17th century and rose to a torrent in the years immediately before the Revolution.  Initially the Scots arrived as individuals, such as Thomas Henderson of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, until the mass transportation of Scottish prisoners of war by Oliver Cromwell around 1650.  The only early attempts at establishing a colony of Scots occurred in Nova Scotia in the 1620s, but this was abandoned by order of King James in 1631.  Although the majority of these colonists were shipped back across the Atlantic by the French, it is just possible that a few integrated with the incoming French settlers or moved south to New England.  Dutch soldiers found a group of Scots on Long Island in the late 1630s, but whether they had come from Nova Scotia or direct from Scotland has yet to be discovered.

    The Scottish connection with Barbados dates from 1627 when Peter Hay, Earl of Carlisle, was made proprietor of that island.  Subsequently he dispatched agents, administrators, and planters, mainly Scots such as William Powrie.  Later some of these men and time-expired indentured servants, or their descendants, migrated to other English colonies in America.  Elsewhere in the English and Dutch colonies throughout America there were handfuls of Scots, but the first major influx did not occur until Cromwell’s time, when thousands were sent to New England, Virginia, and the West Indies.

    By the 1660s the Scottish government began to rid itself of petty criminals and social undesirables by exporting them to the colonies; later, especially around 1685, these settlers were augmented by nearly 2,000 Covenanter prisoners.  Religious persecution led to the attempt to establish a Scots Presbyterian colony in South Carolina, ca. 1684, (overrun by the Spanish in 1686), and to the more successful colonization of East New Jersey by Scottish Quakers and Presbyterians from 1685.

    The final effort to found an independent Scottish colony in America occurred at Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama, between 1698 and 1700, which failed through disease, climate, and opposition from Spain. Many Scots perished at Darien, but some of the survivors settled in the English West Indies and along the American coast as far north as New England.

    After the political union of Scotland and England in 1707 all restrictions on trade and settlement within the English colonies were lifted and Scottish settlement grew steadily throughout the 18th century.  The first sizable group to go from Scotland to America was composed of Jacobite prisoners exiled after 1715. Large scale emigration from the Highlands can be said to have begun in the 1730s with the settlement of North Carolina and Georgia.  Substantial numbers of Scots could be found in Virginia and Maryland engaged in exporting tobacco to Glasgow.  Later the technology of this trade was switched to the sugar trade of the West Indies, particularly Jamaica, where in 1763 an observer reckoned that one-third of the white population was Scottish by birth or origin.  From the late 17th century the Hudson Bay increasingly relied on Scots, particularly from Orkney, to man its trading posts.

    The main period of Scottish emigration during the 18th century occurred after the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1763, when many Scottish soldiers were settled in New York or Canada, later to be joined by their friends and relatives from Scotland.  After the Revolution the British government discouraged emigration to America and actively encouraged settlement in Canada.

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