European Immigrants to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
By Hugh Dussek, Ph.D.

In the mid-eighteenth-century, numerous Europeans immigrated to the area of the Carolina Piedmont that became Mecklenburg County. Most of these settlers were Scots-Irish and Germans.

The Scots-Irish originated from the Scottish Lowlands, the area between England and the Scottish Highlands. In the sixteenth-century, many Lowland Scots converted to Presbyterianism. In the seventeenth-century, pushed out by a history of poverty and border violence, and encouraged by economic opportunities, tens of thousands of Lowland Scots immigrated to Ulster in the north of Ireland. King James I, the reigning monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland, supported this migration in order to establish a loyal Protestant presence in Ireland. Further difficulties ensued for the Scots in Ireland, however, and in the eighteenth-century some two hundred thousand of these Scots-Irish migrated to the American colonies.

The Scots-Irish came to America largely through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and settled in the backcountry to the west of the colony. As land became occupied and frontier troubles ensued with Native Americans, the Scots-Irish moved south searching for cheap land and new opportunities. Colonial governors saw the hardy Scots-Irish as a useful buffer against Native American tribes to the west and encouraged this movement. The Scots-Irish migrated along the Great Wagon Road. An old Native American trail, the road led west from Philadelphia, then south through the Valley of Virginia towards the backcountry of the Carolinas.

The Scots-Irish held stubbornly to their traditions, but adopted useful practices from others they met, such as the German community. For instance, the Scots-Irish began using the German-invented long rifle, an accurate weapon, and the Conestoga wagon, a resilient vehicle for long journeys over the backcountry trails.

The German settlers followed a similar migration pattern to the Scots-Irish. Many of the Germans were members of the Lutheran and Reformed churches and originated from the Palatinate in Germany. Prompted to move by warfare, oppression, and famine, the British government allowed the Germans to migrate to the American colonies. Lesser in numbers, the Germans settlers generally cooperated with the Scots-Irish.

The Scots-Irish and Germans settled on farms across the southern Piedmont. The area boasted cheap and fertile land and a lack of problems with Native Americans. The local Native American tribe, the Catawba, cooperated with the new settlers. The Scots-Irish girdled the trees and grew a variety of crops between the stumps. Small communities of Scots-Irish developed around their emerging Presbyterian churches, and the Great Wagon Road connected these communities to the coast and the Atlantic trading system.

The Scots-Irish and German settlers found new opportunities in the backcountry of the Carolinas. Their settlement in the area was one step in the migration of Europeans from the eastern coast of America to the West. The Scots-Irish and Germans set the pattern for settlement and contributed to later developments in the Mecklenburg County community.

Tyler Blethen and Curtis Wood, Jr., From Ulster to Carolina: the Migration of the Scotch-Irish to Southwestern North Carolina (North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1998).

James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish – A Social History (Chapel Hill, 1962).

Richard Hofstadter, America at 1750 – A Social Portrait, (Knopf 1971).

Elizabeth Fenn, Peter H. Wood, and Sydney Nathans, Natives & Newcomers: The Way We Lived in North Carolina before 1770 (Chapel Hill, 1983).

Parke Rouse, Jr., The Great Wagon Road: From Philadelphia to the South (McGraw Hill, 1973).

James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish – A Social History (Chapel Hill, 1962).

European Immigrants to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina