Ethnic origins of Kentucky highlanders

Predominantly English (contra the Celtic Southern myth); not even in Appalachia did the Scotch-Irish element predominate:

[Combs, Josiah Henry. 1913. The Kentucky highlanders from a native mountaineer's viewpoint. Lexington, Ky: J. L. Richardson.]
Now, since the writer is a Kentucky Mountaineer, both by birth and by adoption, he seeks your indulgence and pardon in attempting to add to the long list of those who have discussed the social, political, economical and anthropogeographical status of the Kentucky mountains. Much has been said by various writers concerning the descent and nationality of the Kentucky mountaineers. Fiske, the historian, says they are of Scotch-Irish descent, and that their fore-fathers came down from Pennsylvania into the Southern Alleghanies early in the history of the Republic; Thomas Dixon, Jr., in "The Leopard's Spots," and also in "The Clansman," calls.the Southern highlanders Scotch and Scotch-Irish; Dr. Gucrrant, of Wilmore, Ky., a whole-souled and good old Presbyterian "missionary" to the mountains, and President Frost, of Berea College, without any reserve whatever, class the majority of the mountaineers as Scotch Highlanders.

The prevalence of a number of Scotch and Irish cognomens in this section no doubt has prompted the above writers to reach their conclusions in this matter. A saner view, and, in the opinion of the writer, the only correct one, is taken by Ellen Churchill Semple, writing in the Geographical Review, June, 1901. Here the view is taken that the great majority of the Kentucky highlanders are of pure, Anglo-Saxon or old English extraction, with a minority of the Scotch-Irish, largely Teutonic in origin. We are confronted, then, with three theories, as follows:

1. Scotch-Irish.

2. Scotch-Highlander.

3. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon.

We shall use the two methods of reasoning—the Destructive and the Constructive, and class the first and second of the above theories under the former of these methods, and. the third theory under the latter, or constructive method.


1. The prevalence of such names in the Kentucky mountains as McCoy, McDowell, Mcintosh, Mclntyre, McGuire, Campbell, Calhoun, Callahan, Duff, and a few others, has given rise to this first theory. [. . .] Now, if the majority of the Kentucky Mountaineers were Scotch-Irish, the majority of the cognomens of these people ought to be either Scotch, or.Irish, or both. Let us see. Out of four hundred surnames collected from Eastern Kentucky by the writer, it is difficult to find an aggregate of twenty per cent, of Scotch and of Irish cognomens. It is evident, then, that this Scotch-Irish theory cannot be taken seriously. [. . .]


3. Old English or Anglo-Saxon. . As was said above, this is the theory of Ellen Churchill Semple. It is also championed by President Thlrkield, of Howard University, who has given a quarter of a century to mission and educational work among the Southern Alleghanies. James Lane Allen is not the only gifted writer' who is positive that English is the ancestry of the majority of Kentuckians in tvtry section of the state. A long chain of cold facts, and not a mere hypothesis, establishes the truth of this contention. The Kentucky Mountaineers, themselves —their customs, dialect, linguistic characteristics, folk* songs, play-and-dancc-songs, child-rhymes, superstitions and riddles, nursery rhymes and the like, and above all, their cognomens, speak most loudly in the matter. First, then, the unanswerable argument in favor of this view, is that it is endorsed by the science and study of English philology. Every honest man bears the surname of his father. An analysis of the list of four hundred surnames referred to above dearly demonstrates that at least eighty per cent, of them are of pure Old English origin. Then, how did this English element get into the Kentucky, mountains ? Most of them came from Virginia and North Carolina, and some maybe from Pennsylvania. Three-fourths of the old "citizens".of the mountains will converse with you for hours, and tell you of their people in "Ole Virginny" and in North Car' liny." In this connection, and since there is an insignificant element of French Huguenot parentage in the Kentucky highlands, it might be well to quote a paragraph from Ellen Churchill Semple's story in the Geographical Review. She says :

"They (the Mountaineers) formed a part of the same tide of pioneers which crossed the mountains to people the states on the southwest, but they chanced to turn aside from the main stream, and ever since have stagnated in these mountain hollows. For example, over a hundred years ago eleven Combs brothers, related to General Combs Of the Revolutionary army, came over the mountains from North Carolina. Nine of them settling along the North Fork of the Kentucky River in the mountains of Perry County, One went further down the stream into the rough hiil country of Breathitt County, and the eleventh continued on his way till he came into the smiling country of the Blue Grass, and here became the progenitor of a family which represents the blue blood of the state, with all the aristocratic instincts of the old South; while their cousins In the mountains go barefoot," Even a careless perusal of the telephone register in almost any Kentucky town will reveal a majority of English surnames. In the early migrations across the mountains and into the plains, many a pioneer no doubt was compelled to remain in the mountains because one of. his wagon or cart wheels ran off, one of his family became sick, or some other little hindrance interfered. And here, attracted by the abundance of game, fish, and the natural scenery, he was content to remain and make his home. Does this severing of ties and relationship make the blood of the inhabitant of the refined and cultured Blue Grass any bluer than that of his less favored, but virile and sturdy brother of the highlands? Let John Fox, Jr's novels decide.


And now we come to the folk-lore of the Kentucky mountains. The folk-songs, play-and-dance-songs, child and nursery rhymes, "jigs," superstitions and riddles strongly corroborate the theory that most of this folklore came directly or indirectly from England. In this instance the proof is so overwhelmingly conclusive that only a few. examples will suffice. If reference is made to Alice B. Gomme's monumental work on "Traditional Child Games of England and Scotland," practically all of the games and play-songs of that work will be found to be common, also, in some form, if not exactly, to those of the Kentucky mountains. [. . .]

In this contention for the Old English theory of the origin of the Kentucky Mountaineers, the writer has not aimed to completely discard the evidences of Scotch and Irish ancestry. Beyond the minority of Scotch and Irish cognomens the evidences are so few as hardly to deserve mention, and for that reason they have been omitted.
[Kerr, Charles, William Elsey Connelley, and E. Merton Coulter. 1922. History of Kentucky. Chicago: American Historical Society.]
Who are these people? Authorities are not so much divided on this question today as they once were. They are generally agreed that the mountain people of the Cumberland Gap region are of English and Scotch-Irish descent. A look at some of the more prominent pioneers will confirm this. Doctor Walker, the real discoverer of the region— the learned explorer who gave English names to the region—was a Virginian of English extraction. Daniel Boone, the leading pioneer of the times, traced his descent to Exeter, England. It is said on good authority that one of the reasons for Daniel Boone wishing to leave his home on the Yadkin was because some Scotch people had moved into the neighborhood and were clearing away the forests too much to suit him. Here we have suggestions, in the lives of the people, of the character of the people—English and Scotch—who were moved southwestwardly in the direction of Cumberland Gap. [. . .]

Some historians have tried to make a distinction between the ancestry of the people of the Bluegrass and the people of the mountains, but their statements cannot find support among the best authorities. Virginia was settled by the rural peoples of England, and Kentucky, being an off-shoot of the same settlement, traces her ancestry to the same source. Some of these people from Virginia, from choice, settled in the mountain region, and the others, from the same reason, settled in the Bluegrass or moved on farther west. [. . .]

Fiske and Roosevelt try to force the conclusion that the Scotch-Irish predominated, but this is not in accord with the latest and best view, which is better stated by Shaler. William Aspenwall Bradley, says: "The length and conditions of my stay in the hill country gave me an unusual opportunity to become acquainted with the life and character of the mountain people, about whom, perhaps, more has been written and less actually known than about any other on the continent. It used to be the theory of historians, like Fiske, that they are the descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers. More recently the view has been advanced by Miss Ellen Churchill Semple and other Kentucky writers that the Cumberland Mountains, at least, are of English ancestry, and this view has been widely accepted, with the result that we hear much nowadays of the purest Anglo-Saxon blood on earth—whatever that may mean. To me it is clear that both strains mingle in Kentucky."


TGGP said...

Why do you think southerners tend to have lower IQs?

"Albion's Seed" used the term "borderlanders" to refer to those who lived in the north of England near the border of Scotland. It also distinguished between the highland Scots (more likely to be Catholic and I believe the source of modern mythological archetypes of Scotland) and the lowland Scots who tended to be allies with the English authorities against highlanders.

I should note that I'm of Scottish & Irish ancestry, though all from north of the Mason-Dixon line and well after the initial settling of the country.

Vanishing American said...

Thanks for this.
It's become almost impossible to argue against those who believe in the 'Scots-Irish' character of not just Appalachia, but the whole South, so firmly has this belief taken hold.

I think the authorities mentioned in the post, along with more recent examples like Grady McWhiney, Jim Webb (the politician) and of course Albion's Seed, have cemented the notion as fact.

I think a lot of the Scots-Irish myth has to do with the romantic image of the Scots warrior, helped of course by Mel Gibson's Braveheart.

I know something about the genealogy of the old South's families and I think the English element predominates in most cases. In my own family, we are mostly English with a little bit of Ulster Scots.

n/a said...


That's not an issue I've ever looked into thoroughly. Hookworm is said to have played a role. Here's a summary of some old research by Hirsch dealing specifically with eastern Kentucky that attributes depressed IQ in that part of Appalachia primarily to heredity (the difference arising through differential migration). Inbreeding depression is also alluded to. I don't think Hirsch directly considered disease as a factor. I glanced at a different paper by him, and it appears he was comparing counties with different levels of school attendance, access to transportation, etc., to come up with his environment vs. heredity estimate. I don't off the top of my head know how large north-south differences in IQ are today.


A LITTLE over a century ago, the mountaineers of eastern Kentucky were probably slightly superior to the average American in intelligence. To-day, these disappearing American highlanders rank considerably lower than average.

To find the cause for this striking decline in mentality, D,r. Nathaniel D. M. Hirsch, of Duke University, has visited three counties of the mountain country and has tested almost 2,000 young highlanders.

According to Dr. Hirsch, enivironment is responsible for only about 25 per cent. of the sub-average mentality; heredity is the cause of 75 per cent. For a hundred years migrations have played a laTge part in lowering the intelligence level. Long ago, when game and fish became rare in eastern Kentucky, the people who had settled in the mountains were faced by the problem of trying to farm the steep hillsides, or of moving. A migration of the restless and foresighted took place about 1820 to 1840. Two more waves of migration struck the mountain region, one about the time of the Civil War and again in 188,0. Now, since 1903, there has been a fourth migration, which has probably not yet reached its height, carrying away chiefly the more energetic, ambitious and intelligent groups.

Dr. Hirsch concludes that very close intermarriage of the depleted stock that has remained in the mountains is another cause for the falling level of intelligence. The outlook, however, is good. The gifted sons and daughters of the mountains, who have moved to more desirable surroundings are contributing their pure blood and sturdy character to American life in a wider field. " The nation is bettered by their spread, " says Dr. Hirsch. " The communities to which they move are biologically and morally enriched. "

The mountains that they left are being rapidly developed industrially for the hidden resources of oil, gas, soft coal, mica, kaolin. More changes have taken place there in a few years than in a whole century preceding. The unique civilization of isolated pure-blooded highlanders will soon be lost by the intermingling of mountain families with the Italian and Hungarian laborers that are com:ing in to dig in the mines, run the railroads and work in lumber canmps.

[Science. 1928 Apr 6;67(1736):x. SCIENCE NEWS.]

Anonymous said...

Kentucky highlanders could be untypical

By Scotch Irish they mean the mainly ethnically Scottish settlers from Ulster. They were indeed only 20% English overall, however in some parts of Ulster the English settlers were the majority. It's possible that a mainly English settled area of Ulster supplied the original migrants to Kentucky and then, as people often tend to immigrate into an area where relatives and friends have already established themselves, the English 'Ulster Scots' predominated in Kentucky.

The Scots who went to Ulster were mainly from South West Scotland and so would not have been expected to have Highland Scottish names. Today ' Mc' is often taken as identifying someone as a Catholic and of Irish ancestry while 'Mac' is regarded as Scottish (but this claims to debunk the myth that Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish )

The dialect of the South is full of Scotch-Irish influence in words like 'cracker' and countless others, not forgeting pronunciation which is certainly more Scots than English. The similarity of the the Cross of St Andrew to the Confederate flag can be seen at a glance.

And the early South had quite a lot of white slaves such as criminals (sometimes guilty of no more than vagrancy) who were transported , paupers who sold themselves and children who were sold by their families into indentured labour, forcibly transported abandoned wives and female children of the Irish soldiers who left the country after Cromwell's victory (the Wild Geese), and even Highlanders sold into slavery by their clan chiefs. These were in the mixture of the eary 'settlers' in the South. The Southern population was always a very different kettle of fish to New England

n/a said...

"The dialect of the South is full of Scotch-Irish influence in words like 'cracker' and countless others, not forgeting pronunciation which is certainly more Scots than English."

I'm sure one can find Scottish influences in Southern English; but I don't find it at all plausible that such influences approach (much less surpass) English influences in Southern speech.

"The similarity of the the Cross of St Andrew to the Confederate flag can be seen at a glance."

The belief that the Confederate battle flag was inspired by the Scottish flag or denoted some special connection to Scotland is incorrect:

According to historian John Coski, Miles' design was inspired by one of the many "secessionist flags" flown at the South Carolina secession convention of December, 1860. That flag was a blue St George's Cross (an upright or Latin cross) on a red field, with 15 white stars on the cross representing the slaveholding states, and on the red field were two of South Carolina's symbols, the palmetto and the crescent.[13] Miles received a variety of feedback on this design, including a critique from Charles Moise, a self-described "Southerner of Jewish persuasion". Moise liked the design, but asked that "the symbol of a particular religion not be made the symbol of the nation." Taking this into account, Miles changed his flag, removing the palmetto and crescent, and substituting a heraldic saltire ("X") for the upright one. The number of stars was changed several times as well. He described these changes and his reasons for making them in early 1861. The diagonal cross was preferable, he wrote, because "it avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews and many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus." [. . .]

According to Coski, the Saint Andrew's Cross had no special place in Southern iconography at the time, and if Miles had not been eager to conciliate the Southern Jews his flag would have used the traditional Latin, Saint George's Cross.

Anonymous said...

OK the choice of the Saint Andrew's Cross was not significant. I'll grant you the decisions of the South were largely taken by their aristocracy who were mainly of English descent and hence may have been influenced by other considerations than the common people's heritage; the Scottish looking design of the Confederate flag might have been coincidental. And even the Southern usage of the Crann Tàra may have been adopted for trivial reasons (taken from Sir Walter Scott's novels perhaps). However what's more convincing is that the dialect of the South is profoundly influenced by lowland Scots.

If you said to a 17th century lowland Scot "let's get rocking" he would understand it to mean 'let's have a gathering' (or meeting). Personally I find the way Southerners sound is conclusive; there is no way in hell the accent of the South sounds like a any kind of English dialect(s) in the way that Australian does for example.

While the post has a valid point in suggesting there was a much greater English input into the South than many believe, I still think it was less than the Scots.

Anonymous said...

The Australian dialect is in large part Irish. The language of the Lowland Scots is Germanic in origin and differentiates itself from Gaelic Scottish. Old English had been established in southeastern Scotland as far as the River Forth by the seventh century. Edinburgh was a Bernician Angle settlement.

"Bernicia (Old English Bernice, Beornice, Latin Bernicia) was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom established by Anglian settlers of the 6th century in what is now southeastern Scotland and North East England."

Lowland Scots are not Gaelic Scots. Robert the Bruce (Robert de Brueys) was of Scoto-Norman descent. In other words the Lowland Scots are an amalgam of Germanic people.

Anonymous said...

"Lowland Scots are an amalgam of Germanic people"
Agreed, and even the the clan system in the Highlands was really a hold over from the Norman feudal system.

"The Australian dialect is in large part Irish"

If you are saying the Irish sound like Australians I will have to disagree. By my way of thinking an Australian accent sounds much more like a London accent, probably due to the transported criminals who made up so many of the early inhabitants. Australians understandably prefer to emphasise their descent from unfairly transported Irish patriots.

patrick said...

The Lowland Scots have some Celtic ancestry (from the Gaelic speakers of Dumfries and Galloway, and the Britons of Strathclyde). The Highland clan system had a strong connection to that of Ireland and perhaps to that of the Picts. (Though the Norman feudal system was superimposed on it, Highland chiefdoms were not identical to Norman feudal domains).

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree with this 100%. I have traced almost all my family back to England, with them coming to Virginia and North Carolina from 1680 to around 1720. Many early families also intermarried with Native Americans as well, which created even more tales, such as Black Irish, Melungeon, etc who claimed to be Portuguese. The problem i have with the replies is that a lot of us in this region are Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers, etc. Its a myth that people have a low IQ in this region of Kentucky. Education for early families was next to non-existent. These people farmed to live, and many kids was forced to work the land at a young age out of necessity. This changed many years ago and there are great colleges in our area. There are many stereotypes about our people that are just not true, and with some shows on TV pouring fuel on these notions about us, it seems like we may never distance ourselves from this.

Anonymous said...

In addition to my other post, yes, many of the families in Eastern Kentucky are of Welsh / English origin and are very early families, with many of them living in Colonial Virginia ( Varina Parish, Etc ) and in North Carolina. The came to Kentucky through the Wilderness Trail and through Pound Gap, with many coming the 2nd route mentioned. You see this move in the very late 1700s and early 1800s. There was a few Irish and Scottish that came here, but very few and there is almost a dividing line where you see English vs Irish / Scottish families. Native American intermarriage started with families like the Sizemore's very early, in Virginia. This family is Native Paternal / English Maternal, which means they are not really Sizemore's through the male line. Remnant, small Indian tribes came to this area after the 1800s and stayed in the mountains during the trial of tears. These people also intermarried with English folks. There are several families in Eastern Kentucky that still carry these DNA markers and have this look, after so many years. So for this group of people, the Tri Racial / Dark Skin / Melungeon theory is very easy to explain. There is nothing exotic really. If odd DNA markers come in, its more likely through the Native Americans and their contact with people many years before the English came. In closing, most of the Native American in Eastern Kentucky in not Cherokee. Its more than likely Catawba Indian, which has been noted in the Sizemore line. Now, there is likely SOME Cherokee, Creek, and Shawnee in some families, but not as widespread, as the Sizemore family was a large group, and several families married into the Sizemore line, including Begley, Jones, Shepherd, etc

Halvorson said...

I got into a Twitter argument with the famous JayMan a few days ago after he claimed that most Southerners who identified as "American" to census takers are really Ulster Scots. I went through Fischer's references in Albion's Seed and found this table, taken from a surname study done by Purvis:

Southern states were about 15% Scotch Irish in 1790 and in no one state did they even reach 20%. On p. 634 of the book Fischer includes a version of the table but misleadingly combines the Ulster Scots, Old Irish, and Scottish Highlanders into one category.

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