Springfield-Greene County History

Local History Website of the SMSU Department of History


Sons of Ulster: Scotch-Irish Descendants in 1880 Springfield, Missouri
Kim Whalen

The people who settled the Ozark frontier of Missouri and Arkansas were a unique breed of men and women.  They were adventurous and rugged in their quest for wide-open spaces.  Most of these early arrivers to the region came from the southeastern United States.  Based on statistical census data that revealed the points of origin from which the early Ozarkers came, in conjunction with the cultural and traditional similarities to Scotch-Irish colonists, it is evident that many of the original inhabitants of the Ozarks were descendants of people who came from the far north of England, Scotland, Wales, and northern Ireland.  Specifically, William Kearney Hall compiled and published a census of Springfield taken in the year 1880, which revealed that most early Springfield inhabitants came from the Appalachian region originally settled by the Scotch-Irish immigrants during the colonial period.   Thus, in the late 1800s, most of the inhabitants of Greene County and Springfield, Missouri were of Scotch-Irish ancestry.

According to Settlement Patterns in Missouri: A Study of Population Origins, the use of the word “Irish” in the term Scotch-Irish is a geographical reference rather than an ethnic label.  Their ancestors spoke Gaelic, a Celtic language, rather than the Germanic language of the British. Originally, these people were lowland Scots who moved from Scotland to the northern counties of Ireland before their eighteenth century emigration to North America.  At first they were simply known as “Irish” in the New World, but when the Catholic Irish came in large numbers, the earlier Celtic settlers identified themselves as originally coming from Scotland by adding the “Scotch” in front of “Irish.”   A more descriptive term of the Scotch-Irish is “Ulster-Scots” (Gerlach, p.4).  In the prologue of Grady McWhiney’s extensive book describing the Celtic traditions of the southern United States, Forrest McDonald describes the Scotch-Irish as members of the Gaelic, or Norse-Gaelic, society who moved back and forth between Ulster and the Scottish Highlands for nearly a thousand years (p.xli).  Still further analysis of the origins of the Scotch-Irish comes from David Hackett Fischer.  In Albion’s Seed he quoted Cecil Sharp, an English folklorist, when he described similarities between America’s Appalachian highlanders and people “from a part of England where civilization was least developed probably the North of England, or the Border country between Scotland and England.”  Fischer went on to say that emigration from Britain to America brought people from the border regions of Scotland, England, and Ireland that were all united “in a single cultural region.”   For centuries, the kings of England and Scotland could not agree on who owned the border territory.  The constant conflict and violence dictated the cultural character of the border region.  Life in the border region “was very different from that in the south of England” (Fischer).  The economy was rather depressed in comparison to other parts of England.  The border region was one of great poverty and violence.  The poor tenants built crude cabins made of wood or stone.  These homes were built quickly as a result of the impermanence of the environment.  The incessant violence that resulted from warring kingdoms and the oppression caused by victorious opposing forces shaped the border culture in several ways, including attitudes toward work, government institutions, wealth, leisure, land management and social customs.  The era that formed this unique culture came to a halt by the end of 1607, when the two warring kingdoms were united.  Many families were killed or forced to resettle in Ireland.  This brought a new age of oppression that placed much of the population in a critical position with subsistence farming.  The Scot Calvinists were caught in the religious conflicts between Anglicans and Catholics.  They were forced to pay taxes to a church outside of their faith and rents on overpriced lands.  Repeated crop failures led many away from Ireland to the New World.  Considerable numbers of “Irish” Protestants came to the American colonies during the eighteenth century.  In Settlement Patterns in Missouri: A Study of Population Origins, it is reported, “between 1718 and 1775 more than two hundred and fifty thousand Ulstermen had emigrated to colonial America” (Gerlach, p.15).  According to McDonald, the disorderly environmental conditions of the English uplands, Wales, Ireland and Scotland prepared these people to be Southerners in the American colonies (McWhiney, p.xliii).  America gave them hope for the future, as well as providing them with a means to preserve their own traditions and customs (Fischer).  Nevertheless, “70 to 90 percent apparently went as indentured servants, and most apparently went to escape severe economic hardships at home” (McWhiney, p.xxxviii).

The conflicts between the Celts and the English carried over and played a major role in the differences between American Northerners and Southerners.  These emigrants carried the memory of constant oppression with them to the New World, and it was this memory that helped to shape their political convictions, particularly their negative opinions toward England affecting attitudes in the American Revolution.  Most of the estimated 130,000 to 500,000 Scotch-Irish who came to the colonies entered through southern ports and a great deal of them at Philadelphia (McWhiney, p.xl).  Philadelphia was a popular port of entry because William Penn had established the Pennsylvania colony as a place of freedom and tolerance.  However, the Celts were faced with a predominantly English population of Quakers.  The Quakers were nervous and hesitant and certainly “not happy about this invasion” since they saw the North Britons as rude to people outside of their ethnic group and disorderly in their mannerisms compared to the puritanical ways of the Quakers.  Perhaps it was the Ulstermen’s “own distinctive brand of Calvinism” that the Quakers could not tolerate (McWhiney, p.29).  The Presbyterian background of the Scotch-Irish did not meld with Puritan beliefs.  The clash resulted in the Celtic borderers being pushed to the backcountry of Pennsylvania.  They were strongly encouraged to settle in the hills of the interior of the colony in order to establish “a buffer population between the Indians and the Quakers,” as well as to isolate the Celtic nuisance from the eastern settlers (Fischer).  Some Scotch-Irish traveled northwest and settled deep within the Pennsylvania Appalachians.  Long accustomed to exile, many of the Scotch-Irish began a journey toward a new frontier.  Some settled in the lower portion of the Great Valley, and other Scotch-Irish immigrants eventually made it to the piedmont of the southern colonies by passing through the gaps of the Blue Ridge.  After moving inland they traveled “down the interior uplands from Maryland to Georgia” (McWhiney, p.xl).  This path became known as the Great Wagon Road (Springfield-Greene County History Website) or the “Irish Road” (Gerlach, p.15).  By the time of the American Revolution and early Republic, Celts were located throughout the South, mainly in the Appalachian backcountry where they outnumbered all other ethnic groups.  The Boone and Cumberland Gaps opened the way for further expansion, as did the Wilderness Road into Kentucky and Tennessee.  Whether they were restless or trying to escape toward greater freedom, these people were from a long tradition of constant migration and their arrival to America did not affect a change on this pattern of behavior (McWhiney, p. 12).  In the young American republic, the Scotch-Irish made their largest migration when they moved westward from Georgia to the Old Southwest (Springfield-Greene County History Website).

The music, religion and customs of the Scotch-Irish were not a result of life in the American frontier.  Rather, the American frontier fostered the traditional ways that were already in existence among these people.  The uninhabited frontier offered “places where people could, by choice, live with like-minded people in isolation from others” (McWhiney, p.xli).  While the core culture may have withstood some adjustments, many of the traits were intensified in the new environment.  One possible reason for this may be the large population of immigrants from North Britain that were concentrated in the South.  According to the first U.S. Census of 1790, the majority of Celts were located in the backcountry of the Appalachian Mountain chain.  This broad area contained the hills of several colonies from southwestern Pennsylvania southward to Georgia.  Ninety percent of the backcountry settlers came from the Scottish lowlands, Ulster and northern England (Fischer).  The strength of their numbers fostered a Southern culture quite unique from the New England colonies that grew even stronger during the antebellum period, but their massive population was not the only factor in the Southern cultural hegemony.  According to Albion’s Seed, the character of this unique environment was “exceptionally well matched to the culture of the British borderlands (Fischer).  The topography was conducive to the Scotch-Irish longing for isolation, with the mountainous terrain and moist climate.  Rivers and springs flowed with an abundant source of fresh water that allowed the settlers to remain independent from urban civilization.  The backcountry was known as hostile Indian territory that many other settlers avoided, but the Celts were accustomed to dangerous living conditions, such as had been in the British borderlands.  In effect, they were once again living in a borderland.  In England’s borderlands they had been caught between the Scottish tribes and the southern Englanders; In America they were caught between the Indian tribes and settlers with southern English roots.

The Scotch-Irish were at home on the American frontier, and when the South became less and less like a frontier they were the main group advancing toward the new westward frontier in the Missouri and Arkansas territories.  Indeed, the Scotch-Irish “became synonymous with the moving frontier of settlement.”  Initial migration to Missouri was made by Scotch-Irish who came through the Ohio Valley, and most of these earliest settlers claimed to come from Kentucky and Tennessee.  One such settler, Daniel Boone, is thought to have started the stream of migration from eastern Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap sometime in the years 1769 through 1771 (Rafferty, p.54).  The gap, named for the Cumberland County in northern England, made way for two hundred and fifty thousand people, most of whom were Scotch-Irish.  Groups that traveled along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh were mostly comprised of Ulstermen, as well (Gerlach, p.16).  Other groups came from the Old Southwest, traveled up the Mississippi River valley, and entered both Arkansas and Missouri river systems that led them into the Ozarks.  There was a great deal of diversity among ethnic groups that made the trek into the Spanish controlled territory, but the Ulstermen population surpassed the others.  In Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South, the author reports several immigrants born in the north of Ireland who migrated to the southern colonies of North America.  Each of these cases reveals that the descendants of these original settlers migrated further west, with Missouri as a primary destination for many (McWhiney, p.14).  By this time, the Scotch-Irish were known simply as Old Stock Americans that were “native born…and…removed by several generations from their ancestral homes in Europe” (Gerlach, p.13).  According to Milton D. Rafferty’s Missouri: A Geography, the first immigrants to Missouri were Southerners mostly from Tennessee and Kentucky, but a few were from North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.  “Most were poor yeoman farmers, Scotch-Irish by descent” and very adventurous by nature (Rafferty, p. 54).

With the Louisiana Purchase, immigration to Missouri and the Ozarks rapidly increased.  Veterans of the War of 1812 were granted land in the region and, by 1830, Missouri was a state dominated by Ulstermen.  According to Gerlach, there were two waves of Scotch-Irish immigration into Missouri.  The first wave consisted of the adventuresome, rugged, frontiersmen.  They were the underclass of the ethnic group, and they were more likely to settle in the Ozarks.  The more stable class of Ulstermen followed, but settled in the Missouri River valley with its rich, fertile soils.  This upper class of Scotch-Irish was more likely to own material possessions and slaves, who contributed to their success in agriculture.  Land was more expensive in the Missouri River region.  True to form, the lower class of Scotch-Irish settled where land was inexpensive or available for long periods of “squatting” (Gerlach, p.16).  The frontier-types were less affiliated with the Presbyterian faith that was so ingrained in the wealthy Scotch-Irish culture.  Evidence of this can be found by the number of Presbyterian churches located along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers where high-culture Scotch-Irish dominated in 1860 (Gerlach, p.16-17).  The land in the Ozarks was not worth much, but the poorer Ulstermen dominated the area by default.  They were the only people accustomed to the land conditions that were so similar to conditions in the Appalachian Mountains, plus they were living on a limited amount of money.  Interestingly, a system called the Graduation Act, which was quite similar to one traditionally used in Ulster, helped the Scotch-Irish turn the negative situation to their advantage: “…Most public lands that remained on the market for ten years could be sold for less than the standard $1.25 per acre.  The price would be progressively lowered, and if the land remained unsold after thirty years would drop to only 12½ cents per acre.  The result was a land boom in Missouri, particularly in the Ozarks.  In the rougher districts of the Ozarks, settlers acquired small tracts of the best land through the Graduation Act and used remaining public lands for open range” (Gerlach, p.22).

A Greene County census in 1860 revealed that most residents considered themselves Old Stock Americans whose origins were predominantly in Kentucky and Tennessee.  By this time the census did not recognize native-born Americans as having ethnic identities.  Censuses showed Irish descent among citizens, but this usually reflected both northern and southern Irish ancestry (Gerlach, p.45).  Gerlach proposes that since settlers in the Ozarks were poor and illiterate they were quick to assimilate and easily lost their ethnic consciousness.  McWhiney and Fischer seem to agree that the Scotch-Irish may have stopped considering themselves as a separate ethnic group, thus losing their ethnic consciousness, but these two authors do not convey that there was a Scotch-Irish assimilation into the American culture.  On the contrary, the Scotch-Irish were the essence of the nineteenth century American culture.  They were the main force in the migration westward, and in their journey they brought customs and traditions from the Appalachian Mountains that are still visible in the culture of the Ozarks.  Their manner of speech is apparent in both of these regions, as well as other destinations (the lower Mississippi Valley, Texas, and the Southern Plains) of the Scotch-Irish in their migratory phases.  This dialect is “commonly called southern highland or southern midland speech.”  In fact, this speech pattern was so prevalent in the backcountry that people of other ethnic groups adopted its use.  Early records of the Scotch-Irish dialect are quite similar to the “twang” of contemporary culture in country western music, Ozark Mountain music, and Bluegrass music.  The speech is evident in several regions of the southern United States, including the Ozarks region. According to Albion’s Seed:  “Scholars agree that this language developed from the ‘northern’ or ‘North Umbrian’ English that was spoken in the lowlands of Scotland, in the North of Ireland, and in the border counties of England during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century” (Fischer).

Gerlach noted that the low-culture Scotch-Irish were disinterested in their heritage and that their illiteracy contributed to the lack of written family records.  This suggests that they were completely unaware of their ethnicity by the time they settled in the Springfield.  The first group to come to mind was English when white Americans were asked about their heritage.  By surnames alone it is nearly impossible to determine the area of the British Isles from which immigrants originated.  Many white Protestant Americans do not consider Irish as a possibility because of its association with Catholicism, and for most “the Scottish connection was totally unknown.”  However, by tracing the migration paths of early American settlers, it is apparent that the majority of Irish in rural Missouri, particularly the Ozarks, are “descended from Protestant Irish stock,” also known as the Scotch-Irish (Gerlach, p.48).

In 1830 a Scotch-Irishman who came from Tennessee founded the city of Springfield.  He followed the White River from Arkansas into the Missouri Ozarks.  The land was simply available to the early settlers, but the area offered much promise to these former Appalachian inhabitants.  The region held much in common with their old backcountry home, particularly the mountainous river valleys that formed streams, providing a continual flow of clean, fresh water.  The Springfield area was originally Indian territory-a situation not unlike the old Appalachian backcountry (Fischer).  The Scotch-Irish were once again at home in a borderland located between civilization and an expanse of unknown frontier populated with Indian tribes (Gerlach, p.40-41).

The city’s founder, John Polk Campbell, was a cabin builder.  This tradition of building log homes can be traced back not only to the Appalachian highlands, but to the British borderlands.  “Small and impermanent houses were common throughout North Britain, in part because the system of land tenure gave no motive for improvement.”  The word “cabin” was used in the borderlands to identify the commonly built, inexpensive homes of turf and mud (Fischer).

Other aspects of British border life have found their way to the Springfield and Missouri Ozarks region.  The popularity of open range livestock herding, the dependence on subsistence agriculture, and the love of leisure time all transferred to the Ozarks when the Scotch-Irish arrived.  A particular aspect that survived the generations was the importance of family and kinship networks.  Clans often warred with one another in retaliation for offenses committed against one family member.  This tradition of feuding and vigilante justice was prevalent in the American frontier (Fischer).  Along with this “rule of retaliation,” they shunned organized law and order.  They believed in right behavior, but had a preference for “natural freedom.”  This concept was “a complex interaction between the American environment and a European folk culture.  It derived in large part from the British border country, where anarchic violence had long been a condition of life…The remoteness of the population from centers of government [on the American frontier] and the absence of any material necessity for large-scale organization created an environment in which natural liberty flourished.”  Natural law contributed to the Scotch-Irish need for freedom to seek out wide-open spaces readily available on the frontier (Fischer).

After the sons of Ulster found their way to the Ozarks, Springfield grew into a town that provided them with the freedom to attain a variety of careers, political views and religious beliefs.  Citizens of Springfield in 1880 reported that they descended from parents and grandparents from Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as other states in the Appalachian Mountains.  This confirmation of backcountry ancestry places the Springfield inhabitants of 1880 into the Scotch-Irish ethnic group, as do names like McDaniel, Jackson, Campbell, Cahill, Armstrong, McElhaney, McCauley, Pettijohn, McCluer, McKinney, O’Byrne and countless others (Hall census data/Fairbanks & Tuck/Holcombe, compiled).  These men and women were predominantly Protestants.  Their status within the community varied, as did their political persuasions.  Careers ranged from domestic servants and laborers to physicians and lawyers.  Women who were single or widowed operated boarding houses within their homes.  Men relied on the railroad as a source of steady employment.  Several of those polled in the 1880 census revealed that they were supporting children who were receiving a college education (Hall census data, compiled).

While these people may have lost touch with their ethnic roots, they did not necessarily lose their cultural traditions.  In the course of their long history of migration, the Scotch-Irish merely carried their family customs, oral traditions, music and other traditions on their backs and on the backs of their descendants.  Their trek began from the British borderlands, and from there they went to Ireland.  These persistent and spontaneous people then found hope in the southern colonies of North America, and eventually made their way to the Missouri frontier.  Here they helped to shape the Ozarks culture and contributed to the development of the third largest city in the state of Missouri.  Any assimilation into the American culture was done in moderation, if at all.  More likely, they were responsible for shaping much of the American culture, at least in the Southern part of the United States and, particularly, in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.


Fairbanks, Jonathan, Tuck, Clyde Edwin. Past and Present of Greene County, Missouri [Online].  Retrieved March 15, 2002.  WWW URL:

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed [Online]. Retrieved March 25, 2002.  WWW URL:

Gerlach, Russel L. (1986). Settlement Patterns in Missouri: A Study of Population Origins.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Hall, William Kearney (1966). Springfield, Greene County, Missouri: Inhabitants in 1880. Champagne, Illinois: William Kearney Hall.

Holcombe, R.I. History of Greene County, Missouri 1883 [Online]. Retrieved March 13, 2002.  WWW URL:

McWhiney, Grady (1988). Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Rafferty, Milton D. (1983). Missouri: A Geography. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Springfield-Greene County History. Scotch-Irish Migration (maps) [Online]. Retrieved April 25, 2002. WWW URL:

Website Created and Maintained by F. Thornton Miller, SMSU Department of History