Scots-Irish in 18th-Century Chester County: The Fight Between Surveyor John Churchman and Scots-Irish Immigrant Alexander Ewing

In 18th-century Chester County, feathers could be easily ruffled by Scots-Irish immigrants. But not always, as was proven when John Churchman ran a survey line.

Immigrants bring us new things that seem exotic at first but are later embraced. Italians, for instance, brought us pasta. A century ago, many native-born Americans refused to eat it. Today, we each consume an average of 19 pounds annually.

Not all immigrant culture goes down so easily. In 1734, Chester County surveyor John Churchman of East Nottingham had an unpleasant encounter with Alexander Ewing while running a survey line. A typical representative of Pennsylvania’s newest crop of immigrants, the Scots-Irish, Ewing opposed the very idea of a survey. He had a gun, threatened to use it, and was tackled by a bystander. No one was harmed.

It wasn’t a unique incident. Crime rates in Chester County had skyrocketed with the arrival of the Scots-Irish—and they stayed high until they moved on. In the 1690s, when the Scots-Irish accounted for only a fraction of the county’s population, they were nevertheless responsible for 26 percent of all crimes, according to historian Jack Marietta.

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Then, after 1700, Scots-Irish immigration swelled. In 1759, 23 percent of the population of Chester County was Scots-Irish. Records from the 1760s, however, show that the Scots-Irish committed more than half of all indictable (violent) crime. “Given so many pacifists (Quakers, Mennonites, etc.), the astonishingly high homicide rate after 1717 did not occur because pacifists lost their religious scruples and began killing each other,” wrote Marietta, “but rather because new people without pacifist scruples did more of the killing.”

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Here, the Scots-Irish settled mostly in far western Chester County, in a township they named Donegal for their former home. There, their influence was such that, when Donegal and the surrounding area was separated from Chester County to form Lancaster County in 1729, the murder rate in Chester County fell from 9 per 100,000 people to 2.2.

Yet, the Scots-Irish, too, were eventually embraced as uniquely American. Their clannish background served them well when they moved west into the Appalachian Mountains, where their gut instinct for direct action equipped them to push aside the Indians.

Later, the Scots-Irish were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Revolution, contributing perhaps 40 percent of Washington’s troops. During the Civil War, soldiers of Scots-Irish descent made up a majority of the Confederate army, in which they marched under a banner patterned on the St. Andrews Cross of Scotland.

“Their cultural identity reflected acute individualism, as well as a dislike of aristocracy and a strong military tradition,” wrote U.S. Sen. James Webb, himself Scots-Irish. “Over time, the Scots-Irish defined the attitude and values of the military, of working-class Americans and even of the peculiarly populist form of American democracy itself.”

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More than a third of U.S. presidents have had Scots-Irish ancestry, including the most bellicose: Andrew Jackson, who defeated the British at New Orleans and drove the Cherokees from the Deep South; James K. Polk, who led the conquest of the Southwest; William McKinley, who grabbed Cuba and the Philippines from Spain; and Teddy Roosevelt, who rose to fame as a Rough Rider.

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In Colonial Pennsylvania, however, the Scots-Irish were just trouble.

Word of the Ewing incident (and others like it) got around and hardened official opinion against the Scots-Irish. James Logan, secretary to William Penn, called them “idle trash” and “ye poyson in our bowels.” Isaac Norris, a member of the Colonial assembly, called them “ye very scum of mankind.”

Born in East Nottingham, John Churchman was religious at an early age. As an adult, he recalled one of his parents’ visitors—a man who “spoke about religious matters with an affected tone, as if he was a good man.”

Even so, “when [the visitor] mounted his horse to go away, taking a dislike to some of his motions, he called him an ugly dumb beast, with an accent which bespoke great displeasure, and grieved me much,” wrote Churchman in his journal. “I believed that a man whose mind was sweetened with divine love would not speak wrathfully, or diminutively, even of the beasts of the field.”

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Aside from his surveying, Churchman served briefly as a justice of the peace—a position in which he was required to hear petty claims, interrogate prisoners and act as a judge in misdemeanor cases. He eventually came to see the position as a great trial “because God called him to avoid worldly cumbers (involvements).” Instead, he began to preach at the age of 25 and traveled in the ministry throughout the American colonies and Europe.

In the 1750s, when local Quakers were wrestling over whether or not to ban slaveholding among their members, Churchman and Quaker mystic John Woolman traveled together through the region to personally confront and persuade the recalcitrant to free their slaves. In his journal, Churchman described these encounters as “heavy labours.”

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According to Marietta, Churchman’s activities made him one of the most important 18th-century Quakers. “He initiated a transformation of the society that began in the 1750s and produced an insistently ethical, pacifist, philanthropic and prophetic church,” Marietta wrote.

Churchman was also affluent. Based on taxable wealth, he was richer than 97 percent of county residents at the time.

“He was respectable and respected,” wrote Marietta, and “about as dutiful and productive a public servant as the Penn family could ever wish for.”

Less is known of Alexander Ewing. Born in Ulster, Ireland, he arrived in America in 1727, probably at New Castle, Del. In the year of his encounter with Churchman, he paid a manhood tax of only one shilling. The tax, which was levied on all males, was based upon their occupation. Ewing paid at the lowest rate, which suggests that he was a poor, landless renter. (Churchman paid three shillings that year.)

Nearly 50 when he immigrated, Ewing had probably endured some of Ulster’s worst years. More than a century earlier, about 1600, England had decided that Ireland could best be controlled by importing poor Presbyterian Scots to farm territory confiscated from rebellious Irish Catholics.

The Scots—whose emergence as a people dates to the Romans’ decision to build a wall across northern England—had always been known as fierce fighters. But so were the Irish.

There were repeated Irish uprisings, followed by brutal reprisals. In 1688, when Ewing was 10, Ireland was the battlefield between William of Orange and James II, who had recently been deposed from the English throne for trying to restore Catholicism. With troops from Catholic France, James rallied the Catholic Irish and led a nine-month siege of Protestant Londonderry. The Scots-Irish lost roughly 25 percent of their 30,000 defenders.

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At the lifting of the siege, the Scots-Irish enthusiastically joined William’s army and contributed to his subsequent victory over James at the Battle of the Boyne. By holding Londonderry, the Scots-Irish may have prevented James from regaining his throne, but they got little reward.

Wary of further religious uprisings, the British government imposed new laws that disadvantaged anyone who wasn’t a member of the Anglican Church. Only an Anglican minister could conduct a marriage, baptism or burial. All infants born to Presbyterians, therefore, were considered bastards. As Presbyterians, the Scots-Irish could not hold office, vote or serve as officers in the militia that had saved William. “Such restrictions not only contributed heavily to the eventual migration from Ulster,” wrote Webb, but “also inflamed the traditional Scottish contempt for central authority.”

Ewing was one of at least 200,000—and perhaps as many as 400,000—immigrants who left Ulster for America between 1725 and 1775.

As Penn’s representative, James Logan thought a few Scots-Irish settlements planted on the Pennsylvania frontier would be an effective barrier between the pacifist-run colony and the Indians, who had begun to react to encroachments on their land. But, like non-native plants, the Scots-Irish could not be contained. From Donegal Township, they began to build small farms on virgin land owned by absentee landlords, largely inventing the concept of “squatter’s rights” that became famous on the American frontier.

“It is against the laws of God and nature that so much land should be idle while so many Christians wanted it to labor on and to raise their bread,” they told Logan.

Then there was the behavior reflected in he crime stats. According to Marietta, the numbers vastly understate the crime and violence in Scots-Irish settlements like Donegal Township. Except for homicide, most was simply never reported.

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“In Scots-Irish culture, a man with self-esteem, conscious of his public reputation or ‘honor’ would not go to the law, but rather personally avenge himself,” wrote Marietta. “Violent encounters were often treated as innocent and ordinary, so that no one—either participants or witnesses—would think that any party to an assault was blameworthy.”

So, on Sept. 18, with that sort of background, Ewing and his sons encountered Churchman and his helpers—John Barrett, Robert Porter and his brother Thomas—setting up their survey equipment in West Nottingham. Court records don’t indicate why Ewing was there. West Nottingham at the time was less densely settled than East Nottingham, where Churchman and the others lived. The Ewings may have been squatting.

In the old country, Ewing surely remembered, surveyors always worked for the benefit of someone else (the government, the rich)—not for him. And there was no one who would stand up for him but he himself.

According to Churchman, “Alexander Ewing came to him and commanded him with ye chain carriers to stop. Whereupon, picking up an old grubb or limb, [he] affirmed he would be ye death of ye first man that went forward any farther. And calling for a gun, [he] had one immediately brought and, repeating his former expressions, added he would shoot him through which went forward.”

Barrett, one of Churchman’s helpers, grabbed the gun. In the tussle, the gun discharged, Ewing struck Barrett, and Barrett’s shirt was ripped.

The surveying party included a justice of the peace, so everyone’s testimony was recorded on the same day. Ewing plead guilty to assault and was fined five shillings, a little over $30. Eventually, he moved on to Maryland, and his children to Virginia and the heartland, where they are with us still.
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