How the Scots Made America

How the Scots Made America

by Michael Fry

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Ever since they first set foot in the new world alongside the Viking explorers, the Scots have left their mark. In this entertaining and informative book, historian Michael Fry shows how Americans of Scottish heritage helped shape this country, from its founding days to the present. They were courageous pioneers, history-changing revolutionaries, great Presidents, doughty fighters, inspiring writers, learned teachers, intrepid explorers, daring frontiersmen, and of course buccaneering businessmen, media moguls, and capitalists throughout American history.

The Scots' unflappable spirit and hardy disposition helped them take root among the earliest settlements and become some of the British colonies' foremost traders. During the Revolution, the teachings of the great Scottish philosophers and economists would help to shape the democracy that thrived in America as in no other part of the world. America may have separated from the British Empire, but the Scottish influence on the young continent never left.

Armed with an inimitable range of historical knowledge, Fry charts the exchange of ideas and values between Scotland and America that led to many of the greatest achievements in business, science, and the arts. Finally, he takes readers into the twentieth century, in which the Scots serve as the ideal example of a people that have embraced globalization without losing their sense of history, culture and national identity.

Scottish Americans have been incomparable innovators in every branch of American society, and their fascinating story is brilliantly captured in this new book by one of Scotland's leading historians. How the Scots Made America is not only a must-read for all those with Scottish ancestry but for anyone interested in knowing the full story behind the roots of the American way of life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466865488
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/04/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 357 KB

About the Author

Michael Fry, called "Scotland's most controversial writer" by The Herald, is the author of The Dundas Despotism and The Scottish Empire. He served as Economics Correspondent and Brussels Correspondent for The Scotsman, and for nearly twenty years has been a columnist and contributor to a variety of newspapers throughout Britain, Europe, and America. He has also stood as candidate for both the British and Scottish Parliaments. When not traveling, he lives in Edinburgh.

Read an Excerpt

How the Scots Made America

By Michael Fry

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Michael Fry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6548-8



Nowadays nobody believes that Christopher Columbus was the first man to sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to America in 1492. It has long been known, since the lost information was recovered from their sagas, that the Vikings made it 500 years before him. Even before then, Saint Brendan and other Irish monks are supposed to have established hermitages on remote islands of the northern seas. From Spain before Columbus the Basques, too, were probably regular voyagers to Newfoundland, where they fished the cod that was and is a staple of their diet; but they were a people who survived by keeping themselves to themselves. European archives have thrown up other occasional references to odd, forgotten voyages which may or may not have succeeded in reaching the opposite side of the ocean.

Scots belonged to this medieval world of seafaring nations along the eastern seaboard of the North Atlantic. To all intents and purposes their own country was an island. With the English frontier closed to them, they were forced to sail to any foreign country they wanted to get to. And so they did, across to Scandinavia and Germany, through the Sound to the Baltic countries, down to Holland and France, even as far as Spain and the Mediterranean region. But did they ever turn outwards from the narrow seas to the ocean?

It would be surprising if they had not. In fact, we hear of Scots on the very first oceanic voyages, as members of Viking crews. For a couple of centuries before Scotland was united in the eleventh century, Norsemen dominated large parts of the North and West of the country. Scotland is the nearest landfall for any ship sailing out from Scandinavia. The Orkney and Shetland Islands were thickly settled by Vikings, whose descendants still spoke a Norse dialect till the eighteenth century which echoes yet in the local lilt. Similar settlements sprang up in the Western Isles and in other places accessible by sea right down to the Isle of Man, together with a good deal of the mainland. Place-names of modern Scotland such as Thurso and Stornoway are Norse, not Celtic, in origin. So are the names of rivers such as the Helmsdale or mountains such as Hecla and Helaval. Except in Orkney and Shetland, the Vikings did not supplant the native peoples. No doubt they were sworn enemies at first, but gradually they merged to form a mixed race of Norsemen and Gaels. These faced the wide Atlantic together.

One of the sagas tells the story of Herjulf the Viking, the captain of a longboat which just before the year 1000 got lost in a storm on its journey round Greenland, where a Norse colony had been established. When the weather cleared, he and his crew found themselves becalmed amid icy, barren wastes. They were afraid, but they happened to have on board a man from the Hebrides, the long line of islands to the west of Scotland, where the people remain musical to this day. To cheer his companions up, this nameless fellow composed a prayer, the 'Song of the Tidal Wave', and encouraged them to get on their way again. Once they reached safety, Herjulf recounted his experience to his friend Leif Eriksson, the most intrepid of Norse explorers. That inspired Leif to set out on the fabled voyage which took him through the islands where Herjulf had been to a mainland beyond – and to a brief, hostile encounter with a native people firing arrows at the intruders. Leif had reached America.

Other Vikings followed him. One was Thorfin Karlsefni, who had two Scots on board his ship, a man and a woman. This time the saga gives their names, Hake and Hekja. When he arrived at the American coastline, he put them ashore. He ordered them to scout southwards and see what sort of country it was. He would meet them at an agreed point three days later. The feelings of Hake and Hekja as they ran off into the primeval American forest can only be guessed at. But they came to no harm. On the contrary they stopped to gather the wheat and grapes they saw growing in the clearings. When they handed their finds over to Thorfin, he decided to call the country Vinland, Land of Wine, which became the usual Norse name for this mysterious country and appears on a European map of the fifteenth century. From such evidence, modern scholars have argued that the Vikings must have penetrated as far south as Cape Cod or Long Island Sound. The trouble is that the facts in the saga are too sketchy to allow any certainty, and the whole episode may have been inserted later to bolster Thorfin's reputation. Yet a single word gives this charming tale a ring of authenticity. For some reason, mention is made of Hake's and Hekja's clothing, a kjafal, a sleeveless tunic with a hood. The word is found nowhere else in Old Norse literature, and probably represents the Gaelic cabhail, the body of a shirt, or gioball, a garment. How could the detail have been recorded at all if it was not genuine? If this confirms the story, Scotland can fairly count Hake and Hekja among the first Europeans to have set foot in the New World.

With the Vikings present in Iceland and Greenland, the transatlantic traffic at the northern end of the ocean remained quite busy all through the Middle Ages. The Icelanders are still there today, while the Greenlanders did not abandon their settlement till the turn of the fifteenth century, probably because their environment grew more hostile as the global climate entered what is now known as the Little Ice Age. Parts of Scotland continued to belong to the wider Norse community: the islands of Orkney and Shetland were not finally ceded by Denmark till 1469. While Orkney owed allegiance to the Danish Crown, to all intents and purposes it retained its independence under the rule of a native dynasty founded by the martyr, St Magnus. This dynasty was gradually scotticised. In the late fourteenth century, an heiress of it married Henry Sinclair, whose family were overlords of Caithness, the nearest territory on the Scottish mainland. He inherited the earldom of Orkney.

What makes Earl Henry Sinclair worth remembering here is the accident of a shipwreck which brought to his little palace at Kirkwall a bedraggled Venetian, Niccolo Zeno. Visitors from Italy were exotic but by no means unfamiliar figures in these remote reaches of northern Europe. They often acted as bankers, providing for payments among the traders of the various ports and so sustaining the hazardous international trade of the period. Though they usually stayed in some comfortable city such as Bruges in the Netherlands, on occasion they had to undertake voyages to more distant places, and sometimes these voyages ended in misfortune. Zeno came of a noble family in Venice, wealthy and enterprising, as skilled in finance as in seafaring. Sinclair would have been impressed, and received him hospitably. Niccolo Zeno soon died of his hardships, but he left behind his son Antonio who, now unable to get home, took up employment under the Earl. For him, the sudden acquisition of foreign expertise was a windfall. He had heard from his own Orcadian fishermen of a land across the ocean. Now he set out with the young Italian to find it. According to the manuscript which Zeno eventually left behind him, they landed there on 2 June 1398 – perhaps in Nova Scotia. If this is true, they preceded Columbus by almost a century. Unfortunately there is no other evidence to confirm the story, and medieval Italians were rather given to tales of risky journeys in places where their observations were unlikely to be disputed: even the authenticity of Marco Polo's travels to China is less than certain.

It was the penalty of a period when communication remained primitive. Any early knowledge of America remained locked in the minds of the seamen who had been there, or at most in the circles of their families and friends in the ports whence they sailed. Even if somehow this knowledge came to be written down, it would not necessarily be spread: the Church monopolised information about the world, on parchments laboriously copied out by monks. It was not an age when news passed round quickly. If Columbus stood at the end of a line of transatlantic explorers, the difference by 1492 was that printing had been invented, so all over Europe people could soon read books about the discoveries by him and the others who soon followed him. The printed word opened minds that had been closed. Europeans mentally prepared themselves to move outwards in the great expansion which, over the next three or four centuries, would see them come to dominate the globe.

The first of the overseas empires were Spanish and Portuguese. Scots had long had links with these nations: it was in Spain that the soldiers taking the heart of King Robert Bruce to Jerusalem, after his death in 1329, turned aside to fight the Moors and so had to give up their crusading quest. No doubt in any Iberian port it would have been possible to find the odd Scot. One, Thomas Blake, married a Spanish lady and made his way in the early days to America, where he spent twenty years in Mexico and Colombia. The Spaniards were still getting to know the New World. From their base in the conquered capital of the Aztecs, Mexico City, they sent out parties to make the first explorations of what was clearly a vast continent to the north. They set off in the confident expectation that untold riches would be there for the asking, as Hernan Cortes had found in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru. One such expedition was headed by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1540, and Blake joined it. Its goal was the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, with their gates of turquoise. Coronado's soldiers rode up through Arizona and New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. They discovered the Grand Canyon, but otherwise just miserable Indian villages. Blake did not make his fortune, but saw sights no other Scot would see for a couple of centuries.

The nations of northern Europe followed Spain and Portugal slowly. It was hard to catch up with the head start they had won. They gained, or appeared to gain, fabulous wealth. And, whether in the East Indies or West Indies, they dug themselves into their possessions with enough military strength to repel rivals. It took more than a hundred years for these rivals to start competing in any serious fashion. The Dutch were the most successful, mainly in the Orient. After a couple of false starts, England established Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. France founded Quebec in Canada in 1609.

Scotland was already sending out individual trading ships to America, but the records have not survived to give us a complete picture of these efforts. In any event, the most important event in Scottish history during this period was the accession of King James VI to the throne of his English cousin, Elizabeth, after her death in 1603. He moved to London and left Edinburgh behind him, returning only once to the city of his birth before he died in 1625. This was the Union of the Crowns. While Scotland and England continued as separate kingdoms, they had one monarch. James VI and I, as he now was, wanted to bring the two countries still closer together and unite their Parliaments as well. But the Scots were too proud of their independence, and the English did not want them anyway because of their poverty. What the thwarted King James could do was promote joint expeditions overseas by Scots and Englishmen. This, he hoped, would make them feel no longer just Scottish or English, but British.

One opportunity lay close at hand over in Ireland, more especially in Ulster, which is actually visible across the narrow waters from the south-western coast of Scotland. Green and fertile Antrim looks inviting compared to wild and windswept Wigtownshire. The English had first attacked Ireland back in 1170, but during the Middle Ages, with help from the Scots under King Robert Bruce, the Irish managed to push the invaders back till they were confined to little more than the city of Dublin. Then, under Queen Elizabeth, there had been a serious English effort at complete conquest of Ireland. It just about succeeded, but at an enormous cost in lives and money.

This was the situation the Queen left to her cousin, James. He had to bring some stability to a situation of inherent instability, with an occupying army trying to hold down a hostile population. To James it seemed a problem that Ireland remained full of Irishmen. He considered both the Scots and the English to be more civilised peoples. It would help if they went to live among the Irish to set them a good example or, if they would not follow it, to push them off their lands. Ulster offered a convenient setting for this policy because the province's native nobility had just been forced into exile, in the Flight of the Earls in 1607. James handed their forfeited lands to loyal followers of his own, including many Scots gentlemen, who began to bring in the settlers to their so-called plantations.

Such was the origin of the population which went by the unlovely name of Scotch-Irish when it later began to emigrate to America, where it was to play such a huge role in the development of the US. Though settlers from Scotland and England had arrived in Ulster in about equal numbers, somehow the province acquired more of a Scottish than an English character. It was, and remains, the chief centre of Presbyterianism in Ireland, and Presbyterianism is the established religion of Scotland. These Presbyterians not only fought with the native Roman Catholic population, but were also subjected to persecution by the English authorities in Dublin. The history of the Scotch-Irish is one of adversity, bloodshed and hardship, all overcome by the steadfast faith of the people. It gives the Northern Irish of today that indelible stubbornness which often exasperates others who have to deal with them.

Yet, while marked by their Scottish heritage, they have grown apart from their Scots kinsmen. When Presbyterianism is an established religion, as in Scotland, nothing could be more sedate and orderly; when it is put in a position of dissent, as in Ireland, it turns uncontrollably rebellious. This is the difference between the Scots of Scotland and the Scots of Ulster and, oddly, that difference came out at its clearest in America. When the moment arrived to take sides in 1776, the Scots of Scotland living in the Thirteen Colonies stayed by a great majority loyal to the British Crown. The Scots of Ulster, or Scotch-Irish, stood in the forefront of the American Revolution.

King James had had a hard enough time trying to promote a British identity in Ireland but at a longer distance, in North America, the task proved beyond him. During his reign his subjects founded three colonies on the eastern seaboard: Virginia in 1607; Massachusetts in 1620; and Nova Scotia in 1624. The first two were English and the third was Scottish. The first two survived and the third did not, though this could hardly be blamed on the Scots involved. As always in these early expeditions there was a problem of finance. James sought to solve the problem by selling land in Nova Scotia which had not yet been occupied, or even seen, and allowing the men who bought it to bear the title of Sir, for themselves and their male heirs, in all time coming. Many bought the titles, but few showed any desire to go and live across the Atlantic.

James turned for help to one of the Scots courtiers who had gone with him to London in 1603, Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, whom he would eventually make a peer as Earl of Stirling. Alexander had a son, also William, who was willing to lead an expedition to Nova Scotia. He made several attempts. Finally in 1629 he and his men succeeded not only in getting there but also in wintering at Port Royal (now Annapolis) on the Bay of Fundy. This was at or near an exposed French outpost which had been given up because England and France were now at war, through the foolishly aggressive policy of James's son and successor, Charles I. Conditions at Port Royal were crude, and the ferocity of the first Canadian winter came as a shock even to Scots used to being buffeted by the weather.

Yet the Scots hung on. Unlike in Virginia, which saw horrible massacres during these years, they befriended rather than fought the Native American nation of the area, the Micmacs, and purchased furs from them to ship home. The Scots did not suffer the internal religious wrangling of Massachusetts either. They remained a trading rather than farming settlement, living communally in a blockhouse rather than individually on plots of land round it. How all this might have developed we cannot know, because they were forced to abandon Port Royal after three years. The war between England and France came to an end in 1632, and as the price of peace the French insisted the Scottish colony had to go, even though Scotland took no part in the fighting. This was a penalty of having one king for two countries whose interests might differ. The Scots departed, but they left behind them the name of Nova Scotia, New Scotland, which has stuck ever since to the large peninsula at what is now the eastern extremity of Canada.


Excerpted from How the Scots Made America by Michael Fry. Copyright © 2003 Michael Fry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Pioneers,
2. Revolutionaries,
3. Presidents,
4. Fighters,
5. Writers,
6. Teachers,
7. Explorers,
8. Frontiersmen,
9. Canadians,
10. Southerners,
11. Capitalists,
12. Contemporaries,
The author,

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