Saturday, January 24, 2009

Being a Scot in the Chesapeake

Tomorrow marks the 250th birthday of Robert Burns. For the most part, that event will go unnoticed in the United States. Apart from Scotch whiskey, there is little about Scotland that crosses the mind of the average modern American. And yet the Chesapeake region teemed with Scots men and women during the 18th century. Many were merchants, physicians, and educators and they, more than any other European nationals, gave rise to urban life in the Colonial Chesapeake. In no place is that clearer than in the towns along the Potomac River, especially Alexandria, Virginia, and Port Tobacco, Maryland.

The land title research that Pete and I have been working on has turned up many Scots and a strong connection between those of Alexandria and Port Tobacco. Thanks to David Dobson's Scots on the Chesapeake, 1607-1830 (Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1992), we know a fair amount about the Alexandria Scots. Those of Port Tobacco, however, did not appear in many of the sources that Dobson used in his compilation. Local land and other legal records, however, have proven fruitful and we could easily add dozens of names to his list.

Lists of names, places of origin, occupations, and death dates are important data in developing a historical study of a select group of people; but those data have little to offer when we try to understand how those immigrants thought of their new lives in North America and how they felt about family and friends left in the Old World, perhaps never to be seen again.

Scotland's poet laureate had, at one time, considered emigrating to the New World. His short life may have been even shorter had he done so...disease and the hazards of sea travel took a heavy toll on immigrants of all ethnicities. He also would have been a late arrival, the majority of expatriate Scots having relocated to the Americas soon after the uprisings of 1715 and 1745, many in shackles and sold into indentured servitude. Robbie Burn's paeans to the land and people of Scotland did not yet exist when many Scots came to these shores, but I have no doubt that in the late 1700s many a Scot's eye would glisten upon hearing a recitation of Burns' My Heart's in the Highlands.


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