THE SCOTS-IRISH HERITAGE IN JEFFERSON COUNTY
Robert Jarnagin, Jefferson County Historian
The Appalachian “Hillbilly” culture of today has its roots in the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled the lands lying west of the original American colonies, and those roots in Jefferson County run deep. The Scots-Irish were the earliest and most numerous of the pioneers to settle the area which later became Jefferson County. They brought the Presbyterian faith with them and organized the first church in Jefferson County, the Hopewell Presbyterian Church, founded in 1785. The church members met in a log structure located in the old graveyard in the center of downtown Dandridge.
It was here at Francis Dean’s lower meeting house that the commissioners of the newly formed Jefferson County met in January of 1793 while in search of an appropriate place for a county seat of government. There is a legend that the Scots-Irish may have played a role in the selection of this spot for the new town. Supposedly the Scots-Irish were distilling spirits near the big spring just down the hill from the log church building, and that the commissioners had proceeded to obtain a sampling of the brew from this still. They were so favorably impressed by the quality of the water and liquor that they were influenced to declare this spot as the county seat.
Here is a quote from Vernon Louis Parrington concerning the Scots-Irish:
Of the different racial strains that mingled their blood with the earlier English – Irish, Huguenot-French, German, Scots-Irish – the last was by far the most important…. They were desperately poor; the available lands near the coast were already preempted; so armed with axes, their seed potatoes, and the newly invented rifle, they plunged into the backwoods to become our great pioneering race. Scattered thinly through a long frontier, they constituted the outposts and buffer settlements of civilization. A vigorous breed, hardy assertive, individualistic, thrifty, trained in the democracy of the Scottish Kirk, they were the material out of which later Jacksonian democracy was to be fashioned, the creators of that western type which in politics and industry became ultimately the American type.
Sometimes referred to as the Overmountain Men, these were the men who would turn the tide during the American Revolution at the battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. The British and their loyal Tories suffered such a catastrophic set-back on this South Carolina battlefield that their rule over the American Colonies effectively came to an end and independence was secured for the fledging new nation. Those mainly responsible for the victory were the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had fled their native lands for the new frontier world to in order to acquire freedom to live and worship as they pleased.
This is the way James Webb in his book, “Born Fighting,” describes the Scots-Irish. “A quick-tempered but sensual and playful people, they often dressed provocatively, acted with a volatile belligerence, drank to excess, engaged in constant and open competition in every form, and adamantly defied the attempts of outsiders to control them”.
Many of the original Scots-Irish families to settle Jefferson County have descendants still living here today. Each year on the last Saturday in September, we honor the music, culture, and heritage of our early founders with the annual Dandridge Scots-Irish Festival celebration.