"Along the western frontier of the colonies ..., among the foothills of the Alleghenies, on the slopes of the wooded mountains, and in the long trough-like valleys ...., dwelt a peculiar and characteristically American people." Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West    

Scotch-Irish on the Frontier

Causes of Migration

Pathways to the West

Kentucky and Tennessee

Further West

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Life in northern, or Ulster, Ireland had been difficult for the Scotch settlers for several generations. Originally recruited by the British Crown, along with English farmers, to settle lands in northern Ireland and to help "civilize" this country of Papists, the Scots, or Scotch-Irish as they were to be later called, found themselves also mistreated by the Crown. Most were farmers of sheep or flax and nearly all were Presbyterians.

They had lived through periods of brutal religious persecution and periods of uneasy toleration as the Established Church and the Papists vied for control and at times even vied for the support of the Scotch-Irish. They did not own their land, but were tenant farmers whose taxes became heavy burdens. England controlled the wool and linen markets and, in the early 1700s, placed severe restrictions on the Irish trade in favor of the English markets. The situation became so intolerable that the Scotch-Irish began leaving Ireland in large numbers from virtually every port in northern Ireland. Many came to the New World.

Not wanting a repeat of religious persecution, most of these newcomers avoided the northern colonial ports, with their own brand of persecution, as well as the southern ports where the Established Church was in power. The port of choice was Philadelphia, the entry into the fabled land of Quaker toleration. Although religious toleration was found, these newcomers also found that the citizens didn't want them in their midst. The more settled citizens considered the Scotch-Irish rather boorish and their strong intolerance of the Indians conflicted with the more tolerant views of the Quakers.

Americans, however, welcomed the newcomers, but as peoples to settle the frontiers and to become buffers with the Indians. Some of the Scotch-Irish moved west into the Alleghenies, some moved south into the Great Valley of Virginia, the Shenandoah. There they found the Established Church of England, while powerful in the Tidewater area, had little power on the remote side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In fact, they were allowed to organize their own churches and to enlist ministers provided they organized similar to the Church of England with tithes and vestry, and that they swore allegiance to the Crown and renounced support of any pretenders to the throne. Even the organization along Church of England lines was not a burden to the dissenters; the Church also exercised civil authority and this organization was required to carry on the local government function.

I have sufficient information to theorize that my ancestors in those Scotch-Irish Presbyterian communities were neither Scotch-Irish nor Presbyterian. John MATHEWS and his brother-in-law, Sampson ARCHER, came from Ulster Ireland and did travel with the Scotch-Irish from Pennsylvania to the Valley. However, one other researcher has circumstantial evidence that John MATHEWS descends from a line of Welsh noblemen and ladies. The name MATHEWS appears to be Welsh in origin, but was common throughout Britain, except in Scotland. There are other settlers in the Valley, such as the BOWEN and Reece/Rhys surnames, which are also strongly Welsh.

Another researcher in the early churches in the Valley stated that John MATHEWS and Sampson ARCHER were probably Episcopalian. Regardless, John MATHEWS, and two of his sons, joined the Episcopal Church when one became available, indicating closer ties to the Church of England rather than the Presbyterian Church.

For one to understand why these Anglicans would be called Scotch-Irish, it is first necessary to understand that the term, "Scotch-Irish" dates from the late 1800s and not from the time these settlers arrived in American. After living in Ireland for many generations, these people considered themselves to be Irish as did the Welsh and English who also had lived in Ireland for many generations. In fact, the area around Staunton, Virginia, was, in those days, referred to as the Irish Tract. The later Potato Famine in Ireland cause another, even greater, flood of immigrants into America in the middle 1800s. These people were from all over Ireland, many were Catholic, and they were pretty well hated by the rest of the citizens of the United States. The term, "Scotch-Irish" came into use late in the 1800s to ensure that folks understood that those early Irish immigrants were not the same as these newcomers. Several of the best histories of the Shenandoah Valley were written at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th and they used the term "Scotch-Irish. It is a false term - the early immigrants were just as Irish as my mother's ancestors who came from Ireland in the middle 1800s. And several of those so-called Scotch-Irish were more probably Welsh-Irish or English-Irish.

There are many good references to the Scotch-Irish settlers. One highly readable account is James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish, A Social History (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962).


Free or cheap land was the primary reason for all migrations in the United States and its territories well into the 19th century. Sometimes there were other factors such as the moves of Tories to avoid persecutions by the Patriots and mass exodus from the devastated South after the Civil War. But little movement would have occurred if this country did not possess vast lands that could be sold or given away to peoples whose ancestors never experienced the privilege of owning their own land. The government had only to deal with the Indians who lived on those lands and often they left that problem to the settlers.

By 1738 or 1739, John MATHEWS was in the upper Valley of Virginia. He had bought 279 acres from Benjamin Borden who had obtained 100,000 acres on the condition that he would attract 100 settlers. John MATHEWS soon expanded his holdings to several thousand acres and gave, sold and willed most of this land to his sons and married daughters (money and other personality were willed to the other daughters). Early histories usually associate John MATHEWS with the Borden Tract, but I have always found it curious that John MATHEWS' residence was outside the Borden Tract, until I found a surveyor's entry in 1738 for a grant of 1600 acres to John MATHEWS in the Forks of the James area. This grant preceded his purchase of the land in the Borden Tract and he sold that parcel a few years later.

John died in 1757 and, if he had not left a will, the laws primogeniture and entail in the Virginia Colony, would have been implemented. Under primogeniture, the eldest son would have inherited all John's estate. Under entail, only male descendent could inherit estates. What would the other sons have done? What real (in the sense of real estate) wealth could the daughters bring to a marriage? The losing offspring would find other land for taking by squatting or they could buy land at cheap rates or serve in the military to get a land grant. Whether cheap or free, all this land was on a frontier that was further west.

Log cabin imageThe laws of primogeneture and entail would be replaced (first by Governor Thomas Jefferson in 1776 in Virginia) with estate rules which allocated the land more evenly with 1/3 to the wife and the remainder to be divided equally among the sons, if the father died intestate (without a will).

Even with more equitable estate division, later generations would be impacted as land became more difficult to find. The division of an estate is too often underplayed as a factor in migration. Imagine that if one had 1,000 acres and five sons in 1780 (a likely number at that time). Each son would get an equal 200 acres, assuming the mother had died. Next imagine that each of these sons had five more sons. In the third generation, about the year 1820, each son would have only 40 acres - barely enough to subsist on and certainly not enough to become prosperous. More land to the west was the answer.

Revolutionary soldiers were usually paid late, if at all in the case of militia units. The promise of land bounties kept most of them fighting. The new country would be rich in vast lands that could be given away and the nation and individual states did so frequently. Most of the lands given in bounty were in Tennessee (western North Carolina), Kentucky (western Virginia), and Georgia; a few were in the Ohio Valley.

The most significant government action in promoting the sale of lands to the west was the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. This ordinance provided for the acquisition of lands from the Indians and the sale of those lands to the public; the first tracts, however, went to the military bounties promised earlier. Cheap as the land was, it was still difficult for anyone not holding a bounty to acquire land.

The Harrison Land Act of 1800 allowed land purchases on credit, making the western lands available to a great number of the population. Throughout the colonial and the post-Revolution period, speculation in western lands was rife with such notaries as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson taking part. The boom in western lands collapsed in 1819 and Congress dropped the credit provisions in 1820, but by this time, most of my ancestors had moved to locations where they would settle.

John MATHEWS provided well for his family. He was a prominent citizen, holding several civil and church positions. Most of his sons stayed in Virginia and in what is now West Virginia and all were prominent citizens serving in elected positions; Sampson MATHEWS served in the Virginia Legislature and in several elected positions in Bath County.

Son George MATHEWS rose to the rank of Colonel in the Continental Army, retired as Brigadier General in the militia and obtained lands in Georgia. His sons inherited considerable lands and some went on to become very wealthy plantation owners. After the Civil War, some of this family moved to Brazil where their descendants now live.

One of his elder daughters, Rachel, married Ebenezer TITUS (probably from Suffolk County, New York and descended from Englishmen who settled Massachusetts around 1635). Ebenezer would go on to settle Nashville, Tennessee. His son, Joseph TITUS, married a younger daughter of John MATHEWS, Elizabeth. My Sons of the American Revolution membership is based on Joseph who served in the Virginia Militia in Fincastle County in defense of the settlers from the Cherokees. Joseph and Elizabeth moved on to Madison County, Kentucky, in 1782.

Much has been written about the settlers in the Valley of Virginia, including the MATHEWS family. Perhaps one of the most popular was Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1900) and an excerpt of Chapter 5, "The Backwoodsmen of the Alleghanies." has been reprinted (Franklin, TN: Territorial Press, 1988). An excellent source is Joseph A. Waddell, The Annals of Augusta County, Virginia (Staunton, VA: C. Russell Caldwell, Publisher, 1901). This one-volume work is available at several public libraries. The most revered work (in my belief) is Lyman Chalkley, Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia (1965 rpt; Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1902). Chalkley was a judge in Augusta County and, as personal project, abstracted courthouse records of the late 18th century in that county (Augusta County once included all of western Virginia and what is now West Virginia and Kentucky as well as parts of the Ohio Valley). Chalkley's three-volume massive work is well indexed but is only for the serious researcher since it is only a collection of records.


Geography dictates that most early roads to the West actually ran more north-south. The Appalachian Mountains formed a solid boundary from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. In North Carolina, where the Appalachian's were an easier barrier to overcome, the Cumberland Plateau just beyond those mountains, formed an additional barrier. The main route of migration was up the Valley of Virginia (southward), along parts of the Holston River, and into North and South Carolina east of the mountains. It was called "The Great Wagon Road" and began in Philadelphia, ran west through the middle of Pennsylvania and the towns of Lancaster, York, and Gettysburg. It then turned southwest through Maryland and into the Valley of Virginia, passing through Wincester, Staunton, Lexington, and Fincastle. At Fincastle, it turned south into North Carolina, passing the Moravian villages of Bethania, Bethabara and Salem, and the towns of Salisbury and Charlotte. It then continued on through South Carolina and ended at Augusta, Georgia.

The Great Wagon Road brings visions to many of the large Conestoga Wagons (first built along that road in Conestoga, Great Wagon RoadPennsylvania) pulled by large teams of oxen or horses. This was not such a road; in fact, much of its length offered only passage for one or two horses at a time, horses being preferred over oxen in the southern parts.

1783 map produced with AniMap Plus available from goldbug@aol.com

The Great Wagon Road passed close to John MATHEWS' home and probably crossed his land. He served as an overseer on the building of this road for his area and his minor sons provided the strong backs to clear the trees in areas around Staunton. The "Forks of the James Community, 1740-1760" is a map showing the settlements in and around the Borden Tract as well as the locations of John MATHEWS' property and that of others.

Not far from John's home, near present-day Roanoke, the Wilderness Road branched southwest toward the Tennessee Valley and Cumberland Gap. Dr. Thomas Walker of Albemarle County, Virginia, had discovered the Cumberland Gap in 1750, but its use was delayed for many years because of the ferocity of the Shawnee Indians and to a lesser extent, the Cherokee Indians. Traffic through the Cumberland Gap had increased substantially after treaties with the Cherokee and Shawnee Indians and the Gap saw considerable traffic by 1780. Traffic along a more southerly branch of that road to Nashville, Tennessee, also increased after the first settlement in 1780.

These were not the only paths to the West. A few went west over the Alleghenies near Pittsburgh, some traveled the Kanawha River in Virginia, some moved along the valleys in North and South Carolina. But, by far, the greatest movement was along the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road well into the early 1800s.

There are a great many books which describe the Great Wagon Road, the Wilderness Road, and their associated routes, but the most readable is Parke Rouse, Jr., The Great Wagon Road (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1995).


As previously noted, Joseph TITUS and his wife, Elizabeth MATHEWS-TITUS, moved to Madison County, Kentucky. There he built one of the first mills and became a lay preacher in the United Baptist Church. He, along with some of my other ancestors, had been a citizen of Kentucky for ten years when Kentucky became a state in 1792.

Joseph's father, Ebenezer TITUS, and his MATHEWS' wife, Rachel, moved to the North Carolina territory. Ebenezer apparently went first as part of an overland party of men only and was one of the signers of the Cumberland Compact which established the government for this community at French Lick. In the next year he was elected as one of the twelve Judges to govern this community which became known as Fort Nashborough or Nashville. His house, a few miles to the north of Nashville, survived until a fire destroyed it in 1998. We know that his wife considered Rachel JACKSON, Andrew's wife, one of her closer neighbors (actual distance between them was about four miles). His descendants moved on to Alabama and then on to Memphis and into Louisiana and Texas.

Postscript: Ebenezer TITUS' home remained standing, though extensively modified, in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, about four miles north of Nashville. Sadly, in burned to the ground in February 1997. I have photos (before the fire) for those interested.

I have yet to find a good reference on the communities in Madison County, Kentucky, but there are plenty of good books and pamphlets on the settlement of Tennessee. An account of the Cumberland Settlement and the trips to that area is given in Pat Alderman, The Overmountain Men, Early Tennessee History (Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 1970).


Conestoga and pioneersJoseph TITUS moved, with his family, to Missouri about 1820. His son, Ebenezer, purchased land in Howard and later in Ray County. The TITUSes and their closely related LEEs remained pro-South during the Civil War and suffered during and after the War. However, except for a few who escaped to Texas, most remained in Missouri through the next few generations. It would seem that they had satisfied their search for new vistas. Sometime in the 1840s, Josiah FERGUSON arrived in Ray County and married Ebenezer's daughter, Arthusa. These were my great-grandparents.

Josiah FERGUSON remained in Ray County. His eldest son, William 'Frank' FERGUSON moved on to new, cheap lands in the Indian Territory in the 1890s and died in Oklahoma in 1924. His son, August FERGUSON (my father) inherited the wanderlust and went to California in the early 1900s but settled back in Missouri, in Vernon County, to marry two MOORE daughters, Mildred and Elese Gertrude.

I Robert Dale FERGUSON, August FERGUSON's son was born in Kansas, moved to Colorado where I joined the Navy. My family and I have lived in California, Washington, Guam, Japan, Virginia, and now live in Alabama. I retired from the Navy in 1975 and retired from engineering management in 1991. My two sons have no desire to go wandering so the cycle of wanderlust has apparently ended. They also live in Virginia where this story began.

Postscript: We moved back to Virginia in 2001 and live just a few miles from The Forks of the James, but on the other side of the Blue Ridge.



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