Caledonian Canaan: Scottish Cultural Identity in Colonial New England as Demonstrated by the Scotch-American Company of Farmers

This article, first published in 2005, traced the retention, loss and rediscovery of Scottish identity in Colonial New England and its role in the settlement process. It represents my first foray into Scottish migration history and ‘The General’ still maintains a special place in my heart.

In the fall of 1773, James Whitelaw, a young Scottish surveyor in the colony of New York, received his first letter from home. His father had written him a loving and detailed account of the welfare of his family, friends, and parish. Although the letter spoke primarily of the world Whitelaw had left behind, buried in the heart of it was one line of enquiry: “We are longing for a letter to hear how you are taken with that new world of yours; whether it be a Canaan or a barren wilderness.” What Whitelaw thought of his new home, and how well or poorly he and his fellow Scots adapted to it, illuminates an important and understudied aspect of creolization in frontier New England.

This particular study considers a group of Scots from the western Lowlands, both single adults and families, who planned and created an agricultural settlement in the Connecticut River Valley at Ryegate (in modern-day Vermont) in 1773. They called themselves the Scotch-American Company of Farmers (SACF). Careful scrutiny of their records illuminates heretofore-underutilized evidence of the enduring cultural legacies of Lowland Scots in rural New England. Furthermore, this same evidence reinforcesand more clearly describes the depth of their economic and social absorption into the existing rural community, as described in more general studies of Scottish emigration. While such a project would usually compare several Scottish communities, several factors prevent this, namely the small number of large Lowland settlements in New England, and the difficulty of comparing Lowland and Highland social structures. However, we can gain much by a different method of investigation. By studying the socio-economic change from their birth communities to their new American home, we can see the degree to which the community maintained or abandoned traditions and practices from a shared starting point. It furthermore allows us to more accurately gauge and account for local tensions with neighbouring towns and their unique effect upon the adaptation of these Scottish settlers. This study will therefore contrast life and custom in the Ryegate settlement to the home parishes of the immigrants and thereby attempt to distil the emigrant experience of Lowland farmers in New England. Unfortunately, the scarcity of written material fromother settlers has made it necessary to present Whitelaw as a focal point to represent of the community at large. By presenting his experiences surveying and purchasing land, settling that land,interacting with neighbouring towns, and working toward the final dissolution of the Company, Whitelaw serves as a vehicle to understand the rest of his community. His writings and papers do give voice to his compatriots although his individual experiences are not presented as those of all the Scots in Ryegate.

Continue reading for free at the International Review of Scottish Studies.

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