The Road to Cabarrus Rose to Meet 18th Century Scot-Irish Immigrants

13 Mar 2015

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, April 20, 1872. Courtesy North Carolina State Archives.

Irish Potato Road, Irish Buffalo Creek –  these names, and the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, bring to mind Cabarrus’ Scotch-Irish heritage. The Scotch-Irish were, in reality, Scotch Presbyterians who settled in Ireland. Due to religious persecution and the want of land and economic opportunities, mass emigration began in eighteenth century, largely between 1720 and 1774. Many arrived in Pennsylvania and then spread south along the Great Wagon Road into the Carolinas and Cabarrus County, displacing the Catawba natives. The following is excerpted from an essay called “Customs of the Scotch-Irish in Cabarrus County.” Published in 1935 by Margaret Virginia Ervin Smith, she describes the lives of these early pioneers. The essay is in the book Historical Papers on Cabarrus County, North Carolina by the Committee of North Carolina Colonial Dames, courtesy of Internet Archive ( 

“The pioneers came from the North in wagons in which they slept until they had built a house on land of their own selection. The house was built of hewn logs, the cracks stopped with clay, the roof covered with riven boards. One room, one door and one window, closed with a wooden shutter, was the characteristic style of architecture. The furniture of the house consisted of beds, a few stools, a table on which were set pewter dippers and plates, and wooden trenches. A few plow irons and harrow teeth, a hoe and mattock and an axe, a broad-axe, wedges, mauls and a chisel would be the inventory of the tools on the farm. Cattle, sheep, and geese, horses and hogs, were raised with great profit and from the wool the clothes of the family were spun. When the family began to put in a glass window and to buy cups and saucers of china ware, they were considered wealthy. They did have their wealth in their own capacity to manufacture what they needed when the goods brought with them began to wear out . . . the people were an industrial as well as an industrious people. They were producers.

Nearly all the farms of any size had a distillery attached and a good deal of the corn was marketed in liquid form. One of the faults of the Scotch settlers was drunkenness, though the majority were temperate drinkers. . . Whiskey played a great part on funeral occasions, and especially at “vendues” [public auction] where it was supposed to put the buyers in a good humor. The tavern on the public road was a famous institution of these early days. . .

Among amusements of the people were horse racing and shooting matches and the game of long bullets, played with an iron ball, the effort of each side being, as in football, to keep the ball from passing the adversary’s goal. But while gambling was permitted and drunkenness condoned, profane swearing was punished severely, the amount of the fine sometimes depending on the vigor and variety of the oaths used. The children received six months schooling and the number of college bred men was large. The war-like instincts of the people were kept alive by the military muster, which became the occasion for a gathering together of a county to a county seat. They were noted for their skill with the rifle, and rifle manufacturing. A specimen, with its long barrel and wooden stock extending to the end of the barrel having been presented to Gen. Washington and being highly prized by him. Life centered around the church. The foundations of Sugar Creek, Hopewell, Steel Creek, New Providence, Poplar Tent, Rocky River, Centre and Thyatira were laid almost simultaneously. . . In a letter from Gov. Dobbs to the board dated Aug. 24th 1755 found in The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, we have proof that the Scotch-Irish were a very prolific people. Quote: ‘There are at present 75 families on my lands. I viewed betwixt 30 and 40 of them and except two there was not less than from five or six to ten children in each family, each going barefoot in their shirts in the warm weather, no woman wearing more than a skirt and one thin petticoat.'”

The following is an extract from Carolina Watchman, September 9, 1847, concerning the manners and customs of the Scotch-Irish in Iredell County, but surely applied to Cabarrus as well:

“All, both men and women, wore wool hats with an exceedingly narrow brim. A few, however, of the highest rank had them made of beaver, which would last a lifetime. The young people of both sexes, in summer, when about their ordinary business, went without shoes and stockings; the young women wore short gowns and petticoats, and the young men, hunting shirts, with trousers of tow and cotton. Boots were not common; they were worn only by a few of the highest rank. Both boots and shoes were sharp pointed at the toes . . .Living at great distances apart, most people were compelled to travel many a weary mile to the house of God and return the same day. To go ten or twelve miles was accounted little hardship; even if, women and all, they were required to walk. The young ladies carried, wrapped up in a pocket handkerchief, their fine shoes and stockings, together with their linen aprons . . . When they came near the place of worship, they sat down on a log and put these on: and on their return, replaced them as before . . . carefully preserved to be opened again the next Sabbath. They ate their meat upon wooden trenchers and drank their milk from little noggins. Coffee was little used.”

So, back to Irish Buffalo Creek, which runs from Rowan County, south into Cabarrus. A number of Scotch-Irish families settled along this waterway and gave it a name that identified their community. The German settlers did the same with Dutch Buffalo Creek. So, why is “Buffalo” part of the name? Well, as it turns out, bison formerly existed in the western half of North Carolina and into the central Piedmont, especially in Cabarrus, Stanly, and Mecklenburg Counties. Unlike the Great Plains bison who graze in large herds, the eastern bison lived in small scattered herds. The creek names suggest they were around when the area was first settled. They disappeared from the state by 1765.

As you celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day, raise a noggin to the Cabarrus County’s Scotch-Irish pioneers. May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks you grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go!