Despite an ocean separating their ancestral homelands, Scottish immigrants and Native Americans encountered each other frequently on America’s wild frontier, fighting, trading and even living together. Both cultures were treated as tribal societies and driven from their lands by British authorities, aggressively seeking power and financial gain and who would later romanticise the very ways of life they had destroyed.
Although Scots had been travelling to Americas since the 1600s and most certainly after the 1587 Act that cleared the Highlands, Isles and Borders of those unruly clans, it was only after the disaster that was Culloden which initiated further waves of migration. At this point Scots either left seeking a better life away from persecution or were forced to leave their lands and move to what they hoped was a better life across the Atlantic.
A Merging of Cultures
According in part to Electric Scotland, the Scottish fur traders arrived in the colonies largely as single men. The Scots were so compatible with the Indians that after 1750 nearly all the fur traders among the Eastern Indians were Highland Scots. They soon aligned with Native American women. These marriages facilitated trade because Native wives usually taught their husbands their tribal languages. It was well acknowledged the key roles that Native wives played in their husband’s operations.
Historically there were a number of parallels between the American Indians and the Highland and Lowland Scots. The two groups had much in common. The Cherokee admired the Scots whom they considered fellow warriors. Each had fought lengthy battles, stretching over centuries, both against one another and against English speaking invaders. Members of both groups being driven from their homelands deepened the parallel. Both were people with proud, independent, warrior societies who gloried in a good fight, rough games and reckless living. Each had achieved partial, but by no means complete success in fending off invasions.
As indigenous peoples, their social structures reflected numerous similarities. Each viewed land as essentially a communal resource, not a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Each identified itself by bands or clans, and since chiefdom descended through lineage, each devised a system flexible enough to allow selection of the best person for the job. Both were clan societies, which considered loyalty to the clan their first obligation. An Indian’s insistence on vengeance for the killing of a member of his clan was perfectly understood by an 18th century Scot with a similar custom. There were even parallels between their harvest ceremonies. Both cultures were primarily oral, with folklore and stories passed on to the children containing the distilled wisdom of their people. Finally, the deep wisdom and strength of character that each group has displayed over the centuries has allowed them to endure their calamities with dignity and survive within their own identities. In each case the physical conditions of life, governed by the change of seasons and often perched on the edge of hunger, proved similar. There could not have been much difference between an Isle of Lewis beehive shieling and a Great Plains tipi or a Mandan earthen lodge.
One even finds a similarity between Native and Scottish naming practices. Historian and author George MacDonald Fraser has argued that many a Scots Borders name, such as Hob the King, Dand the Man, Red Cloak, and Wynking Will, carried special meaning. The similarity to American Indian names such as Black Elk, Crazy Horse, Red Shirt, and Rain-in-the-Face is intriguing. In each case these names must have carried connotations of social significance, “elegant recklessness,” and prowess that modern researchers can only estimate. That members of both groups were driven from their homelands, one by the infamous Highland and Lowland Clearances, the other by white encroachment and Indian removal, deepens the parallel. Finally, the deep wisdom and strength of character that each group has displayed over the centuries has allowed them to endure these calamities with dignity.
Viewed historically, the Scots and the American Indians were tribal peoples. Modern Scottish clan maps show how each chieftain drew the lines of his territory. For the laird, having a group of men at his call alone meant security. The symbol for gathering—a fiery cross sent around from village to village—later took on far more sinister connotations in the United States.
Anyone who looks at Scottish history is astounded by the constant round of violence and murder not least in the border lands of the West and Middle Marches of the Anglo-Scottish borders. No element of society was spared. Of the six Stuart sovereigns from James I to Mary Queen of Scots, for example, only one died a natural death. The ultimate symbolic event of the internecine warfare occurred in the valley of Glencoe, where, on February 13, 1692, the Campbells massacred the MacDonalds after enjoying their hospitality for several weeks.
It has been said that Glencoe symbolizes the end of the old Highland social order, as the traditional hospitality fell victim to political considerations. As historian Allan I. MacInnes has shown, the shift from a traditional to a commercialized society began as early as the seventeenth century. From that time forward the various clan leaders themselves, not just outside forces, helped accelerate the demise of traditional Highland society. The power of the clans was not finally broken until the battle of Culloden in 1746, after which the traditional rivalry was siphoned off into wars of empire and, later, the sporting contests of the famed Highland games. The Scottish tradition of using clan names for fore- and surnames (Gordon Ross; Ross Gordon) shows the desire to keep these clan distinctions alive.
The lack of written records makes the re-creation of Native history before contact a bit more problematic, but anthropologists agree that, mirroring Scottish culture, the band or town served as the chief social unit here, too. As among the Scottish clans, trading and raiding against one another proved commonplace among the American Indians. The Peace River in northern Canada drew its name from a reconciliation between two warring tribes, the Cree and the Beaver. Navajos and Apaches regularly attacked the Pueblos of the Southwest. The Huron despised the Iroquois, the Crow distrusted the Blackfeet, and the Sioux were disliked by all their neighbours. Indeed, one reason why the British, Spanish, and French could gain their initial footholds on the continent was that Native bands were willing to use the Europeans in their long-standing conflicts with their neighbours.
As a result the two peoples often filled roles in colonial American society such as hunters and fur traders where interactions were common. “The most common, extensive, and enduring interactions occurred in areas where Scots were active in the fur and deerskin trades,” says Colin Calloway, author of White People, Indians and Highlanders
“The beaver trade among the northern tribes across Canada and the deerskin trade among the south eastern (USA) tribes like the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws lasted long into the eighteenth century.” Trading with Indian tribes was commonplace and relations between Scotsmen and Native women ranged from casual encounters to enduring relationships. Intermarriage between Highlanders, Lowland Scots and Indians reached all across North America and entire Scots-Indian families were produced from these unions. Most of these Scots-Indians lived a quiet simple life but some played a significant role in American history.
Alexander McGillivray was the son of a Scottish trader father and a Creek-French mother. He was the dominant chief of the powerful Creek confederacy in the late eighteenth century, and played a pivotal role conducting the tribe’s foreign policies with Britain, Spain, and the United States. In 1790 George Washington even invited him to the temporary federal capital in New York City, where he negotiated the first treaty made by the United States after the adoption of the Constitution.
Scots-Indian, John Ross was the principal chief of the Cherokees during the era of Indian Removal around 1830, when the United States expelled 80,000 Indian people from their homelands east of the Mississippi to new lands in the West.
Ross led the majority of Cherokee people in opposing Removal, wrote letters and petitions, lobbied in Congress and led them in rebuilding the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory.
The Scottish-Indian Legacy
With prominent ancestors like Ross, perhaps the Highland influence is most keenly felt today among Native Americans in the Cherokee clan.
It is believed that up to a half of the Cherokee Nation could be descendants of Ludovick Grant, a laird’s son from Creichie in Aberdeenshire. Grant was captured while fighting for the Jacobite army in the battle of Preston in 1715 and was due to be hanged but he escaped death and instead was transported to South Carolina, where he was an indentured servant.
Following his release from his seven years of servitude, he began working as a trader for the Cherokee people and ended up marrying into the tribe and producing a daughter who became the ancestress of a huge proportion of Cherokees.
In 1964 the principal chief of the Creek Nation of Oklahoma, who boasted the surname McIntosh, attended the annual gathering of his clan in the Highlands. To everyone’s surprise, he appeared in full Native regalia. The Plains Indian headdress, beaded shirt, and moccasins contrasted sharply with the kilts, sporrans, and dirks. To a bagpipe audience, he explained his pride in his dual Creek-Scottish ancestry.
Interestingly and again a link to our own Clan, John Ross was the 7 x Grandafather of the Clan Carruthers Commissioner for the US, Dana Caruthers Norton, who is also descended from James Carruthers. James, hailing from Carruthers of Rammerscales, is the first documented Carruthers to land in what is now the United States of America in the early 1700’s.
In 2004 Cree families from Canada travelled to the Orkney Islands tracing a 200-year genetic link back to the Scottish Islands.
Although the traditional ways of life of both peoples were all but wiped out by colonisation and industrialisation, Scottish and Native American culture endured. Even as Britain and the USA destroyed tribal societies, they continued to creat a romantic images of the people themselves.
Highland culture was no longer a byword for savagery but came to represent Scottish culture as a whole in the eyes of people inside and outside Scotland. The concept of the Scottish clan and its system and structure has progessively become synonymous of all Scots families whether from the Highlands and Isles, through the lowlands, and in many cases being embraced by the Border Scots Clans themselves. Carruthers, like the other 16 Reiver families mentioned in the 1587 Act, has much pride in being one of the named unruly Clans by King James VI, and his Parliament.
Like the Scots, native Americans were transformed by paintings and literature into a heroic foe, defeated by a great nation where the barbarity of what happened to them was glossed over in favour of an imagined, nostalgic past, which is still celebrated and thus still perseveres. However, as the past becomes much more important and the history unraveled by those who seek it, much pride is felt by the descendents of those hardy men and women who lived, loved and died with much dignity and honour. For the Scots and their descendants, hopefully this will be reflected and increasingly appreciated by those of us still bearing their names.
References include Electric Scotland, Colin Calloway, author of White People, Indians and Highlanders and the Scotsman Newspaper 2016.
6 thoughts on “Clan Carruthers: The Scots and the North American Indian.”
John Ross is my 7x great grandfather.
So very interesting! Thank you!
You are welcome