My original intention was to write today’s Daily Journal about the emerging debt-limit deal in Washington. The timing proved impossible, however. At the time I needed to write, there wasn’t enough information available about its provisions and legislative prospects. So I’m returning to the subject of North Carolina culture a little bit sooner than I thought I would – and once again examining it through the lens of family history.
RALEIGH – To truly understand the American republic, you have to spend some time learning about America before it was a republic – that is, when it consisted of a few fledgling British colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America.
The 168 years of colonial history between the first settlement at Jamestown and the outbreak of the American Revolution offer a vast array of compelling stories, momentous trends, and cultural insights. For anyone interested in studying the period – and looking for connections between the colonial past and America’s present and future – there’s no better place to start than by reading David Hackett Fisher’s seminal work, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.
Fisher describes four major waves of immigration to America, and how their origins, beliefs, and practices helped to create distinct regional cultures as well as conflicting definitions of human freedom and social order.
The first one was the Great Migration of Puritans, which brought some 21,000 immigrants from the east of Old England to the shores of New England during the 1630s. Next was a 1642-1675 wave of about 45,000 English Cavaliers and their servants from the south and west of England to tidewater Virginia. The third wave, from about 1675 to 1715, involved some 23,000 Quakers and related settlers who immigrated to Pennsylvania and its neighboring colonies, mostly from the English Midlands as well as parts of Germany and the Low Countries.
The final big wave of British immigration to America, and by far the largest, brought some 250,000 people from Scotland, Northern England, and Northern Ireland to America, usually through the port of Philadelphia. These folks – who have been variously called Scotch-Irish, Scots-Irish, Anglo-Irish, or Ulster Scots – quickly moved from the coast into the backcountry of Pennsylvania, and then on to parts of New England, Virginia, the Carolinas, and North Georgia.
Many are used to thinking about the Scotch-Irish as consisting of hardscrabble farmers, Presbyterian dissenters, and, well, basically a bunch of hard-drinking, hard-fighting border folk. Such groups were certainly well represented among the immigrants. But also in this amalgam of what would become a large chunk of the American population were representatives of the nobility and gentry of Scotland, Ireland, and parts of England.
What’s remarkable is how all these folks mixed and mingled once they arrived in America. Consider the very different stories of two Scotch-Irish families: the Rankins and the Coxes.
Alexander Rankin was born in 1635 in Ayrshire, Scotland, a county near the border with England. His family was poor. He and his wife Maria lived in Ayrshire until around 1665, when their son William Rankin was born. The family then moved to Ulster in the north of Ireland. They were among the many Scots of modest means who were relocated to Ulster during the 1600s to strengthen Protestant rule and work the land. In 1687 William Rankin married an Ulster Protestant named Dorothy Black. They had a son, John Rankin, in 1690.
In the early 1700s, the Rankins decided to abandon Ulster for a more inviting locale. They sailed to Philadelphia and made their way into central Pennsylvania. The patriarch, Alexander Rankin, died soon afterward. In 1705, his grandson John Rankin married another young immigrant from Northern Ireland, Margaret Jane McElwee, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They soon produced a daughter, Mary Catherine Rankin.
The Rankins offer the stereotypical Scotch-Irish story of 1) humble origins in the Scottish lowlands, 2) relocation to Northern Ireland in the 1600s, and 3) subsequent immigration to Pennsylvania in the 1700s.
The Cox family followed a very different path to America. The original Richard Cox lived from 1500 to 1581. He was a famous English clergyman and chaplain to King Henry VIII who was imprisoned twice in his life for heresy. He later served as Dean of Westminster, Bishop of Ely, and Chancellor of Oxford University.
His grandson, Michael Cox, came to Northern Ireland around 1600 as an “adventurer,” according to one source. That means he might well have been among the earliest English founders of the Ulster plantation. One of his sons, Captain Richard Cox, fought for King Charles during the early stages of the English Civil War but later joined the army of Oliver Cromwell to subdue Ireland in 1649.
Two years later, Captain Cox was walking near the Irish town of Bandon with a fellow officer, a Captain Norton, who apparently had some kind of grudge against him. Norton suddenly turned on Captain Cox and stabbed him to death. The unfortunate Cox left behind a pregnant wife, Katherine, who soon gave birth to Richard Cox Jr. and then died herself.
The orphaned Richard grew up with his mother’s family in County Cork, Ireland. After obtaining a legal education in London, he held several offices in Ireland as part of the Protestant ruling class. Richard and his wife Mary had several children, including a son, Joshua Cox, who would later immigrate to Pennsylvania.
When the Catholic James II became king in 1785, Richard Cox Jr. lost his position in Ireland. He briefly left public service to practice law in Bristol, England and write a noted history of Ireland from an English standpoint, entitled Hibernia Anglicana.
In 1688, William of Orange deposed James II in the Glorious Revolution. The deposed king fled to Ireland and organized Irish Catholics in an attempt to reclaim his throne. The new king William followed, and defeated the army of James II in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne in eastern Ireland.
Richard Cox Jr. was there, fighting for William. In return for his service, the new king knighted Richard. A few years later, in 1703, William named Sir Richard Cox as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Richard headed the government of the island for four years, during which he was also made a baronet. Later, he served as the chief justice of Ireland’s high court.
Could there be a greater contrast between the lives of Alexander Rankin, a poor Scottish farmer who became an Ulster settler, and Sir Richard Cox, a lawyer who become Lord Chancellor and chief justice of Ireland? Yet both fathered children who joined the Scotch-Irish immigration to America. In 1724, Alexander Rankin’s great-granddaughter, Mary Catherine Rankin, married Joshua Cox, the son of Sir Richard Cox.
Only in America.
Joshua and Mary Cox made their home in the Pennsylvania backcountry. Their children included a son, John Cox. During the French and Indian War, an Indian raiding party attacked the Cox home and burned to the ground. They held young John Cox in captivity for six months. He escaped the Indian camp, moved to northwestern North Carolina, commanded militia during the Revolutionary War, and in the 1790s became one of the first three commissioners of Ashe County, N.C.
He was my 5th great-grandfather – and his family story is a telling reminder that America has always been a land of reinvention, recombination, and rejuvenation.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.