A History of the Burns Family
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Chapter Six: Scots-Irish Roots

1 - Burns Line
2 - Robert Burns
3 - James, Esquire
4 - John, Senior
5 - John "B"
6 - Scots-Irish Roots

More Information

Some fellow researchers of the Burns line have posited that our original settler John B Burns was a non-indentured Jacobite rebel prisoner of the English who was shipped to Yorktown, Virginia in 1716 aboard the good ship Elizabeth & Ann. [1]

There was a prisoner by the name of John Burns on that ship, but there are problems with the theory that he was our John Burns. For one thing, there is no record of any women or children on board. "Our" John B Burns had a family, but if so, where were they? And where was this John Burns holed up between 1716 and 1746, when he acquired his 100 acres on Back Creek?

I believe that since our John B Burns established his farm right in the middle of a solidly Scots-Irish settlement area in Pennsylvania founded by a Scots-Irish immigrant from Northern Ireland, it seems much more likely that he was a Scots-Irish transplant than a Jacobite prisoner of war from Scotland. This accords also with our own family elders, like Lorenzo, who reportedly maintained his forebears came from Ireland. Census records from some of Liberty Burns's children also list Ireland as their father's supposed birthplace. Although this is clearly incorrect, it's suggestive of an historic link to the Emerald Isle.

John B and his family could theoretically have arrived with any of three early waves of Scots-Irish migration: 1717-1718, 1725-1729, and the early 1740s.

If he came in 1717-18, he would have arrived in America in his late 30s with a baby in tow. This is perfectly possible, but only 5,000 people left Ireland in this first wave. [2]

If John B arrived with the second wave in 1725-29, he would have been almost 50 years old. One unsourced online reference indicates John's son Laird was born in Ireland and emigrated in the 1720s, which would fit well with the second-wave timeline. Benjamin Chambers, one of the founders of Chambersburg, came over with his brothers in this wave as well, which occurred during three years of famine in Ireland.

But to my mind, the land warrant of 1746 fits best with a third-wave timeline, although John B would have been almost 65 years old by this time. With life expectancies in 1700 of about 35 years, this would have been late in life to start over in the colonies. But conditions in Ireland in the early 1740s were truly terrible, with a period of intense cold followed by severe drought leading to crop failures and widespread hunger (an estimated 38% of the Irish population died in this crisis). [3] In these circumstances, even an older man might have been driven to dramatic action, and John B might have emigrated with a strapping son or two to help him. He lived to be 78, indicating he had a robust constitution.

In this context, I found it interesting that in May of 1746, someone by the name of John Burns arrived in Philadelphia on the snow Happy Return in possession of 2 indentured servants. [4] In one transaction "John Burns assigns James O'Rogherty (a servant from Ireland in the snow Happy Return) to John Stephens Phila innkeeper, for four years from May 21st 1746. Consideration 16 pounds, customary dues." In the second:

The customary dues, by the way, were known as "headrights" -- 50 acres per indentured servant awarded by the colonial governor. [5] So we have a John Burns arriving in Philadelphia with two indentured servants (netting him 100 acres in headrights), a month before a land warrant was issued to a John Burns for 100 acres in an area already being settled in droves by Scots-Irish arrivals to that port.

Could this be some other John Burns arriving coincidentally? Sure, but it's not as though there were multitudes of Burnses in the area, or anywhere else, for that matter. In fact, Burns is only the 60th most common surname in Scotland, and would have been even rarer in colonial Pennsylvania. In 1790, 30 years after John B died, there were only seven John Burnses in all of Pennsylvania, and only one Burns in all of Franklin County (where the original land was located). [6]

On the whole, I am inclined to think that John B came over in the third wave of Scots-Irish immigrants, with a good part of his family in tow.

The Scots-Irish were so-called because their roots were in Scotland, but they moved in large numbers to Ireland starting in the early 1600s, when poverty and famine drew them to "plantations" in Ulster, Northern Ireland. These were settlement areas set up by King James (I of England, V of Scotland).

1740s Sailing Ship
Over time, however, English rule of northern Ireland became increasingly harsh, and the famines of 1717, 1725, and 1740 made matters worse. In droves, the Scots-Irish -- mostly farmers and craftsmen of Presbyterian faith -- migrated to the colonies of America to start over again. In simple wooden ships they sailed from Belfast, Larne, Londonderry, Portrush, and Newry to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New Castle, Delaware, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Because the cost of an ocean voyage was about 5 pounds (about 55 days of labor for a 1720 craftsman), many Scots-Irish came as indentured servants. Someone in America would pay for passage in return for labor, usually for a period of one to seven years.   

The trip was long and grueling, lasting from one to two months. Living quarters were usually below deck -- damp, dark, and airless. At times disease broke out among the tightly housed travelers. Ship captains often violated their contracts and failed to supply the food they had promised. Mortality rates on these voyages were notoriously high.

Passengers on a trans-Atlantic voyage

Arriving by the thousands, the Scots-Irish headed west along the old Warriors Path into Pennsylvania. The first two waves populated Pennsylvania; the third wave continued along the Path to the southern Colonies. In both areas, the settlers clustered on the frontiers and bore the brunt of massacres during the French and Indian War, which raged from 1754 to 1763. After the hardships endured in Ireland, they were particularly well suited to the role of pioneer.


Routes of Scots-Irish Migration [7]

One of the first places the Scots-Irish settled was the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania, where they built log cabins, gristmills, sawmills, schools, and Presbyterian churches. They were independent, literate, patriotic, and industrious.

Chambersburg, which figures prominently in the Burns ancestral tale, sprang up here in the 1730s, and by 1734, the first Presbyterian church in the area -- Rocky Springs -- was established close by.

It's telling that many of the placenames in the Cumberland Valley -- Antrim and Lurgan and Letterkenny, for example -- are Irish, not Scottish, suggesting that the Scots-Irish who settled this area might have stopped over in Ireland for quite a while. Some were born there: Benjamin Chambers, founder of Chambersburg (and James, Esquire's uncle-in-law), was born in Ireland in 1708. [8] James, Esquire himself was likely born in Northern Ireland if the family did indeed come over on the Happy Return in 1746.

Irish Roots

We do not know exactly where John B and his family lived before coming to the United States, but there are some hints. Records from 18th century Ireland are sketchy, but Benjamin Chambers' birthplace (Lough [Lake] Neagh in Country Antrim) might be an important clue, especially because of the ties between the Burns and Chambers families in Pennsylvania: James Burns, Esquire's wife Elizabeth Magill was reportedly related to the Chambers by marriage; the original John B Burns land was next to Benjamin Chambers' mill; James and Elizabeth had a granddaughter named Elizabeth Chambers Burns; James had many property dealings with Ben Chambers. Newcomers to America often settled near friends or family who'd emigrated before them. And so I explored the geography of Antrim and other counties that adjoin Lough Neagh.

And indeed, it turns out that shortly after the death of his first wife, Sarah (which happened within a short time of the birth of a son James in 1743), Benjamin Chambers returned to Lough Neagh, not only to bring back three sisters (unnamed) to help with James's care but also to induce friends from the area to return with him to Pennsylvania. [9] Benjamin had married his second wife Jane by 1748, so this puts the time frame for his "recruiting" visit to Northern Ireland between 1743 and 1747 or so, which corresponds nicely to the Burns arrival on the Happy Return in 1746.

Map of Lough Neagh with arrow pointing to Burns-heavy area
(Click for closeup view)

John B Burns could have been living near Lough Neagh when Ben Chambers came to Ireland in the 1740s. He might have been one of those enticed to return with Chambers to the colonies. We can't be sure.

But a couple of other enticing bits of data make this hypothesis seem less than far-fetched.

(1) A book about Scots-Irish history [10] lists hundreds of different Scottish surnames associated with hundreds of different "townlands," parishes, and baronies within Northern Ireland's plantation lands. The Burns surname is significantly associated with only two of them, one of which is the townland of Lurgan, Parish of Shankill, in County Armagh. This Lurgan townland, for its part, is associated with the Burns name and no other Scots surname. In an 1851 census of Aghalee Parish, about 5 miles northeast of Lurgan in County Antrim, 17 of its citizens have the Burns surname. [11] Could these placenames be the inspiration for Lurgan and Antrim Townships, which were the first two named townships in the Cumberland Valley? Might our Burns family have once lived in Lurgan or Aghalee?

(2) Halfway between Lurgan and Aghalee is the tiny settlement of White Hall. Could this be the namesake of James Esquire's Whitehall? If he was born in Northern Ireland in about 1740, as estimated by genealogists, and emigrated to America in 1746, he might have been old enough to have a memory of the place. Certainly his parents and grandparents would have.

Detail from an 1858 map of Tiscallin Townland, County Antrim
(From Irish Townland Maps online)

Scottish Roots

Foreman notes that John B Burns was an early settler of Cumberland County who was buried in one of the oldest graves at nearby Rocky Springs Presbyterian Church. The tombstone, from 1760, indicates Burns was 78 when he died, making his birth year 1681.

Was he born in Northern Ireland, or had he moved there from Scotland, which had its own share of troubles during the late 17th and early 18th centuries?

Family Search shows a record of a John Burn born on June 29, 1681 [12] to father James Burn in Alyth, Perth, which in the 1600s was a flourishing market town tucked into the foothills of the Grampians in the eastern lowlands of Scotland. Was this our John B? We have no idea, but the birth year does correspond exactly.

Alyth, Perth, Scotland

Beyond that intriguing birthplace possibilty, we know nothing about John B's early life, whether in Scotland or Ireland. A few online pedigrees claim John B was married to a Jonet Fleeming of Rattray, Scotland (very near Alyth) in 1704, but there’s no way to be sure. No specific evidence is cited for these claims. Other pedigrees claim John B married an Agnes Chisholm in 1715. A few say he married both.

Unfortunately for our quest, women’s names were not tracked in any census or tax records at the time, and genealogists must rely on wills, deeds, and family documents for information. Spelling was also a problem. Was Jonet Fleeming really Janet Fleming?  Was Ann Jonet really Ann Janet with no surname? Was she Ann Janet Fleming, and did she sail to America with John B? Who knows?

I mentioned earlier that the Burns clan is regarded by some as a sept of Clan Campbell, whose traditional territory is Argyll in the western lowlands of Scotland. And indeed, the Scots-Irish townland lists mentioned previously show Argyll to be the Scots county of origin most associated with Burns men living in Northern Ireland. (This traditional association might be why Guy's father gave him the middle name Argyle.)

But the official Campbell website, while acknowledging this common conception, suggests that the Burns were not really a sept of the Campbells, but rather were of the Burnett clan, which was headquartered about 70 miles northeast of Alyth. [13]

For their part, the Burnetts are equally iffy about whether the Burns are a sept of their clan. [14]

A third possibility is that Cumberland in Northern England (largest city Carlisle) is the original territory of the reputedly unruly Burns clan. This fits well with the naming of Cumberland County in Pennsylvania, and its county seat in Carlisle. [15]

Click to see where Argyll and Perth are.

If John B was born in Scotland -- whether in Argyll or Perth or somewhere else -- he probably emigrated to Ireland relatively early. During the 1690s, famine swept through Scotland and propelled one last wave of migration to Ireland. Our John B could have been one of those determined to find a better life across the Irish Sea, and later, when life grew very difficult in Ireland, across the Atlantic.

Which it's comforting to think he eventually did.


[1] http://immigrantships.net/v2/1700v2/ elizabeth&ann17160114.html

[2] http://www.irishgenealogy.com/surnames/migration-scotch-irish.htm

[3] David Dickson, Arctic Ireland. White Row Press, Dublin. 1994.

[4] The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 31, 366-367.

[5] Wikipedia: "Indentured servitude in Pennsylvania.".

[6] Ancestry.com search of the 1790 U.S. census.

[7] This Map is part of a series created and maintained by F. Thornton Miller, Department of History,  part of the SW Missouri State University College of Humanities and Public Affairs Website.

[8] From an Ancestry.com history of the descendants of James Chambers, son of Benjamin.

[9] From an Ancestry.com history of the descendants of James Chambers, son of Benjamin.

[10] I saw this is a book in the Family Search library in Burien, Washington, took notes, and have been utterly unable to find the citation informaiton since then.

[11] From the 1851 census of County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

[12] From the FamilySearch.org website: Scotland Birth and Baptisms, 1564-1950.

[13] Campbell clan website

[14] http://www.leopardmag.co.uk/feats/214/clans-of-the-north-east-house-of-burnett

[15] https://www.houseofnames.com/burns-family-crest