They boarded a ship in Argyllshire, 350 Highland Scots bound for Brunswick Town, North Carolina. They came by choice, looking for land to stake their claim in the new World. Over the next century came thousands more, defeated at Culloden, punished by the English Government and "cleared" off their lands " by their chiefs. Most spoke no English, they dressed in the manner of the Gaels, and were not welcomed by the English on the coast. They went forth up the river and made new lives along the Cape Fear.
Since the vast majority of Highlanders came from an agricultural society, and because the land was plentiful and fertile, most became farmers - due to the sandy soil in the region, the predominant crops were corn, rye, peas, sweet potatoes, flax and cotton. The Scots
set up blacksmith forges, built tanneries and grist mills on the streams and a number of saw mills for timber. Due to the abundance of Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina became known by its production of naval stores, turpentine, resin, tar, and charcoal. The nickname Tar Heel State is often attributed to this fact.
The colony grew along wide Cape Fear river and the lumber mills and loggers placed log rafts into the river and floated them to the market in Wilmington. The prosperous trading community of Cross Creek was formed by the Scots in 1762. By the time of the American Revolution, as many as 20,000 Highland Scots had settled along the Cape Fear and its tributaries.
The Highlanders did not mix easily with the other groups in the area such as the English, Irish, Scots-Irish, Germans, or the smaller groups of Huguenots, Welsh, and Swiss. They preferred to live among those who spoke their language and shared their customs, and usually settled in groups (Myer, 1957).
As explained in Ian Charles Cargill Graham’s Colonists from Scotland: emigration to North America, 1707-1783:
"They [the Highlanders] were then as much a race apart as the Germans, less amenable to assimilation than the Lowland Scots, and far less so than the Scots-Irish with their hostile attitude to the British government. Like the Germans, they spoke a strange tongue, but unlike them, they respected the authority of the Crown…They were clearly distinguished from other colonial peoples by their dress and demeanor." (Graham, p. 107)
The steady flow of Highlanders into North Carolina (and into the new United States) ended with the onset of the Revolutionary War. At the outbreak of the war it has been recorded that the Cape Fear Scots' community split into thirds regarding what side of the conflict they supported. The members of the community who had been in the country the longest tended to support the rebel cause, and a third tried to stay neutral. There were so many MacDonalds in the Cape Fear region who took up arms for the Loyalist cause, the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge became known as “The Insurrection of the Clan MacDonald.”
While the Revolutionary War was raging, most Highlanders emigrating from Scotland went to Canada, which was still part of the British Empire. After the war, the Whigs in North Carolina (anti-British) confiscated estates of Loyalists and led to the migration of many Scottish Highlanders to Canada, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas. Still, North Carolina maintained the greatest number of Highlanders and Scots of all the states and Canada.
Even after the war, Highlander interaction with other peoples was still not common due to a division between the eastern and western counties of the state. They did not grow the same crops or market their produce at the same towns. The East was settled chiefly by the English, while in the West had a large proportion of Scots-Irish and German settlers who still retained many of their native customs. For many years thereafter, poor roads and the lack of good transportation kept the two regions apart.
It would be a long time before these different people would come to know one another.
For many years the Cape Fear Highlanders maintained an insular society, but ultimately realized that if they wanted to reap the racial dividends of Anglo-Saxon America, an adoption of the English language and customs was necessary. Even so, Gaelic speakers were still commonly heard in southeastern NC up until the beginning of the twentieth century.
The following quote comes from the Statesville Record & Landmark in 1901.
"If a Scotch Highlander were to visit a certain section of Harnett county he would be tempted to believe that he was still in his own country. The Gaelic language is spoken by the people of the section in question almost as much as the English. It is said that when the Cape Fear section was first settled by the Scotch the English language was seldom heard. Parents in this particular section taught it to their children, consequently it is still in use. Even the negroes speak it."
One of the legacies left by the Argyll Colony is that they made the state of NC a symbolic homeland for many in today's Scottish-American community. Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians with family lineage tied directly to those settlers still live in the state today, especially in Anson, Bladen, Harnett, Lee, Moore, Cumberland, Richmond, Scotland, and Robeson counties. The assimilation of the Highlanders into anglo-centric American culture has been so complete, most descendants of the Argyll Colony have little to no knowledge of who their ancestors were or what their history is.