Windham Life and Times – October 5, 2018

The Scotch-Irish and the Potato

Harvesting Potatoes on the Campbell Farm in Windham NH

When I was a kid in the seventies, I used to drive up Route 28 in Derry, past an ancient looking farmhouse that had a large sign in front of it facing the road. It declared that the Scotch-Irish settlers had brought the potato to America and that they were first grown at this farm. As a lover of French fries, back in the day when they were fried correctly, (in the “bad” stuff) and tasted delicious, this was an intriguing boast.

It wasn’t until I started writing today, that I found that the potato in fact did not originate in Ireland. This tuber is in fact a native plant of the Americas. According to whatscookingamerica.net, “In the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile, archaeologists have found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C.  The Incas grew and ate them and also worshipped them.  They even buried potatoes with their dead, they stashed potatoes in concealed bins for use in case of war or famine, they dried them, and carried them on long journeys to eat on the way (dried or soaked in stew).  Ancient Inca potatoes had dark purplish skins and yellow flesh.” In the sixteenth century, (1500’s) the Spanish conquistadors encountered potatoes being grown by the natives and began to return with them to Spain. “The potato was carried on to Italy and England about 1585, to Belgium and Germany by 1587, to Austria about 1588, and to France around 1600.  Wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous, and downright evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scrofula, early death, sterility, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew.” Some historians state that the explorer Walter Raleigh brought the potato to Ireland in 1589 and planted them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork, Ireland. The Irish, never wanting to give credit to an Englishman, say that the potatoes came to Ireland via a shipwreck of the Spanish Amada off the Irish coast in 1588.

The potato and the Scotch-Irish have a very long history.   Rev. A.L. Perry states, in The Scotch-Irish in New England that, “First of the European countries, the potato had been found by Ireland, to which it had been brought from Virginia by slave-trader Hawkins in 1565; an invaluable resource of food for the poor; and each and every company of Scotch-Irish brought with them to New England, as part of the indispensable outfit, some tubers of this esculent, which they prized beyond price.” So how did the potato get to Ireland? HistoryIreland.com states that, “Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins, have all been credited with introducing the potato into Ireland. Indeed, the early history of the potato is obscured by often contradictory stories, many of which can be relegated to the sphere of romance.” A.L. Perry says, “The pine lands of New England, which are always sandy, are adapted to the potato; and if there were no suffering from hunger in those large families during the first years of their sojourn, it should doubtless be put to the credit of the easily cultivated, much-multiplying potato.”

Edward Parker in his History of Londonderry, talks about the potato. “They (the Scotch-Irish) introduced the culture of the potato, which they brought with them from Ireland. Until their arrival, this valuable vegetable, now regarded as one of the necessities of life, if not wholly unknown, was not cultivated in New England. To them belongs the credit of its introduction to general use. Although highly prized by this company of settlers, it was for a long time little regarded by their English neighbors: a barrel or two being considered a supply for a family. But its value as food for man and for beast became at length more generally known, and who can now estimate the full advantage of its cultivation to this country! The following well-authenticated fact will show how little known to the community at large the potato must have been.”

During the first winter of 1718-19 with no place to settle, some of the company of Scotch-Irish were taken in by residents of Andover MA. Upon leaving the place and in appreciation of the hospitality of their hosts, the Scotch-Irish left a few potatoes with them for seed.  “The potatoes were accordingly planted; came up and flourished well; blossomed and produced balls, which the family supposed was the fruit to be eaten, They cooked the balls in various ways, but could not make them palatable, and pronounced them unfit for food. The next spring, while ploughing their garden, the plough passed through where the potatoes had grown, and turned out some of great size, by which means they discovered their mistake.”