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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Scotch Merchants

by James P. Whittenburg, 2006; Revised November 2022.

Often intended as an insult, the term "Scotch merchant" referred to men, by no means all of them Scots, who functioned as factors and agents for large mercantile companies headquartered along the American coast, in England, or in Scotland. They purchased crops of any size and extended credit to even small-time planters, encouraging the extension of tobacco production far into the interior of Virginia and North Carolina. Hamilton and Company was the most important so-called Scotch merchant firm in North Carolina. In 1761 this company opened a store just outside of Halifax, about 60 miles inland from Edenton, the region's principal port. From that base of operations the company supplied credit, enslaved people, and consumer items to planters as far west as Granville and Orange Counties and dispatched the tobacco it acquired to Virginia warehouses in carts and wagons.

In times of economic distress, many colonial merchants called in the credit extended to planters, employed lawyers to bring debt suits against those who could not or would not pay, and had court clerks produce the writs that led to the attachment and ultimate public auction of the debtor's property. Although the image of such greedy merchants reducing honest planters to poverty was surely an overreaction to an economic crisis over which neither had much control, the Scotch merchant consequently became an icon of villainy in the popular culture of the late colonial era.


Harry Roy Merrens, Colonial North Carolina in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Historical Geography (1964).

James P. Whittenburg, "Planters, Merchants, and Lawyers: Social Change and the Origins of the North Carolina Regulation, 1765-1777," William and Mary Quarterly 34 (April 1977).

Additional Resource:

"The Two James Hunters of Fredicksburg, Patriots among the Virginia Scotch Merchants." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography: