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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - April/May 2004
Ulster Roots


April - May 2004
"Flaxseed and Emigrants"
Richard K. MacMaster

The contribution of the Scotch-Irish to the settlement and growth of the United States and Canada is well known. The heavy emigration from Ulster in the eighteenth century also had a positive impact at home. As Irish historian L. M. Cullen noted the real, if temporary, decline of Belfast and other Ulster ports from the late seventeenth century on "halted only when novel traffics - flaxseed and emigrants - gave it a new dynamism in the 1730s.

           The Navigation Acts passed by the English Parliament in the 1660s to protect English commerce from the competition of the Dutch and others placed limits on the trade of the American Colonies, as we know, but these laws hit even harder at Irish trade. Only provisions of food and indentured servants could be legally shipped to the Colonies from an Irish port. All of the products of the Colonies, such as sugar and tobacco, had to be landed in an English port before they could be sent to the merchant in Ireland who had ordered them. Goods from Ireland, with few exceptions, could not even be sent to England. They could only supply domestic markets in Ireland. Irish woolen cloth was a particular target, because it competed directly with English woolens.

            The English Parliament had no intention of impoverishing Ireland; they were simply responding to special interests at home.  The wealthy landowners in the Irish Parliament reminded them that they were being impoverished.  Both the Parliament in London and the Dublin Parliament wanted to find a way out.  They found it by encouraging the Irish linen industry, since linen spun and woven in Ulster did not compete with English-made cloth.  When in 1696 the British government removed the tax on Irish linens shipped to England, many English dealers began to buy Ulster cloth because it was cheaper than Dutch and German linens.  This growing market greatly stimulated linen weaving across the Irish Sea.

            From the first, linen-making concentrated in the three eastern counties of present Northern Ireland, Antrim, Down, and Armagh, although the government-sponsored Linen Board subsidized efforts to establish flax-growing and linen-making in every Irish county.  The Linen Board imported flaxseed from the Baltic and gave it away to anyone who would agree to plant a minimum amount.  Importing seed was necessary because the flax had to be pulled up by the roots before it went to seed.  This was the first step in the process of transforming the fibers in the flax stalk into linen cloth.

It was only in 1705 with passage of the Linen Act that British policy reversed and opened the colonial market to linens sent directly from Ireland. This ushered in a new opportunity for trade with the American Colonies and a new beginning for Belfast and other Ulster ports.  British historian Jean Agnew concluded that "the lifting of restrictions on the direct export of linen to the colonies contributed to the development of Belfast as a major international port, and for the Belfast merchants it meant that they were on the threshold of a new era in which they had a high quality non-perishable product for which there was a steady demand."

            Commerce with America transformed the Ulster ports of Belfast, Londonderry, Newry and the province generally.  It began with large-scale emigration from Ulster to the American Colonies and the need for ships to sail frequently between Ireland and Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston with passengers and those too poor to pay their passage who went as indentured servants.

         The first wave of emigration from Ulster to America was in full swing by 1717-1718. The demand for shipping was greater than the few vessels that normally sailed from Ireland to the Colonies. The first wave of emigration may have taken merchants and shipowners by surprise and families sailing to New England had to make do with whatever was available. The ships that carried passengers to Boston were small, even by 1718 standards. The Maccalum of  70 tons brought 100 passengers from Londonderry as did the Mary and Elizabeth of only 45 tons.  The William and Mary which carried the McGregor party from Coleraine displaced just 30 tons.  They were not ships one would select for a long voyage, given a choice. 

            Ten years later demand for ships to America was even greater.  Robert Gamble, a merchant in Londonderry, wrote in July 1729 that "There is gone and to go this Summer from this Port Twenty-five Sail of Ships, who carry each, from One Hundred and twenty, to One hundred and forty Passengers to America; there are many more going from Belfast, and the Ports near Colrain, besides great Numbers from Dublin, Newry, and round the Coast." Dublin papers advertised at least a dozen ships for Philadelphia in the summer of 1729. Because ships that took passengers to the New World could not always find a return freight, not many Londonderry or Belfast merchants had ships in the transatlantic trade.  Some tragedies occurred because emigrants had to sail in vessels that were too small to carry adequate provisions or with inexperienced captains.  A writer in the Pennsylvania Gazette observed that "the People, earnest to be gone, being oblig'd to take up with any Vessel that will go; and 'tis like frequently with such as have before been only Coasters, because they cannot always get those that have been us'd to long Voyages, or to come to these Parts of the World."

The passenger trade encouraged shipowners to send products to the American market.  Emigrant ships often brought linen and provisions, salted beef, butter, potatoes, and salmon as well. Some emigrants carried bundles of white and unbleached brown linen with them to sell in their new home and ship's captains and supercargoes, agents of the shipowners, followed suit. Irish linen had already found a ready market in the Colonies, but it was normally shipped from English ports in English vessels. 

This changed with the importation of flaxseed from America.  Irish flax growers depended on seed imported from Holland and the Baltic, a practice encouraged by a bounty paid to importers.  In 1731 the British Parliament opened Irish ports to colonial produce, except for sugar, tobacco and other "enumerated articles," and two years later the Flaxseed Bounty Act was amended to include American flaxseed.  The convergence of these forces changed Ulster commerce and required Scotch-Irish merchants in the major American ports to carry it out.  Merchants in Belfast and Londonderry ordered ships built for them in New England and Pennsylvania for this trade.

            Flaxseed became a major export from Philadelphia and New York, and somewhat later, Baltimore.  As early as 1736 there are newspaper references to "the flaxseed ships."  The flaxseed ships normally sailed between November and February to arrive in time for spring planting.  They also carried flour, wheat, barrel staves, pig iron and other products consigned to Ulster firms.  The same ships returned, mainly to New Castle, Delaware, and Philadelphia, with Ulster emigrants, Irish linen and other goods, arriving in the summer and early fall.  Shipowners tried to fit in shorter voyages either to a European port from Belfast or Derry or to the West Indies or one of the Southern Colonies from Philadelphia.  In the 1760s and early 1770s, for instance, some flaxseed ships carried passengers to Charleston and took on a cargo of rice for Philadelphia.

            This transatlantic trade transformed Londonderry and Belfast from provincial backwaters into important commercial centers.  The pattern of this trade also directed the flow of emigrants.  Although some of the best flaxseed was grown in southern New England and on Long Island, it was all shipped through New York.  Some passengers from Ulster landed in New York, but by far the greatest number boarded ships for New Castle and Philadelphia, where merchants in the flaxseed trade concentrated.  Baltimore became another favored destination only in the late 1760s and 1770s.


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