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The Family Tree - August/September 2003
Ulster Roots

The most common image of the Scotch-Irishman is of an eighteenth-century settler who pushed on with his family to the frontier. We associate the Scotch-Irish with the settlement of the backcountry, whether in western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, the Carolinas or Georgia. But the Scotch-Irish kept coming to America long after independence was won. And many of them found homes, not in the hills of Tennessee or north Georgia, but in the new industrial towns and cities.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the great majority of people who left Ireland to find new homes in the United States and Canada sailed from the Ulster ports of Londonderry, Belfast, and Newry. Contemporary evidence indicated that "five sixths of the incoming passengers were from Ulster." They included both Catholics and Protestants, but nearly two-thirds were Ulster Protestants. This proportion was reversed from the later 1840s.

The America that attracted these Ulster men and women was undergoing rapid change. It was in the midst of what historian George R. Taylor called "The Transportation Revolution," extending beyond improved turnpikes, canals, and railroads to the beginnings of modern commerce and industry. Even on the eve of the Civil War, of course, the United States was still a predominantly rural country with the greatest number of its citizens earning their living from agriculture.

The Ulster they left was also experiencing change. Industrialization began with cotton-spinning in the 1790s, mainly in and around Belfast. The linen industry turned to steam-powered spinning machines about 1828 and by 1850 there were more than sixty large mills in operation, concentrated in the linen triangle in south Antrim, Down, and north Armagh. Mill-spun yarn gradually replaced the home-based spinning that provided extra income for farmers and laborers. But weaving continued to be done on hand looms at home or in small workshops. Like America, Ulster remained a mainly rural society, where the majority of people lived in the countryside and were engaged in agriculture; in 1841 fewer than ten per cent of the population lived in towns of 2,000 or more. The great majority of the men and women who emigrated from Ulster in 1800-1850 would have come directly from the farm, but they would have brought skills as spinners and weavers that would readily transfer to the new world.

The innovations made in 1820 by Francis Cabot Lowell and his Boston associates transformed the textile industry in New England. The changes they made - dependence on machines rather than skilled labor, bringing all processes under a single roof, and focusing on a single product - sound so compelling that I used to assume every American mill rapidly adopted the factory system pioneered in Waltham and Lowell, Masachusetts. I only recently learned that their methods could only be used to make cotton cloth of a fairly low quality, mass produced and sold cheaply. Better quality textiles required the "old-fashioned" methods still in use in Ulster at that time.

"Philadelphia and Baltimore producers specializing in finer and fancier yarns kept the spinning and weaving processes apart and ran small mills with skilled mule spinners operating equipment suited to softer threads used for better grades of cloth. They either gave out the yarn to independent weavers working on hand frames at home or sold it to loom bosses who might hire labor at home or gather it into sheds that became workshops. There were about 5,000 such weavers in Philadelphia in 1850 and a substantial number in Baltimore as well." (Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth Century America [New York: Hill and Wang, 1989], 34.)

James Wightman, who left Lisburn, County Down, and landed at Philadelphia in 1819, observed that "the cotton manufacture (the weaving branch of it) in this place is almost exclusively carried on by Irishmen and the Yarn all sold for Cash." He came to America in the midst of an economic depression, but eventually found a position as superintendent of a cotton spinning mill at Wilmington, Delaware, and later in another at Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The Belfast and Lisburn cotton manufacturers found it difficult to compete with the cotton mills of Lancashire, England. The English mills used power-driven looms for weaving and this more-advanced technology allowed them to undercut Ulster hand weavers. More and more weavers emigrated in the 1820s.

Philadelphia and Baltimore drew many of the Ulster immigrants who came in the nineteenth century, because they could readily find work there. Others worked in textile mills in the smaller towns and villages of southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. Samuel Riddle, for example, sailed from Belfast in 1823 for Philadelphia, where he immediately found employment in one of the cotton mills at Manayunk. He already had nine years' experience in a Belfast spinning mill. His father was the owner or part-owner of one Belfast cotton mill and, with the depressed state of business there in 1826, brought his entire family to Pennsylvania. They rented a small spinning mill on Chester Creek in Delaware County the next year and prospered sufficiently to own their own mills in a few more years. (Anthony F. C. Wallace, Rockdale [New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987], 98-101.) Not every Ulster immigrant had a success story like this, but they all participated in a similar transfer of skills to the emerging industries of the United States.

Just as in earlier emigration from Ulster, many newcomers followed relatives and friends over a period of years. William Wiley, a weaver from County Armagh, landed at Philadelphia in 1804 with his wife Agnes and infant son David. They settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they had a pew in the First Presbyterian Church, as did a certain Robert Wiley, who was also a weaver by trade. Robert Wiley bought a house in Lancaster in 1796 and lived there until he moved to Baltimore in 1811. The William Wiley family lived in the same house thereafter, suggesting a possible family relationship. When William Wiley died in 1833, his appraisers listed "three wheels and reel," "Lot of Yarn," and "Loom and tacklings" so he was still following his trade. His son David married Eliza Hamilton, also a native of Ulster, in 1825 and they were living in Lancaster with their children in 1850. David was in business as a cooper.

Like their cousins who came earlier and pushed back the frontiers, these Scotch-Irish folk often moved in search of a better life. The depressed state of the American economy after 1819 meant that some found it difficult to get work of any kind. James Wightman wrote from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1823 that "There is still a great depression in trade which operates very severely against the poor Irish, who are chiefly all weavers and labourers. . . . Lancaster lies midway on a circuitous route between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Weavers are constantly passing between the two towns and generally give me a call in search of employment - Few of them have a cent in their pocket or a second shirt on their back and many have to beg their way." Wightman employed as many as he could, men whose names indicate they came from Ulster.

Scotch-Irish families who arrived in Philadelphia or Baltimore and ended their days in Illinois or Mississippi may have made many stops on the way. "Weaver" was the largest occupational category for persons naturalized in Lancaster, Pennsylvania between 1817 and 1828. Nearly all the Ulster-born weavers there, for instance, had moved on by 1840, with just a handful left for the 1850 census taker to record. Their mobility may make it difficult to trace a family from place to place, but there are records for the persistent to uncover. It may be necessary to look at records from a number of adjacent counties because people made short-distance as well as long-distance moves.

For someone who works primarily with eighteenth-century documents, it was interesting to discover how much can be learned about very ordinary people in the nineteenth century. Naturalization records in Pennsylvania and Delaware counties seem to include many people who did not become permanent residents, but lived in that county at the time they applied for citizenship. They may include the county in Ulster and year of birth, the date of emigration and place and date of arrival in the United States. Tax assessments became more detailed in the early years of the nineteenth century, giving everyone's occupation. In certain cases, specifically 1798 and 1815, Federal tax assessments required complete descriptions of the house and outbuildings. Nineteenth century Presbyterian church records sometimes record the church in Ireland that had been the home church of a new member. This is most common where many people in the congregation came from Ulster and, generally speaking, in urban areas. Irish Catholic families were more likely to include the place of birth on a gravestone, but information of this kind can sometimes be found in Protestant cemeteries, too. Occasionally one can read a history of the family on the tombstone. In one Presbyterian churchyard in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, the places of birth and death on the stone tell the story of emigration from County Londonderry to Marietta, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and thence to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

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