UC Historian Edits Volume of Letters Written by Irish Immigrants

Instead of the usual voyage lasting seven weeks and four days, this crossing took a hellish 15 weeks. Irish-born John Smilie, aged 19, set sail for the American colonies from Belfast, Ireland, in 1762. The ship, the Sally, ran into “calm and contrary winds” and was captained by James Taylor, apparently a pirate who gave chase and fired guns at any other ship he encountered. Rations of bread and water diminished as the voyage dragged on. Eventually, there was no more bread, and water allotments were reduced to half a pint per day per person.

A new book edited by UC Professor Emeritus of


Arnold Schrier of the

McMicken College of Arts and Sciences

and three other scholars gives voice to Smilie's trials as well as the hopes, successes and disappointments of many other Irish immigrants. “Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815” ($35 paperback, Oxford University press) focuses on the early years of Irish migration to the New World as documented by the letters of the people who lived it.

In the years prior to 1815, some 400,000 Irish ventured across the Atlantic to America. Historians Kerby Miller, Schrier and David Doyle, working with linguist Bruce Boling, spent years exploring archives, private collections and attic trunks to gather up more than 5,000 letters to tell their stories. The researchers whittled their book down to 68 pieces of correspondence in a 788-page scholarly endeavor that took nearly 20 years of work.

To help readers get the most out of the letters the scholars unearthed, Miller directed his fellow researchers to diligently gather historical and biographical background information to illuminate each author. That involved intensive research at the local level in both Ireland and the United States. Collectively, the biographic essays take up more space than the letters themselves. According to Schrier, the volume, the first of a planned two-volume set, represents the most thoroughly researched book of its kind to this date.

The painstaking research helps to explain why Smilie wound up on a ship like the Sally to begin with. Stresses Schrier: “You have to remember that these earliest immigrants crossed the Atlantic in sailing vessels, not steamships. Their journeys were often horrific and subject to the whims of nature.”

Aboard the Sally, Smilie wrote, hunger and thirst began to take its toll as crew and the ship passengers began to die. “Nothing was now to be heard aboard our ship but the cries of distressed children, and of their distressed mothers, unable to relieve them,” he penned to his father back home in Greyabbey, Ireland. “Our ship now was truly a real Spectacle of Horror! Never a day passed without one or two of our crew put over board; many kill’d themselves by drinking salt water; and their own urine was a common drink.”

Undoubtedly, Smilie had been persuaded to board the Sally by an ad in the Belfast News-Letter, which grossly exaggerated the ships tonnage and made it appear that more passengers could be accommodated than really should. Such lies and overbooking were a common practice and laws regulating steerage conditions were not enacted by Great Britain until 1803 and the United States until the 1820s.

Smilie survived his disastrous crossing, but 64 crew members and passengers did not. He settled in Pennsylvania, eventually serving as a militia sergeant in the American Revolution and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He supported the state’s abolition of slavery in 1780 and strongly opposed adoption of the Constitution, which he characterized as a “device of despotism.”

Other dangers of the passage from Ireland to the New World are chronicled in a letter by John O’Raw, who endured a 22-week voyage that ended in a shipwreck in Bermuda. O’Raw wrote to family back home that he narrowly avoided impressments into the British navy, a common fate for Irish passengers during Britain’s wars with France, Spain and the United States. O’Raw hid for a time in remote parts of Bermuda and then booked passage to Charleston. Yet more storms awaited him on that voyage. Another hazard he faced was “the often-fatal seasoning process” in the tropical and southern ports, where diseases such as malaria and yellow fever had to be endured.

With time, he became a grocer and owned two slaves. However, he never married and sometime after 1829, he returned to Ireland, presumably to care for his ailing father. Although a Catholic, he had been a member of the ecumenical Hibernian Society in Charleston side by side with Ulster Presbyterians. The split between Catholic and Protestant in Charleston did not become pronounced until later. Presbyterians started identifying themselves as Scotch-Irish to distinguish themselves from the Irish - the Catholics.

Counting Smilie and O’Raw’s accounts, the book in total contains 68 letters. Among them are the stories of Hannah Wright and the difficulties she faced on the frontier, twice-widowed but resilient Margaret Carey Murphy Burke, farmer James McGraw, revolutionary idealist James Caldwell, statesman Sir William Johnson, loyalist William Heazelton, indentured servants Ruth Gee and Patrick M'Cullen, as well as lawyer and politician Thomas Addis Emmet, who spent three years in prison in Scotland for his role in a failed Irish rebellion and was banned from Ireland under penalty of death.

Pinpointing one letter from the book that is completely representative of the Irish immigrant experience is impossible, says Schrier, a pioneer in the study of Irish immigrant letters and author of the acclaimed volume Ireland and the American Emigration, 1850-1900.

“I would be hard-pressed to say who’s the most representative,” said Schrier, 78, UC’s Walter S. Langsam Professor Emeritus of History. “What the book illustrates is that a variety of people make up the immigrant stream that came to this country. Some were highly educated and politically involved. Others came seeking greater economic opportunities. Some came for business activities. The motivations vary from family to family. Some were successful in making the transition from one place to another. Some were not. By and large, the people who are immigrants today in their own way reflect these same experiences.”

Schrier’s own parents immigrated to the United States from Russia before World War I. Also a scholar of Russian history, Schrier has even longer been an Irish historian. His interest in Irish immigration dates back to his doctoral dissertation. He began collecting letters of Irish immigrants in the 1950s on a research trip to Ireland. He wrote to newspapers across the country entreating editors to publish his letter asking to see surviving correspondence from emigrants. Responses poured in.

Other letters took decades to obtain. In the 1950s, a descendent of the Crockett family of Tennessee wrote to Schrier and told him she had a cache of letters. But she refused to copy the letters or let him borrow them. In the 1990s as her health declined, she contacted him again to ask what she should do to preserve the letters for future use. Schrier recommended that she deposit them in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. The donation was arranged, and Schrier finally got to examine them after 40 years. At least two now appear in the book.
Compared to the patience and work that went into this first volume, there will be at least tenfold for the second, says Schrier. An even more massive collection of letters awaits compilation. The next book will focus on the period after 1815 and up to the mid-20th century when the largest influx of Irish to America took place.

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