The journey for some 9 million of the Irish Diaspora began in Derry. This is where the story of their new life began: for example, an ancestor may have boarded a sailing ship at Shipquay Place, or stopped at Gweedore Bar, Waterloo Street on their way from west Donegal to Glasgow on the Scotch Boat, or arrived in Derry by rail, lodged in Bridge Street and then headed down Foyle, on a tender, to connect with transatlantic liners at Moville.
Over one hundred million Americans can trace an ancestor who arrived, from 1892, in the United States at Ellis Island.
From Derry quay we sailed away
On the 23rd of May
We were taken on board by a pleasant crew
Bound for Americay
Fresh water there we did take on
Five thousand gallons or more
In case we'd run short going to New York
Far away from the Shamrock shore.
The Minnehaha - An Ocean Liner built for Transatlantic passenger trade in 1860
From the early 1700s, in the age of the sailing ships, to the onset of the Second World War in 1939, when the last transatlantic steamer sailed from the port, Derry was one of the principal emigration ports in Ireland.
From late 18th century New York had become the most important port in America and, at the beginning of the 19th century, it was American vessels that dominated the north Atlantic trade, but Derry merchants began to develop their own enterprises, carrying linen and passengers outward and returning with flaxseed, wheat, Indian corn (maize), tobacco and timber from America. Two local companies, J & J Cooke and William McCorkell & Co. soon dominated transatlantic trade and, in the process, built up sizeable shipping fleets.
By 1860, 204,000 Irish-born residents of New York City contributed 53% of all foreign-born inhabitants and 24% of the total city population, and in 1864 alone 99,809 Irish immigrants arrived in New York.
In the 1860s the McCorkell Line demonstrated that first-class sailing ships could compete with steam on the North American passenger run. They had five ships plying between Derry and the cities of New York and Philadelphia:
- Village Belle and
- Lady Emily Peel.
On 2 June 1860 the first transatlantic steamer to enter the Foyle was the North Britain owned by the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company (Allan Line) and, in the same year, the Minnehaha, a medium clipper and full-rigged ship, built in New Brunswick, Canada at a cost of $72,000, was acquired specifically by William McCorkell & Co, grain and emigration merchants of Derry, for the passenger trade from Ireland to America.
The name of the ship Minnehaha was that of Native American Princess, Minnehaha, from the poem, Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the figurehead of the Minnehaha was a carved image of the Princess.
For the next twelve years this fine clipper, known in its New York, East River berth as the “the green yacht from Derry”, carried emigrants to New York, usually making two voyages per year, in an average of twenty-seven days; the spring voyage of 1869 taking just twenty days, and nineteen days back.
The Minnehaha maintained a passenger service from Derry to New York throughout the American Civil War (1861-1865). In his book, Challenge of the West: Minnehaha and the Clippers, Owen McGonagle estimates, by analysing ship manifests recorded at Castle Garden, that from 1860-1873 the Minnehaha crossed the Atlantic 55 times and carried 7,000 immigrants to New York.
The McCorkell family commissioned oil paintings of many, but not all, ships which sailed under the McCorkell flag from 1834 to 1897. Joseph Joshua Sempill, born in Scotland and buried in Derry City Cemetery, painted the Minnehaha in its full glory as a passenger carrying clipper, with three sets of full sails.
Image: Minnehaha, the flagship of William McCorkell & Company, grain and emigration merchants of Londonderry. (Courtesy of John McCorkell)
On arrival at New York harbor Minnehaha deposited her passengers at Castle Garden and then proceeded to a berth on the East River for the remaining commercial transactions, the actual berth depending upon the local agent or merchant involved in these transactions (for example, Minnehaha log of 12 July 1862 reports she was carrying pig iron for G. & J. Knox of New York).
Watt’s Distillery and Tyrconnell Single Malt Whiskey
Seemingly, prior to prohibition (1920-1933), billboards around New York (at baseball and football grounds) carried advertising for Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey, then one of the biggest-selling whiskey brands in the US. This refers to the famous Tyrconnell brand distilled by Andrew A. Watt & Co at their Abbey Street distillery in Derry and named after a prize-winning horse owned by the Watt family.
In 1876 the Watt family entered a horse named Tyrconnell in the Irish Classic horse race ‘The National Produce Stakes’ in Dublin and it won at odds of 100 to 1. The event went into racing folklore and was celebrated on their labels. One of their advertising posters claimed “100 to 1 Tyrconnell Wins: Andrew A Watt & Co Ltd Londonderry’. This proud declaration was set against the backdrop of a racetrack, with three tiers of wildly cheering crowds, and three horses straining for the winning post, with one just nudging ahead.
Image: Tyrconnell Single Malt Whiskey
Prior to prohibition (1920-1933), billboards around New York (at baseball and football grounds) carried advertising for Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey, then one of the biggest selling whiskey brands in the US. This refers to the famous Tyrconnell brand distilled by Andrew A. Watt & Co at their Abbey Street distillery in Derry and named after a prize-winning horse owned by the Watt family.
Derry, Liverpool and New York
From the 1830s New York emerged as the main artery of Irish emigration and the port of the port of Liverpool (England) emerged as the preferred port of embarkation for Irish emigrants destined for North America. By the Famine, the Liverpool-New York route was the main artery of Irish emigration. New York received about 67% of the total number of Irish who emigrated to the US between 1848 and 1851. In the same period nearly 74% of Irish emigrants departed from Liverpool with Irish ports carrying only 20% of Famine emigrants.
The introduction of regular steamboat services in the 1820s to Liverpool from Derry facilitated the transport of intending emigrants from Northwest Ireland to New York via Derry and Liverpool.
Anchor Line: Glasgow to New York via Derry
By the mid-19th century, 70% of Irish emigrants entered the US through New York. The emigrant landing depot at Castle Garden, run by New York State’s Board of Emigration Commissioners, received 8 million immigrants from 1855-1890. It was replaced by a new federal immigration station at Ellis Island in 1892 which between 1892 and 1924 received 12 million immigrants.
‘The Port of New York Passenger Records 1820 – 1957’ database contains the passenger lists of almost 65 million immigrants, passengers, and crew members who came through Ellis Island and the Port of New York from 1820 to 1957 and these can be searched, free of charge, at www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger.
From 1866 right through to 1939 liners belonging to the Anchor Line of Glasgow called at Moville, in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Derry, to pick up emigrants, destined for New York, who were ferried from Derry in paddle tenders.
Figure 4: Caledonia
Anchor Line poster depicting Caledonia. The Anchor Line, twin-screw steamship Caledonia, 9,223 tons, 500 feet in length, made 115 passenger sailings from Glasgow, via Moville (Londonderry), to New York from 1905 to 1914. In August 1914, at the outbreak of World War One, the Caledonia was requisitioned as a troopship, and on 4 December 1916 she was torpedoed and sunk off Malta.
Much of the emigrant business that had drifted away to Liverpool was now brought back to Derry. By 1884 emigrant departures from Derry exceeded the number that went through the port in the peak famine year of 1847 (12,385). In 1883, 15,217 emigrants boarded 154 steamers calling at Moville, with 10,496 destined for the United States and 4,721 for Canada.
Derry now became the major emigration port for the northern half of Ireland. By 1900, the Railway Companies in Ireland were offering cheap rail tickets to those intending emigrants, embarking at Derry, who boarded trains at railway stations north of a line which stretched from Sligo on the west coast to Dublin on the east coast. In effect, it was assumed that if you lived north of this line you emigrated from Derry, and if you lived in the southern half of Ireland you embarked at Queenstown (now Cobh).
Figure 3: Anchor Line poster c. 1880
Anchor Line of Royal Mail Steamers had a fleet of 12 steamships, all built in the 1870s, ranging from 3,000 to 4,200 tons in size, that operated on its Glasgow to New York (via Moville) service in 1880. Apart from the funnel the early steamships just looked like a sailing ship.
This article was kindly written by Brian Mitchell,Derry Genealogy, 24 February 2023. Brian is Northern Ireland’s leading genealogist. He has spent years compiling sources on Derry, in particular, and on emigration from Northern Ireland in general. He is also the author of the celebrated New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland and two critical guidebooks on parish records and graveyards for all of Ireland.
The records of the 51million people who made the journey to Ellis Island from 1892 to 1957 have survived and are available online and free at www.libertyellisfoundation.org.
- County in Focus: Derry
- A three step guide to searching for your Northern Ireland Ancestors
- Researching Passenger Lists
- Irish Migration from Derry to Canada
- Philadelphia: The Irish Gateway to America
This piece has kindly been submitted by Brian Mitchell of Derry Genealogy.
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