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Discovering the  'where' and 'how' of our ancestor's emigration stories often doesn't tell the full story, that's why it's vital we understand the unique social context of these stories. This week, Brian Mitchell, an expert in Northern Ireland emigration, looks at the settlement of Ulster Scotts in Philadelphia. People of Irish descent are still among one of the largest ethnic groups there having lived in the city since 1717. Beginning with an exploration of the importance of the linen trade in their emigration stories, he also explores how the Irish shaped the city from the formation of the 'Loyal Sons of St. Patrick' and their vital role in the American War of Independence to the mass emigration that ensued in the years following the Great Irish Famine. 

Philadelphia: The Irish Gateway to America

Between 1717 and the beginning of the War of American Independence in 1776, 250,000 Scots-Irish, often referred to as Ulster-Scots in Ireland (i.e. Protestant settlers in the nine counties of the Province of Ulster) left Ulster, through the ports of Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Larne and Portrush, for North America. The Scots-Irish tended to enter North America through Philadelphia and they headed for the frontier; of 128 vessels advertised to sail from Derry between 1750 and 1775, 99 of them sailed for Philadelphia. 

From Philadelphia, the Scots-Irish then poured across the Susquehanna into the Cumberland Valley. From the 1740s they moved southwards through the Great Valley, east of the Appalachian Mountains, across the Potomac, and into the Shenandoah Valley (also known as the Valley of Virginia) between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian ranges. From there they continued south into the Piedmont of North and South Carolina. By the Revolutionary War, in 1776, about 90% of Ulster settlers had made their homes in Pennsylvania, the Valley of Virginia and the Carolinas; and they dominated a one-thousand-mile frontier along the spine of Appalachia from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

James Buchanan of Ramelton, County Donegal departed from Londonderry for Philadelphia on the ship Providence on 4 June 1783. James established a trading post at Cove Gap, Pennsylvania in the Allegheny Mountains, married Elizabeth Spear, and, on 23 April 1791, their son, James Buchanan, who was to become the 15th President of the USA from 1857 to 1861, was born.

It was said of the early settlers in Pennsylvania that the Quakers were better traders, the Germans better farmers and the Ulster-Scots were best at coping with frontier conditions. 

Family Connections among Merchant Community in Derry and Philadelphia 

The linen and emigration trade established Derry as one of the chief Irish ports for transatlantic trade in the 18th century. Flaxseed, the raw material of the linen industry, was shipped to Derry from Philadelphia in the early spring, and on the return voyage linen and emigrants were destined for Philadelphia.

In 1768 flaxseed comprised half the value of Irish imports from the American colonies. Linen goods were the chief cargo on the return journey to America. In 1772 linen goods comprised over 80% of the value of Derry’s total exports to the colonies. With the substitution of linen goods for bulky flaxseed there was ample space for emigrants in the outgoing vessels.


It is clear that strong trade links, reinforced by family connections in the mercantile community, developed in the 18th century between the ports of Londonderry and Philadelphia. 

Captain Conolly McCausland of Streeve Hill (near Limavady, County Derry) was assisting mass emigration from the Roe Valley, County Derry as commander of ships, Walworth, Jane and Faithful Steward during the American Revolutionary period, 1768-1785.  Conolly and his brother Abraham McCausland, merchant of Londonderry, were engaged in transatlantic trade together with their cousins Robert McCausland of Coleraine, County Derry and John Stirling of Walworth (near Ballykelly, County Derry). 

Conolly McCausland captained the ship Walworth on a dozen or more voyages across the Atlantic between 1768 and 1773. The Walworth was a joint venture with Strabane-born (County Tyrone) Thomas Barclay of Philadelphia. Barlcay followed his uncle Samuel Carsan, also a Strabane emigrant, to Philadelphia, then the largest port in America. Carsan, joint owner of over 20 ships, built up the Philadelphia mercantile firm of Carsan and Davey. In the 1760s with Thomas Barclay’s arrival, a new partnership emerged: Carsan, Barclay and Mitchell. The third principal was William Mitchell, the son of James Mitchell of Londonderry.

The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Irish Emigrants

Philadelphia merchants of Scots-Irish and Irish descent were founding members of ‘The Irish Club’, known today as the Society of the Friendly Sons & Daughters of St. Patrick, On St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1771, they formed as ‘The Loyal Sons of Saint Patrick.’  

Members of the Club played a significant role in the American War of Independence (1775-1783), raising money for the revolution, establishing the Bank of Philadelphia, forming troops and volunteering for the Continental Army and the Pennsylvania Navy. They established their own personal medal, as an identifier, and in 1781 they adopted General Washington into the club.

According to historical notes in the minutes of the Irish Club, a rider from Trenton rode into Philadelphia, delivering the news that the British and the Massachusetts Militia, on 19 April 1775, fired shots and some 49 colonists and 74 British were killed, at Lexington, Massachusetts, the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. The next morning some 8,000 citizens of a total population of Philadelphia at that time near 25,000 gathered in front of the State House. The members of the Irish Club called a meeting within short order, and raised 315,000 pounds to be used by the Continental Army.


19th Century Emigration and the Famine

There is still a tendency to see the Famine of 1846 to 1851, when over a million people left Ireland for North America, as the cause of the Irish Diaspora. In reality heavy emigration from Ireland began well before the Famine and continued well after it. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 many small farmers, agricultural labourers and rural tradesmen in Ireland saw emigration as the only solution to their declining economic prospects. Emigration thus acted as a “safety valve,” enabling young men and women with little economic prospects to escape Ireland.

Derry’s importance as an emigration port continued to grow in the 19th century; it was a profitable trade. Merchants in Derry soon became ship-owners as opposed to agents for American and British companies. An outward cargo of emigrants, a homeward cargo of timber or grain, together with two voyages per year, one in spring and one in the autumn, ensured a sizeable profit. Two local companies, J & J Cooke and William McCorkell & Co. dominated transatlantic trade and, in the process, built up sizeable shipping fleets.

At the height of the Famine in 1847, of 12,385 emigrants leaving from Derry for North America, 5,104 or 41% were carried by J & J Cooke in 20 ships; 8 of these ships were destined for Philadelphia, 7 for Saint John, New Brunswick and 5 for Quebec.

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: the Mohongo, Minnehaha, Stadacona, Village Belle and Lady Emily Peel.

The McCorkell family commissioned oil paintings of many, but not all, ships which sailed under the McCorkell flag from 1834 to 1897. Oil paintings were produced of the following McCorkell Line ships: Caroline, Erin, Harvester, Hiawatha, Minnehaha, Mohongo, Osseo, Oweenee, Village Belle and Wenonah. The Song of Hiawatha by H W Longfellow was a source of inspiration in the naming of many of the McCorkell ships, including their flag ship the Minnehaha.


DuPont Company and Irish Immigration

An examination of digital sources relating to ‘The Du Pont Company on the Brandywine’ at the Hagley Museum and Library, at, demonstrates that though their network of agents in Philadelphia the Company assisted many Irish immigrants.

Du Pont enabled workers at their gunpowder works, established 1802, at Hagley along the banks of the Brandywine in Wilmington, Delaware to arrange for the passage of friends and relatives to Philadelphia. Between 1823 and 1856, the company helped approx 1,500 men women and children emigrate, most of these were the the wives, children, siblings and friends of those already working at DuPont's powder yards in Delaware. 

Agents for the Company in Philadelphia included Andrew J. Catherwood from 1847 to 1854 and Robert Taylor from 1830 to 1850. These two men also acted as agents in middle years of 19th century for the two biggest shipowners in Derry; Andrew J Catherwood, from his Philadelphia office at ’62 North Second Street above Arch’, for J & J Cooke, and Robert Taylor for William McCorkell & Co. 

Through paternalism of DuPont Company and their network of agents in Philadelphia, Derry in the late 1820s and early1830s, became the leading city in Ireland and Britain dealing with pre-paid passages; hence the story of DuPont immigrants is part of the bigger story of Irish immigration and the port of Philadelphia. Indeed, it has been said that ‘the Londonderry to Philadelphia route was the oldest Irish emigrant trade route.’

For more information about the role of Dupont Company click HERE

The Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia

Opened to the public in 2003, the Irish Memorial (pictured as the main image), a national monument at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia, is ‘dedicated to the memory of more than one million innocent men, women and children who perished during the years 1845 to 1850 and to the millions of Irish immigrants who found here in the United States of America the freedom, liberty and prosperity denied to their ancestors in Ireland.

The centerpiece of this project is a monumental bronze sculpture set in a 1.75 acre dedicated park. Glenna Goodacre, the artist who sculpted the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C., created the monument, including 35 life-sized figures. The bronze work measures a spectacular 30 feet long by 12 feet wide and 12 feet high. The memorial depicts the cruel starvation which claimed one million Irish lives between 1845 to 1850; the harrowing journey to America taken by a million more; and the indomitable spirit of those who arrived safely and resolved to face the challenges of life in a new world.’

Author: Brian Mitchell, Derry Genealogy, 21 February 2023

Derry City & Strabane District Council

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