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This week, Northern Ireland's leading genealogist Brian Mitchell recounts his correspondence with author Harry Wenzel about the final voyage of the ship, The Faithful Steward. The Faithful Stewart was an 18th-century merchant ship. In 1785 the ship left Derry for Philadelphia carrying 270 passengers and crew along with 400 barrels filled with copper coins. After 53 days at sea, the ship became stuck on a shore off Cape Henlopen, near the mouth of the Indian River. While only several hundred feet from the shoreline, only 63 survived. Following the loss, the beach where the ship was wrecked became known as 'Coin Beach' due to the large volume of copper coins awash

The Faithful Steward

The emigration trade established Londonderry as one of the chief Irish ports for transatlantic trade in the 18th century. Links between the cities of Londonderry and Philadelphia were established through trade. 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. Indeed, it has been said that ‘the Londonderry to Philadelphia route was the oldest Irish emigrant trade route.

Derry Quay

Figure 1: Londonderry in 1785

‘Londonderry’ from an original sketch by John Nixon. This image of Derry dates back to just before the construction of its first bridge in 1790. The ferry boat, carrying two horses and five passengers is making its way across the River Foyle, and the elegant spire of St. Columb’s Cathedral dominates the skyline. The larger ship in the foreground could well be destined for America.

Derry as a Major Port for Merchant Trade

In the 18th century merchants, mariners and ship owners would have placed advertisements in Ulster newspapers such as Belfast News-Letter and Londonderry Journal seeking 'passengers, redemptioners and servants' for their ships (Figure 2). The distinction was how they paid their passage: passengers paid their fare in full; redemptioners part-paid their passage; and servants, in return for payment of their passage, were contracted to an employer in America.

Redemptioners part-paid their passage and on arrival could go ashore to seek friends or relatives to help with the passage money; seemingly, it was a ‘troublesome business’ chasing reluctant payers.

Faithful Steward Adertisment

Figure 2: Advertisement seeking ‘Freight or Passage’ for the Ship Faithful Steward published in the Londonderry Journal of 10 May 1785

THE Ship
Burthen 350 Tons,

The Faithful Steward Ship

The story of the Faithful Steward is a fascinating one; it began life as the ship Stewart, described as being ‘upwards of 300 Tons Burthen, a prime Sailer, and completely calculated for the Passenger Trade,’ and it was built in 1783, for Archibald Stewart of Providence, Rhode Ireland. Archibald Stewart, originally from Ballintoy on the north Antrim coast, had emigrated to America with ‘a good assortment of linen cloth’ and set up business as a flaxseed merchant in Providence, Rhode Island in 1762. 

In Spring 1784 he sailed for Londonderry in the Stewart with a cargo of Rhode Island flaxseed, barrel staves and timber. On 20 April 1784, Archibald Stewart announces in Londonderry Journal that Abraham McCausland, Merchant of Culmore, Derry city and his brother Captain Conolly McCausland Streeve Hill, Limavady, County Derry have purchased two thirds of the Ship which is now referred to as the ship Faithful Steward. Indeed, the Londonderry Journal of 20 April 1784 carries advertisements for auction of flaxseed from the Stewart at Ship Quay and seeking of passengers for the Faithful Steward! 

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Prior to the sailing of the Faithful Steward, Abraham McCausland (Figure 3) provided free accommodation on his property at Culmore Point, where River Foyle opens into Lough Foyle, 4 miles downstream from Derry city, for intending passengers with ‘two free Houses at each Side of Culmore Point until said Ship sails, and any Passengers coming from the County of Antrim will have also free Stores at Coleraine or Port Rush, by applying to Robert McCausland, Esq: Custom House, Coleraine’.


McCausland Abraham

Figure 3: Gravestone of Abraham McCausland, part-owner of ship Faithful Steward, in graveyard of St Columb’s Cathedral, city of Londonderry

The inscription reads:    
Under this Stone are Interred the
Remains of Frederick John and Ann McCausland,
who died Young children of
Abraham and Elizabeth McCausland of this City
also Captain Frederick McCausland, Brother to ye
Said Abraham McCausland, who died the
18th February 1780, Aged 30 Years,
And the Said Abraham McCausland who
died the 5th of November 1820, Aged 77 Years

The Last Journey of the ship 'The Faithful Stewart'

The Faithful Steward departed Londonderry for Philadelphia with 249 passengers (and 13 crew) and a cargo of linen and 400 barrels of copper coins on 9 July 1785.

Initially, the Faithful Steward made good progress. The Londonderry Journal of 13 September 1785 reported, “The ship Faithful Steward, Captain McCausland, was spoken with the 3rd ult. (i.e. 3 August) in longitude 42, all well, and having the wind easterly, she must have had a good passage to her intended port.”

In reality, the ship had been wrecked on 1/2 September 1785, on a sand bank one hundred yards from what is known locally as Coin Beach (owing to coins washed ashore from the shipwreck during storms), about a quarter mile north of Indian River Inlet to Indian River Bay, and 15 miles south of Cape Henlopen and the entrance to the relative safety of the Delaware Bay and their final destination of Philadelphia. The ship Congress which had left Londonderry at the same time as the Faithful Steward arrived safely in Philadelphia after a passage of 7 weeks.

Since 2017, ‘Shipwreck of the Faithful Steward’ marker, located in Bethany Beach in Delaware Seashore State Park, about 1 mile north of Indian River Inlet and Coin Beach, tells the tale of this shipwreck and how nearby Coin Beach got its name (Figure 4). 

Faithful Stewart Marker

Figure 4: Shipwreck of the Faithful Steward Marker
Erected in 2017 by Delaware Public Archives, this marker is located in Bethany Beach in Delaware Seashore State Park, about 1 mile north of Indian River Inlet and Coin Beach. The marker tells the tale of a shipwreck and how nearby Coin Beach got its name.

There were 68 survivors, including all crew members, and they are all named (but no addresses) in Londonderry Journal of 21 February 1786 (Figure 5). This list of 68 survivors - 13 crew, 10 cabin passengers and 45 steerage passengers – was first published in the Pennsylvania Packet of 4 January 1786

Ten weeks after the tragedy, news of the loss reached Derry with the American papers brought by the ship Friendship, after passage of 5 weeks from Philadelphia, and publication in Londonderry Journal of 15 November 1785 of ‘a brief account of the unfortunate disaster which befel the Ship Faithful Steward, Conolly McCausland, Master, from London-Derry, bound to this port [Philadelphia]; taken from a Gentleman [not named] who was passenger on board’ (transcript of full account here).

The account concludes: “During the course of the day the inhabitants came down to the beach in numbers, and used every means in their power to relieve the unfortunate people on board, among whom were about 100 women and children, of whom only 7 women were saved.” It continues, “With great pleasure we learn, that several humane and public spirited gentlemen of this city [Philadelphia] are about raising a subscription, for the relief of the unhappy people who were saved from the wreck.”

An account by one of the 7 women (not named) that survived the Faithful Steward shipwreck was published in Belfast Newsletter of 28 February 1786 (transcript of full account here). This account concerning “an aged parent and his daughter. The former, not being able to support himself amidst the surrounding billows, was unfortunately drowned.” The account continues that “she put her hand into his pocket, where she found a small sum of money, which she hoped would enable her to proceed to Philadelphia, but meeting with an inhabitant of the inhospitable western shore of Delaware, he, instead of administering comfort to the unfortunate girl, demanded her cash, stripped her father of his clothes, and walked off, seemingly callous to her lamentations.’

Survivor Stories of the Faithful Stewart

There are many stories associated with this ship that have been passed down through the generations, by descendants of the survivors, and Harry made considerable efforts to identify and make contact with descendants and record their stories.

Survivors: Cabin Passengers – Gus. Colhoun, Tho Colhoun

For over a century, English and Irish copper halfpenny and penny coins, dated 1776 to 1782, and stamped with the image of George III, have washed up on Coin Beach. Over 350,000 copper coins, in 400 barrels, were being transported on the Faithful Steward; the barrels that didn’t break open eventually rotted and cast coins across the sandy bottom. The wreck, just beyond the surf line, still yields them as they’re swept in by heavy seas. Many of these coins are on display in DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Island, Delaware, (Figure 8).

Faithful Stewart Coins

Figure 8: Copper coins recovered from the wreck of the Faithful Steward
This collection of British and Irish copper halfpenny and penny coins, dated 1776 to 1782, some stamped with the image of King George III, is on display in DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Island, Delaware,, where Dale Clifton, Director, gave author, Harry Wenzel permission to take pictures of artifcats in their Faithful Steward display.

A descendant, living in British Columbia, believes that two of the survivors of the shipwreck, cabin passengers Gustavus and Thomas Colhoun may have had a connection with this coinage. Thomas, Gustavus, and Hugh Colhoun were three brothers with roots in northwest Ireland, possibly Newtownstewart, County Tyrone; Thomas was a mariner while Gustavus and Hugh operated a merchant business in Philadelphia on North Water Street. 

It is quite possible that Gustavus and Hugh Colhoun purchased the coinage with the intention of selling it in Philadelphia to be used as small circulation coins, as the first United States Mint, which opened in Philadelphia, was not created until 1792. Indeed, in November 1792, Hugh and Gustavus Colhoun sold 4,140 pounds (weight) of scrap copper to the US Mint for the minting of its first coins for $1,057.  

Survivors: Passengers – Jas. McIntire, sen. and jun, Reb. McIntire

The first-hand account of James McEntire of Ardstraw Bridge, County Tyrone who survived the Faithful Steward shipwreck was read at a family reunion and published in Crawford Journal – Meadville, Pennsylvania of 4 February 1881. Transcribed it extends to 8 pages of typescript. This account was first recorded by Rev. McMichael, who interviewed James, then aged 68 and 46 years after the disaster, and it was published in the Meadville Courier of 30 August 1831.

James McEntire Jr, shipwreck survivor of Faithful Steward in 1785, founded family farm at Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania in 1802, and the farm still remains in the family today. James McEntire, then aged 22, was travelling with his parents, brother and sisters: James, his father, James and sister Rebecca survived; but James' mother, brother and seven sisters did not.

In James’ words: ‘I was a youth of twenty-two; just emerging into complete manhood and active life. I was, therefore, a suitable person to seek the wilds of America…I saw in imagination beyond the bright expanse of water which lay before us a country where the banner of freedom waved proudly; a country where heroes lived, where genius expanded to full perfection; where every good was possessed. I saw, or thought I saw, another paradise, a new and flowery land; such as mortals can never see, such as mortals can never enjoy.’

In graphic detail he describes the events that followed the grounding of the ship on the night of Thursday 1st September 1785 at 10 o’clock. This account begins: ‘The confusion that now reigned is beyond the power of description; it is inconceivable. Meanwhile the wind had increased to a hurricane. The waves like mountains rolled over us, and threatened our entire destruction. Terror became universal among both passengers and sailors’ (transcript of full account at Figure 9).

Survivors: Passengers – John Aspill, Jas. Aspill

Some descendants believe that Faithful Steward survivors John and James Aspill are in fact John and James Espey. Hugh Espey married Mary Stewart of Tobermore, County Derry; they had 5 children William, Hugh, John, James and Mary, all born at Tobermore. William and Hugh sailed for Philadelphia in 1774 and settled in Pennsylvania while John, James and Mary were passengers on the Faithful Steward. Mary died but John and James survived the shipwreck and settled in Ohio.

The knowledge of Espey family origins in Ireland is known as a ‘“Church Letter for the Benefit of William Espey’ has survived in which the Minister of Tobermore Presbyterian Church, James Whiteside, certified, on 20th May 1774, that ‘William Espey, son of Hugh Espey of Tobermore in the Parish of Kilcronaghan in the County of Londonderry, Ireland, is a Native of said Parish and during his residence has behaved himself soberly, honestly, and inoffensively, and has enjoyed the happenings of a fair and unblemished character clear of scandal or any imputation thereof, and has Received the benefits of Communion with us is now bound for America, and may be admitted into any Christian Society where Divine Providence may order his lot.’

James Whiteside was minister of Tobermore Presbyterian Church from his ordination on 1 August 1757 until his death on 23 March 1798 and, although built in 1728, there are no surviving baptism and marriage registers for this church prior to 1860 and 1845 respectively. Hence, it is knowledge at the American end that confirms Espey ancestral origins in Ireland, not historical sources in Ireland!

Survivors: Passengers – James and Mary Lee

 A Lee descendant living in Florida supplied Harry the following account: ‘James Lee was a native of Ireland, which country he left in 1785 in company with his parents, three brothers, and two sisters, three uncles and aunts, and thirty-three cousins.  They embarked in the ill-fated ship Faithful Steward. His whole connection were drowned except four cousins. This disaster left him penniless and almost friendless.  He labored in Maryland and in Fayette County, Pa. until 1796, when he moved to Washington County, Pa.’ Family tradition also believes that James Lee and his cousin Mary Lee were born in County Donegal.

Civil War General, Robert E Lee connection

There is also a belief that Civil War General, Robert E Lee and the Lee extended family on board the Faithful Steward had common ancestral origins. The Times of Philadelphia of 6 December 1885, under heading: ‘THE FAITHFUL STEWARD – General Robert E. Lee’s Ancestors. With a Strange Tale of Shipwreck,’ records the contents of a letter that had been written to Homer Lee, who settled in New York from Ohio, by his uncle.

The letter, signed by Robert Lee [Judge Robert Lee of Bucyrus, Ohio], states: ‘I met General Robert E. Lee in Philadelphia at the outbreak of the Mexican war [1846-1848]. He was a young officer. I found him a very pleasant and intelligent gentleman, who had the genealogy of the Lee family to a marked degree. He said that during some of the wars or revolutions in England a portion of the Lee family left England and settled in Ireland, and that many of their descendants, both from England and Ireland, emigrated to this country, but all were descendants of an original ancestry. His narrative was very interesting, but has nearly faded from my recollection. He told me of the loss of the Faithful Steward, which I also heard from my grandfather. A large number of the family engaged passage to this country on said ship; among the number was my grandfather, Thomas Lee, with his family, but when they arrived at port [Londonderry] the ship was so crowded they could not get passage and were compelled to wait for the next ship that sailed for Philadelphia.’ 

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Author: Brian Mitchell, Derry Genealogy

For four years, almost weekly, Harry Wenzel of Harleysville, Pennsylvania and I corresponded about the final voyage of the ship Faithful Steward. Harry’s research culminated in the publication of his historical novel, The Ship Faithful Steward – A Story of Scots-Irish, English, and Irish Migration to Pennsylvania: “Delaware’s Worst Maritime Tragedy 1785” in November 2021.

I shared with Harry my research through 2 local newspapers that were already well-established in Ulster by 1785, namely the Londonderry Journal and Belfast News-Letter; together with information I had received about this ship from various researchers, since 1994, when Dale Clifton, Director of DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Island, Delaware,, first made contact, seeking information about the Faithful Steward contained in the Londonderry Journal of 15 November 1785 (still in print today as the Derry Journal).

In return, Harry shared with me his extensive research through historical documentation in the US and, perhaps of more importance, the information – documents, family folklore etc. – he gleaned from descendants, over 20 in number, whose ancestors survived the shipwreck.

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