A Weaver by Trade - Irish Indentured Servants in Eighteenth-Century New Jersey
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In the mid-eighteenth century, severe agricultural and financial crises forced thousands to leave Ireland for British North America. A great number of them arrived in the Middle Atlantic colonies - many as indentured servants. These indentured servants had agreed to exchange their labor for a fixed period - often seven years - to pay for the cost of their passage to America. This wave of immigrants arrived at a pivotal time in the nation's formation, and played a key role in the new nation's economy and contributed to the success of its struggle for independence. This was particularly true in New Jersey, where Irish immigrants labored as indentured servants and filled the ranks of the newly formed Continental Army. Contemporary documents, including runaway servant advertisements, are especially valuable for tracing the path of Irish immigrants from their arrival in colonial American ports, to their role in the New Jersey labor market, and the participation of many in the Continental - and British - armies. a trading pattern emerges From the beginning of the eighteenth cen-tury to the start of the Revolutionary War, an estimated 250,000-400,000 people left "A Weaver by Trade": Irish Indentured Servants in Eighteenth-Century New Jersey Illustration (top): Advertisement from The Pennsylvania Gazette for June 29, 1738 announcing sale of English and Irish indentured servants ("Just Imported") aboard the ship Hercules anchored opposite the Market-Street wharf in Philadelphia. Note: a "snow" is a type of merchant ship. Courtesy of Paul Ferris.
Illustration (right) Engraving by French artist Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) shows waterfront buildings along the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Most Irish indentured servants in New Jersey probably came through the port of Philadelphia. Courtesy of Library of Congress. Ireland for America. The system of tenant farming held many in Ireland in poverty, and famines and poor harvests further exacerbated living conditions. For many emigrants, a term as an indentured servant in the North American colonies offered the only chance to escape these dire circumstances. Starting in the late 1720s, a trading pattern emerged, with ships leaving Ulster ports filled with Irish emigrants - many as indentured servants - and arriving in Delaware River ports, chiefly Philadelphia. These ships would return to Ireland with cargoes of Pennsylvania flaxseed. This trade in servants from northern Ireland reached its peak in the 1770s, with most arriving in the port of Philadelphia. From 1760 to 1775, an unprecedented wave of immigrants arrived in America. The majority of these more than 200,000 new arrivals came from the British Isles. The 55,000 Irish among this group accounted for 2.3 percent of the island's population. A series of agricultural and economic calamities contributed to this exodus. These included crop failures in 1765 through 1767, a handloom weaving collapse in Cork in 1769, and a depression in the linen industry. The north of Ireland was especially hard hit. With the downturn in the linen sector, approximately one third of weavers in Ulster found themselves without work. This last pre-Revolutionary wave of emigration from Ireland to America, like other previous waves, was largely a Protestant one. Irish Protestant emigrants, chiefly Presbyterian, made up three-fourths of those leaving Ireland from 1700 to 1776, though they "constituted only onefourth to one-third of the island." Some observers on both sides of the Atlantic viewed the volume of emigrants leaving Ireland with alarm. Lord Hillsborough (who served as Secretary of State for the American Department, 1768- 1772), wrote in 1753 that it might be necessary "for the public good to lay a restraint upon poor people leaving the place of their birth without leave from the magistrates of the place." In 1766, Benjamin Franklin reported that Hillsborough was "[t]erribly afraid of dispeopling Ireland." A series of British government reports, written in the late 1760s and early 1770s, stated that the flow of emigrants had caused northern Ireland, over a period of five or six years, to "have been drained of one fourth of its trading cash and the like proportion of the manufacturing people." In 1729, the arrival of Irish immigrants in the port of Philadelphia caused James Logan, the Secretary of Pennsylvania, to write: "It looks as if Ireland is to send all its inhabitants hither, for last week not less than six ships arrived, and every day two or three arrive also." During the surge of arrivals from Ireland in the mid-1770s, the New-York Gazette printed an account of ships arriving in eastern ports in a four-month period in 1773 : We are favoured with the following accounts of the emigrations from Ireland from the third of August, Paul Ferris is a graduate of the NYU Irish and Irish American Studies Master of Arts program, and has taught the Irish language at NYU and Drew University. He contributed a chapter to the recently published book The Irish-American Experience in New Jersey and Metropolitan New York. Ferris currently teaches with Daltaí na Gaeilge and Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann. ©2015. Published with permission of Paul Ferris.
Illustration: Benjamin Franklin shown in a 1778 engraving by Justus Chevillet. In 1766, Franklin reported that Lord Hillsborough was "terribly afraid of depeopling Ireland." Courtesy of Library of Congress. 1773, to the 29th of November following, which was taken in Philadelphia, and the other towns, upon the emigrants being landed there, and transmitted to our correspondent by the Isabella, Captain Fleming, At New-York 1611 At Philadelphia 2086 At Charlestown 966 At New-Jersey 326 At Halifax 516 At Newport, Rhode Island 717 Total of emigrants from Ireland in four months 6222 From England, Scotland, and Germany, there have landed in the above ports within the same period 1400 From the Isle of Man 56 Writing of a number of ships that departed the northern Irish port of Newry in May 1773 for America, an account in the Pennsylvania Chronicle noted "We hear also that great numbers of vessels from Dublin, Londonderry, Belfast, Larne, Cork, and other ports have lately sailed or are soon expected to sail, full of passengers, for different parts of North America. These emigrations, it is thought, have already drained the northern parts of Ireland of near a third part of its most useful and industrious inhabitants." The sea voyage of the indentured servants was often difficult, with mortality rates that sometimes equaled or exceeded that of slave ships. Many masters sought to transport their servant cargo as inexpensively as possible. Some were "notorious for providing adequate provisions for only the first half of the trip then virtually starving their captors to the journey's end." At the height of the Irish indentured servant trade in the mid-eighteenth century, a mortality rate of 43 percent was reported on the 1741 voyage of the Seaflower and 26 percent on the General Wolfe voyage of 1772. Earlier, in 1729, two vessels suffered a mortality rate of more than 50 percent. The value of those servants who survived the perilous crossing was often reduced by disease. However, disease and death did not always have a negative affect the bottom line: the death of passengers "served to enhance the profits of the voyage by saving provisions." After arriving in American ports, these servants were advertised along with other goods from Ireland, as seen in this notice from the Charleston Gazette of December 7, 1734: "Just imported and to be sold... Irish servants, men and women, of good trades, from the north of Ireland, Irish linen, household furniture, butter, cheese, chinaware, and all sorts of dry goods." The length of their indentures usually ranged from four to seven years. Terms of less than four years were rare, especially in the mid to late eighteenth century. It is likely that most Irish indentured servants in New Jersey came through Philadelphia. Notably described by Benjamin Franklin as a "barrel, tapped at both ends," New Jersey was also supplied with goods and servants from these two "ends" - Philadelphia and New York. Of these two cities, Philadelphia dominated the servant trade. Illustration: Announcement of reward for runaway Irish "servant man" that appeared in The New-York Gazette for June 29, 1767. The master, who lived in New Jersey, describes the runaway in great detail and warns readers who might aid the servant that they do so at their peril. Courtesy of Paul Ferris. run-away living in new-jersey Some servants reacted to their often-harsh circumstances by running away; many ran away multiple times. Runaways paid a harsh price for their escape when they were captured. In addition to facing corporal punishment, they were liable for the charges (including fees for the runaway servant advertisements) incurred in securing their return. Some also faced additional time added to their terms of servitude. Peter Williamson, lured at age ten from the docks of Aberdeen onto a servant ship sailing for America in 1743, reported that for "every day they have been absent they are compelled to work a week, for every week a month, for every month a year." Williamson considered himself fortunate: he had been sold to a landowner, Hugh Wilson, a fellow Scot, who he described as a "humane, worthy, honest man." Williamson spent the seven-year term of his indenture working on a New Jersey farm on the banks on the Delaware River. Newspapers of the era carried numerous runaway servant advertisements - though these sometimes-lengthy advertisements are not firsthand accounts of the lives of indentured servants, they nonetheless contain valuable information, including place of origin, languages spoken, religion, trades, and port of arrival. The forty-volume Documents Relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey: Extracts from American Newspapers Relating to New Jersey contains nearly 1500 runaway indentured servant advertisements. This collection, published over a span of years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the result of the New Jersey Historical Society's efforts to collect articles from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston newspapers relating to events in New Jersey, and has been recently digitized. The University of Virginia has completed a similar digitization process, compiling 779 runaway and captured advertisements for indentured servants from 1736 to 1790. An examination of these documents reveals the prevalence of Irish people among the population of indentured servants in the Middle Atlantic colonies. Richard Marrin, reviewing 763 New Jersey runaway indentured servant advertisements from 1720 to 1781 that specified country of origin, determined that 46 percent were Irish born. In an analysis of runaway servant advertisements in her book, "To Serve Well and Faithfully": Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800, Sharon Salinger concluded that a majority were Irish. A common Northern Ireland trade of many immigrants to America in the immediate pre-Revolutionary era, that of a weaver, was found to be the second-most common trade mentioned in the New Jersey runaway advertisements. The advertisements themselves contain many references to this occupation, such as the following, which ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette, June 25, 1767 : Run away from subscriber, living in New-Jersey, near Prince-Town, the 31 st of May last, an Irish Servant Man named Francis Matthews, but is thought to have changed his name to that of Richard Brown, aged about 20 years, about 5 Feet 8 Inches high; he is a Weaver by Trade.
Another advertisement of the era, from the Pennsylvania Gazette of September 18, Illustration: Painting from 1843 depicts George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette visiting soldiers encamped in Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. Approximately 25 percent of the Continental Army troops were Irish or of Irish descent. In New Jersey regiments, which allowed servants to enlist, the Irish presence was nearly 45 percent. Courtesy of Library of Congress. 1766, seeks the return of a New Jersey runaway, "a weaver by trade," and specifies the dialect of English that the fugitive speaks : Absconded from his bail, an Irishman, named Samuel Evans, a weaver by trade, about 22 years of age, 5 feet 9 or 10 inches high, somewhat slender built, fresh coloured, a little freckled on the hands and face, pock marked, reddish hair, and speaks on the Scotch Irish order. Many of the advertisements seeking runaway New Jersey Irish indentured servants mention them speaking with a brogue, which denotes a basic ability to speak English. They were immigrants from a country that was nearly a majority Irishspeaking nation - one estimate indicates that 45 percent of the population of Ireland was Irish-speaking in the years 1771-1781. A number of the advertisements testify to the bilingual nature of these servants, with Philip Canada, sought by William Cox of New Brunswick in 1744, described as speaking "good English and Irish." There are also indications that there were monolingual Irish speakers among the servant population in New Jersey, as seen in this advertisement from the Pennsylvania Journal of March 22, 1764 : Run-away from the subscriber living in the township of Evesham, in the county of Burlington and province of New Jersey; the 16th of this instant, an Irish servant lad named Barnard M'Cindred, aged between the years of 16 and 17, a large wellset fellow of his age, red complexion, very much freckled and somewhat pitted with the small pox. Talks pretty good English for the time he has been in the country (which is about 6 or 7 months). a scotch irish presbyterian rebellion At the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, the British Army and the Continental Army had to raise troops rapidly for the new conflict. Both sides looked to the Irish for new enlistees, and saw the large population of indentured servants as rich potential source for these troops. In late 1776, to supplement local and state militias, the Continental Congress called for the raising of eighty-eight regiments, a total of 63,000 troops. The term of enlistment - three years or the duration of the war - proved to be a deterrent to attracting troops. This forced recruiters to enlist anyone willing to serve, including indentured and convict servants. Recruiters focused on the positive aspects of the army life, avoiding discussing its harsh realities. Some even recruited extensively in taverns, enlisting so-called "liquor listees." Four states - New Jersey, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Maryland - permitted servants to enlist, with the state paying compensation to their masters. Recruiting officers also purchased indentured servants on the condition that they enlist; some allowed runaway servants and slaves to enlist as well. George Washington questioned the enlistment of servants, concerned that they would desert at the first opportunity. In an attempt to undercut this flow of manpower into the Continental Army, Lord Dunmore, Lieutenant and Governor General of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia, offered freedom to those who enlisted in the king's army. In a proclamation issued in November 1775, Lord Dunmore stated : And I do hereby further declare all Illustration: Clipping from Rivington's New York Gazetteer for March 17, 1774 announces the impending sale of "a few Irish Servants" just arrived from County Cork. Thousands of immigrants to New Jersey and other Middle Atlantic colonies during the eighteenth century arrived through the indenture system, contracting to sell their labor for a fixed period of time in return for passage. Courtesy of Paul Ferris. indentured servants, negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's troops as soon as they may be, for the more speedily reducing this colony to a more proper sense of their duty to His Majesty's Crown and dignity. Landowners were concerned about losing their servants and slaves, and Washington condemned Lord Dunmore as an "arch traitor to the rights of humanity." The Irish filled the ranks of the Continental Army in such numbers that more than one contemporary observer saw the role of Irish immigrants in the American Revolution as a crucial one. In 1778, a Hessian officer wrote: "Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion." In the same year, Doctor John Berkenhout, travelling in New Jersey from New York to Philadelphia, described the Continental Army as mostly "Irish transports." Lieutenant William Fielding observed that the American army was "half Irish... chiefly Emigrants who settled in the Province since the last war." Recent estimates confirm that these contemporary observations were accurate: approximately 25 percent of Continental Army troops were Irish or of Irish descent. In New Jersey and other Middle Atlantic regiments, the Irish presence was nearly 45 percent. These Irish troops were prominent in the important early battles of Trenton (December 1776) and Princeton (January 1777), with "hundreds of them in the ranks with rifle and bayonet." In Ireland itself, efforts to recruit soldiers for the British Army campaign in the rebellious colonies fell short. One factor for the lack of response to this enlistment drive was a series of good harvests in Ireland at the outset of the war. Writing in October 1775, Lord Harcourt, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, saw the successful harvests as a deterrent to enlistment, lamenting that "[c]orns of all kind, and potatoes, the chief food of the people, are a drug." Not all Irishmen in America - servants or freemen - were moved to join the Continental Army, whether for economic or ideological reasons. Runaway servant advertisements show that some were suspected of leaving their masters in New Jersey to join the British Army, as seen in the Pennsylvania Gazette of August 2, 1775 : Run away, last night, from the subscriber, in Springfield, Burlington county, West-Jersey, a certain Cornelius Mahoney, an indented Irish servant man, a professed Gagite, about 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, talks much in the brogue dialect, saucy and impudent when in drink... it is thought he intends to go to General Gage, and it is probable he will forge a pass, as he can write a pretty good hand. a thriving trade ceases The formerly thriving servant trade ceased during the war. When it resumed after the war's conclusion, the rate of indentured servants arriving in America was only half of that before the war. The Irish servant trade was particularly hard hit, "since British captains could no longer count on American courts to enforce contracts of indenture." At war's end, many of the Irish soldiers in the New Jersey regiments drifted back into obscurity, disappearing quickly from the historical record. Many freed indentured servants of the era met a similar fate, leaving little or no trace in tax, court, or probate records. The thousands of Irish immigrants who arrived in America in the eighteenth century as indentured servants completed out their terms of indenture, and for the most part, vanished from history. They were a significant part of the labor pool for a nation on the cusp of independence, and were key participants in the fight for America's independence. Runaway servant advertisements, numbering in the thousands, allow for a rare view of the details of their everyday lives. An examination of these documents affords us the opportunity to consider the important role that Irish indentured servants played in late-colonial and Revolutionary New Jersey. Endnotes 1. Miller 1988, 137. 2. ibid., 153. 3. Salinger 1987, 143. 4. Neimeyer 1996, 14. 5. ibid., 28. 6. Miller 1988, 155. 7. Neimeyer 1996, 30. 8. Miller 1988, 149. 9. Bailyn 1986, 30. 10. ibid., 31. 11. ibid., 36. 12. Salinger 1987, 54. 13. Nelson and Honeyman 1917, 468. 14. Marrin 2007, 4-5. 15. Salinger 1987, 91-92. 16. ibid., 94. 17. ibid., 91. 18. Dickson 1976, 95. 19. ibid., 90. 20. Galenson 1981, 254. 21. Doane and Doane 1861, 345. 22. Truxes 2004, 106. 23. Jordan and Walsh 2008, 240. 24. ibid., 239. 25. Marrin 2007, v. 26. University of Virginia. The geography of slavery in Virginia. 2015. 27. Marrin 2007, 3-4. 28. Salinger 1987, 112. 29. Marrin 2007, 6. 30. Nelson 1903, 395. 31. ibid., 210. 32. Price 2000, 7. 33. Marrin 2007, 75-76. 34. Nelson 1902, 337-338. 35. Ward 1999, 100. 36. McDonnell 2007, 108. 37. Ward 1999, 108-109. 38. ibid., 104-105. 39. McDonnell 2007, 108. 40. McHenry 1863, 234. 41. Jordan and Walsh 2008, 280-281. 42. Leyburn 1962, 305. 43. Neimeyer 1996, 32. 44. Ward 1999, 106. 45. Neimeyer 1996, 37. 46. Lucey 1976, 41. 47. 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