Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sepia Saturday, 2013 August 3: McPherson from Dundee to New York City

The prompt for this week is a 1905 photograph (from the collection of the Library of Congress) of the pier and harbour of the English port of Littlehampton. The picture immediately brought a piece that I wrote about my great-great grandparents, James P. and Mary Burns McPherson, and their immigration to America from Dundee, Scotland.  They both worked in the flax mills of Dundee, where the life span was a mere 36 years when they left in 1842.  Guess the immigration worked as they both lived to a ripe old age in their new country. Now check out the offerings of our fellow  Sepians.



Entrance to the Port of Dundee
by L.H. Bartlett
circa mid 1800s
1842 JAMES P. McPHERSON AND HIS BRIDE SAILED TO AMERICA ON THE MEDORA (Revisd for this blog post./JGH)

Young James P McPherson most likely had been saving a few shillings every week for the steerage tickets, which were £4-£5 each. If he saved 2 shillings a week, it would have taken at least 5 months to save enough for one person's fare, and ten months for two fares. After his mother died, James Peter was most likely able to put aside 6 to 8 shillings a week – and if his wife to-be, Mary Burns, was able to contribute a couple of shillings a week (out of her 5 shilling per week pay) the couple might have save £2 a month, and  £10 over the 5 month after his mother's death. In addition to  £9 for steerage tickets, they also had to eke out enough to provide for their own food for the long passage. Saving for the crossing to America was not easy on an income of 18 shillings a week,

James would have made or procured a box perhaps with a lock of some sort in which to pack and secure their meager belongings. They knew they would be crowded into a tiny area, which in reality would be little more than an bunk, with their box and perhaps a few bags containing food, a blanket, and cooking items. Mary would have been busy obtaining a couple of wooden or tin plates and cups, and a tin cooking pot, as she would have to cook over a common fire on deck whenever space around the fire was available. The provision box would be used mostly for foodstuff for the trip. For the crossing, they would need several pounds of oatmeal, flour, perhaps an extravagance such as a bit of sugar or molasses, and some coffee. She might have also been preparing some eggs, salt pickled so they would last for some time. Potatoes, cabbage, cured or pickled meat would be the basis for soups or stews that could last for a whole the day -- or more if needed.
Their clothing and bedding would have been very basic. Dark colored pants and long gowns were good because they had heard that keeping clean was next to impossible on the voyage. Woolen blankets sufficed for bedding as well as a wrap. 

Five months after his mother's death, young James Peter McPherson and Mary Burns left the flax mills and Dundee forever. On July 16, 1842, they were married, either before they sailed or by the Medora's Captain  once aboard, and began their voyage to America.

The Sailing Ship Tay
(Although this is not the Medora, it
suited my fancy and is a close
enough representation of the ship
McPherson sailed on)
Even with all the reading James Peter had done about the trip to America, they must have found their seven week crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on the sailing ship,Medora, little better than the conditions in mills of Dundee. Ship owners regarded the emigrants as little more than another commodity to be shipped from one place to another. They maximized the number of seafarers that could be crowded into the ships hold, by hammering temporary planking across the beams and so making berths along each side of the hold. For most of the trip, James and Mary would huddle in their make-shift berth with all their belongings within close reach. There were no port holes, and the only ventilation for the couple and their hundred or so steerage companions was the hatch. Even though James and Mary made the crossing during the summer, when there were few major storms, the
Courtesty of the Collection of Maggie Blanck
Medora was not the size of our modern ships, and with much less draft. Even a minor storm could send waves up and over her decks. It was not unusual and during in heavy weather, the hatches might be closed for days. The folks in the steerage hold were left in the dark, breathing only fetid air, rank with smells vomit and human waste. Even nowadays, sailors blanch at the thought of be cooped up in a tiny hold, by todays standards, for even a day.


Courtesty of the Collection of Maggie Blanck

When the weather permitted, the couple went top side a couple of times a day to exercise, and prepare food at the common fire provided by the shipowners. They often carried their meager belongings with them when they went topside, or one would stay below with their belongings. Amenities, like doors, port holes, a separate sleeping birth, were only for those who could afford cabin passage. Sea travel was not for the faint of heart or weak constitutions. It is surprising that only a small percentage of passengers died at sea.
The Medora was most likely held in quarantine for one to two days on one of the islands off of the Manhattan shore. Usually a doctor came aboard to determine if there were any passengers ill with contagious diseases. If not, the passengers would be allowed to get ready to leave the ship after their clothes and belongings were washed. Many immigrants have reported how everyone, men, women and children would be busy washing their clothes, usually with cold water and no soap, but plenty of rubbing and then string ropes wherever possible to hang the clothes to dry. According to letters to those back in the old country, someone from each family usually stood guard over their clothes and bedding as this was a time where theivery was rampant.
1873 New York Harbor from Brooklyn Heights
Steel Engraving by G.R. Hall
(New York harbor as it may have looked to the
young McPherson couple)
On September 13, 1842, after the Medora left quarantine, she docked on the lower west side of New York city so that the cabin passengers could debark and cargo unloaded. Only then were steerage passengers off loaded to lighter boats or schooners and deposited at the custom house where their baggage was inspected.

Mary and James Peter may have stayed the night in one of the taverns near the waterfront. Or they might have been fortunate enough to have been met by some friends that were already settled in New York. Perhaps they were met by their friends, the Stewarts or other Scots emigrants who had written and encouraged them to come and join them in them in New York. Whether alone or with friends, the young Scot and his bride strode confidently onto American soil in New York City, ready to make their way in a new land.



~ ~ 

 © Joan G. Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications

38 comments:

  1. I remember reading a diary of such a voyage across the Atlantic by a passenger in steerage - horrific conditions and, yes, surprising that not more passengers died.

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    1. my son-in-law who was a captain of an oil tanker told me that he could think of nothing worse than being closed in the hold of one of the old sailing ships. Dinna take much of a wind to send waves over the side and into the hold.

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  2. What an interesting story, and the Dundee painting is a nice match for the prompt too.

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    1. I really liked the view of the Dundee harbor as well as the one of the New York City Harbor from Brooklyn Heights. It felt like a "bookend" for their crossing of the Atlantic. Still get goosebumps just thinking about it.

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  3. Wonderfully descriptive - you almost put me on that ship with them. Well matched words and images can tell a story so perfectly.

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    1. Thank you, Alan. I also had a couple of pictures of immigrants of the day boarding the ship and taking leave of their native land. Left them out, as I thought the post was a bit too long as it was. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  4. Hello
    This is my first time visiting sepia Saturday !
    You wonder how so many survived the trip in the hold, it must have been so smelly and foul. You would be filthy when you finally arrived in New York. You just hope they found the land of opportunity
    Jackie

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    1. There are diaries of immigrants that tell of how they had to wash their clothes and belongings -- in cold water and no soap -- before they could debark after the quarentine on one of the islands off shore. Guess they were as clean as they could get.

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  5. I have always "known" it had to have been difficult emotionally and financially to leave one's country to start over elsewhere. You have framed the McPhersons' story in such an interesting way.

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    1. Thank you, Wendy. Glad you enjoyed it. This morning when I was listening to the news I heard a guy talking about a planned venture to Mars (of which there was no return trip) and how similar it was when folks of old left family, friends and native land to go to the Americas or Australia. My great great grandparents never saw Scotland again --- tho many of their friends and family came to America. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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  6. 36! It is hard to believe now.

    A really enjoyed this post.

    Thank you.

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    1. Thanks, Sharon. I took a road trip half way across the country --- loosely following the way my great great grand parents followed the Oregon Trail, and the way that my grandfather brought his family out to California. Renewed respect for their bravery, tenacity, and endurance. Definitely hard to believe in these days of airconditioned cars and motels, with clean bedding, tv and wifi awaiting our arrival. LOL

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    2. I have done a history section for students stripping away everything they take for granted in order for them to really grasp how different life was "back then". It's a real eye opener! When the girls hear they can't take a bath every day, they are horrified. The boys, not so much haha.

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    3. sounds like your students have a very innovative teacher -- that;s what makes learning so much fun.

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  7. So interesting, what amazing and incredible travels back in the day. Nice pieces of history, and the painting as well, complete the theme with perfection.

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    1. It is amazing how they were willing to brave all sorts of dangers to come to America. I always hope that I too am made of that sterner stuff --- but my tests have never been so severe. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  8. A fascinating account with so much detail and it is particularly interesting because of the early emigration date. I too love the old painting of Dundee - or did it make it look a bit too idyllic? A great family history story.

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  9. I don't know if the painting makes Dundee look idyllic or not -- never been there, but hope to this next year. I sort of like the picture as, to me, it had a wistful quality -- and I thought J.P and Mary might have felt that too. On the other hand, I am sure they were glad to leave the flax mills and the squalor behind them. Glad you found the piece interesting.

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  10. I do love those old paintings depicting how it was....I seem to remember having a fondness for Dundee marmalade...must investigate...can't imagine you could grow oranges in Dundee. And what Alan and Sharon said too. Well done.

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  11. I chose the pictures of Dundee and New York Harbors because it felt like the scenes that my great great grandparents must have known. Glad that you enjoyed them as well. Thanks for reading and the nice words.

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  12. This is a story so well told it should be published if you can find a suitable magazine. Your picture selection was perfect.

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    1. Thank you, Bob, for the encouraging words. I always just thought I wrote for fun -- and so my family doesn't forget from whence they come (well that is, if any of them ever read my stuff.) Thanks again, perhaps I'll look for a suitable magazine or journal.

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  13. You write so well, I'll look forward to reading your book one day :)

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    1. Thank you, Jackie. You write a pretty mean post yourself (that's a good thing, you know)

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  14. It must have been a tough decision because they would not have seen 'home' again.

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    1. The decision might have been easier than one might think. James P's mother died shortly before they emigrated and his father died before he was born. Mary's family (brother and mother) came to America a year or so later. And it appears that they had many friends that came to America before and after the young McPherson couple. I think that was fairly typical in the immigration ways.

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  15. That is a great story. How awful it must have been. They must have been a tough couple to cope with the horrible voyage. The painting of Dundee is a great match with the prompt.

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    1. thanks. They were tough, but I think staying in Dundee and the flax mills would have been more difficult -- the average life span in Dundee of that time was a mere 36 years, where as James P lived to be 83 years old and Mary, 88.

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  16. Great post and love your pictures. I am always coming across these long voyages in my postcard and real photo research, and I am always amazed that people set out on these big life-changing adventures. Thanks for sharing :)

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    1. Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed the post. The pictures of the harbors of Dundee and NYC have always had an allure for me. So different than now -- I often wonder what James and Mary would think about those two harbors of today.

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  17. I would not have survived the trip over here, Joan...seriously! The thought of it fills me with dread -- how did these people gather the courage to do it? And is this Dundee the same of the marmalade people? Great stuff...

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Deb. Those old folks of mine were indeed courageous, but then maybe the horrid conditions in the flax mills made them more so.

      You are right, Dundee is of the marmalade fame.

      According to Wikipedia, there have been marmalade recipes dating back to the 16th Century, however it is the Keiller recipe purportedly invented in 1797 that was mass produced which everyone associates with Dundee -- and can still be purchased.

      Actually Dundee has been known for the 3 Js, jute, jam (marmalade) & journalism. Jute mills of the late 19th century took the place of the flax mills of my great grandparents time. The "journalism" stems from the publishing firm DC Thomson & Co., which was founded in the city in 1905 and remains the largest employer after the health and leisure industries. The firm publishes a variety of newspapers, children's comics and magazines, including The Sunday Post, The Courier, Shout and children's publications, The Beano and The Dandy. Don't you just love Wikipedia? Makes all sound so smart.

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  18. Emigration is still an adventure, even nowadays.
    I dare not imagine too much their conditions.
    You've provided enough details here,
    and a great spin on the theme,
    from port to port!!
    :)~
    HUGZ

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    1. I was thought that I might have been too obtuse about the port to port element of the story. I have always like both pictures for how they played in the story, but the New York harbor from Brooklyn Heights always caught my imagination more. Seemed so bustling and burgeoning with life and activity-- rather like their new life in America. Thanks for reading and always appreciate your comments.

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  19. So the trip was their hoineymoon. I am so thankful for all my ancestors who made a similar emigrant trip, including a housemaid who came to Australia from Dundee in the 1850s - Maria Burns.

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    1. Ah, and you had a Maria Burns from Dundee, and I , a Mary Burns from Dundee. Now, is your Maria by any chance related to the Jabez Burns, the well known Baptist & Temperance minister?

      As a honemoon cruise, I think it lacked something. In later years, they told their children that they arrived on the New York shores with only a handful of dried peas tucked in James' pocket.

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    2. All I know is that her father was William, a bellhanger. Such a distinctive name for research purposes !

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  20. Maria's father was william Burns, a bellhanger. With a name like William Burns inScotland further research was difficul.

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