Three centuries of ties between Strabane and Philadelphia

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Some six million people in the United States today can trace an ancestor back to Scots-Irish, also known as Ulster-Scots, settlers in counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone who departed Derry port, at Shipquay, for North America in the 18th century.

Thirty percent of Ulster-Scots, around 75,000 people, emigrated through Derry quay to North America prior to 1776 and the American Declaration of Independence.

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

Conolly McCausland of Streeve Hill, near Limavady, 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 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.

Two famous Strabane sons, with Philadelphia links, are remembered to this day in both USA and Ireland.

These links are commemorated in Strabane at two locations and are described thus in Michelin Ireland Tourist Guide (1992 edition): “Wilson Ancestral Home, Dergalt – James Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s grandfather, lived in the white-washed thatched cottage until he left for America in 1807 at the age of 20.

“The house contains some of the original furniture: a cupboard bed by the kitchen fire and curtained beds in the main bedroom.

“The first-floor room is a later addition. Wilsons still live in the modern farmhouse behind the cottage.

Gray’s Printery, Strabane – Behind the bowed Georgian shopfront, a 19th century printing shop has been preserved with its 19th century hand and foot operated presses.

“In the 18th century Strabane was a lively publishing centre. Two local apprentices made their mark in the USA: John Dunlap (1747-1812), an apprentice in Gray’s Printery, printed the American Declaration of Independence in his newspaper the Pennsylvania Packet; James Wilson became editor of a Philadelphia newspaper.”

The official website of the White House records that ‘Woodrow Wilson, a leader of the Progressive Movement, was the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921). After a policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War I, Wilson led America into war in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”’

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was descended from a Scots-Irish family, who lived in a homestead at Dergalt, 2 miles southeast of Strabane (on Plumbridge Road). James Wilson, grandfather of Woodrow Wilson, left Derry for Philadelphia in 1807 and married, in 1808, at Fourth Philadelphia Presbyterian Church, Annie Adams of Sion Mills, County Tyrone, who he had met on the voyage.

Their son, the Rev. Joseph R. Wilson, was the President’s father, and the President’s mother was Jessie Woodrow, from Carlisle in England.

James Wilson is reputed to have served his apprenticeship as a printer in Gray’s printing works at Strabane in which John Dunlap, printer of the first copies of the American Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, is also said to have learned his trade. James Wilson worked at the Democratic newspaper The Aurora and within five years he was the owner of the paper.

For his efforts in achieving world peace at the end of World War One Woodrow Wilson was awarded, in 1919, the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was the leading exponent of the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

John Dunlap was born, in 1747, at Meeting House Street, Strabane, and founded in 1783, 11 years after the first publication of the Derry Journal, the first American daily newspaper The Pennsylvania Packet.

John Dunlap, at age of 10, was sent to America to be apprenticed to his uncle William who ran a printing establishment selling books in Philadelphia.

Davy Crockett (1786-1836), known to many as ‘the king of the Wild Frontier’ is another American hero with Ulster Scot ancestry in the Strabane area.

It is claimed that his Crockett ancestors emigrated from Castlederg to America in the early 18th century.