The Armstrong Chronicles: Part I, The Passage

This Chronicle of my branch of the Armstrong family was first published online August 27, 2018 in celebration of the 210th anniversary of our ancestors’ departure from Ireland for the United States. It is dedicated to the memory of Donald, Ted and Malcolm Armstrong, the family genealogists, who kept alive the memory of these people for the generations that followed. By a mysterious coincidence, August 27 is also the birthday of my cousin Bryan Armstrong (1958-2004), to whose memory I also dedicate this Chronicle. Thanks go to Charity Hallett French Armstrong, cousin and fellow genealogist.

Alexander Armstrong, Sr. (1766-1852) was my great great great great grandfather, his son James (1801-1848) my great great great grandfather, whose son Alexander (1827-1913) was my great great grandfather. My great grandfather James William Armstrong (1856-1929), or Dr. Will as he is known to us, was among the last in our line born on the Ohio lands purchased and worked by the immigrant generation. The focus of this Chronicle is on the immigrant and pioneering generations, about whom we can still know a good deal. It’s a story worth telling and preserving.

This public site is for the benefit of all, and corrections can be sent to me directly.

Part I. The Crossing

  1. The Original 11

Manifest_coverOn August 27, 1808 a party of 11 people climbed aboard the brig Louisa in Londonderry harbor with two chests and two bags—all their worldly possessions. They comprised two nuclear families—two brothers with their wives and children. Alexander and Catherine Armstrong were in their early forties, with four children: Elizabeth (7 years) and James (probably still 6), no doubt helping to keep their young brothers John (3) and William (2) in order.  James (39) and Isabella (44) Armstrong had three of their own: Leslie (5  years old), Isabella and James (younger, but exact ages unknown). They were Protestants from County Armagh, specifically Methodists. Whether they were originally Ulster Scots Presbyterians who drifted into Methodism under the influence of the itinerant preachers, or English Armstrongs (a minority opinion, but one lodged in the first generation) who were Church of Ireland congregants, we don’t know for certain. But from their later behavior one thing is clear: they were determined to get land of their own for farming and were consistently Methodist in their faith. The American frontier promised both land and religious freedom, and like so many Ulster Protestants before them, they set sail for Philadelphia along the well-worn path for those seeking a tolerant government and a way inland to affordable holdings they could make their own.

But what was the cause of their leaving Ireland behind? It seems almost a rhetorical question, since the Ulster Scots emigration is well known and well researched, and Armstrongs had been coming over for nearly a century. The usual causes one cites are religious problems (caught between historical tides of Catholicism and the established Church of England, the Presbyterian Scots of Ulster were often under some form of repression), rack-renting, disease and economic decline, particularly in the wool trade. Such things drove waves of Irish Protestants abroad long before the great, classic migration of Catholic Irish during the Famine.  Known as the Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish in America, these Irish Protestants filled the frontiers from Maine to Georgia, taking up in the areas the more established New Englanders or Tidewater gentry did not care to settle on account of their remoteness and danger.

The Scots-Irish played a significant role in the American Revolution and Indian Wars along the frontier.  A good example is John Armstrong (1717-1795, no relation), who came over from County Fermanagh in 1740, originally as a surveyor for Penn family. He platted the town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania and become one of its original settlers. He fought in the French and Indian War, during which he became a friend of George Washington. He served as a general in the early phases of the Revolution, then was a delegate to the Continental Congress and Congress of the Confederation.  His son John Armstrong Jr. (1758-1843) fought in the Continental Army with distinction, rose to become a US Senator, Minister to France, and Secretary of War in the War of 1812 (though he bungled the defense of Washington).  In historical terms, the Scots-Irish had failed in one plantation—the plantation of Ulster, where British monarchs hoped to replace unruly Irish with more dutiful Protestant Scots and English tenants—and adapted quickly to another. Only this time they were transplanting themselves, intent upon staying and not playing by anyone else’s rules.

By 1808, the situation was quite different from early days of Protestant Irish migration in colonial times. For one thing, America was now a sovereign country—which, for the discontented in Ireland wanting to escape English rule, was surely a selling point.  In the eighteenth century, Ireland had less political freedom than Britain’s American colonies. At the end of the century, some Irish liberals had attempted to gain pressure for reform by creating a coalition of Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and other dissenters into the Society of United Irishmen (1791), inspired by the American and French Revolutions. But this went badly in the Rebellion of 1798, which was ruthlessly put down.  Thereafter, the Acts of Union passed in 1800 brought Ireland more directly into the British sphere, ending the independent Irish Parliament and Kingdom of Ireland, and dangling possibilities of Catholic emancipation to draw the great mass of the Irish away from the French.

For some Protestants, anxieties about Catholic emancipation might have been a reason to leave, in addition to the failure of the country to unite meaningfully across denominational lines during the Rebellion. A 1827 letter from Ireland still in the family talks with trepidation about the Roman Catholic Bill and its consequences for the Protestant Irish. Sectarian tensions were especially high in rural Armagh, which in the late eighteenth century was Ireland’s most populous county.  The mixed population of Anglicans, Dissenter Protestants, and Catholics had a recurrent history of violent interactions going back to the 1780s. At first the poorer Protestants were given a sense of belonging to the polity through the privileges extended to them by the Anglo-Irish ruling elite; but later gestures of conciliation toward Catholics and competition with Catholic tenants over rents left many of them feeling shut out and resentful, even betrayed.  Some Protestants reacted by increasing their commitment to the ruling elite through the formation of the Orange Order in 1795, seeing the Catholics as the problem. But others—perhaps even our Methodist ancestors—saw the increasing sectarianism as a divide-and-conquer strategy of the great landowners.

Whatever their reasons for leaving, these 11 Armstrongs did not waver once they set out. Within four years of immigrating to the United States, they would find their new country at war with Great Britain, with repercussions felt all along the frontier they were then trying to settle. By that time, Alexander and James would have made made their public profession of renouncing their former country and declaring their intention to become American citizens.

The last great wave of Ulster Irish emigrants was made up of a different sort from those who came before: fewer were so desperate as to come over on an indentured service contract. More people of some means and professions were coming, and whole families like this one crossed together.  Partly this was due to Britain’s Passenger Vessels Act of 1803, supposedly passed to protect emigrants from abuses aboard ship, but in reality a ploy to slow the exodus of tenants from places like Ireland. It drove up the cost of the transatlantic voyage, and altered the nature of the emigrants accordingly.

What we know of these specific Armstrongs is this: they must have had some means to come as a group of 11, only 4 of which were adults of working age; really only the men could work, given the number of small children who needed minding. They survived their first two years in America in the Pittsburgh area without exhausting whatever means they had, because on Novemer 15, 1809 Alexander made a purchase of 150 acres in the military lands allocated in the newly declared but barely settled state of Ohio. The subsequent purchases of another 320 acres in 1814 and 1815 make it appear there was a consistent plan to it all (more on this in Part II), so we might well ask: just how long had they been preparing to leave Ireland behind and set out for the New World?

Alexander was born in 1766; he would have been 10 at the Declaration of Independence, 17 at the end of the American Revolution, and 32 at the time of the Rebellion of 1798. He was married at some point before age 35, presumably around the year 1800 (making his own act of union, we might say), and he and his wife Catherine Foster Armstrong quickly had two children, their births falling within the same calendar year of 1801. Not too long afterwards, two more boys followed.  The family plan was clearly in place, as it was for his brother James and sister-in-law Isabella.  This suggests a degree of optimism in their outlook. But what then leads two young families to uproot and start over completely across the ocean? On the one hand, we might suppose that the emigration of Ulster Protestants was so well known that the plan to cross over seemed much less risky by 1808 than it might have in the earlier 1700s, particularly in the face of the political uncertainty and violence in Ireland. We don’t know if there were other family members already in America—there are too many stateside Armstrongs from this time to distinguish them without a lot more information. This group of 11 clung fast and settled near each other in such a manner as to suggest they were on their own.

We can entertain one hypothesis of a more personal nature, based on an unverified assumption that their parents were James (1735-1805) and Elizabeth (1745-1800) Armstrong, a suggestion by a genealogist I’ve not been able to verify. But two things make this plausible—again, only as an hypothesis. One is the timing. If James died in 1805 and Elizabeth had preceded him in 1800, then the young families may have had some slight inheritance to finance their trip, while also having no aging parents left in Ireland to care for. Second, if Elizabeth died in 1800, then this might explain why Alexander and Catherine’s daughter and first-born child was named Elizabeth in 1801. And then there’s her brother James (born also 1801, but not a twin apparently), who would have come along before his grandfather’s decease, but perhaps bore his name as some consolation to the widowed patriarch.

There was already a James in the family, of course—Alexander’s younger brother was named James, as we’ve seen. James and Isabella’s first child (perhaps born 1803) was rather named Leslie, and the next children—Isabella and James—are conspicuously named for their parents, not their grandparents.  So the reported death dates for Alexander and James’ parents and the naming of their children might both corroborate the genealogy and suggest a reason for why they left when they did.

Note: Naming conventions are unreliable, but it seems worth noting a family tradition of first-born sons to name their own first-born sons after their fathers.  Alexander’s son James named his son Alexander after his father in 1827, who in turn named his son James William (b. 1856) after his father and uncle (his father died young in 1848, and his uncle may well have taken over as his guide in life).  To confuse matters further, Alexander’s daughter Elizabeth, nearly her brother James’ equal in age, named her eldest son Alexander as well in 1829, though he was a McCurdy, not an Armstrong. This means between 1829 and 1852, there were four Alexanders knocking around in the family.

My main point again is merely to underscore what a genealogical suggestion and naming conventions may confirm: the 11 Armstrongs may have left because there was more to attract them to America than to keep them in Ireland specifically by 1808 for both personal and political reasons, and somehow they had the means to make the leap forward.

The means, however, should not be exaggerated. They traveled in steerage—out of necessity, frugality or both. They were most likely just tenant farmers, since land ownership in Ireland was near impossible save for the top tier of Protestant land owners, and they had been likely caught up in the endless disadvantageous leases that made building a future seem impossible. A US census record states that Catherine was illiterate. At the same time, they may have had raised expectations despite their circumstances, fostered in part by the new revolutionary ideals, or more likely by their Methodism and stories about cheap land in the New World.  By the way they purchased and held onto land in America, it seems quite clear what their priority was. The fact they did not fail as farmers on the rugged frontier suggests Alexander and James had these skills before they came over, and that they therefore were not among the many Protestant tenants who gave up on farming and threw all their labor into the linen-weaving cottage industry. They had the will and the skills to develop the land; they only needed the opportunity.

Newly arrived in Philadelphia, they would have mixed in with that other great immigrating mass of families, the Germans, who would trace the same route into Western Pennsylvania and later Ohio. The Germans with their large families had similar desires and even better skills in many cases. The two groups had kept separate yet intertwined for decades in Pennsylvania and elsewhere; on the Ohio frontier, they would settle more closely together. By the US 1860 census, 74% of foreign-born Ohioans were either German (51%) or Irish (23%). However, despite the German families settled in amongst them, the clannish nature of these 11 Armstrongs is clear from their earliest marriages—almost all to other immigrant Irish Protestants.  They clearly had a strong sense of solidarity amongst themselves and their kind, a resource needed for the years ahead, but one born of the sectarian divisions in Ireland.

Back home in Ireland, it is clear that not everyone was glad to see such good people go. As mentioned, landlords had lobbied for Parliament to pass the Passenger Vessels Act to staunch to outflow of tenants, whom they preferred to lock down in a system of abusive rental rates. But there was more at stake than that in the British implantation of Protestants in Ireland, particularly with the prospect of Catholic emancipation. A writer for Dublin University Magazine (vol. I, no. V May 1833) published a long article decrying the exodus of Irish Protestants, citing that 94,000 had left between 1829-1832 alone. This constituted a crisis in the author’s view, leading to a striking analogy: “as consumption in the human form pales the cheek of beauty and prostrates the strength of youth, and then gradually and almost imperceptibly draws its victim unresisting to the grave, so is this evil, breaking and rendering powerless the Protestant interest, and promises so to waste its once mighty energies, that day after day it becomes weaker and weaker, und so will, almost without a struggle, vanish from the land.” The virtues of these transplanted Protestants, he goes on, are their respect and support for property rights, their industry in improving the country, their respect for law and order, and their close allegiance to English interests in Ireland. As he recounts the historical manorial settlements in Ireland, the language used in describing the native Irish will sound remarkably familiar from the perspective of the American frontier.

…the settlers built large houses or castles on some eligible site on their new estates, and added generally a deep trench or other defence of sufficient strength to repel any tumultuous or sudden assault of the natives; they at the same time brought over large parties of English and Scotch farmers, mechanics and peasants, and induced them to settle on their grants, as near as possible to the house, or castle, of the proprietors; and having always supplied these persons with arms they had them ever in readiness for protection; this was a wise and prudent arrangement in two respects—in the first place, the natives, a wild and uncivilized race, used to congregate in the bogs, and woods, and mountains, and then rush in many hundreds on the habitations of the settlers; their object in such incursions was the murder of the Sasenach, the driving away and despoiling him of all his cattle, and the destruction of his tillage. Now, when such predatory attacks were made, the proprietor would alarm his settlers, and they would immediately turn out and proceed in a body, “a hosting against the Irishry,” and being steady and faithful men, they generally succeeded in protecting the property on which they resided.

“Property on which they resided,” we cannot help but observe, yet did not own. The author explicitly draws the parallel between Native Americans and the Native Irish, which isn’t just a rhetorical point; historically, Jamestown and the Irish Plantation run parallel to each other, down to the massacres of settlers (Virginia 1622, Ulster 1641). Having been trained up over generations for colonial settlement in Ireland, these Irish Protestants were packing their skills and virtues and moving to where they could profit more directly—cutting out the middle man we might say.  They had failed at revolution and any hope of an integrated Ireland, so emigration was the only cure left.

Armagh was always more sparsely populated by Armstrongs than Fermanagh, Antrim or Tyrone (to judge at least from demographic data on both sides of the Atlantic).  But by the end of the nineteenth century, there would be few Armstrongs left in the area from which our original 11 came. We have a letter of 1843 preserved in the family from some relatives in Ireland; though its provenance is not yet determined with certainty, it paints a picture of high rents and poor crops that are driving those still left behind to sell up and leave for Canada and America. That seems to reflect the later reality: an 1888 directory for Armagh shows just four Armstrong farmers at Keady, one at Lislea, two at Mowhan, one at Tynan, and a draper in Markethill. The Reverend Andrew Armstrong was senior minister at the Methodist church in Portadown, the historic center of Methodism in Armagh.  But by then, Irish Armstrongs were thick on the ground in the New World, with whole counties named for them in Pennsylvania and Texas.

2. The Brig Louisa

For decades, our family genealogists were convinced the original 11 had crossed on the ship Hannah from Londonderry to Philadelphia. This certainly was a likely possibility—someone amongst the Ulster Irish connected to this family probably did cross over on it, just not our 11.  The Hannah was a larger ship, and one could read advertisements for it in papers in Londonderry and Belfast.

The fast sailing American Ship
Burthen 600 Tons
WILL be clear to sail for the above ports, by the 15 July next.
The HANNAH is upwards of six feet high between Decks,
and in every respect has excellent accommodation to
passengers. She has made her last passage from America
in twenty five days.
For Freight or Passage apply to Mr.THOMAS BEATTY,
who goes out in the Vessel, or SAMUEL GLEN
who will lay in abundance of the best provisions and Water.
Londonderry, June 24.

Belfast Newsletter, 30 June 1807

The invitation to inquire of Mr. Beatty “for freight or passage” is a reminder that these were not passenger ships in our terms, specially built for the migration; they were working merchant vessels which made way for passengers when the leg of their journey left room. This distinction is important as it pertains to the records: the baggage lists were about non-taxable cargo, not lists of passengers for immigration purposes. Proper immigration manifests that cite name, age, sex and occupation were only required after the 1819 Steerage Act, so what we have in this record is effectively just a cargo manifest. That is why we find our Alexander specifically listed with his two chests and two bags—so they won’t be taxed with duties as goods for export. In general, the manifest lists all steerage passengers with baggage separately from the others, and matching up the names one can presume the ones with the declared baggage were the heads of the families. This is about the best we can do before the era of proper immigration data collection which begins in 1820, so we’re lucky to have any record at all.

Unlike the larger Hannah, the Louisa was a smaller two-masted brig of only around 200 tons “burthen” or carrying capacity; on this trip, it carried some coal and linens for export (the linen industry being a major part of the Irish economy), and 86 passengers in close quarters, save for the four gentleman cabin passengers.  86 passengers does seem like quite a lot for a brig; other passenger lists are half this size.  But we are still a far way off from the notorious “coffin ships” of the mid-century, into which the Catholic Irish were stuffed with homicidal negligence as they escaped the Famine.  By the standard of the later Steerage Act, the ship’s master would still be close to within the legal limit of 2 passengers per 5 tons of ship burden.  The fact it had so many people in it might just be an indication of how little other cargo the Louisa carried on this trip.

I have run across a similar advertisement for a Brig Louisa, but this comes from the earlier colonial period and is most likely not the same ship. Still the language is interesting.

The Brig LOUISA burthen two hundred Tuns, will sail on the 7th Day of June
next. The Passengers will be received on Board on the 4th and 5th of
June. Those who can be ready so soon, will be
treated with by the Owner Mr. Robert Alexander, or the Captain Mr. Isaac Kirkpatrick, on the most reasonable Terms, and may be
assured of no Delay or Disappointment.

The Londonderry Journal and General Advertiser, 25 May 1773

Newcastle in Delaware was the first stop along the way as the ships would head upriver to Philadelphia.  The assurance against delay or disappointment mentioned here was apparently important, as some unscrupulous ship owners were wont to put on delays to force passengers to spend more of their money in port (clearly some kind of collusion was involved amongst the harbor businesses). Another advertisement for the same ship reveals as well the different conditions of many earlier emigrants.

For Charles-Town in South Carolina
The Brig Louisa, burthen two hundred Tuns,
compleatly finished, and well calculated
for the Accomodation of Passengers,
Redemptioners, or Servants, will sail on the 1st Day
of May next. Those who intend going, will, upon
Application to the Owner, Mr. Robert Alexander, or
the Captain Mr. Isaac Kirkpatrick, be treat’d with on
the most reasonable Terms. The Captain is well
acquainted in the trade and the Owner engages that
he shall be plentifully supplied with all Necessaries
that may tend to the Comfort and Satisfaction of his
Dated at London-Derry, April 1, 1773
Single Men or Women, that chuse to go as
Redemptioners or Servants will be highly encouraged.

The Londonderry Journal and General Advertiser 2 April 1773

This encouragement of young people to enter into an indentured servitude contract shows the kind of labor market that the poorer Irish emigrants would find. But we can see the profile of the “redemptioner” well enough: single men or women, usually young adults. The fact that the 4 Armstrong adults were middle aged with children is proof enough that indentured servitude was not their plan upon arrival.

Assuming entries for the Louisa are all for the same brig at the time, we can see what busy vessel she was: Livorno, Rio de la Plata, Bordeaux, Port-de-Paix (Haiti), Santo Domingo, St. Pierre (Martinique), Bristol, Jérémie (Haiti), Curaçao, Marseilles, La Guaira (Venezuela), Cayenne (French Guiana), Havana and Gottenburg are all listed as ports of departure before arrival at Philadelphia for the Louisa between 1800-1816. Its two Irish voyages were from Londonderry (1808) and Dublin (1816). This isn’t of course the sum total of its voyages, just what is represented in the very spotty documentation we have from the passenger lists—and we only have them because Philadelphia was more scrupulous in maintaining the manifests than the other port cities.

Oddly, the crucial information of this passenger list eluded our family historians, who kept searching for Armstrongs on the Hannah. But it was hidden in plain view in the National Archives Microfilm (Publication M425, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia 1800-1882); the original manifest is now with the Temple University-Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research in Philadelphia. The family immigration data was published in 1986 by Genealogical Publishing in Passenger Arrivals at the Port Philadelphia 1800-1819 (pp. 18-19). Sadly, the digitization of this data only hid it further; the Irish Emigration Database made a hash of the entry, introducing a fatal error and scrambling the order of the listing. Alexander Armstrong is mistakenly listed as Alexander Montgomery, a simple copying error from the William Montgomery listed above him. But a look at the original document makes it very clear that “Alexander Montgomery” is really Alexander Armstrong.


Alex[ande]r Armstrong two d[itt]o two bags (ditto = “chests”)

Moreover, the specific grouping of the other Armstrongs is quite deliberate, but the data entry made a hash of the order.  Apart from Alexander, they are clearly listed as husband, wife, and children in birth order.


Namely, Cath[erine] Armstrong, Eliza[beth] Armstrong, James Armstrong, John Armstrong, William Armstrong; then Ja[me]s Armstrong, Isabella Armstrong, Leslie Armstrong, Isabella Armstrong, Ja[me]s Armstrong. The only name missing is Alexander Armstrong Jr., who was born in Ohio in 1810, so the fact that he is not listed here is further evidence we have the right group.

I am fairly certain that until this document was seen, our family was not aware of the correct grouping of the two families. John was clearly a member of Alexander’s family, and not James’, which is evident from both the groupings here and the fact that at the end of their lives, Alexander and Catherine were in John’s care on their original land in Perry Township (both census data and the 1852 map confirm this). More on that in Part II.

3. The Larger Context

The Europe the 11 left behind was embroiled in the Napoleonic Peninsular War in Spain in 1808. The month before they left from Londonderry, an Anglo-Irish general named Arthur Wellesley departed from Cork to join the Peninsular Campaign, where he would come to prominence as an effective general in a dark hour (we know him now as the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis and the hero of Waterloo).  During this period an estimated 1 in 5 Irishmen served in the British armed forces, making up somewhere between 20% to 40% of their total number—this in spite of the political troubles at home. We do not know if either Alexander or James saw military service, but it seems unlikely; both men lived long enough for any stories of glorious service to be recounted in the family, and there were none it seems.  The ocean they crossed was fraught with the tensions between Britain and America caused by Napoleon’s Empire.  The British were impressing American sailors to help man their fleet in the war against France, and this practice would later have grave consequences, becoming one of the causes of the War of 1812.

1808 saw the publication of the first part of Goethe’s Faust and the extraordinary concert at which Beethoven would premier the 5th and 6th Symphonies, the Piano Concerto no. 4, and the Choral Fantasy.  But these farm folk from Armagh would know little of such things, as significant as they might seem to us in hindsight. Far more relevant to them would be the happenings in their new homeland, where Thomas Jefferson was President, soon to hand off to his fellow Virginian and Secretary of State, James Madison.  Like our Alexander, Jefferson was a man with a plan, but on a vastly different scale. Jefferson had plans for developing and exploring the vast territories coming available to the fledgling republic. Only five years before, Jefferson’s negotiators had made the Louisiana Purchase off Napoleon, doubling the size of the United States in a single transaction.

In the same year of 1803, Ohio had been rushed into statehood on February 19, a project favored by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party. Its constitution gave all free white men the right to vote, provided they paid their taxes or helped build and maintain the roads in the new state—the contrast with Ireland couldn’t have been greater, where vast numbers were still disenfranchised.  In 1806, Jefferson signed the act establishing the National Road, the first federally funded thoroughfare in US history, destined at first to link Cumberland, Maryland to the Ohio River and the frontier. The first contract was awarded in 1811, and by 1818 it ran all the way to Wheeling on the Ohio. By the 1830s, responsibility for the National Road was partly taken over by the states, and tollhouses and gates appeared as it was extended through the new states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Between 1825 and 1830, Ohio contracted to have the portion of old Zane’s Trace between Zanesville and Wheeling rebuilt as part of this National Road. Our Alexander, who had strategically settled on Zane’s Trace near the Salt Creek crossing, negotiated a contract on that project to build up the road between Bridgeville and Zanesville, which his sons then supervised and worked on between 1827 and 1828. In this way, an obscure Irish immigrant who led his family across the sea literally helped to open a way for thousands to the American West.

Click here for Part II: The Lands