When flax and linen united Derry and the ‘City of Brotherly Love’

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Richard K. MacMaster’s fine book, Scotch-Irish Merchants in Colonial America provides a fascinating account of the strong links forged between Derry and Philadelphia in the 18th century.

In the course of the 18th century emigrants from ‘Ulster exported an economy’ to North America centred on the production of linen cloth.

With Parliament opening, in 1705, the American colonies to linen produced in Ireland, every facet of Ulster life became tied to the linen economy. Flax was grown on very small farms, prepared and spun into linen yarn and woven into webs of cloth by families in their own homes, and sold in linen markets in towns to the linen drapers and bleachers who finished the linens and marketed them.

In the 18th century the domestic linen industry expanded so rapidly across the province that annual exports of linen cloth increased 40-fold. Within a few years linen transformed the Ulster landscape. By the 1720s flax growing and linen weaving replaced food crops as the staples of Ulster agriculture.

Ulster was integrated into a market-oriented economy. Commercial networks quickly developed, linking the port towns with the linen market towns and with a wider Atlantic world. In Ulster farmers grew flax for fibre which they could weave into cloth, so they purchased the best available seed each planting season. From 1731 American flaxseed could be imported directly into Ireland. By 1740 American flaxseed made up 80% of the seed shipped to Irish ports, and by 1750 flaxseed was Pennsylvania’s third most important export after flour and wheat.

The cultivation of flax for seed made rural communities in Pennsylvania, New York and New England integral to the Ulster economy. American flaxseed provided the essential first step in the linen-making process and the flaxseed export financed the sales of Irish linen that made the British North American colonies the largest market for linen cloth woven in Ulster. By 1730 linen accounted for a quarter of total value of exports from Ireland. It was the linen industry that allowed Irish merchants to specialise in the passenger trade and commerce with the American colonies. By 1735 the first merchants from Ulster had begun establishing themselves in New York and Philadelphia and other colonial ports. They shipped Irish emigrants, sold Irish linen and bought flaxseed to send home.

Early on Philadelphia drew a community of Ulster-born merchants who specialised in the flaxseed trade and built up significant backcountry networks with their fellow countrymen. ‘For these men this was an Atlantic world.’ The networks they established reached across the Atlantic, linking Derry to Philadelphia and to the backcountry of Pennsylvania.

One such man was James Fullton, a Philadelphia merchant with connections in Londonderry and Ramelton, County Donegal. Family connections were important to James Fullton; he had brothers Thomas and John in Ramelton, and brother-in-law James Martin and ‘kinsman’ James Fullton in Derry, all merchants.

James Fullton travelled throughout Pennsylvania and neighbouring parts of Maryland and Delaware purchasing flour and flaxseed to ship to merchants in Derry. He entered joint ventures with Derry merchants to purchase ships; for example, in the 1760s, the Rose of Londonderry, jointly owned by James Fullton and James Harvey, Burgess of Londonderry Corporation, made many transatlantic crossings with flaxseed and flour for Ireland and emigrants, linen and other cargo for Pennsylvania. From his store on Market Street, Philadelphia, Fullton also shipped rum, wine, sugar and tea by wagon to customers who kept taverns and general stores along the arc of Ulster-Scot settlements in Pennsylvania, and by boat to customers in Maryland and Delaware.

Hugh Davey of Derry and Samuel Carsan of Strabane were typical of Ulster-born merchants who pioneered in the flaxseed trade from Philadelphia. Davey and Carsan shipped flaxseed and flour to Londonderry on the accounts of prominent Derry merchants such as Alderman William Hogg, Ninian Boggs and Arthur Vance. Their Strabane contacts included Samuel’s brother Andrew Carsan and brother-in-law Robert Barclay. Samuel Carsan owned at least 12 ships in partnership with merchants residing in Derry. In 1764, Samuel’s nephew Thomas Barclay, from Strabane, and cousin William Mitchell, from Derry joined Samuel in a new Philadelphia firm, Carsan, Barclay and Mitchell which became one of the most important firms in the flaxseed and passenger trade. Prior to the American War of Independence in 1776, ships from Derry had lion’s share of the traffic with Philadelphia. At its peak in the late 1760s there were 60 flaxseed merchants in Philadelphia. Derry merchants and ship-owners testified to the importance of their American trade. A report of a committee of the Irish House of Commons in 1767 recorded that ’67 ships containing near 11,000 tons belong to the merchants of Derry.’