Monday, June 27, 2011

Visiting the US and Canada 1839 - 1840

Author's note. Travel at this period was long, difficult and sometimes even dangerous. Still, John Martin decided to take an extended trip to the United States and Canada. This post will follow John, as he traveled by various means for almost a year. This will be followed by companion posts describing in greater detail what he experienced in New York City, and Washington DC.
By the summer of 1839, John Martin, had settled into the life and responsibilities of an Irish landlord. He was, by then, 27 years old, with time and money to travel. He had already spent a number of weeks in London, But he felt it was time to take a longer trip, this time to the US and Canada. The main reason behind this choice was to visit to his older sister Jane who had emigrated to Canada in 1833 with her husband Donald Fraser and their children. But he had a great interest in seeing new places, and learning new things as well.

So, in August of that year, John took the steamer across the Irish Sea to England and on to Bristol. There he had booked passage on a strange new kind of hybrid ship, part sailing ship, part paddle-wheeled steamer, the Great Western. This ship was the finest and fastest ship then crossing the ocean, getting from Bristol to New York City in just 16 days.

The ocean was very rough for much of the trip, "boistrous" as John described it.  John was listed in the ship's manifest as a merchant as were a substantial number of the other 100 passengers. Some were families with children and servants. The 24 staterooms for passengers surrounded a luxurious main salon. The sleeping spaces were not to John's liking. He needed fresh air. And there he was, shut into an airless space, surrounded by seasick companions. John was a fine sailor, never enduring a moment of seasickness. Fortunately, the wretched conditions caused no problem with asthma.

Great Western on Maiden Voyage (public domain image)

Gulls provided the first warning that land was not far beyond the horizon. Other ships that clung to the coastline began to appear. John was on deck to watch the islands of the narrows grow distinct before his eyes. Beyond this constricted passageway, New York Harbor and the great city opened up before him. The Great Western always seemed to attract attention, so there was a convoy of other ships as the Western moved into the harbor and up the East River where it docked. The trip across the Atlantic had taken just 16 days,

John had a grand plan for his trip. First he spent a week in New York City,  before embarking on a steamer which transported him up the Hudson River past the great palisades, and West Point to Albany. From there he switched to train travel. Trains in those days were segregated by gender, the cars rather resembling shabby buses of today. He crossed Lake Ontario on a steamer headed to Hamilton Canada.

The trip from Hamilton to London Ontario was the worst of his trip. He traveled by carriage, one without springs, across about 80 miles of corduroy roads to reach London. John described the trip as "ordinary rack practice in the dungeons of the Inquisition." His agony finally ended at the log cabin where his sister lived in the woods of Upper Canada. Almost immediately, John suffered the worst asthma attack of his life. Fortunately, Jane well knew just what to do. When that had passed, John had no more asthma episodes on his entire trip.

Corduroy road ( Wikipedia)

Jane and her husband Donald lived in a small cabin on 200 acres of land in the Westminster section of London, land which they actually owned. This was small enough space for the Fraser's growing family. By the time John arrived, there were 4 children, and Jane was pregnant with her fifth child. But the family happily made room for their special visitor. The weather that fall was remarkably fine, "the temperature was deliciously mild, the air calm and dry; the sunlight, coming from a cloudless sky, was tempered by the peculiar dry haze of that season; there was neither rain, nor fog, nor damp of any kind. It was a luxury to me to breathe, the air felt so pure and light, and my lungs in such fine working order."

John even enjoyed his first real winter. The snow began in mid December, the storms followed by clear, sparkling frosty days. There was plenty enough time to discuss local revolutionary ideas. The value of land in London was being adversely affected when the English government set aside large tracts of land to support the local Anglican ministers. In early March, spring brought alternative periods of "thaw and frost." "At last, the spring suddenly appeared one lovely morning, with newly arrived singing-birds in her train."

When the ice on the Great Lakes broke, John left his family and the little cabin to continue his travels. He traveled across Ontario and Lake Erie to the St. Lawrence. He visited Montreal where the French residents had rebelled against the English government. Then he headed south to the United States, taking a steamer across Lake Champlain, and back again to New York, Philadelphia, and finally Washington DC. As John moved south and spring moved toward summer, he found the heat and humidity almost unbearable, hotter than any weather he had even experienced. He found it made him feel feverish, but he suffered no problems with his asthma.

From Washington, he crossed the Allegheny Mountains by train to Pittsburgh. There he could visit the Harshaw family, his mother's first cousins who had left Ballydoghtery and Warrenpoint a few years before. He viewed first hand American farms which his cousins, so impoverished in Ireland, now owned for themselves. His cousin Michael Harshaw lived in Pittsburgh where he was studying to be a Presbyterian Minister, something a poor boy without education could never do in Ireland.

He finished his circular trip by travelling from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, where he again traveled by lake steamers to Detroit and then back again to see his sister one more time. In the middle of the summer, he returned to New York City, and took the Great Western back to England. He had seen and learned much on this long trip, things that helped form the political ideas that governed much of the rest of his life.

View John Martin in America in a larger map

Sources: Dr. Hyde Salter, Asthma; Philip Hone's Diary; Dickens American Notes: P. A. Sillard, Life of John Martin.; Great Western background

Monday, June 6, 2011

Searching for John Martin

Please forgive any mistakes in the following post as it is translated by my Granddaughter in the sun room of our B&B in Northern Ireland and she finds my handwriting quite mysterious. 

Ireland is at its best when spring turns to summer, and for the first time, I am here to see the seasonal transformation. The fields are a youthful green still, rose buds will soon be fragrant blossoms, the fields which John Martin managed and loved are brightened by a warm sun and scented by gentle winds.

Actually, the secrets of John's life cannot be found in this tranquil place. They are to be found in the libraries of Irish cities. So I went first to the National Library in Dublin to search for information on miles of microfilm for John's public letters, and folders of private letters he wrote to friends, and out of print books written by contemporaries.

This time I found Dublin agog over other visitors: the Queen of England and the President of the United States. Security concerns made actual spotting of the visitors difficult, but I could tell they were nearby when helicopters hovered overhead or streets were closed to traffic. But research went on pretty much undisturbed.

I held no expectation for major discoveries, after all I had read most Irish newspapers published during John's years of political leadership and had finished the last folio of John's letters at the end of the last trip. 

However, on Friday May 20th, I learned I had set my expectations far too low. A new search program revealed references that I had not yet read. When I arrived at the manuscript library that morning, I found several documents ready for me to explore. The young woman at the desk asked me which one I wanted to work with first. 'It doesn't matter at all,' I replied.

So she handed me the thin green book that topped the pile and I carried it to my favorite desk by the window. This unfamiliar source was titled Letters of Thomas F Meahger. It contained letters from a number of Irish leaders including John Martin. According to a newspaper article from 1948 attached to the front of the book, the letters had been discovered in Australia and given to Eamon Devalara to return to Ireland. 

I settled in to read the letters John had written. He always wrote in clear but very small handwriting so there was much information per page. One of the first letters in the collection was one that John wrote from Paris on December 5th, 1854. It contained a stunning surprise about John's life that made clear how much he had sacrificed to serve his country. A routine research trip had suddenly become a very special adventure instead.