Sailing the Seas to a New Land
It’s always nice to find out something new about one of our East Lothian heros – and even better when it’s an insight into someone whose life has been pored over incessantly by writers and commentators.
John Muir is the hero in question. He and his family emigrated to the US during 1849. A few years ago, John Simpson was able to investigate some of the detail of the journey in Yearning for the Land. Simpson uncovered enough to hint that the journey was worthy of examination in greater detail, but the records he used were only available in New York! Now, however, the push to provide digital online access to archives the world over has brought some of them within easy reach. The Ancestry website hosts many of these – and access is free at the John Gray Centre and many of East Lothian’s libraries! Other websites feed in to the story to add even more detail. The Muirs’ experience mirrors that of many East Lothian families who left Scotland to seek new opportunities in ‘new’ lands.
Thus, the Muirs set off from Dunbar, by rail, in February 1849 changing at the General Station (now Waverley) in Edinburgh and arriving at Glasgow Queen Street. The Guide to the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway (1842) shows that there were four passenger services daily, with 4 fare options – 8/- in First Class to 2/6 (40p to 12p) camped out in the early morning baggage train; we don’t know what option the Muirs took but it certain that their mountain of baggage would go separately. John’s father had probably arranged onward passage before leaving Dunbar but if not, a scan of the Glasgow Herald or a short jaunt to the Broomielaw would determine the options available – and the terms and conditions of the competing ships.
They settled on the Warren, Captain Job G Lawton, one of six vessels under the flag of an American agency, Dunham & Dimon. The Warren was a 415 ton packet ship which, with her sisters, plied a regular service back and forth across the Atlantic. On the eastward voyages she was packed to the gunnels with mostly perishable cargo; on westbound voyages the upper cargo hold became the main passenger beth; only a few paid for the more exclusive berths in the vessel’s deck cabin; the lower hold was still packed with cargo: pig iron, barrels of ale, bales of cotton cloth, and more.
The Warren had arrived on the Clyde at the end of January, after a nightmare voyage. Once she had been repaired, and what remained of her cargo was discharged, she began loading (cotton cloth, barrels of ale and pig iron) for the return trip. She left her berth on the 24th of February and, after a final stop in Greenock, began the crossing to New York on the 4th of March. Most of the 72 named passengers were young – newly married couples and families; Daniel Muir was amongst the oldest on board, John and his siblings were by no means the youngest. Their accommodation was rudimentary – partitioned berths in the cramped hold – and, although a scale of rations was set by statute, passengers had to mess for themselves. The emigrant ships competed amongst themselves to emphasise both their ‘comfort’, condition, and competence:
- Seven feet between decks
- Lloyd’s A1 coppered
- Stern ports to ensure free ventilation
- Bread stuffs, ten pounds Beef or Pork (weekly per passenger), and water supplied free according to the New Passenger Act
- spacious ‘tween decks
- tea, sugar and tobacco sold on board free of duty
- this favourite vessel is well known
- commanded by men of experience and ability
Hidden behind the hard sell were cramped, damp, cold conditions, salted meats and hard bread, the only hot meals being self catered (to the ability of the cook!); presumably, this was why Sarah went with the boys and Daniel. But as both she and Daniel were reported by John to have spent much of the trip sick in their berths we can only wonder at how the family fed themselves on the trip. John and David, at least, had a great time. Capt’n Lawton seems to have taken a shine to them:
The captain occasionally called David and me into his cabin and asked us about our schools, handed us books to read, and seemed surprised to find that Scotch boys could read and pronounce English with perfect accent and knew so much Latin and French. (John Muir, Boyhood and Youth)
Lawton (1796-1860) was a thorough-going seaman, a New Englander from a line of mariners. He sailed for many years with Dunham and Dimon, being promoted to the command of one of their steamships when these took over the transatlantic route in the early 1850s. He got his charges safely to New York, submitting his passenger manifest on the 10th of April.
John’s mother and other siblings followed in the autumn. They sailed from Glasgow on the British barque Syria and entered the Port of New York on the 16th October 1849, a short while later being reunited with John and the others on the new family farm in Wisconsin.
One more thing. Lawton’s employers, Thomas Dunham and Frederick Dimon, were well connected (to the ‘old’ New England establishment) and their firm lasted into the 20th century. The evidence suggests that they commissioned paintings of all of their ships: at least three such survive, including this study of the Corra Linn (above) from 1850. That means that there was once a painting of the Warren. It would be nice to find it!