Passage on the "Oregon"


Attributed to Francis Hustwick (1797-1865). The presence of the houseflag of William and Richard Wright indicates that this portrait was painted in 1846, the year the Saint John firm owned it. McCord Museum, New Brunswick, Canada, 15902 [Detail].

In 1851, bound for America, John and Johanna Dwyer and their family made their way from their home in County Tipperary to Dublin, then across the Irish Sea to Liverpool. They followed a path taken by thousands before them, the cost of passage to America being cheaper from England than from Ireland. To pay for this expense, they may have saved their money, or borrowed it from relatives, or the cost might have been borne by their landlord (to encourage the consolidation of small farms). [1]

During the famine years, Liverpool was overwhelmed by Irish -- in just five months of 1847, some 300,000 poor and hungry Irish arrived in the docks. This more than doubled the population of the town, which already had a reputation for urban squalor, disease, violence and unemployment. Struggling to cope with this influx, a new Poor Law Removal Act was passed and, in June 1847, about 15,000 Irish were deported back to Ireland. While many Irish settled in the city, a large proportion subsequently re-emigrated to North America. [2]

After arriving in Liverpool, the Dwyer family likely booked passage on a ship and spent several days in a lodging house awaiting its arrival. The accommodations were crowded and dirty, and the city was filled with disease: in 1847, 60,000 persons were reportedly attacked with fever, and 40,000 with dysentery. Moreover, the docks swarmed with characters to be avoided, such as “runners” — tricksters who would run off with travelers’ luggage and return it only upon payment of a ransom.

While there, the family collected supplies for the voyage; they gathered food, utensils for cooking, and soap for cleaning. On the boat, they would be provided with some food and water, a hearth for cooking, shared beds, space for luggage, and an occasional opportunity to ascend to the main deck for fresh air when the weather was fair.

Their ship of choice was the clipper ship “Oregon.” It had been built in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1846. Ownership was soon transferred to Liverpool and the ship became a frequent carrier of emigrants who traveled from that city to North America. In the painting above, a Liverpool pilot cutter is approaching the Oregon to discharge a local pilot, who will guide the vessel up the River Mersey. The ship wrecked in 1863. [3]

The Dwyer family boarded the Oregon and set sail around April 22, 1851. The voyage would take about 35 days. They went to their place on the lower, steerage deck: the compartments were about five feet high with two rows of wooden beds running down either side, and tables in the middle. The only light available was through a hatchway that was closed during stormy or rough weather. The air was stuffy at first and became increasingly foul as the voyage progressed. Food and clean water were scarce, toilets were inadequate, and cholera and typhus spread rapidly.

Guy de Maupassant described a scene in steerage as he -

... saw hundreds of men, women and children stretch on suspended planks or swarming in a heap on the floor.  He couldn't distinguish faces but saw a crowd in squalid rags, a crowd of wretches defeated by life, worn out, crushed, leaving with their gaunt wives and exhausted children for an unknown land, where they hope not to die of hunger, perhaps. [4]

The only remaining record of this journey is the ship's manifest, reproduced in part below:

Untitled photo

The manifest lists John Dwyer at age 40 together with his children, Catherine, 16; Edward, 13; James, 9; John, 8; Bridget, 5; Michael, 3; and Patrick, 7 months. These names match almost exactly with the birth records of the children of John and Johanna Dwyer (though the ages are slightly off — we would have expected James to be 12, John to be 10, Bridget to be 6, Michael to be 4, and Patrick to be 14 months). However, in records from this era, wide variations in reported ages are common.

The odd thing about this manifest is that Johanna Dwyer’s name does not appear together with those of her family. Would the mother of a family of seven, including one baby, not have traveled with them?

In fact, however, a woman by Johanna’s maiden name, “Johanna Dee,” appears separately, only a few lines away from those of the Dwyer family; she is listed as age 22, a companion of Thomas Dee, also 22. One can only speculate, but perhaps Johanna decided to travel with her brother (or other relative). “Tom Dee” was the godfather of her youngest child, Patrick Dwyer, so he may have been her brother. She could have posed as Tom’s wife to take advantage of an economic benefit (for example, if a landlord had paid for his passage together with that of a companion) or in order to travel as a family unit (so that Tom could be accommodated together with John and the rest of the family, rather than being relegated to the separate beds reserved for single men). One problem with this theory is that Johanna’s age is listed in the manifest as 22 — but the wife of John Dwyer would have been about 36 at the time. However, again, her age may have been misstated.

The ship arrived in New York on May 27, 1851. Most immigrants in those days arrived at the South Street Seaport; the passengers disembarked into the chaotic center of the city’s shipping trade. “Looking east was seen in the distance on the long river front from Coenties Slip to Catherine Street, innumerable masts of the many California clippers, and London and Liverpool packets, with their long bowsprits extending way over South Street, reaching nearly to the opposite side.” [5]

There they were greeted by “thieves, con artists, hoodwinkers, and thugs. Tickets would be sold for transport that did not exist, luggage was stolen, and human traffickers posed as good Samaritans.” [6]

Among the many mysteries about this family is:  why did they not remain in the city, but instead set out for the north country of New York State? They may have had friends or family connections to which they were bound. In any event, from the city, they made their way north on a trip of about 350 miles. They probably began on a steamboat up the Hudson River to Troy, then a railroad to meet a packet boat going up the Champlain Canal, which went to Whitehall, then by steamboat to Plattsburgh — altogether a journey of about 48 hours, if all the connections were made. [7]

From there, they may have gone by rail or carriage to the western end of Clinton County.


[1]  D. Norton, On landlord-assisted emigration from some Irish estates in the 1840s. Ag Hist Rev 53, I, pp. 24-40 ( (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2]  For information on conditions in Liverpool and on the voyage: National Museums Liverpool, Maritime Archives & Library, Information Sheet 13 ( (Sept. 19, 2017); University of Warwick Center for the History of Medicine ( (Sept. 19, 2017); Yale-New Haven Teachers Inst., Irish Immigrant Families in Mid-Late 19th Century America ( (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3]  Musée McCord, 690 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal (Québec) H3A 1E9. Portrait of the “Oregon” attributed to Francis Hustwick, about 1846. Image copyright Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick. See [Detail].

[4]  G. de Maupassant, Pierre et Jean (1888) (translated from the French).

[5]  Thomas Floyd-Jones, Backward Glances - Reminiscences of an Old New Yorker (1914).

[6]  Andy McCarthy, A Brief Passage in U.S. Immigration History, Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, N.Y. Public Library, July 1, 2016.

[7]  Philip L. White, Beekmantown, New York: Forest Frontier to Farm Community, U. Texas Press (1979).

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