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Friendsí Goodwill and the Journey to a New Land

16 May 2017

In May in 1717 a small ship made her way out of Larne Harbour and along the Antrim coast past Islandmagee, heading south and then charting a route across the Atlantic to Boston in Massachusetts.

She was, as far as we can define, the first specific emigrant ship from Ulster in the 18th century, her 52 passengers hoping for a new and better life across the Atlantic. Her name was the Friends’ Goodwill.

To some extent she is a mystery ship, records have not survived of the passenger list and there is some confusion about the name of the captain. We do know, however, that her voyage was a long one, lasting until September 1717 when she limped into Boston Harbour.

The vessel encountered a storm which left the passengers weak and ill, while food ran low due to the length of delays caused by bad weather. Provisions had been obtained from another vessel encountered en route, but food was nevertheless being rationed and running low as was fresh water. It was reported that the crew caught sharks and dolphins for food and collected rain water on the deck.

The historical account of the voyage tells us that by September things were so bad that lots were drawn as to who would be eaten first when the worst extremity came. Thankfully, this dire situation did not arise and during the second week of September, over three and a half months after leaving Larne, the Friends’ Goodwill crept into Boston Harbour.

Boston proved less welcoming to the Ulster-Scots, or Scotch-Irish emigrants than they had hoped. The Puritans in Boston lived up to their name when it came to receiving other non-conformists into the city, not least because the Ulster families, perceived no doubt as less-refined, continued to arrive in numbers. The following year a more organised emigration, that led by Rev. James McGregor, brought 900 people from Londonderry, Macosquin and Coleraine. They would settle at New Londonderry in New Hampshire, their story and their names well documented.

The Friends’ Goodwill story offers no such documentation. In September 1717 the City Commissioners in Boston were apparently informed that ‘49 miserable persons arrived from ye North of Ireland on a single vessel’. If this report is to be believed, they were advised that they were not particularly welcome and should leave Boston. We do not know for sure that this was a reference to the Friends’ Goodwill, but it does highlight the general view of emigrants from Ulster in the city at that time.

We do know of several people who arrive in Boston in September from the north of Ireland, but, again, cannot say whether they sailed on the Friends’ Goodwill or not.

They included James McFarlane from County Antrim, who settled in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania originally and was one of the founders of Derry Presbyterian Church there. Another arrival in Boston that September was Carrickfergus man John Patterson, who was in Chester County in Pennsylvania by the following January. A James Patterson, probably a brother or a son, also appears at the same time. Another Carrickfergus man appears that September of 1717 in the city and his name is Thomas Brenan. Among other possible Friends’ Goodwill passengers are James McFadden, who follows a similar trail into Chester County and then Cumberland County in Pennsylvania, Robert Blackwood, John Brown, William Dawson, Thomas Crawford, David Hood, William McKenny, and John Toulon.

Bolton’s account of Immigrants to New England 1700-1795 also lists early settlers, many of them arriving the following year with the larger emigration group.

But in 1717 a Margaret Allen arrived in Boston from Ireland and the Court of the Sessions of the Peace 1715-18 in the city details that an innkeeper named John Langdon of Boston paid £18 for four years’ service, suggesting that Margaret was ‘indentured’ – having paid for her passage by allowing the ship’s captain to indenture her for the set period, not an unusual means of getting across the Atlantic for those without capital.

One certain passenger on the Friends’ Goodwill the following year - when we do have a record - was Widow Gibson, who arrived from the north of Ireland the following year with two children. Another passenger on the ship was named James Hannah. This entry in the Sessions of the Peace for Suffolk County at least proves that the ship was making regular voyages from Ireland, probably conveying goods as well as passengers.

Unless a ship’s list appears from some archive, we will never know for sure who was on the small vessel that crept across the Atlantic in 1717. We know that she was not the first vessel to convey passengers into the region, any more than the McGregor ships were the following year, but what the Friends’ Goodwill and the 1718 voyage can claim is that they were the first organised emigration efforts in the 18th century.

As the century wore on, there was to be a massive influx of emigrants from Ulster, almost all of them Presbyterians. Most sailed further south and certainly did not attempt to settle in the Puritan heartland of Boston.  There is an account of a Presbyterian church which was being built in the area being pulled down overnight, for example, and an individual account of a man who had arrived on the ship “Elizabeth” in November 1719 being warned out of the city.

What prompted the early emigrants on the Friends' Goodwill to cross the Atlantic?

Without knowing who they were we cannot be specific and decisions to emigrate are very often specifically driven.

We do know that between 1714 and 1719 there were drought years in Ireland, which had a major impact on crops and resulted in food prices being driven up. In 1716, the year before the departure of the Friends' Goodwill, sheep were affected by the destructive disease known as ‘rot’ and severe frosts, occurring across Europe, ensured continued reductions, availability and cost of food.

Such factors, individually and more significantly combined, may have been those which prompted the passengers on the Friends' Goodwill to seek new lives elsewhere.

One thing we can be sure about and know very well: they were the first of many.

Mid and East Antrim Council are hosting the Friends Goodwill Festival 19-21 May.  Find out more information on our events section!