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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Voyage to America (1821)

James’ aunt Margaret Dickie was married to James Reid.(1) Reid may have qualified for a land grant in Canada (200 acres located fifteen miles north of Toronto.)(2) According to ship records he and his family, along with James Gemmell Sr. sailed from the port at Sligo, Ireland, in 1820. A year later Jean (or Jane) Gemmell and her four children (William, James, Margaret Jane, and Robert) followed, sailing from the port at Greenock.

Ship Name – Ocean
Port of Arrival - New York, New York
Port of Departure – Sligo, Ireland
Date of Arrival – Aug 17, 1820
James Reed age 40 farmer Scotland
Margt. Reed 26
Thomas Reed 6
John Reed 2
James Gammell 32
Source citation: Year 1820, Microfilm M237–1, List #189.

Ship Name - Camillus
Port of Arrival – New York, New York
Port of Departure – Greenock, Scotland
Date of Arrival - Sep 10, 1821
Jane Gamble age 36 wife Kilmarnock
Wm Gamble 8
James Gamble 6
Janette Gamble 3
Robert Gamble 1
Source citation: Year 1821, Microfilm M237-2, List #263.

The ocean voyage itself took five or six weeks, not to mention the travel time from Kilmarnock to Greenock (and for James Sr. the sea voyage to Sligo.) Each ship had to carry all provisions of food and water for the whole journey, so we can imagine that the meals were often inadequate and the water stale. Several hundred passengers would have lived in close quarters without the luxury of toilets. Storms at sea could easily have caused sieges of seasickness on board the ship. Surely some passengers were not strong enough to survive the hardships of the voyage and were buried at sea. Gratefully, Jean and her children were among those who arrived safely in New York City.

Upon arrival James was not quite seven years old. We can imagine that his father was there to meet them when the ship made harbor, and that he had already found employment for himself and lodging for his family. Apparently James Sr. and Jean made their permanent home in New York City, where they ran the Rob Roy Hotel on Hammond Street(3) near the East River, “a hotel that was much frequented by Scotch and Irish Sailors whose long yarns filled his [James’] youthful mind with roving and adventurous desires.”(4)

James must have attended school in New York City, and may have even worked with his father at the hotel. His letters are evidence that he had been educated—taught to read and write, at least at a functional level—but in later years he was more inclined to enlist the help of someone else (i.e. Mackenzie or Wheeler) to write his story, rather than write it himself.

The family was still living in New York when the youngest child, Andrew, was born in 1829, and very shortly thereafter James Sr. died. Within the next year or two Jean married her second husband, a Scotsman, James H. Wylie, and moved with him to Dunstable Township (now Nashua), located on the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border. Dunstable, along with nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, (both cities are on the Merrimack River) had become a textile-manufacturing center. Margaret Jane and baby Andrew moved to New Hampshire with their mother and their stepfather, but Robert, only about twelve years old at the time, stayed behind in New York City and became an apprentice to a bookbinder.(5) The two oldest sons struck out on their own, James to Canada, and William eventually to Texas.

In his 17th year (1831) James moved to his uncle James Reid’s farm near Toronto. (This region of fertile farmland, known as Toronto Gore, or the Gore of Toronto, became a township in 1831 and is now part of Brampton, Ontario.) James stated in his 1842 letter to the New York Plebeian that from his 17th year he “continued as an inhabitant of Upper Canada until the troubles four years ago in which I took an active and decided part against Sir Francis Head, the agent of the British government.” Then he describes how he became involved in what is known as the Patriot War:

I was going on my 23rd year, [1837] and little disposed to quarrel about forms of government, but had witnessed an accumulation of real oppressions and acts of injustice which I could see no other way to get rid of—remonstrances to the legislature, or by it to the British power in the colony or England had long proved unavailing; deputation succeeded deputation to London with no success. The English government acknowledged the justice of our complaints, and said they had sent Sir Francis Head to redress them, and he proved a more corrupt and partial ruler than any of his predecessors. Lower Canada was still worse used than us, and as I had voted for the resolution to make common cause with her, I kept my word, our interests being the same. (6)


  1. See IGI extracted marriage record of James Reid and Margaret Dickie, 11 Jun 1816, Ochiltree, Ayr.
  2. James Gemmell Obituary, The Dillon Tribune, April 9, 1881.
  3. Stuart Scott discovered that Hammond Street, now called West 11th Street, is part of Greenwich Village. Originally Hammond Street in Manhattan ran east and west between Bank Street and Perry Street. (Stuart D. Scott, “A Frontier Spirit: The Life of James Gemmell,” Australasian Canadian Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2007, p. 105.)
  4. James Gemmell Obituary, The Dillon Tribune, April 9, 1881.
  5. Gemmell, New York Plebeian, transcription, p. 12.
  6. Gemmell, New York Plebeian, transcription, p. 1.


  1. Margaret Jane is sometimes referred to as "Janette" which I assume is "Little Jane." Janette/Jane are used interchangeably by Margaret Jane's descendants.

  2. Elizabeth HedquistJanuary 19, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    Thanks, Pat, for clearing that up. I just thought that "Janette" was either a mistake in the transcription from the handwritten original, or a mistake by the official who was registering the passengers in New York. The ages of the children seem to be accurate, but not the ages of the adults. I would like to take another look at the original record to see if they have been transcribed correctly. -Liz