Seven Weeks Under Sail: A Personal Account

Monday, October 7, 1850, was a day of hope and exhilaration. The decision had been made weeks before, his tickets were bought and his bags packed. Alexander McDonald Lawson said goodbye to his friends and to his life in Edinburgh and made his way, most likely by train, to Glasgow. Two days later he began the trip of his lifetime.

Lawson, born in 1814, was a handsome, well-educated and articulate thirty-six-year-old Scotsman.

The ship, Liberty, docked along the quay in Glasgow, had been attended to for weeks, preparing for a voyage that might take over two months.

An advertisement for the Liberty on September 28, 1850, in The Belfast Commercial Chronicle, described her as “The remarkably fast-sailing A1, Coppered and Copper-fastened American Packet Ship.” At a listing of 1600 Tons Burthen, “this magnificent favourite packet Ship presents a most desirable opportunity for Cabin, Intermediate and Steerage Passengers, being nine feet ‘tween decks, completely ventilated, and commanded by an experienced master, who is well know in the New York Passenger Trade.”

The advertisement goes on to list the provisions to be supplied to each passengers each week: “2« lbs navy biscuit, 1 lb flour, 5 lb Oatmeal, 2 lb Rice, 2 ozs Tea, « lb sugar, « lb Molases (sic), 1 lb Beef or Pork, 1 Pint Vinegar and 3 quarts of Pure Water daily.” Furthermore, “terms of passage, will be found moderate.”1

Thoroughly cleaned, inspected, repaired and provisioned, it was ready on the morning of the ninth for the the 275 passengers that made their way on board.

Of those passengers, the great majority, 201, were Irish.
Most of those poor folk were famine survivors, huddled in the bowels of the Liberty in steerage. Among them, fourteen infants were making the voyage.

It would appear that every time a door is opened into the past, a mystery appears to muddle what might otherwise be a clearer picture. The story of Alexander certainly fits that bill.

From his writing, which is economical, it is quite clear that he was not assigned to steerage. In fact, it is not clear what his position was on ship. He appears to be a confident of the captain, S. V. Peabody, and perhaps Peabody’s navigator, as well. His observations of the technical aspects of the trip suggest that.

But the mystery comes in when one looks for his name in the manifest. It is not there. Further thickening the plot, there is one singular Lawson on board, an infant.

One can be certain that he was aboard the Liberty for that voyage in the Fall of 1850. Two facts bear this out. The first is the listing of the Liberty in his log, a recording that was for him and him only. Secondly, when he opened an account at the New York Emigrants Savings Bank in New York City, he had to describe himself in a way that would make it easy for bank tellers to recognize him in the future. He lists himself as a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, who came to America from Glasgow to New York on the Liberty in November of 1850.

The Test Book for New York Emigrants Savings Bank from March 2, 1859. In addition to listing his nativity and voyage, it says “Is married to Margaret Duffy, 5 children ~

Was our man traveling under an alias? If so, the obvious question, why, cannot be answered in this essay. A perusal of the Glasgow and Edinburgh newspapers of the day shed no light on this mysterious fellow. If he was escaping the law, there is no indication. On the other hand, it is possible to suggest which alias he employed.

There are listed six Scotsmen of about Lawson’s age. Any Irish were discounted. If he were to spend up to two months in close contact with other Scots and Irish, it would have been a fool’s errand to employ an accent that was not his.

From the Glasgow Herald, October 7, 1850.

Three of the six Scots can be eliminated as they were traveling with family and don’t fit his profile. Of the remaining three, James McLaughlin, a collier, is possible. He was 37 at the time. Alexander was about thirty-six. But it is highly unlikely that he was ever a coal miner, given his education.

Then there is the lawyer Matthew Roberts, age thirty-four. If this was the case, why didn’t Lawson practice law after he got established in America?

Finally, it comes down to Alex McNeil, 30, a farmer. Three facts suggest this man as our subject. First, he is a Scot. Secondly, he shares Lawson’s given name. That would be make it much easier for him than using a different first name. Finally, on the manifest, Alex McNeil is only two names away from the baby, Lawson.

His diary commences on the day he boarded the Liberty.

Alexander’s prose, though economical,
gives a surprisingly full accounting
of the voyage.
The cover of the booklet that served
as Lawson’s log on board the ship Liberty.

The ship sailed down to Bowling that day, docked, and continued on to Greenock the next day. “Lay there all Thursday night & set sail on Friday (the 13th).

Saturday was “a pleasant day and all happy,” as the Liberty headed out to open sea. The next day was not so kind to the passengers, as a “stiffish breeze” made for “a great many sick.”

Monday brought more heavy winds and a “sea very rough.” Alexander rated the ferocity of the wind, and thus the sea, from a glass-like calm (~) to the most ferocious of seas (~~~~). Monday was a ~~~.

The 16th brought “still seas.” Not even a ~ marked the day. Two days later, he remarked, “Winds, a good deal of Generosity (sea sickness) displayed towards the poor fishes ~~.”

By Saturday, the 19th of October, there was “Calm sea, favorable wind. Sailing at the rate of six notes (sp) an hour. Sickness has disappeared and all the generosity already spoken of has vanished like a vision. ~~”

The next day was a “Beautiful day a fine wind going well. ~~~”

The early part of the day on the 21st must have been a grand day to be on board, but not so later in the day. “Wind very high. Porpoises in great abundance. Towards sunset sky became black and heavy rain blowing very hard. ~~~~”

From an early edition of Two Years Before the Mast.

The rain continued into the next day. “Wet wind blowing and sailing at 8 notes and hour.” The next statement is cause for our 21st century sensibilities to be unsettled. Alexander reported that “A boy found concealed among the steerage passengers. Flogged by the Captain. Made to work with crew and doing well. ~~~” If Alexander had any personal thoughts regarding the flogging, he kept them to himself.

The 23rd brought a “very favorable and pretty brisk breeze. Going at the rate of 8+10 notes. Toward the night it died away and at bedtime became a dead calm. ~~~”
That calm lasted until about six a.m. the next morning. Alexander found humor in what came next. “A heavy sea came on followed by a hard breeze which all night with trunks, pots, pans and rolling children. Crying old women and sailors swearing, an amusing scene. ~~~”

The next day brought a “light breeze all day moving at the rate of 4 to 6 notes. Towards night it became almost calm.” The next three days brought “calm dead and no appearance of wind.” The ship was making no progress. By now, there was “Some talk of being half way.”

Three days followed with “Contrary wind heavy sea, A very stiff gale and every appearance of stormy weather.~~~ This culminated in a “Very severe gale. All sails furled with exception of storm sail. Another case of praying  cnolsing (consoling) A A (etc etc?).” It seems that Alexander may have taken a leadership position on this voyage, one that had him praying with and consoling others less fortunate. Perhaps he spent time with those poor souls in steerage. It also appears that it was not always easy to write on board the Liberty.

  A sailor’s “woolie” from about 1861 depicts disaster
in the seas off Newfoundland.

Things were a bit better on November first, when he wrote, “Wind greatly abated but still a very ______ sea a good deal of rolling about moving very indifferently. ~~~~

The next day brought “heavey (sic) weather, wind right ahead.”

The next three days brought “Dead calm all day ~~~.”

On the morning of the sixth of November, “Got up this morning about four o’clock by the flapping of sails and the swearing of the Captain on deck and found sailing under closed raffee top sails (square-rigged topsail that is triangular in shape) and going at a rate of 8 notes.

The next morning, November 7th, “got up this morning and found the wind had died away on Banks of Newfoundland.” There are at least six different songs titled “The Banks of Newfoundland.” According to the website of the University of Maine, “All share a common theme – the dangers of fishing or sailing off the coast of Newfoundland.”
“Edith Fowke suggested this abundance of songs existed because the waters off Newfoundland are an interesting and dangerous place.”

Known also as the Grand Banks, it is an area of shoals off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. Where the cold Labrador Current meets the warm Gulf Stream makes for an area that is great for fish and dangerous for sailors.

Only four years earlier, a fleet out of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was caught in a hurricane in the Grand Banks. Eleven of their vessels sank with the loss of sixty-five men and boys. (

Marblehead Memorial to those
lost at sea at the Grand Banks
September 19, 1846.

And, as with so many ships, it was a dangerous place for the Liberty. On November 8th, nearly a month out, Alexander reported that the wind and waves were “doing no good ~~. The next day, with a “light breeze going at a rate of 4 notes ~~ several ships in sight.”

November 10th brought disaster. Heavy winds and roiling seas brought danger and sickness to crew and passengers alike. “Stormy towards afternoon. Worse.” The sailors, as they attended their tasks, were hanging on for their lives as the ship bobbed around in the heavy seas. “One of seamen lost overboard and not seen after ~~~.” Without a manifest of the sailors, the poor lad must remain anonymous.

The storm lasted not hours, but days.

On the 11th, he recorded, “Stormy. Another case of praying. 3 points (off) our course. On the 12th, where the frigid Labrador currents meet the warm Gulf Stream, he reported “Stormy in the gulf stream ~~. The next day brought “Stiff breeze wind N.W. Obliged to lie to for several hours~”

“In April 1851, sailing in clear waters off the Newfoundland Banks, the British brig Renovation encountered an enormous ice floe bearing two black three-masted ships, one heeled over and the other upright.

The 14th was still “Stormy,” but on the 15th “Favorable wind” arrived and they were all “doing well. 7 notes ~~. The next day they were “Doing well. 7 notes.”

And then, “Dead Calm~~” on the 17th.

Five year old Patrick Gollogher was laid to rest in the Atlantic.

The next day brought another disaster. “Wind right ahead. Blowing hard. A child died and thrown overboard.” That child was five year old Patrick Gallogher, an Irish famine survivor. He was traveling with his mother, Ellen, aged thirty, and five siblings.

There was one more day or dangerous seas. “Rolling about doing no good. Seven point (off) our course. After that it took another five days for the Liberty to reach New York.

On the 24th of November, a pilot from the port of New York boarded the Liberty to guide her into New York Harbor.

On the 25th, “Sand(y) Hook. Got into the River lands at New York 4 o’clock.

The final leg of Alexander’s journey.

The passengers still had to wait on board till the next day to disembark. On Saturday, November 26, 1850, Alexander McDonald Lawson stepped onto American soil for the first time.

South Street Seaport, New York, in the early 1800’s. Courtesy of Fordham University

The record for Alexander in the years following his arrival are a bit thin. He worked for a time as a porter, living near City Hall. By 1860, it was his brain and not his brawn that was earning him a living, as he worked as a clerk.  When the Civil War came and he was drafted, Alexander did what so many did and paid someone else to take his place. This was not seen as a disgrace at the time, but rather as the prerogative of the those who could afford to do so.

By 1864, he had moved across the river to Jersey City and was working as a salesman and then as a clerk until he retired by 1870.

Sometime around 1854, he married Margaret “Maggie” Duffy. It seems that Maggie had three daughters, Ann, Mary and Elizabeth “Lizzie,” born between 1843 and 1854 in New York. If that was the case, then Maggie was one of those lucky Irish immigrants who left for America before the hell of the Great Famine hit her homeland. When Alexander married Maggie he adopted Ann, Mary and Elizabeth, as well.

Maggie, like so many of her countrymen, could neither read nor write. That was, until she met Alexander. The back pages of his log tell the story of his education of Maggie. The pages are full of Maggie’s handwriting exercises, along with lessons written out in math, human anatomy & zoology. Maggie wanted to learn and Alexander was her teacher.

One of Maggie’s math lessons.
Maggie Duffy Lawson’s signature.
Together, Alexander and Maggie had two children, Margaret “Maggie,” born about 1854 and Catherine Jeanne “Katie,” born two years later. In June of 1862, Alexander, in looking for their well being, opened a savings account for them at the Emigrant Savings Bank in New York.
The Test Book for New York Emigrants Savings Bank, November 11, 1862, in which Alexander opened a bank account for his daughters, Margaret and Catherine Jeanne.
Margaret Lawson McLaughlin
Margaret’s husband, John McLaughlin

Alexander, with property worth four hundred dollars, was able to retire in 1870. Two months before his death on December 1, 1875, Alexander had the privilege of giving away his daughter, Katie, in marriage to John Henry Smalley. Maggie followed Alexander to the grave the following April.

Catherine Jeanne “Katie” Lawson as a young girl.

There is so much that we do not know about Alexander Lawson. But it is clear from the few family stories that he was held in high regard by his family and his descendants. He was a very good husband and father. So much so, that his first grandson was named Alexander Lawson Smalley. When daughter Elizabeth had a son, he also carried the Lawson name. And his son, Alexander McLaughlin, carries that name as well.

Roy Lawson McLaughlin, grandson of AML
& namesake. Roy was close to my grandfather,
Elmer Smalley.
Alexander Lawson Smalley, grandson
of AML, known as Lawson.













It is the grandson, Alexander McLaughlin, who has held onto that diary all these years. And it is his granddaughter, Stephanie DeMaio, Alexander McDonald Lawson’s third great granddaughter, from whom I gratefully came into possession of electronic copies of Alexander’s  photograph and diary. And with that connection came four new cousins. In addition to Stephanie, I now know her twin sister Jessica, their mother, Janet McLaughlin DeMaio, and their grandfather, Alexander McLaughlin.

Elmer Smalley, my grandfather & a
grandson of AML, working as an
engineer for the city of Providence.

Alexander McDonald Lawson’s grandson, Roy Lawson McLaughlin, was my grandfather Elmer Smalley’s closest cousin and very good friend.  Roy grew up on Benefit Street in Providence and earned degrees at both Brown and Columbia. Following a stint as American Vice-Consul in Milan, he became Superintendent, first of Sockanosett School for Boys in Rhode Island, and later the Connecticut School for Boys. When he arrived in Connecticut, the School for Boys was described as “a dismal place…one of the worst in the country…a prison.”2

In Connecticut, “he had the school completely rebuilt and reorganized. He opened the doors and tore off the bars and introduced a new concept of discipline which recognized the dignity of the individual instead of treating the boys like criminals and inmates.” The school became “a model for other schools.”3

His cousin, Elmer Smalley, a semi-pro baseball player and bicycle racer, had a career at city hall in Providence, mapping the city as a surveying engineer.

My father tells me that both Roy and his son, Alexander, visited our house in East Greenwich, although Alexander does not remember doing so. If they did visit, perhaps I met Alexander years ago. History, and especially family history, is a funny thing.

Alexander Lawson’s influence continued. Elmer’s son, Bob Smalley (1914 – 1971), had a career in the merchant marines. Although he was half English and Dutch, Bob identified himself as Scots and Irish. This we know from the many times he had to log in upon reaching foreign ports. Asked to list his ethnicity, his Lawson/Duffy roots defined his identity.

Alexander McDonald Lawson may have come to this country with a cloud over him, but he established himself as a great family man and an asset to his new home.

Post Script: Six years after Alexander made his harrowing voyage across the Atlantic, the Anchor Line of steamships began a two week trip from Glasgow to New York. Perhaps it was just as well for Alexander. The following year, Anchor’s first ship, Tempest, was lost at sea.

Descendants of Alexander: gg granddaughter Janet McLaughlin DeMaio, ggg granddaughters Jessica & Stepanie DeMaio, gg grandson Ray McKenna & Alexander McLaughlin,  great grandson & namesake to the great man.
Jessica & Stephanie, in doing a genealogical project at the University of Connecticut, came across my tree, contacted me, and presented me with electric copies of Lawson’s photograph & log.

Post script: Among Alexander’s descendants not listed in this essay are: Dorothy & Muriel Smalley, Barbara & Tom McKenna; Jennifer Olsen Boschi and her children; Kisten Olsen Meroski and her children; Joey McKenna, Liliana McKenna, Mike, Martha, Nora & Meghan Lenihan; Amy Clarke and her childen; Brian DeMaio and our children, Margaret Louise & Daniel Carson McKenna. My apologies for those whom I have omitted. 

1 Courtesy: Irish Emigration Database.

2 From The Morning Record (CT) July 13, 1976, p. 3.
3 ibid.

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