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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
April 2009

The Darien Scheme

“If ther come not speedy recreets from Scotland we will be obleidged to desert the place as those before us did, owr provisions ar both scarcer then was expected & growen very bade, which occasions much sicness unto owr men.” Reverend Archibald Stobo

The Darien Scheme was as significant to the history of Scotland as Oliver Cromwell, The Act of Union of 1707, the Battle of Culloden, and the Highland Clearances. So much subscribed money was lost, £300,000 donated by Scots, that it left Scotland further financially vulnerable to England at a time when many were already calling for a union with England.

The vision of The Company of Scotland was to gain control of the isthmus of Darien, now Panama, and establish a free port, a Scottish colony, where goods could be trans-shipped to and from India. The directors of the Company of Scotland, the greatest proponent being William Paterson, talked of carrying the cargoes “across the isthmus from sea to sea by strings of mules, or by wheeled carriages.” Intended to circumvent the English Navigation Act that established monopolies and tied the hands of Scottish merchants in the practice of overseas trade, and further to release Scotland of its financial dependence on England, the Darien scheme received financial support from all strata of Scottish society.

In July 1698, William Paterson set sail from the Port of Leith along with 1,200 emigrants. The three ships reached Darien, to be called New Edinburgh, on November 4. The settlers proceeded to fortify the landing place by installing fifty cannons and erecting what they called Fort St. Andrew. News of their arrival and settlement on the isthmus arrived in Edinburgh on March 25 and was widely celebrated.

During the cool seas, the colony flourished. However, conditions quickly deteriorated when in January 1699, a vessel with supplies, that was dispatched from the Clyde, was shipwrecked. Meanwhile, the hot season arrived along with a host of tropical diseases. With no new provisions, the colonists began to die of pestilence. Finally, after months of misery, sickness and semi-starvation, the remnants of the original 1,200 abandoned the Colony. William Paterson lost his wife and daughter, and in July 1699, Paterson and other survivors set sail for Scotland. Half died of fever before arriving home.

The tragic news did not reach Scotland in time. In June, 1699, four more ships had set sail from Rothsey Bay with another 1,200 Scots anxious to reach Darien. At least 160 died during the voyage and upon their arrival, they found the settlement completely deserted. The Rev. Francis Borland, the only minister destined to return home, wrote: “What with bad water, salt spoiled provisions, and absence of medicines, the fort was indeed like an hospital of sick and dying men.” They were dying at the rate of sixteen per day.

The Spanish soon arrived and blockaded the harbor, a well-anticipated reaction to the threat to Spanish territory. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Scots, after a valiant defense of more than a fortnight, were forced to surrender to a superior army and promise “never to return.” So impressed were the Spanish with the courage displayed by the Scots, that the Scottish force under Captain Alexander Campbell of Fonab was allowed to march under their flags to the beat of their drums. “After four and a half harrowing months the ships were boarded and the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies quit Darien for the final time.”

Misfortune continued to follow. Many died at sea, fever was rampant, and one ship was wrecked near Jamaica —“...some 250 died of disease on the other ships on the voyage between Darien and Jamaica.” How many reached home is not known, but some say not more than thirty. Many of those who did survive settled in America.

One of the vessels by the name of The Rising Sun made for the port of Charleston, South Carolina. They lay at anchor on Saturday, and the Reverend Archibald Stobo was invited to leave the ship and preach at the little church on Sunday. He and his wife and a few others left the ship for Sunday services and also to buy provisions. That night a hurricane broke the ship to pieces and all aboard perished.

In his book The Coming of The Scot by John H. Finley, he speaks of the Darien experiment. “An American orator, speaking of this expedition, said that no one eulogized the heroism of these colonists, their sacrifices and virtues, ...no poet embalmed their memory in song, no novelists had taken their records for a fanciful story. Their mission was a failure.”

“But if we could trace the descendants of those who ventured their lives in this enterprise...we should doubtless discover that the failure was not as complete as it seemed. And there is one descendant in particular, who centuries later realized the dream of William Paterson. For the Reverend Archibald and Mrs. Stobo became the ancestors of Theodore Roosevelt, who had a major part in building a canal across another part of that narrow isthmus which William Paterson hoped to bridge by mules and wheels.”

Details and excerpts for this article are taken from:
    The Coming of the Scot, John H. Finley
    Scotland’s Empire & the Shaping of the Americas 1600 - 1815, T.M. Devine
    Scotland, The Autobiography, Rosemary Goring

Pictured first:  William Paterson
Pictured second:  Map of the Bay of Caledonia

Scottish Colony

Another event in the history of Scottish immigration to the United States occurred in December, 1885, when approximately one hundred Scots arrived in New York City on the Anchor Line steamer Furnessia. There are some passenger lists on the Internet for the Furnessia; however, none is listed for arrivals on December 11, 1885. The small contingent was led by a Dr. Wallace of Glasgow.

As with many of the immigrants that found their way to North America, they were in search of fertile land and felt they had no choice but to leave their homes, mostly in Paisley, Leeds, Rugland, Blair Athol and Ballinbrig in the Highlands. Scotland was in the midst of an agricultural depression — “Rents were too high and the price of live stock and produce too low.”

The Western states and even California were considered as potential destinations, though ultimately Florida was chosen. Prior to departing Scotland, they spent eight months perfecting their plan to plant “orange groves and truck gardens.” The immigrants purchased 6,000 acres of land in Sarasota that was to be divided into plots of 40 acres each, allowing the colonists to purchase as much acreage as they pleased.

Land negotiations from a distance required a level of trust and the immigrants were comfortable that the purchased land was that which was presented to them by representatives in New York and Florida. As well, the purchase was negotiated by Tait of Edinburgh, “a man of large colonial experience,” and a person with which they felt confident in his representations.

By the year 1900, Bertha Palmer, a Chicago Scot, had purchased 90,000 acres in Sarasota and had made it a winter destination for wealthy families. Unfortunately, the settlement of the Furnessia Scottish Colonists, who had their eyes set on Florida, is unclear. We can be assured, however, of their initial opinion of this great country — “All were delighted with their first impressions of America.”

Pictured first:  The S. S. Furnessia
Pictured second:  Mrs. Bertha Palmer

The Highland Association

There once was a society called “The Highland Association.” Our story starts with a meeting, innocent enough, on November 14, 1873, at the Scotch Church. The location at Sangamon and Adams Street was well chosen, a congregation strong and vibrant, an ideal beginning to build unity and support. Their purpose was valiant — the “cultivation of the language, poetry, and music and the preservation of the traditions, legends, and literature of the Highlands...”

For many years the members were dedicated to preserving an imprint of Highland culture in Chicago. They participated in all the city-wide Scottish events, most especially the Highland games. They did not fail in their devotion when called upon in 1888 to place a statue of Robert Burns in Lincoln Park. A meeting was held at the Grand Pacific hotel to discuss the raising of a treasury and the Highland Association was represented. The association was proud when their own, Mr. McLaine, presented the first subscription in “the shape of a silver dollar left to him by a former Chicago Scotchman named James Murray, since emigrated to New South Wales.” That silver dollar, representative of their devotion to the cause, was later placed under the monument in Garfield Park.

Sadly, there were forces at work that brought a fateful end to a purposeful association. Internal fighting in 1899 resulted with their leader, one A. G. Murray, indicted on charges of extortion; a sum of $37.00 that is itself a woeful tale. In 1900, “Irish sympathy for the Boers and their hostility toward Great Britain” precipitated the cancellation of the summer Highland games —“The members declare the Scotch, English, Welsh, and Canadians are unwilling to assimilate with the Irish, and express the fear that the picnic would result in physical encounters.” Committees were appointed to work for the defeat of democratic candidates urging pro-Boer affiliations.

The ending was not a happy one and there was no further mention of the Highland Association in the Chicago Daily Tribune.

From the Editor

Alister MacDonald of Winnetka, Illinois, has donated several items to our museum that belonged to his father, Alexander MacDonald. Included were: a World War I helmet with a bullet in the side, dog tags #2559519, unit and shoulder stripes, honorable discharge papers, and naturalization papers.

Alexander MacDonald was born July 26, 1889 on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. He was one year old when his own father died, and three years old when his family left Scotland and immigrated to North Dakota. Upon America’s entry into WWI, he enlisted in the United States Army, was given his dog tags, unit and shoulder stripes. He was wounded at Kurth on August 22, 1918 and again at Argonne on September 23, 1918. The donated war helmet is notable for the damage on the rim that was received in combat.

He was honorably discharged, and after the war he studied architecture at North Dakota State University. He taught at the Pullman Institute of Technology on Chicago’s south side. In 1920, he married Rebecca Reinholt, and together they had four children: Mary Alice, Roland, Elinore and Alister. He died in 1933 of cancer that “was related to injuries he received during the war.”

In a letter dated December 14, 2008, Alister MacDonald commented that “Alexander MacDonald’s story is one that bridges the generations from Scotland to America.” We thank Mr. MacDonald for his loan of the donated items that help the ISAS better understand and relate to the experience of first generation immigrants. Per his request, the donations will be “returned when the Society no longer desires to hold these items.”

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546