Hans Wiley snuck quietly over the side of the ship, an English Man of War, in the middle of the night, lowered himself into a small rowboat, and headed for the nearby shore, reckoning by the light of the moon and stars. The year was 1778, nearing the midpoint of the War of Independence in the American Colonies. He was a determined and angry young Ulsterman of eighteen years old, resolved to get free of the English once and for all.
Things were difficult back in County Down, if not as bad as the starvation and abject poverty his grandparents spoke of in the nineties. Ulster Scotch had it somewhat easier than his countrymen back in Ayr, but difficult all the same. He’d had it in his mind for a long time to emigrate as soon as he could, then the war broke out and there were very few passenger ships leaving for the colonies. Letters from cousins and uncles in the colonies painted a very different picture of life in America, urging him to make the break. In America there was land everywhere, and freedom, freedom for land without a patron or laird, and freedom from all the politics and privation.
Then came the day Hans was in town, looking for work as a weaver. The pressmen were in town looking for sailors – though he didn’t know at the time who they were or what they were up to – and he was grabbed, shackled, and hustled aboard the ship. The very next day the ship set sail and Hans was unshackled and herded up on deck with his fellow prisoners, given their orders and was a sailor. Or so they said.
They kept very quiet about it, and Hans and his few friends from Ulster made plans to escape the very first chance they got, once they got to America. He didn’t know how, but somehow he had to be to Pennsylvania, near Fort Pitt, where his clan had located. Hans and his fellow press-mates had greased the row boat’s pulley wheels, hoping for such an opportunity. When the man-of-war dropped anchor off Lewes, Delaware they prepared as best they could to escape.
The ship swayed gently on the waves inside the harbor at Cape Henlopen, and lights flickered faintly on shore, less than a mile away. The officer on watch on deck slept at his post. Together the four men quietly lowered the small dinghy to the water and lowered themselves over the side. Each man took an oar and wrapped his shirt around it to muffle its dipping into the water. They’d had little time or opportunity to plan more than this, just to escape. Once out of earshot of the ship they took their shirts off the oars and rowed as hard and as fast as they could for shore, heading upland of the camp of British soldiers and sailors on shore.
On shore, the men dragged the dinghy up onto the broad sandy beach and into the bracken above it, hiding it from discovery for as long as they could, until they could get farther away. Barefoot, they made their way to the nearest settlement of civilians, taking a chance that whoever they found would not be a loyalist, and might help them escape. They had to avoid towns and cities, as they were full of redcoats and Hessians.
The first farmhouse they came to, after walking almost until daybreak, turned out to be that of sympathetic Americans. The escapees learned that they had arrived during a terrible epidemic of cholera, worsened by the fetid airs hanging over the marshy lands they had just trudged through, and that is was doubly unsafe to remain in the area. A group of settlers were heading west that very day, fugitives from the epidemic and headed for free land out there, over land through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, the very direction they wanted to go. Though they had no money to pay their way, the four Ulstermen were welcomed among the settlers, an extension of the old Highland customs and manners of welcoming fellow Scots into the hospitality of their homes. The settlers felt an immediate kinship with them, as much for their strong Gaelic brogue as for their plight with the English.
The trip west was long and hard. It took several days just to cross Delaware and Maryland to the ferry at the Chesapeake Bay, and several weeks before the land changed sufficiently from the lowlands and marshes to growing mountains where the escapees felt more at home. Once past the Chesapeake Bay the band followed the Potomac River westward, heading toward Cumberland before heading north, toward Pitts town. Autumn had already begun, early that year, and the hills and valleys they trudged though began to look more like the loughs and lochs of home. The oxen pulling the wagons heaved great clouds of steamy breath into the chilled air. Their clouds of breath mingled with the low hanging clouds over the forested hills, condensing into heavy drops of dew until the late morning sun began to dry the travelers and the air. Except for the dense forests, this was just like home – wet, gray mornings hung heavy with dew and fog, greasy wet trees and rocks.
By late fall the band of settlers and fellow travelers arrived in western Pennsylvania, tired, exhausted, and happy. It took time, but Hans located his kinsmen in southwestern Pennsylvania, his uncles and cousins Wiley, and other families from Ulster and Ayr. They recognized him immediately, though they’d never met, from his typically craggy Scottish features and his dialect. He was home.
One might wonder where the story goes from here, though for me that’s less of a question than what went before. Who were Hans’ family in County Down? How were they related to the Wileys in Fayette County, Pennsylvania? How many more of those Scots-Irish setters of the rugged western frontier of those days were immigrants from Ireland, or directly from Scotland? Who did Hans leave behind in County Down? Father and mother? Sisters and brothers? When did the Wiley family of Hans’ parents come to Ireland? During the original Plantations early in the seventeenth century, or later, to escape starvation in the latter seventeenth century?
We know he was a weaver by trade, as were many unpropertied and transplanted Scotsmen of the time. We know that shortly after his escape from the English ship that he made it to Union township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. And there, in Union or Dunbar Township, Hans married Susanna Irwin, another old Scottish clans family, born 1762 in Pennsylvania. There backwards the threads woven in this story are mostly conjectural, yet to be discovered, one can hope.
Seeking the families and ancestry of Hans and Susanna (IRWIN) WILEY, he born 1760, County Down, Ireland, she born 1762, Pennsylvania. They married about 1785-90 and had four children in Pennsylvania –
Joseph, b 5/15/1791 Archibald, b. 2/15/1793 Eleanor, b. 2/1795, and John, b. 12/26/.1797
and then, at or before 1800 the Wileys (and others?) relocated from western Pennsylvania, probably going by flatboat down the Youghiogheny and Ohio rivers, to Belmont
County, Ohio, where they joined more Scots-Irish and Scottish settlers in the hills and valleys of that country and had four more children –
William, b. 3/1800 James, b. 6/26/1802 Margaret, b. 7/1804, and Henry, b. 5/7/1807.
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John Keiffer on this mailing lists and I are cousins (2nd cousins, once removed), searching for some of the same ancestors. Rather than write to each individual contributor at this point (something for later, perhaps) please note my western Pennsylvania connections – Fayette and Westmoreland Counties. Also the intriguing and nagging note that there were other Wiley settlers in that area of the late 1700 – and that they might be relatives. Any and all help is appreaciated, and John and I are willing to share our data on your Belmont County, Ohio (and far-flung) cousins, too!
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James Ross Wiley Memorial