Coming to America

The Packet Ship The Great Western

Painting of the Great Western by Antonio Jacobsen
A painting by Antonio Jacobsen of The Great Western. Painted in 1917. Jacobsen was a Danish-born American painter sometimes described as the "the Audubon of steam vessels." He painted more than 6,000 works of sail and steam vessels.

Our great grandfather, John Connell Swift, left Ireland during the Great Hunger and came to America for a better life. The story of his journey to America is remembered in our family for the remarkable coincidence that he traveled on the same ship as his future wife, though they did not meet until years later. Mary Cecily Rimmer was 15 years younger than John C. Swift and was about five years old when she made the voyage to America with her parents, Teresa and Frederick Rimmer, and their two other children Willie, age 3, and Teresa, an infant.

The Rimmer family was from Brewood in Staffordshire, England. Frederick was a bootmaker who had come to America a few years earlier, found work and sent for his wife to come join him. But she was fearful of making the trip on her own with small children and agreed to come only if Frederick would come back to England and accompany them to America. They planned to settle in Newton Center (today known simply as Newton), a small place southwest of Boston.

John C. Swift, on the other hand, was fleeing starvation and poverty in Ireland. He was going to America to look for work and a chance to survive. He was 20 years old at the time of the voyage and traveling with his younger sister, Mary Anna Swift, 18 years old. They were from Ballylee, a small place near Gort, County Galway, Ireland. Their mother had died when John was young, and the family was struggling to make a living as tenants when the failure of the potato crop (starting in 1845) reduced them and nearly everyone they knew to poverty and hardship. Their older brother and sister, Martin and Bridget Swift, had gone to America three years earlier. Presumably, they had written back to Ireland to encourage John and Mary to come.

The story of their journey on the ship the Great Western is written in several places, and with some variations, most accounts agree on the details, which go something like this:

The ship docked in Boston in 1850 after an unusually long voyage of seven weeks. The passengers (at least those in steerage, where the Rimmers and Swifts would have traveled) ran short of food. The adults shared provisions of potato peelings, reserving the potatoes for the children. An infant among the steerage passengers died during the voyage and was buried at sea. Teresa Rimmer remembered the grief of the mother, with whom she sat all night to provide consolation. Frederick Rimmer caused his young wife considerable worry when he took a dare from one of the sailors and jumped overboard.

Those are the details that were handed down through oral tradition and written memoirs in the Swift family. Recently, when my sister asked about the year of their travel, I went looking for more information. I found the passenger manifest (online in and newspaper items which provide additional interesting detail about ocean travel in the mid-19th century. The records don't always agree with the family story, though. Consider, for example, the passenger list. The first page is shown in the image below.

Passenger list for the arriving packet ship The Great Western
The first page of the passenger list for The Great Western, arriving in New York from Liverpool on 12th September 1851 under the command of Captain D. S. Shearman. Click on the image for an enlarged view.

I notice a few interesting things here. First, the document clearly shows the port of debarkation is New York and not Boston, and the year of the voyage is 1851, not 1850 as the family stories recall. Interestingly, the heading on page 1 of the list shows "12th of Sept" as the date of arrival, while the heading on page 10, a continuation of the list from this same voyage, shows the date as "13 Sept." The captain's name, D. S. Shearman, provides another avenue to explore, and a little research provided some interesting detail about him (more here). Captain David Sands Shearman, Jr. was a Quaker, which is why you will see that the word "sworn" is stricken on the page, and someone has written "affirmed" above it. In this time period, members of the Friends Society (Quakers) considered it inappropriate to take an oath or swear to the truth because their view was that one should be truthful at all times. Swearing that one is being truthful implied a double standard or that one was not truthful unless under oath.

The names of the Rimmer family appear on page 8 in the passenger list, shown simply as "Fredrk Rimmer, 35; Mrs. Rimmer, 30; do [ditto], 4; do, 3; and inf [infant]." Other notations indicate the sex of each passenger, though the middle child of the Rimmers is incorrectly listed as female, and this would have been their son, Willie. The other columns indicate, respectively, occupation, "the country to which they severally belong," and "the country in which they intend to become inhabitants." On this passengers' list, these columns contain ditto marks, carrying forward information in the same column from pages earlier, declaring the occupation of each passenger as "servant" (even for the children and infants), the country of origin as "United Kingdom of Great Britain" and the destination as "United States." Though Ireland would have been considered part of the United Kingdom in 1851, the Swifts are shown on page 4, where the entry at the top of the page states the country of original as "Scotland" for all persons on that page. Inexplicably, page 3 lists the home country of all passengers on that page as "Ireland."

Passenger list detail showing names of the Rimmer family - The Great Western, arriving 12 Sept 1851 at New York from Liverpool
Detail from page 8, showing the names of the Rimmer family in the passenger list of persons arriving in New York on 12 September 1851 on board The Great Western. Click the image for a larger view.
Page 4 of the passenger list for The Great Western packet ship, arriving in New York on 12 Sept 1851 from Liverpool, showing the names of the Swift family
Detail from page 4, showing the names of the Swift family in the passenger list of persons arriving in New York on 12 September 1851 on board The Great Western. The list shows John, his sister Mary Ann and Patrick. Patrick Swift is a mystery - family stories do not mention another brother, and no additional records could be found to explain who he was. Click the image for a larger view.

The ages indicated on the passenger list for each of the family members are also interesting because they do not necessarily agree with other documents for the birth dates for these persons. This isn't particularly surprising for the nature of the document and the general view in those times that an estimate of one's age was usually sufficient. We know from other records, for instance, that John Connell Swift was baptized on November 30, 1831 and his sister Mary Anna's birth is reported in her obituary as simply "1833." Mary Cecily Rimmer's birth is recorded in the church at Brewood as 13 May 1846. Her father, Frederick, gives 2 September 1822 as his birth date on his application for naturalization. The birth date for Teresa Wright Rimmer is shown on her gravemarker as 9 April 1823 but reported in her obituary as 9 April 1822. The birth years of Willie Rimmer (1847) and his sister Teresa (1851) can be estimated from records of their deaths in Massachusetts in 1855.

Advertisement from the Liverpool Mercury, August 1, 1851, indicating that the new sailing ship the Great Western will depart on August 1. This was the return trip on her maiden voyage from New York. According to a letter Captain Shearman wrote to his wife on August 1, 1851, departure of the ship from Liverpool was delayed until August 3 due to the scarcity of passengers and merchandise. The founding principle of the packet trade was scheduled voyages to predetermined destinations, regardless of the weather. Though a ship's departure was sometimes delayed a few days (often to allow more time to take on passengers or cargo), Marshall's Black Ball Line adhered to the concept enough to become a dominant force in the packet trade.

Above: The Great Western, having departed Liverpool on August 3 carrying the Swift and Rimmer passengers, arrives in New York, as noted in this clipping from the New York Evening Post, Sept 12, 1851, listing the "ships below." Note the spelling of Captain Shearman's name as "Shurman."

Above: item from the New York Evening Post, Sept 13, 1851, noting the arrival of the Great Western on her return maiden voyage. This is the passage which carried members of the Swift and Rimmer families. Note yet another variation in the spelling of Captain Shearman's name. This report states the ship was carrying 871 passengers, but numbers scribbled on the passenger manifest state the total as 868. Also note the comment that she was 21 days in the Banks. This passage took a total of 41 days, which is about average for the westward journey by a sailing ship at the time. The U.S.M.S. Baltic, a side-wheeled steamship, by comparison, made the trip from Liverpool to New York in 9 days and 19 hours in August 1851, the shortest trans-Atlantic passage at the time.

The Rimmers and Swifts

After their arrival in New York, the Rimmer family went to Newton Center (near Boston), and by 1858 they moved to Oneida, IL. After arriving in New York, John C. and Mary Swift made their way to upstate New York, where their brother Martin was living in Troy and sister Bridget in Albany. In 1856, Martin and his wife moved west to Oneida, IL. Bridget, John C. and Mary followed shortly afterward. By 1858, all four were living in Oneida, IL, where John C. Swift and Mary C. Rimmer were introduced by mutual friends. They married in Galesburg, IL, in 1864 and the following year moved to Washington, IA, where John C. had bought land. In 1871, Martin Swift and his family moved to Iowa and settled on land adjacent to John C. and Mary. Bridget Swift married Thomas Quinn in Albany, NY, in 1855. After a brief stay in Oneida, IL, they moved to Louisa County, IA, and then by 1880 to Washington County, IA.

Teresa Rimmer's story:


Information for this website was compiled by Molly Daniel, great-granddaughter of Mary Cecily Rimmer and John Swift.