The Penniless Immigrant: William Waddel

The Penniless Immigrant

William Waddel (b. 1728, County Down, Northern Ireland; d. 1803, Greene County, Georgia)

Lisnabreeny rath in County Down, Northern Ireland is a site of historical significance, as part of a larger estate, situated just to the east of Belfast

In an ironic twist, the New World which was once meant as punishment for the Waddels of just a few generations before was now a place of newfound freedom and opportunity for William and his family. While he had little, and had lost much, William would be the first of the Waddels to plant his feet in the New World, and to secure for his inheritance a land of opportunity and freedom.

For about a generation, little to nothing is known about the Waddel family’s time in Northern Ireland. Like many of their Scotch-Irish brethren, they likely collected into a like-minded Protestant community, and led quiet lives in comparison to the tumult many faced back in Scotland. Unfortunately, at the height of the 18th Century, a similar wave of oppression, disease, and famine caused many to once again flee—this time, across the Atlantic.

In particular, it seems that an epidemic of small pox in the mid 1760s had greatly impacted the life and community of William Waddel and prompted his family to uproot from their home to a place they had no connection to.

His grandson, John Newton Waddel, in his Memoirs of an Academic Life, features a short biographical sketch of William Waddel and his wife, Sarah Morrow, and their journey to the colonies. He writes:

They were natives of the north of Ireland, and, at the time of their emigration to North America, resided in the county of Down, near Belfast. Their removal took place in the year 1766, when they left their native land in order to seek a new home in the Western World, accompanied by five daughters, the eldest being too young to render much assistance to her parents. The immediate cause of this removal seems to have been the loss of a daughter and only son, both of whom had fallen victims to small-pox. Like the very large majority of the people of their oppressed native country, they were by no means wealthy. After paying all debts, procuring needed supplies for the voyage, and defraying the necessary expenses of passage, Mr. Waddel found that he had left fifty guineas and a few shillings—truly an inconsiderable capital wherewith to meet the heavy responsibilities of a new settlement in a strange land, with a family so helpless and dependent as his.

While aboard the ship known as the Atlantic, the Waddel family became acquainted with the Stephenson family, a fellow Scotch-Irish family on their way to America. John Stephenson, the father, was an emigrant from about twenty-miles north of Belfast. His son, Thomas Stephenson, was around thirteen at the time aboard the ship. The “eldest” daughter of William that John Newton Waddel refers to was Mary Waddel (b. 1756 in Belfast, Ireland; d. 1840 in Dekalb County, Georgia) who was around nine or ten years old at the time of the voyage. The long-standing relationship kindled between the Stephenson and Waddel families would become much more evident when, years later, Thomas Stephenson and Mary Waddel would marry. As Betty Smith Meischen phrases it in her genealogical history, the time aboard the ship “could have been the beginning of a romance.”

While friends perhaps lightened the journey, it was still a difficult trek. They were at sea for fifty-six days. The seas were tumultuous and cold as they set off in the late fall/early winter. Many of those who began the journey did not live to its completion.

John Newton Waddel continues his retelling:

[William Waddel’s] original design seems to have been to settle himself in Georgia; but the unusual roughness of the voyage and the severity of the weather induced a change in the direction of the vessel, which resulted in its landing at Charleston, S. C. This occurred on January 25, 1767. Here he received many invitations and offers of employment to induce him to settle in different parts of South Carolina; but meeting with a man from the upper part of North Carolina, who was then in Charleston with his wagon, and who represented the advantages of that part of the country so favorably, and who proposed so generously to assist in removing his family with his wagon, which had discharged its freight of agricultural produce in the city, and was on the eve of returning, he decided to seek his fortune in the newly-settled parts of that State.

A portion of the Yadkin River in North Carolina

He continues:

Having arrived in Rowan county, he purchased a tract of land on easy terms (as land was then very cheap), and effected a settlement on the margin of the South Yadkin river. Here, then, he found himself almost literally beginning the world again. The cost of stocking his farm with the necessary cattle, hogs, and horses; the indispensable implements and utensils for farming purposes, and the purchase of provisions for the first year’s support, all combined, deeply drained the small resources of the new settler. But frugality, industry, and perseverance, with unshaken trust in Providence, enabled him to go on safely and close the year in comfort.

William Waddel and his family were able to ‘make it’ in this New World, but it was not yet without its difficulties. While they gained a fresh start and new opportunity, they appear to have grown apart from any particular community of Scotch-Irish brethren, far from the close community they once had in Belfast. They lived in a much more rural location, and moved several times in the years following.

But, as our story comes to the next chapter, this is a foundational point in history to remember, as it shapes the beginnings of Moses Waddel’s experience growing up, and led Moses into many of the forays his life would later take him.

John Newton Waddel leads from William’s account to the introduction of Moses so aptly. Referring to their settlement in Rowan County (now Surry County), North Carolina, he writes:

Here it was that Moses Waddel was born, on the 29th of July, 1770. He received his name from the extreme improbability of his surviving his birth many hours.

And here it is that our next story begins, at the birth of one of the most prominent men of not just the Waddel family, but of the state of Georgia, and the United States.

Memorials of an Academic Life by John Newton Waddel
– From Jamestown to Texas: A History of Some Early Pioneers of Austin County by Betty Smith Meischen

About the author


I write comics, draw penguins, and research family genealogy. Sometimes, all at once.

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  • regarding William son or near relation to the Martyr, following the ship wreck at mule-head deerel burgh of muir (murray) orkney, (where the isthmus attaches to the mainland) , the family tale
    -sees a spent from efforts at the repeated attempts too rescue his fellow prisoners William lifeless on the sand, found by a fair lass, like her family, out to seek survivors of that nights shipwreck, who finding ‘a fine form without movement, but faint of breath’ started a fire and gave warmth to William over that critical night.
    -less then a year after, the lass of orkney bearing a redheaded son (some say, named Joseph) came to William in Downe to join he and his many kinsmen there.


    • Wow, is this quite a story! So is this really an account you have heard (from what source?) or is it a family tale that’s been passed down? I’d love to feature it somehow if it is, or know more about it.

      Wouldn’t that make a great movie premise? Danger, adventure, romance, rags-to-riches…it’s got it all!

  • were many early 18th century migrants (planters) ‘penniless”? the vast majority had
    -completed a lease
    -paid passage (w/immediate and sometimes extended family)
    -had a trade hard or soft
    -could operate a farm
    -inferred education and status (early jp’s, electors (no mortgage)
    -had good references (are there any other kind)


    • Hello James,

      I’m glad you’ve shown interest in my blog. I’m sorry I haven’t replied earlier; I tend to do genealogy research in ‘bursts’ so it’s not always on my radar at certain times.

      Regarding your question, you’re right in that there were people who did have trades and skills that were helpful and so penniless might not have been exactly correct, though I used it in this context to more describe the Waddel family at this stage feeling as if they had no other financial/social option.

      Remember also that there was a great diversity of people of all walks of life and from different areas immigrating at this time. There were some general trends. With William in particular, it seems the records show the family suffered particularly financially, and they had lost several family members (young children) in a short time before deciding to move. It’s possible that William may have had family (brothers or sisters) that may have immigrated or come with, which may have eased some burden, but records are unclear, and do seem to indicate that he was isolating his family by making the move (although, there’s a sense in which that happened with most at the time). In general, Northern Irish (and mainland Irish/Scots as well) were some of the more ‘lower class’ citizens coming to the colonies (compared to perhaps overall wealthier English gentry that came supported with Royal charters and such, even as individuals or single family units). William Waddel seemed primarily a farmer, and coming to the southern colonies that stressed agriculture more than other industry certainly helped with the adjustment.

      At the same time, I have read that the Scots/Irish/Northern Irish sometimes had a ‘steeper’ learning curve adjusting to the new world farming conditions, whereas some like the Dutch/German took to higher yields/more streamline production earlier on–but perhaps that was partly a matter of the types of practices they performed (that were culturally learned), or the difference in landscape.

      All that said, there are a lot of factors that played into how immigrants of the era adapted, and certainly the Waddels had some, but not all, of those factors ‘stacked’ for them.


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