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Title: John Kerr to James Graham
CollectionUlster Migration to America. Letters from three Irish Families [R.A. Wells]
SenderKerr, John
Sender Gendermale
Sender Occupationschoolmaster
Sender Religionunknown
OriginPittsburgh, Penn., USA
DestinationNewpark, Co. Antrim
RecipientGraham, James
Recipient Gendermale
Doc. No.
Partial Date
Doc. Type
Word Count2036
Genredecease, working in different schools, commentary on teachers in the USA, social commentary, local economy, weather, teetotalling
TranscriptFrom: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
Date: 16 June 1843

A full year has now rolled past, since I wrote to you, with but little change in my
situation and I am longing to know how all are in Newpark. The letter which I
received on 8th August, conveyed the melancholy and unexpected news of my
aunt's death which truly astonished me. I almost fancied it was a dream, so
unexpected, so startling. She appeared healthy and vigorous when I left Newpark
and the first news, to hear of her death, shocked me more than anything I ever before
experienced; what changes a few months bring forth. I taught but 4 months in the
school in which I was when I last wrote, on account of the school money being
exhausted. I saw that it was folly in going back to New Orleans, business being as
bad then as before. I therefore got another school on the other side of Pittsburgh
about 8 miles from the town. Mr. Oliver lived about 6 miles from this place and he
advised me very much to commence studying Latin and offered to hear my lessons.
I thought I could employ my leisure hours at this as well as anything else, and
perhaps with no less advantage and I accordingly began. I came every two weeks
and said my lessons to him, and at the end of 2 months I left this school, and got
another nearer to Mr. Oliver and with better pay from this place. I came every week.
You may wonder that the schools are so numerous and teachers so scarce that it is
so easy getting a school, but neither of these are the case. There are schools
sufficient for the number of inhabitants and teachers as plenty as you choose, but the
half of them "bunglers," every human being who can write his own name and read a newspaper goes to teaching when he can do no better! And you may be assured
a good many, here, at present are doing worse, numbers who have been clerks in
warehouses and in stores, out of employment "these hard times" as the Yankees
term it, go to teaching. If a ploughman or labourer gets hurt so that he cannot work,
or any person unable to work through ill health or otherwise, he goes to teaching
school. Nor is this all, the vast swarms of students issuing from the Pittsburgh
Seminary and Cannonsburgh a few miles from it, overrun the country with teachers;
and so many of these get their learning by means of teaching school that I scarcely
ever knew a doctor, clergyman or lawyer in this country who has not taught school.
But what is the reason schools arc so easily got? The answer is the extreme
fickleness of the Americans, (he whole power over everything is in the hands of the
people and although men are elected for the transaction of any public thing, still it
is left in the hands of the people. This is here [styled?] "Democracy," but it is fast
verging to anarchy, so much for the self styled Americans.
In this last school I had 20 dollars per month and taught 2 months viz., from the
middle of December until the middle of February when the school stopped for the
want of money, I came to Mr. Oliver's and stopped there until the middle of March
when I got another school in the same neighbourhood. I read Latin during the time
I was with Mr. Oliver. I board with a namesake of my own of the name of Kerr, from
the County Tyrone a great man for his own country and Queen Victoria and so great
an admirer of Wellington that he called one of his sons, who are all American, for
the old hero. There is another family here of the name of Kerr, which I understand
was a distant relation of my father's. They are sons of Joseph and Moses Kerr, the
latter of whom was studying for a clergyman in Ireland, but was obliged to leave it
from having had [some connection?] with the United Irishmen in 1798; he was
afterwards a minister here, but is now dead. Their sons live in Pittsburgh, some are
clergymen and some doctors. A half-brother of one or the old men and who was born
in Ireland and lived near Ballymena, but came it this country when young, lives in
this neighbourhood. He is very much respected, and was a member of the state
legislature for some years. With him I am well acquainted. Mr. Oliver was licensed
this Spring as a Presbyterian clergyman, or what is called here a Unionist, which is
the same as the Presbyterians in Ireland. The Presbyterians here hold the same
doctrines and disciplines but sing a new version of the psalms called Walts Psalms,
for which reason the Unionist broke off from them. Mr. Oliver intends to settle in
Canada and has gone on a visit to that country and will be absent 4 or 5 months. It
is probably he will remove mere first autumn or next spring and if there be any
prospect I shall probably go with him. He is an honourable and generous man and has been a kind friend to me since I came here. Indeed ii is a thing of no little
importance in this country to have a friend. The people are extremely cold and
selfish and few, very few, have the last spark of pure [friendship?]. The character
given them in the book of "Travels in the United States," which you bought at the
auction at Antrim Castle, is true to the letter. Their darling God is money, before
which they sacrifice every virtue honourable and good which ennobles human
nature. In company they are extremely taciturn and [reserved?]. Their propensity
for speculation may be observed upon a slight acquaintance. By their overspeculation
and extreme avidity to make money hastily, their country has been
thrown into a state of bankruptcy, from which it will take years to recover. Another
trait in the character of the Americans which is easily noticed is an entire want of
disinterest to friendship, almost all their friendships have a selfish motive at the
bottom and when their own interests lie in the way they will transgress upon and
disregard every thing which is held sacred by an honourable, honest man. Foreigners
have caught this infection, in fact the very air they breathe seems to have something
in it obnoxious to the growth of a generous mind. Although such is the character
of the majority of the Americans, yet it must be confessed there many exceptions,
indeed there are some men here equal to any in any country. A clergyman here of
the name of Wright, an Irishman, but who has been in this country since he was a
boy, and who keeps an academy for Latin and Greek scholars, offered me 4 or 5
months tuition this summer without any money; but though I had enough to pay him
I did not go.
Business cannot be said to be any better here and wages are very low. I have heard
of some lately arrived to be working for their board and have seen many looking for
employment. A man gets about 5 dollars per month for working on a farm, even this
is hard to get. I have not seen one farmer yet who had a man hired the year round,
or even for half a year. This is occasioned by the low price farmers get for their
produce. Wheat is about 50 cents per bushel. A barrel of flour containing 196 lbs.
sells for about 3 dollars (a dollar being worth 4s. Id.), oats 12= cents per bushel,
about 6<d, Indian corn 25 cents per bushel, potatoes 12- cents per bushel, and some
potatoes here are almost as good as any I have seen in Ireland, butter sells for 6,7
or8cents per pound, a cent about the value of a half penny. Bacon 4 cents per pound.
It is certain these things are dearer in some places in some cheaper but such are the
prices here. I saw a good cow sold for 14 dollars, a good horse sells for 60 to 80
dollars; clothing, although much cheaper than it was a year or two ago is still dear,
Cloth which costs in Ireland 15 or 16 [] per yard, costs here 8 dollars, shoes 2 or 2=
dollars, a pair, but leather is bad. Land sells for 35 or 40 dollars an acre, 25 bushels of wheat to the acre is a good crop. English measure is used here. 50 bushels of oats
to the acre and [150 bushels?] of potatoes to the acre are good crops. You may judge
by this that there is but a poor prospect for any person emigrating to this country at
present. One who has got a good education has a better prospect than any other.
The summers here are very warm, [ ] seen the sweat dropping off me when sitting
in the house, with the doors and windows open, I my coat and waistcoat off. The
winters are as cold in proportion. The mercury in the thermometer ranges from 15
to 20 degrees below freezing point. Although it is so cold, it is very changeable. I
never saw one week of regular freezing without a thaw. Last winter was exceedingly
long, the snow was a foot deep the first week of [spring?] and there has been very
little warm weather this summer. There was ice in the morning of the 2nd of June
as thick as glass. We had to keep a fire in the school near a week at that time.
The Total Abstinence Society is making great progress here. I have joined the
Society, and drink neither wine, beer, ale, whisky, nor anything that can intoxicate;
I believe everyone should do the same. James Milligan was living with Mr. Barkley
doing business for him, shipping tobacco, etc., when 1 left New Orleans, I don't
believe he got much pay. Barkley would pay no person unless compelled by law.
I have heard nothing of him since. Sending a letter to you costs 25 cents, about a
shilling, and receiving one the same; I wish ever much you could send me a Belfast
newspaper, I long to see one. Write a letter soon and give me all the news, if you
think the Union will be repealed, the state of the crops, trade [ ], etc. Some of the
papers here gave accounts last summer that the people in some parts of Ireland were
in a state of starvation for the want of food. Let me know if that be true. Newspapers
here are very cheap and exceedingly numerous. A newspaper published once a
week and some published twice a week costs only two dollars per year. In Pittsburgh
there are 5 or 6 papers published every day except Sunday. These cost 6 dollars per
year. Books are very cheap and window glass is almost nothing compared with the
price of that in Ireland. Coffee costs 12= cents per pound. Tea, gunpowder, one
dollar per pound, sugar 7cents per pound, tobacco 10 cents per pound. So that a man
here can drink tea, smoke his pipe and read his newspaper with a cheap window
without much expense. I will send you a Pittsburgh newspaper soon.
My health has been very good since I came here, in summer I never feel the pain
in my shoulder at all; I fell it in winter, however, I have never lain a day by ill health
since I came to America, and with sincere wishes for your health and happiness and
for all friends in Newpark and in Ireland I bid you farewell.
Postscript. I see no prospect at present of anything that William could do. It is
hard to teach school and my youth has been often objected to, perhaps ii may be
better in Canada, if I go there. Give my respects to all, let me know how Alex Black is.