The Adventures of an Irishman in Wilmington

In honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, we celebrate the brief Wilmington sojourn of prominent United Irishman, Archibald Hamilton Rowan (1751-1834). Although born into the Irish gentry and a life of wealth and privilege, Hamilton Rowan’s reformist inclinations led him to become a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen in 1790, an organization that sought greater Irish political independence and wider enfranchisement of Irish citizens. His political activities soon landed him in prison in 1794 but he managed to escape, first to France and then to Philadelphia, where he came ashore on July 15, 1795.

Rowan textile 1
Piece of plain weave furnishing fabric from Archibald Hamilton Rowan’s textile mill (DHS collection, gift of Henry Lea, Esq.)

He soon made his way south to Wilmington, where he lived in exile from 1796 until 1800. While in Wilmington, he made many friends and socialized with such Delaware notables such as Caesar Rodney, John Dickinson, James Bayard, and James Tilton. He also became very good friends with Wilmington businessman, William Poole, who encouraged him to purchase a small calico printing works on the Brandywine River as a means of supporting himself. In March 1797, Hamilton Rowan wrote to his wife: “You will find by the papers that accompany this, that I am no longer a gentleman, but a printer and dyer of calicoes, and yet I do not think I disgrace my family, unless industry be a disgrace.” Unfortunately, this business venture was short-lived. After a hopeful start, problems with his business partner and general difficulties in making the business profitable forced him to sell it at a loss after just over a year. In 1800, Hamilton Rowan quit America for Europe and, in 1806, was finally able to return to his beloved Ireland.

Fortunately, a few traces of Hamilton Rowan’s short-lived, and little known, printing venture on the Brandywine are still preserved as part of our collections and are an important record of the kind of designs the works produced. These two pieces of fabric came into the collection in 1872 and were donated by Henry Lea, the son of Wilmington merchant, James Lea, who had purchased some of Hamilton Rowan’s remaining stock when the mill went out of business.


Rowan textile 2
Piece of printed dress fabric (DHS collection, gift of Henry Lea, Esq.)

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