Clan Pollock

From The Historian's Corner:

Oliver Pollock, Unsung Hero 
of the American Revolution

Oliver Pollock is not a name that is often highlighted in histories of the American Revolution, but his remarkable dedication and patriotism made a crucial difference to the American cause. It is a story in which we in Clan Pollock can take considerable pride, all the more remarkable considering his humble origins and the brief time he actually lived in America before the revolution.

He was born in Ireland about 1737 and grew up in the area known as Bready, in the parish of Donagheady, on the east side of the River Foyle in County Tyrone. His father, Jared, appears as "Jared Poak" on the 1745 muster roll for the Abercorn Estates which included this area. Around 1760 Jared and two of his sons, Oliver and James, emigrated to America and settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a growing center for newly arrived Scotch-Irish. They do not appear to have been affluent but Oliver's later writings and accomplishments make clear that he was well educated and moved with ease in establishment circles. Their financial circumstances in Ireland are conveyed in a rather plaintive letter written by Oliver's brother Charles to him in 1767.

June the 10th 1767

Dear Brother -
I received yours which gives me pleasure to hear of your welfare. I am to let you know that my misfortunes hurt me so much that I will be obliged to go to you if you do not come home. Having but one cow was obliged to sell her from my poor helpless family. Your uncle John & Miss Rosey desires you to come home as soon as possible. As for brother Thomas he is very cruel to me, notwithstanding he sits free, your father's land paying the whole rent & something coming in besides, which I could (sic). Wish you were at home to enjoy, for it would give me the greatest pleasure imaginable. I have wrote to Brother James about my son, as you wrote to me. I add no more but remain your loving Brother till death.
Charles Pollock

(Magheramason, as it is now spelled, is a small town about 5 miles southwest of Londonderry city).

The letter was addressed to Oliver care of Mr. Wallace, at the Sign of the Indian Queen, Philadelphia. He had moved here from Carlisle a few years earlier and begun his career as a merchant and trader, an enterprise that would make him a very wealthy man in just a few years. We do not know how this began but he clearly won the confidence of local merchants and was soon shipping cargos to and from the West Indies, trading from port to port. Billing records show a thriving business in a wide variety of merchandise across the Caribbean. He initially established a main office in Havana where he formed a friendship with Father Thomas Butler, President of the Jesuit College in Havana, and through him with Alexander ("Don Alejandro") O'Reilly, the Governor General of Cuba, also an Irishman. Don Alejandro became a lifelong friend of Oliver, and an important ally of the United States in the upcoming Revolutionary War.

The balance of power in colonial America was undergoing a major realignment at this time as a consequence of the British defeat of the French in the Seven Years War. At the Peace of Paris in 1763 France ceded Canada to the British and Louisiana to Spain, and Spain gave Florida to Britain in exchange for the return of Havana which had been lost to Britain the previous year. Oliver Pollock found a niche for his considerable abilities and energy in this fast changing world. Seeing the growing commercial potential of the Mississippi Valley now under Spanish Control, and probably on the advice of O'Reilly, he moved to New Orleans in 1768. It was a timely decision.

For one thing, he soon married Margaret O'Brien, a member of the well connected Ormond family of Southern Ireland. For another, this was in fact a critical moment in the history of New Orleans, a city completely French in its history and culture but suddenly placed under Spanish rule, with no say in the matter. The population was not happy with this development and a non-violent rebellion occurred in October 1768. Don O'Reilly, considered one of Spain's top generals, was then made Governor of New Orleans and arrived with 2600 troops to take real control of the city in September 1769.

This put an end to any question as to who was in charge but it also provoked a severe crisis due to the depletion of food supplies. The arrival of the Spanish troops had almost doubled the population and reserves were soon used up, leaving the city in serious danger of famine. It was a fortuitous moment in Oliver Pollock's life. He immediately came to the city's aid with a shipload of grain and flour from Philadelphia. This arrived just as the price was skyrocketing, but rather than take personal advantage of the situation he made the provisions available to Don O'Reilly at half the going rate and got the city through its crisis.

His generosity earned Oliver the lasting gratitude of the Spanish authorities and people of New Orleans. O'Reilly gave him free trading rights within all of the Louisiana territory now controlled by Spain. This concession was the foundation of Oliver Pollock's personal fortune. In the ensuing years, years leading up to the American Revolution, he built a large business supplying goods and trading throughout the Mississippi valley. By the start of the war he had in fact become one of the wealthiest men in the United States.

We really know almost nothing about Oliver Pollock's early life and what formed his personal political views, but there can be no doubt about his total commitment to the American cause once the Revolution began, a commitment that came at great personal cost. His widespread business network and prominence at New Orleans put him in a pivotal position to promote a friendly alliance with Spain and secure their help in controlling the Mississippi valley and the Gulf of Mexico during the war. This is not a well known chapter in the history of the war, but its seeming unimportance is really a testament to the effectiveness of his unceasing efforts to achieve just that.

At the start of the war Oliver wrote many letters to the Continental Congress stressing the strategic importance of the Mississippi Valley. In June 1777 Congress appointed him Commercial Agent for the United States in New Orleans. It is not possible to give here a full account of his services during the war but we can say he almost singlehandedly ensured that the Mississippi Valley and Gulf coast region never became a strategic theatre for British engagement. He personally financed George Rogers Clark in his campaign against British in Illinois which ended with the remarkable victory at the Battle of Vincennes, securing the Northwest Territory for the United States. His strong relationship with General Bernardo de Galvez, the Governor of New Orleans after 1777, led to the crucial Spanish military commitment on the American side in the war, something rarely recognized. Oliver supplied and personally accompanied Galvez's forces in their successful campaign against the British garrisons in the region, successively capturing Manchac and Baton Rouge on the Mississippi, and Mobile and Pensacola on the Gulf.

By the end of the war it is estimated that he personally contributed almost $300,000 of his own funds, a huge sum equivalent to nearly a billion dollars in today's money. He did this unhesitatingly, without promise of reimbursement, and ended up deeply in debt by the time the war was over. On September 18th, 1782 Oliver Pollock sent a letter to the Continental Congress asking for reimbursement of some of the expenses that he had incurred on behalf of the American cause. It is a long and rather poignant statement of his situation at the time, concluding with the following passage:

"It has not been my Fortune to move on a splendid theatre, where the weary Actor frequently finds in the applause of his audience, new motives to Exertion. I dwelt in an Obscure Corner of the Universe alone and unsupported. I have labored without ceasing, I have neglected the road to affluence, I have exhausted my all, and plunged myself deeply into Debt, to support the Cause of America, in the hours of her distress, and when those who called themselves her Friends were daily deserting her. But these things I do not boast of, what I do boast of is, that I have a Heart still ready (had I the means) to bear sufferings, and make new sacrifices. I pray your Excellency to submit this Narrative to the indulgence of Congress. I am in their judgment, and in their Justice I repose the fullest Confidence."

Congress was not forthcoming and Oliver ended up confined for his debts in Havana where he languished for more than a year, even after the War had been won and the peace treaty signed. It was only after his friend General Galvez returned from Spain and pledged his own personal funds on Oliver's behalf that he was released and allowed to return to the United States.

Oliver returned penniless to Carlisle where he lived for some years, engaged in various businesses and ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He was eventually repaid a substantial portion of his expenses through the efforts of his friend Thomas Jefferson, but this came very belatedly and he never regained his former wealth. Eventually he moved to Pinckneyville, Mississippi, where he lived out his years in the home of his daughter Mary, wife of Dr. Samuel Robinson, dying in 1823. His burial site is unknown and his portraits and personal effects were lost in a fire during the Civil War.

John F. Polk, Ph.D.
Clan Pollock International
First published in the November 2009 Pollag.

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