The James family

The first William James was a farmer from Bailieborough in Co. Cavan, born 1736 and dying in 1822. He married Susan McCartney and they had three sons: Robert (1765-1823), the eldest; William, who emigrated to America; and John (1785-1813). Robert, a doctor, had nine children, the eldest of whom was another Robert. He also became a doctor and married Mary. They in turn had seven children, of whom Robert (1828-1909) married Ann Eliza Sinclair in 1864 when she was still a minor aged 18 years.

Robert was a manager in the Ulster Bank in Armagh and Portadown. He and Ann Eliza lived in Portadown and had six children: William Sinclair (born 1866), who married Ellen Kingsley (she died aged 102 years in 1978), and owned W. S. James & Co., Ltd., in Belfast, a manufacturer of oil and grease using the trademark ‘JAMESOL’; Helen; Anne, who married John Whitmore; Robert (1872), who married Ethel Hazelton; and Margaret (1869), who married Francis Loftus Jamieson. In 1879, Robert and Ann visited their James cousins in America, and it was there that their last child, Thomas Edwin, was born. Thomas married Mary Elizabeth Lytton-White, daughter of Benoni Lytton-White and Elizabeth Helen Louise Rose-Cleland, one of seven Rose-Cleland daughters of an Irish landed family remembered well by their grandchildren.

William James (1771-1832)

William was born in 1771 and emigrated to America in 1789. He established himself in Albany, the state capital of New York, where he was a clerk in ‘the old blue store’ in 1793, and had opened a ‘Storehouse’ two years later. By 1805 he had opened five commercial establishments and was leading the way in shipping wheat, flax, seeds, timber and meat to New York, and, via his agent, James McBride, to Ireland onboard brigs like the old Dublin Packet.

Henry and John James, two of his brother Robert’s sons in Ireland visited him in New York and wrote home about William’s business affairs. One was put into an ‘Auction Store’ and the other in a ‘Hardware Store’.

William increased his wealth by purchasing land, which included a block of Greenwich Village and over forty square miles in the newly formed state of Illinois. He owned Syracuse’s chief hotel, built the largest hotel in Albany, invested in turnpike companies and railroads. In 1819, he turned over his mercantile business to his son Robert, but he died two years later, so in 1824 William shut it down. By then, though, he had invested in the Walton Tract at Syracuse, together with James McBride and others, and they had also bought the Syracuse Salt Company. When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, their investment was secured; by 1846, the Syracuse Company was one of the largest manufacturing operations in western New York. In Albany, too, William invested heavily, purchasing many waterfront lots. According to a visitor, Albany had become ‘a place of great resort and bustle. That part of the town, in which was our hotel, seemed full of stages and wagons’.

William and his family lived in a capacious three-storey house in one of the most expensive and desirable neighbourhoods, a few doors from his friend, Governor DeWitt Clinton. He died in 1832 leaving an estate worth almost $3 million to be divided between his surviving children.

William was to marry three times. The first was to Elizabeth Tilman in 1796 and they had two children, Robert and William, but Elizabeth died in 1797. In 1798 he married Mary Ann Connolly and they had one child, Ellen, in 1800. That same year Mary Ann died, too. His third marriage was to Catharine Barbara in 1803. Catherine lived until 1859 and had eight children with William: Augustus (born 1807); Henry, Sr. (1811), Jeannette (1814), John Barker (1816), Edward (1818), Catherine Margaret (1820), Ellen King (1823), who married Smith Thompson Van Buren, the son of Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the USA, and Howard (1828).

Henry, Sr., married Mary Robinson Walsh. They had a quite extraordinary family: the famous psychologist, William James (1842); the novelist, Henry James (1843); Garth Wilkinson (1845), who was wounded in the Civil War; Robertson (1846), an alcoholic; and the journalist and political radical, Alice James (1850), who was an invalid for much of her life.


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A portrait of William James of Albany (1771-1832) by Ezra Ames, oil on wood panel, 1822. Courtesy of the  Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Mrs. John S. R. James, Jr. to the University, 1983.

Robert James and Ann Eliza Sinclair, c.1864.