From Here to the White House

Ulster American Folk Park celebrates its 40th year with an exhibition of Frank McKelvey portraits tracing the local links of US presidents

As part of their 40th anniversary celebrations, the Ulster American Folk Park has unveiled an exhibition of drawings depicting eleven American presidents who had strong family links with the province of Ulster. They were created in 1930 when the Belfast artist, Frank McKelvey was commissioned by Thomas Magowan, a prominent printer in the city, to depict the men of Ulster-Scots heritage who, until that point, had made it to the White House.

The son of a painter and decorator, McKelvey attended the Belfast School of Art, where, in 1912, he won the Sir Charles Brett prize for figure drawing and he went on to forge a widespread reputation as a landscape artist and portrait painter.

The original drawings, uniformly mounted on cream vellum paper and presented in simple wooden frames, are on loan from the Ulster Museum. They are arranged in chronological order from left to right beginning with the first Irish-American president, Andrew Jackson and ending with Woodrow Wilson, who left office in 1921.

Pat O’Donnell, who curated this exhibition, points out that while McKelvey used pencil and conté crayon to sketch all of his subjects, his delicate use of pastel colour wash enhanced the first three drawings, and for some reason he chose to revert to simple black and white pencil for the remaining portraits.

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She tells me, 'These portraits, which were based on oil paintings and photograph, were created in McKelvey’s studio in the centre of Belfast. Since he was one of the best artists of his time he managed to create strong likenesses and of course the whole collection is very appropriate for our story here at the Ulster American Folk Park.'

Surveying the collection as a whole, it strikes me that the faces represented resemble men one might meet on the street in Northern Ireland today. The number included reflects the fact that one in four US presidents trace their ancestry back to Ulster.

The exhibition includes a map of the north of Ireland illustrating the areas of the country whence the presidential ancestors came: Polk and Buchanan from Donegal; Grant and Wilson from County Tyrone; Cleveland, Arthur, Jackson, Johnson, McKinley, Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt from County Antrim. Six of the presidents were Democrats and five were Republican. All of them were Protestants, mainly Presbyterians, though William McKinley was a Methodist, Chester Alan Arthur an Episcopalian and Theodore Roosevelt a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson, the parents of the seventh American president Andrew Jackson (Democrat 1829-1837), left their home in the Boneybefore district of Carrickfergus in 1765 and sailed from the port of Larne to North Carolina, where their son was born in a frontier log cabin in 1767. Jackson trained as a lawyer then joined the army and rose through the ranks to become the victorious commander of the US troops who defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Though strict, he was popular with his soldiers who said he was 'tough as old hickory' (the wood used to make baseball bats), and the nickname of 'Old Hickory' stuck. Jackson formed America’s Democratic Party and his image still appears on the 20 dollar bill.

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President Andrew Jackson (Democrat 1829-1837)

James Knox Polk (Democrat 1845-49), America’s 11th president, was related through his mother Jane Polk (née Knox), to the Scottish religious reformer, John Knox. His Scottish born great grandfather Robert Bruce Polk (Pollok) settled first in Lifford in East Donegal before emigrating to Maryland around 1680. Polk, who was sometimes called ‘Young Hickory’ because of his close association with former president Jackson established the Smithsonian Institute and the Naval Academy and introduced the first US postage stamp. Having pledged to serve for just one term, he accomplished all his declared objectives and by the end of his presidency, the USA extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Nevertheless he is regarded as one of his country’s more inconsequential presidents.

James and Elizabeth Speer Buchanan, the parents of America’s 15th president, James Buchanan (Democrat 1857-1861) hailed from Deroran near Omagh, though his father emigrated from Ramelton in Donegal in 1783. Buchanan, the only bachelor president in the White House, once said, 'My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage.' He was unable to reconcile the sharply divided pro-slavery and anti-slavery lobbies in the north and the south or to deal with the secession that led ultimately to the American Civil War. Because of this he has been ranked by historians as one of the worst president in American history. On his final day in office, he remarked to his successor, Abraham Lincoln, 'If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.'

The grandfather of the 17th president Andrew Johnson, (Democrat 1865-69) also named Andrew, came from Mounthill outside Larne in County Antrim. Johnson worked as a tailor for many years then became Mayor of Greeneville in East Tennessee, a town largely inhabited by Scots-Irish settlers. He was Vice President to Abraham Lincoln before assuming the Presidency on Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The shooting of the President was part of a conspiracy that planned to kill the vice president as well but Johnson’s would-be assassin got drunk instead. As his portrait illustrates, Johnson was a handsome man who was always impeccably dressed.

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President Andrew Johnson (Democrat 1865-69)

Ulysses Simpson Grant, the 18th president (Republican 1869-77) was descended through his mother Hannah Simpson from the Simpson family of Derganagh near Ballygawley. Sometimes referred to as 'US Grant', he successfully commanded the Union army in the American Civil War. As president he made peace with the Indians on the plains and restored stability after 8 years of war. He was the first president to visit Ireland, arriving in Derry~Londonderry in 1879 where he was granted the freedom of the city. He commissioned his friend Mark Twain to publish his memoirs.

In 1801, the grandfather and father of Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st president (Republican 1881-85), emigrated to Canada from Dreen near Cullybackey in County Antrim and then settled in Vermont. Dignified, tall, and handsome, with clean-shaven chin and side-whiskers, it was said of Chester A. Arthur that he 'looked like a President.' A graduate of Princeton College he became a lawyer and won civil rights cases such as that of the African American, Elizabeth Jennings who was denied a seat on a Manhatten Street car. Commenting on his presidency, Alexander K. McClure recalled, 'No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected.'

Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who served twice as 22nd and 24th president (Democrat 1885-89 and 1893-97) had links with County Antrim through his maternal grandfather, Abner Neal. A lawyer, he became Governor of New York before rising to the presidency. Cleveland who weighed 250 lbs was the only president to get married in the White House. His young wife, Frances Folsom, gave birth to their first child in 1893.

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President Grover Cleveland (Democrat 1885-89 and 1893-97)

The 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison (Republican 1889-93) was related to Ulster immigrants James Irwin and William McDowell. His mother, Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, was born and raised in Pennsylvania. Often dubbed ‘Little Ben’, for he was 5ft 6” tall, he was a brilliant lawyer and became a brigadier-general during the Civil War. In the White House, he and his wife Caroline, who introduced the first Christmas tree in December 1889 and established what is now an important china collection, hosted elegant receptions and dinners.

The 25th president, William McKinley (Republican 1897-1901) was a great grandson of James McKinley who emigrated to America from Conagher near Ballymoney. McKinley studied law, opened an office in Canton, Ohio, and married Ida Saxton, daughter of a local banker. His attractive personality, exemplary character and quick intelligence enabled him to rise rapidly. When he became president, his wife entered the White House as an invalid but her husband was very attentive and caring of her. His term in office began auspiciously as he tried to open up the US to the rest of the world but it came to a tragic end in September 1901. While visiting the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, a deranged anarchist shot McKinley twice and he died eight days later. He was the third president to be assassinated in 36 years.

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President William McKinley (Republican 1897-1901) 

Following the death of McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt (Republican 1905-09) became the youngest president in his nation’s history at the age of 42. Believed to be related through his mother to the Irvine and Bulloch families of Larne, he described the Scots-Irish as 'a stern, virile, bold and hardy people who formed the kernel of that American stock who were the pioneers of our people in the march westwards.' On the campaign trail he excited audiences with his high-pitched voice and pounding fist. During his time in the White House, he negotiated the end of the Russian Japanese war which gained him the Nobel Peace prize. He controversially invited the black civil rights leader and educator, Booker T Washington to dinner which prompted the ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, to write his first opera, A Guest of Honor. At the time of his death in 1919 Roosevelt was able to say, 'No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way.'

Woodrow Wilson the 28th president (Democrat 1913-21) was a grandson of James Wilson who emigrated to North Carolina from Dergalt near Strabane in 1807. Proud of his Ulster-Scots heritage, he once said, 'My father’s father was born in the north of Ireland. I myself am happy there runs in my veins a very considerable strain of Irish blood and a Scottish conscience.' Wilson, who visited Belfast in 1899, was a lecturer at Princeton College before he became president. Though America remained neutral at the outbreak of World War I, Wilson led his country into war in order to 'make the world safe for democracy.' When his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson, died, he married a wealthy and capable widow, Edith Bolling Wilson, who greatly supported him towards the end of his presidency, especially when he suffered a stroke. After the war, Wilson negotiated the peace treaty that led to the formation of the League of Nations and won the Nobel Prize for peace in 1919.

Forthcoming events related to the exhibition include a talk by local historian Ronnie Hanna at Woodrow Wilson’s ancestral home at Dergalt outside Strabane on September 11. On 28th September, at the Ulster American Folk Park, Irene Martin will describe her efforts to trace her own links with James Buchanan, 'In Search of Buchanan'. Heather Montgomery will speak about Ulysses Simpson Grant and his Ulster Connections on Wednesday October 26 and journalist Billy Kennedy will put the case for Andrew Jackson being not only the first but the greatest American President of Ulster Scots descent on November 30.

For more information and the Folk Park's programme of American Independance Celebrations visit www.nmni.com/uafp.