The minor key "derry-down" chorus here is shared with that of The Dom Pedro. Some variants over the years have omitted this chorus and use a major key. The latter family seem to be related to The Dreadnaught.
The earliest extant source is M. C. Dean's 1922 collection, Flying Cloud: And One Hundred and Fifty other Old Time Songs and Ballad of Outdoor Men, Sailors, Lumber Jacks, Soldiers, Men of the Great Lakes, Railroadmen, Miners, etc. Franz Rickaby's 1926 book Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy is another early source. The song was said to be the second favorite among Great Lakes sailors, behind only The Cruise of the Bigler.
The E.C. Roberts has been plausibly identified as the two-masted 1856 schooner. Some versions of the song mention Captain Harve Rumage, and the overlap with the tugboats Kate Williams and Escanaba, various ships called Minch, and the schooner Exile make this attribution highly likely. For example, the version Edith Fowke collected from Stanley Bâby, whose father served as mate on the E.C. Roberts, includes mention of Harve Rumage.