Lena Bourne Fish, who lived in East Jaffrey, New Hampshire, back in 1940, when she was recorded by both Frank and Anne Warner, and by Helen Hartness Flandes, singing her version of "The Ship Carpenter" (Child #243), was born in April 1873. From my point in history, this would put her in my grandfather's generation (he was born in 1876). Above, I quoted Flanders as saying that Mrs. Fish learned this ballad from her father, Stratton Bourne, who was born in northern Vermont. This places this particular version of "The House Carpenter" back into the previous generation, or what would be my own great-grandfather's time. My great-grandfather, Franklin Pond, was born on November 30, 1819. Assuming that he and Stratton Bourne were contemporaries, this pushes the potential time for this version back to the early days of the 19th century. And if Stratton Bourne learned the ballad from his family, it would go back into the 1700's, but there is no documentation for that.
As far as I know, none of my ancestors were ballad singers. My mother's family, the Ponds, came over with Governor Winthrop in 1630, and settled in the Boston area, and were probably among those Puritans from East Anglia (to be specific in this case, from Groton, in Suffolk, England), that Brian mentioned earlier. My father's family were German and came over in 1732 to Philadelphia from the Palatinate, to become part of the "Pennsylvania Dutch", and eventually settled in Tucker County, West Virginia. I'm sure that both the Ponds and the Minears intermarried along the way with some good Scotch-Irish folks, but there are no records of ballad singing on either side.
I find that when I am trying to picture history it helps to personalize it and locate it. Both of the great-grandfathers involved here "went west" as young men. George Minear left West Virginia and moved out to the "frontier" of southeastern Iowa on the banks of the Des Moines River to farm in the late 1850's. Franklin Pond went to California in 1849 as a part of the "Gold Rush". [You can read about some of Captain Pond's later adventures in this thread: thread.cfm?threadid=126347 ]
They would have already departed for the west when the DeMarsan broadside was published in 1860. There was probably ballad singing going on in West Virginia in those days. Perhaps even in Tucker County, and it is conceivable that the Minears might have been exposed to it. If he was a singer, George Minear could have taken the ballad out to Iowa. Franklin Pond was born in Granby, Connecticut. He might have heard some ballad singing, and if he had been a singer, he could have taken the ballad out to California and beyond. But in both cases, their versions would have pre-dated the DeMarsan version.
I am just trying to imagine the times and some of what was going on from the perspective of my own personal family histories. Instead of Iowa or California, we do know that the ballad traveled to northern Vermont and down into central Virginia (Robert Shifflett's version was older than he was and probably came from the generation of Stratton Bourne and Franklin Pond and George Minear. Robert Shifflett was of my father's generation, having been born in 1909). But, at this point we don't know when "The House Carpenter" arrived either in northern Vermont or in central Virginia, using just these two examples.
I think that Brian's detailed observations above about some of the differences in details gives us about as much basis as we are likely to find at this point for suggesting that there were other and certainly possibly earlier traditions of "The House Carpenter" existing in North America from which our current "collections" have descended. And I suspect that any new information is going to come from individuals digging around in their own personal family histories. However, I have a feeling that we are approaching the point when "stuff" that may have survived the last two or three hundred years is either not going to be found or has already gone by the wayside. That is a pessimistic reading on things, and my own opinion, but I don't feel hopeful about new discoveries. But who knows what remains stashed away in academic archives and museums that no one has ever really looked at. And don't forget the local garage and estate sales!