The Irish in America


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Letters from North America

The New Brunswick Archive in Canada has a great collection of letters to and from Irish emigrants to the area.  You can read the actual hand-written letters, or if you prefer not to struggle with nineteenth century script, transcriptions are available for download. The collection contains items from the nineteenth century, as well as some from the early twentieth century.  Also included are a diary, family histories, and other documents.  Take a look around the site…fascinating stuff!

An example of what the New Brunswick archive has to offer…

The Laurence Hughes collection (MC2618 :: Laurence Hughes fonds) contains several letters written to Laurence Hughes of Fredricton, New Brunswick from relatives in Ireland and elsewhere in North America.  I think these letters are particularly interesting for they demonstrate the networks of Irish emigration and how that support facilitated further migration from Ireland and within North America. The letters span seventeen years (1837-1854) and see several relatives in Ireland considering emigration and dealing with the decision to stay.

In 1837 Laurence’s brother Thomas writes from Newry sharing the news from home.  Thomas encourages Laurence to move to Boston and gives him advice on how to be successful there:

Now before you go to Boston enquire of every respectable person that knows you if
they can give you a line or two of recommendations to any person they may be acquainted with…[damage]…the Catholic Priest of Fredericton…

Good advice, I would say.  Thomas provides his brother with options, outlining a plan for Laurence’s return to Ireland since, “It is only natural to expect you would prefer living in Ireland.”   Laurence stayed put in Fredricton, at least until 1854.  Thomas mentions that he had four children and was looking forward to more…”We calculate on having one every 13 or 14 months that’s not bad trade thank God.”

In the 1837 letter, Thomas mentions another brother, Edward, who had also gone to New Brunswick.  By 1852 he was living in Pennsylvania with a large family and looking to move west to Iowa:

I some times think of selling it to go live in the west. There is a fine
colony of settlers from Carlow in loway State sent out by Rev. James Heigher and they have fine schools there now for boys and girls. I think dear Lawrence if we would go there it would be a fine chance for our children but I am afraid it is not healthy there.

Read Edward’s full letter here.  I wonder if Edward ever made his way to Iowa?  Establishing Catholic colonies in the midwestern United States was popular during this time (until the mid-1880s.)  The goal of such projects was two-fold: provide opportunities for Irish immigrants to escape congested Eastern conditions and own land, farm, and raise families in a Catholic community, and to strengthen the American Catholic Church by populating the West with Catholic settlers.

These letters are full of interesting observations.  Edward comments on his fellow Irishmen who work on the railroad, a job many felt lucky to get:

There is a great deal of railroads making here but the most degrading characters work on them now. Some of this is a disgrace to the land that gave them birth.

This comment is important because it reminds us that all Irish immigrants were not treated equally in America, even by their fellow countrymen.  Clearly Edward was educated to some degree, and from his letter it is apparent he was a religious man who did not approve of drink.  Irish in America like him would have had little time for the poor, uneducated, Famine-era emigrants.  Edward and his brothers made the decision to come to North America before the worst years of the Famine hit Ireland while for many of the million who came during the Famine, the alternative was starvation.  This is not to say that conditions in Ireland were favorable at the time of the Hughes brothers emigration, but judging from the letters, it was not a case of emigrate or starve.

Research Help Requested…

Edward mentions a “Catholic Almanac” in his letter to Lawrence.  Has anyone ever heard of that before?  I would love to know where I could find 19th century copies!


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Emigrant Letters Help Tell the Story

The most frequently searched topic that brings visitors to The Irish in America is emigrant letters, those rich and rare sources of historical and genealogical information.  Over the next week I will explore some internet resources available to those interested in the often elusive emigrant letter.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is home to the Curtis Family Collection.  The Curtis family emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from Mountmellick, Queen’s County in waves, from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s.  The collection includes letters from Ireland to Philadelphia, as well as from Philadelphia to Ireland.  Click here to read theses fascinating letters.  This link will take you to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s website and a listing of the letters – once there simply click on the links to open each letter.

Also included in the Curtis Family Collection are several historical documents, including a membership certification to the Saint Patrick’s Beneficial Society of Philadelphia and citizenship papers.  Click here to view all items.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a few other items related to Irish emigration on their website.  The words to eight immigrant ballads are posted, as well as examples of missing emigrant listings found in the Catholic Herald newspaper.

These resources were put together for an education course on ethnic history and settlement of Pennsylvania.  It is an excellent way of teaching this topic using primary sources preserved in their archive.  The collection provides tremendous insight into the lives of Famine-era emigrants to the United States.  Many thanks to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania!

Reading List…

Journey of Hope

Check out this great book by Kerby Miller and Patricia Mulholland Miller titled Journey of Hope: The Story of Irish Immigration to America.  The book utilizes emigrant letters to tell the story of Irish immigrants and includes many photographs.  It is an “interactive book” containing copies of handwritten letters and other reproduced ephemera central to the immigration journey.

Making the Connection

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The first comment left on this blog was from Mai in County Wexford back in early October.  Mai was interested in learning about her mother’s cousins who left Ireland and settled in Pennsylvania, USA.  With the few details Mai provided, I was able to do a quick search of US genealogy records and find her family.

Mai told me the names and birth dates for her mother’s aunt and uncle who emigrated to the USA.  She also knew the place-name of their residence, as well as the names of the children.  These details were just enough for me to identify the family on a passenger list on a ship from Ireland, their residences in the US Census for 1920 and 1930, and listings in the Social Security Death Index.

Last week I received an email from Mai:

Hi Aine Thanks for your help in finding my relatives in Pennsylvania. I  have made contact with them and we now e-mail  regularly. They are delighted at finding us too. Thanks again…

I am not surprised that Mai’s American relatives were delighted to hear from her; there are many Irish Americans who would be thrilled to receive an email from a long-lost Irish relative.

Have you reached out to your American relations, or have you been contacted by an Irish relative?  Please share your experiences by leaving a comment!  I would love to hear your stories…

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