During the last couple of years, I've done a fair amount of genealogical research and I've posted some of my findings under the tag: "Who Are These People?"
I thought I knew plenty about my ancestors, but I found out I didn't know much at all. This was especially true about my mother's ancestors -- particularly on her father's side -- but I found I didn't know much about my father's side, either. At least not as much as I thought I did.
One of the enduring mysteries on my father's side had to do with Ohio. In family mythology, Ohio was named as a stopping point on my paternal ancestors' journey to Iowa where I was born and my father was born and where his father was born. My father's grandfather and all but one of his grandfather's siblings, however, were born in Ireland. That wasn't the story I was told, as I was told very little, but it was the story in the records I found. There was a surprising amount of information about my ancestors available online.
The records indicated that my father's paternal ancestors emigrated from Ireland in 1850 or thereabouts. It's not entirely clear where in Ireland they emigrated from -- some possibilities include Counties Tipperary and Offaly (called King's County prior to Irish independence from British rule.) I choose to think my ancestors' Irish home-place was in County Offaly because that was the historic seat of the family clan dating back into the dimmest mists of time. Tipperary borders Offaly, so it's certainly possible that the ancestral origin was in County Tipperary as I'd been told by my father, but he never mentioned a specific location within Tipperary.
The records indicate that by July of 1850, part of the family was living in or near Springfield, Ohio. The missing part is my father's grandfather James. James's father Alexander, mother Mary, brother and sister in law Charles and Anna, and sisters Mary and Sarah are all there, but James is not, nor is his brother John. This suggests to me that they had not left Ireland yet.
They don't show up in the record until the 1856 Iowa state census.
1856 is actually an earlier date for their arrival in Iowa than I had previously thought. The stories I'd heard and read said they'd arrived in Iowa in 1857 or 1858. Yet here they were in Pleasant Valley, Scott County, Iowa, in 1856.
Something had happened to cause them to leave Ohio within six years of their arrival. It wasn't just my father's direct ancestors who left Ohio, either. Another branch of the family that had settled in the Piqua area of Ohio -- forty miles or so north and west of Springfield -- in the 1830s also left for Iowa at about the same time -- mid 1850s -- as my father's ancestors. The other branch settled in LeClaire, Iowa nearby my father's ancestors (LeClaire borders Pleasant Valley) and the records get confused from that point because both branches used many of the same given names, and of course they shared the same surname. Figuring out just who is who is a challenge I haven't yet mastered!
Meanwhile, the chief mystery remained: what happened in Ohio that made them leave en masse like they did?
There were no stories about it that I recall hearing.
The record is scant. There is only the 1850 census stating who among my ancestors was in Ohio and where they were and what kind of work they did -- and how long they'd been there and where they'd come from (a year or less, and Ireland). There was also a listing in the 1840 census for the head of the other branch of the family -- which showed him with a household of 60, most of whom were young men, none named. Was this a monastery? I don't think so. More likely, it was a canal-building crew of Irish immigrants. By 1850, his household was reduced to 15 and included a number of named Irish immigrants.
By 1856, all of them were in Iowa. Both branches of the family were in Scott County in neighboring townships, essentially on neighboring farms, but my father's great-grandfather Alexander was listed as a "farmer" while his brother and neighbor Edward (assumed relationship) is listed as a "contractor." In other words he assembled and supervised work crews for others. That's essentially what he'd been doing in Ohio as well. It's not entirely clear what Alexander and his family had been doing in Ohio, as the only indication is the 1850 listing of Alexander and his oldest son Charles as "laborers" in Springfield.
As I say, there were no family stories about the Ohio sojourn. All that was said was that it happened. And then they moved on to Iowa.
In a history of Scott County that included members of my father's family, it was noted that "opportunities were better" in Iowa -- compared to "more thickly settled" Ohio. I got to thinking about what that could mean in a historical sense.
Edward had been in Ohio in the Piqua area since the 1830s, probably arriving from Ireland in 1836 or 1838. The area had recently been "cleared" of Indians, though there were still some there, and if I understand correctly, Indians still live in the area, descended from those who didn't move west when the rest of their tribes were forced out under the various Removal acts.
Not only were there still Indians in the area, there were also free Blacks, brought to colonize the area from Virginia.
The leading citizen was named John Johnston, a Scots-Irish immigrant who was styled "Colonel" and who had been made Indian Agent for the region. He held many other positions as well. It is my understanding that he was a primary recruiter of immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere to the region around Piqua. My assumption is that Edward and Johnston were working together to recruit Irish immigrants and put them to work on projects -- land clearance, road construction, canal building and the like.
It's possible that Alexander's intention was to go to Piqua and join his brother when he emigrated to America, but he only got as far as Springfield. My suspicion is that he ran out of money, and given the tenor of the times, it's possible that what little money he was able to bring with him from Ireland was stolen.
By the 1850s anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment had reached fever pitch in much of the settled country. Ohio was no exception. There were many incidents of violence against Irish immigrants (and others) throughout the period of Know-Nothing political control of the state. Violence against the Irish included destruction of (Catholic) churches and other property and the robbery and murder of Irish settlers. It was an ugly time, and for the most part there was no recourse at law. The law, such as it was, favored the mob and their terror and violence against the Irish. Needless to say, the Irish were not the only victims, but they were most definitely preyed upon by the dominant white "real" Americans.
Something happened to my Irish-American ancestors during this period to convince them to move on to Iowa. I don't know what it was but it had to have been pretty awful, especially for Edward and his family. They'd been living and working in Ohio for decades.
One generally doesn't pull up stakes without a reason.
I believe the reason that drove my Irish ancestors to come to America was a desire for land -- something they -- as Catholics -- couldn't own in Ireland.
Alexander and his family had only been in Ohio for a few years, but it's my suspicion that they found that no matter how hard they worked and saved, they could not acquire land of their own because they never had enough money to buy it. They couldn't own land in Ireland, either, because the British had seized almost all of it and forbade Catholic ownership of what was left.
Why stay in Ohio where the land situation was similar -- or even more difficult -- and where routine violence against Irish immigrants went unpunished by the law?
There were homesteads available in Iowa for the claiming. Claim the land, improve it, live on it, and it was yours. No one could take it from you simply because you were... Irish.
And so they moved -- dozens of them -- to Iowa, where "opportunities were better" in a land "less thickly settled."
They acquired farms in Scott County -- in LeClaire, Pleasant Valley, McCausland, and Princeton. There may have been others I'm not aware of. I know that later they would also acquire farms in neighboring Clinton County. My uncle Vincent painted this scene of the Princeton farm when he was 11 years old (c. 1912):
The Princeton farm stayed in the family at least until my grandfather died in 1941.
Family members did not actively work the farms after about 1880 or so. They were either left fallow --- especially during the Depression -- or they were worked by tenants. But the land and ownership of the land were very important to members of my family even after their active farming lives ended.
Equally important -- if not more so -- was the law and government.
In my grandfather's generation, all the boys became lawyers. I thought that was also true of the boys in my father's generation, but I found out recently it was not so. In fact, my father was the only attorney in his generation. So far as I know, there are no attorneys in my generation, but some in the generations to follow have expressed an interest in the law.
The law became so important to members of my family, I believe, because the law did not protect them in Ireland -- just the opposite -- and they soon found it did not protect them in Ohio, either. Coming to America may have been the adventure of a lifetime, but it was not a solution to their problems.
My grandfather and his brothers formed a law partnership in about 1894 with branches in Davenport and Clinton, Iowa. It appears to have handled general law and -- importantly -- real estate law. My father became a partner in the firm founded by his father and uncles, and then -- after their deaths -- he was the sole owner and proprietor. And his focus, from that point on, was abstracts of title and real estate law.
Back to what might have happened in Ohio, I've been unable to find any evidence that my ancestors owned and worked their own land either in Springfield or in Piqua. As I say, there's not a whole lot of evidence that they were there at all, but there is some, and what there is indicates that Edward in Piqua assembled and supervised work crews for others as a contractor, and Alexander and his boys worked as laborers on others' properties in and around Springfield.
There is no indication that they owned their own property in Ohio.
In Iowa, on the other hand, there's quite a lot of evidence of my ancestors owning and working their own land in Scott and Clinton Counties at least until the 1880s.
According to one account I read, the "Famine Irish" refused to take up land for farming in Ohio, even though farmland was available at almost no charge in the Western Reserve.
This is somewhat hard to believe but it may be true.
Those of my Irish ancestors who arrived in Ohio in 1850 would -- I have little doubt -- be classified as "Famine Irish" even though, from what I've been able to find out about the famine situation in the central part of Ireland, they likely did not suffer from starvation or disease - or eviction for that matter.
The Third Earl of Rosse was the British lord of the region, and according to contemporary accounts, he was a great defender of the Irish and he assured that the Irish in his domain would not -- and did not -- starve. He was almost alone in his sense of responsibility for Irish welfare. But he did what he could.
The Irish left Lord Rosse's domain anyway.
It was a terrible time for Ireland, and the Great Famine will forever remain one of the (many) black marks on the British Empire.
Once in America, the Irish faced many hardships, most of which were the result of poverty. Most Irish arrived in the United States penniless or deep in debt to whomever had paid their fare out of Ireland.
Opportunities to make a living were scant, and there were multitudes of "real" Americans eager to exploit Irish poverty and naivté to enrich themselves. While some Irish, like my ancestors, came to America specifically for freedom from oppression and for land, others came for no other reason than to survive.
One history I read suggested that the Irish grossly exaggerated the discrimination they faced in America, and to the extent they faced any discrimination at all, it was their own fault.
Another history, specifically dealing with Irish immigrants to Ohio, also blamed them for their own problems and misery. The Irish were said to be "uncivilized," "ignorant," "dirty," "violent," and often drunken. They were lazy, contentious, immoral, and illiterate. Their Catholic faith was little more than a superstition. On and on. Any sort of stereotype you can think of was being cited in a current history of Ohio to justify the mal-treatment of Irish immigrants in the 19th Century.
Apparently, to this day, Ohioans have little regard for Irish immigrants of long ago, especially not for the "Famine Irish."
And yet the Irish experience and memory of discrimination and mob violence against them is "exaggerated."
Apparently anti-Irish prejudice and Know-Nothing-ism was not as strong in Iowa as it had been in Ohio.
I've wondered why my Irish ancestors didn't press on to California and the Gold Country when they finally decided to leave Ohio. The Gold Rush was going full blast when Alexander and his family (my direct paternal ancestors) arrived from Ireland in 1850. Emigration to California was still under way when they left Ohio for Iowa in or about 1856. The lure of the Gold Rush must have been strong, and yet it wasn't strong enough to get them more than a few miles across the Mississippi River. What kept them in Iowa was the land.
The land situation in California was complicated by the unsettled condition of the numerous Spanish and Mexican land grants -- grants that were supposedly guaranteed to the grantees in perpetuity by the treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo ceding California and the rest of the Southwest to the United States. That isn't quite how it worked in practice, but that's what it was supposed to look like. So there wasn't really much land available for homesteading in California, and gold-finding was not what it was cracked up to be.
In Iowa, on the other hand, once the Indians were forced out, there was abundant land for the taking. Homesteading was possible, and if land had to be purchased, costs were apparently within reason.
Once they had land, my paternal ancestors could begin to build a future.
Apparently, too, the law in Iowa was on the side of the settlers, even if they were recent immigrants from Ireland.
There is also a German side to my paternal ancestry, but we'll not deal with that here.
My sense is that land was not available for my paternal Irish ancestors in Ohio, there was an increasing level of anti-Irish prejudice, discrimination and violence in Ohio, the law did not protect the Irish in Ohio, and Iowa beckoned.
The road from Springfield and Piqua, Ohio, to Scott County, Iowa, was a long one, but it was taken around 1856, and from that point on, the story of what happened to my ancestors in Ohio was forgotten-- or at least never spoken of -- much as the story of what happened in Ireland fell into the mists of time.
But whatever it was, what happened in Ohio helped make them who they were.