About the Famine and the Pilot

The Boston Pilot’s “Missing Friends” advertisements provide the raw material for understanding the immigration experience.  Prior to 1860 knowledge of the geographic origins of the Irish in America was scanty. Although United States censuses record the number of emigrants who came from Ireland, and the British censuses indicated numbers of persons whose birthplace was Ireland, there is no systematic record of immigrants that identify the locations in Ireland from which emigrants came. Similarly, ship’s passenger lists indicate port of embarkation, but frequently not place of origin, so that as in the case of the “Missing Friends” data—where more than half the individuals left from Liverpool—one could not always be certain of the emigrant’s nationality.

From October 1831 through October 1921 the Pilot carried the “Missing Friends” column in which individuals advertised for their missing relatives and friends. With very few exceptions, almost all persons sought were emigrants from Ireland, and the advertisements contained data about the county and parish of origin of the migrants, when the person sought left Ireland, where and when he or she was believed to have arrived in North America, their occupation, and a range of other personal information about the individual. Facts about the relative or friend who originated the search were also included, such as their relationship to the person sought and their address.

In order to place a search, friends or relatives of the missing had to be able to pay for the possibility of locating a lost one, and they had to know of and be able to use the facilities of this Boston newspaper. Nevertheless, while the Pilot was Boston-based it was distributed widely wherever Irish persons lived, including Ireland and Australia.

While it is hardly to be expected that many persons represented in the Pilot advertisements would have been distinguished public figures, nevertheless some were connected with distinguished movements in Ireland such as the rebellion of 1798, when Irish radicals calling themselves United Irishmen, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, attempted to mobilize Ireland into a revolt against English governance.  After the crushing the insurrection, the government decided to allow captured prisoners to go into exile, on condition that they turn over evidence.  It seems likely that this was the context for the search for Hugh McDonald whose friends in Ireland sought news of him more than fifty years later in the following advertisement appearing in the Boston Pilot in January 1852:

“Of Hugh or Michael McDonald, son to Hugh McDonald, Esq., parish Kilcummin, near Keeper Hill (Co. Tipperary); a gentleman who acted a distinguished part in the movement of ‘98, after which he emigrated to this country, in which he found a home. His son, Hugh, was in Perry township, Brown County, Ohio, 10 years ago. Should either of them, or any person knowing them, see this, they will confer a favor by writing to CORNELIUS O’BRIEN, St. John, N.B., who will inform their friends in Ireland.”


The Irish in Boston in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The failure of the potato crop over four successive years after 1845 resulted in a population decline from 8.2 million in the 1841 Irish census to 6.5 million ten years later.  Much of the loss was from death but an estimated 1.5 million immigrated to North America.  While Ireland was emptying out, Boston was filling with Irish immigrants, showing a 105 percent increase in the 1840s.  From 1846 to 1849, 100,000 Irish persons arrived in Boston; 15,000 in 1846; 25,250 in 1847; and 25,000 in 1848.  The early “Missing Friends” advertisements reflect the fact that the Pilot was a Boston paper although that would soon change as the paper became a national paper and then an international paper, read as far away as Australia.

Few persons coming from Ireland, or elsewhere in Europe, could have imagined the immense size of North America, with the result that many, including children, became separated from family members.  Seeking to economize, parents sometimes sent their children by the cheaper passage via Canada, with the result that after arrival the children could not be located.

Most persons arriving expected to be employed through a family network of sisters and brothers, uncles, nephews, daughters, and sons who preceded them to America.  Ireland was a culture in which obligations and claims between kin were extremely powerful and disregarded only at the cost of cutting oneself off entirely from a support network. However many immigrants would discover after arrival that it was not enough to know only the name of the town where they had last heard from a relative, and that following the employment trail could easily take an immigrant hundreds of miles from where they landed.

Those arriving in Boston found it a prosperous and flourishing town. By 1850, fifteen Boston families controlled twenty percent of the cotton spinning in the United States, thirty percent of the railroad mileage, thirty-nine percent of insurance assets, and forty percent of the banking revenue in the state.  The fare to Boston was more expensive than other east coast cities, ranging from four to five dollars in the late 1840s, while fares to New York and the Canadian ports were usually less then four dollars, the willingness of individuals to pay the higher fare suggests a deliberate strategy. But while those who chose Boston may have hoped to share in the city’s wealth, their progress toward prosperity would at first be slow.

America was not for the fainthearted. Survival was difficult for those who arrived in a battered state or were without assistance from family or friends. The opportunities in the New World were for risk takers, people who could adapt to changing circumstances. Experiences in Ireland prepared young people well for this challenge, so that most Irish arriving in America were socially as well as psychologically equipped to be enterprising. Nevertheless, analysis of the Pilot data suggests that the skills immigrants arrived with were largely pre-industrial—they were blacksmiths, stonemasons, brick masons, curriers, carpenters, and tailors—but it would be their misfortune that there would not be a strong demand for these skills in Boston. The New England region was the center of the textile industry and required a cheap, expendable labor force, one in which employers could bludgeon down wages as low as possible in order to make their profits. For that reason, sixty-five percent of the Irish American population in 1850 consisted of unskilled laborers. Boston’s industries needed Irish muscle and the Irish needed jobs, so blacksmiths soon found themselves railroad laborers and women who were spinners in Ireland became textile factory workers. The Irish contribution to Boston’s industries was recognized in the 1850 census when it was observed that ‘the factories can hardly be carried without them (the Irish).’

Boston’s land resources were extremely limited until late in the 19th century when landfill created new living space in the South End and the Back Bay. This meant that most of the new arrivals were trapped on a densely overcrowded peninsula. The Irish dominated the North End, Fort Hill, and the South Cove neighborhoods of Boston, where in 1855 there were 107,000 Irish in the 7th ward (which encompassed Ann, Commercial, Fleet, Moon, and Lower Hanover Streets). The North End would remain predominantly Irish for a decade after 1846, forming one-half of that area’s 23,000 residents, who lived primarily in boarding houses.

Conditions in the North End were worse than elsewhere in the city, and one Bostonian said, ‘The Irish of the North End for the most part do not represent the best qualities of their race.’  Nevertheless, survival, not comfort, was the first priority of the new arrivals. Whether arriving from Ireland or from the industrial districts of England and Scotland, where many Irish worked before emigrating, most immigrants had less immediate interest in creature comforts than living as economically as possible and sending money home to Ireland to provide support and passage money for other family members.

More than half of the Boston Pilot’s Missing Friends searchers used third-party individuals as a contact. When the contact person’s address was in an Irish district it usually meant that they too were Irish immigrants—often from the same region in Ireland—individuals more likely to be searchable in city directories and census records.


The Story of Michael Sullivan

Emigrants from county Cork dominated the early years of the Pilot ads, accounting for 20 percent of all searches; county Tipperary was next in importance with six percent. After 1845 emigration from counties Galway, Clare, and Kerry accelerated. In these counties people had lived perilously close to the edge of survival well before the Famine.

Michael Sullivan, who gave testimony before a parliamentary investigating committee in Ireland in 1843, is representative of the very poorest Irish families prior to the Famine, and was typical of the kind of individual who would be swept away by the disastrous conditions accompanying the Famine.

When asked by the committee how much ground he held, Sullivan’s reply was that he held no ground. “I am a poor man. I have nothing but my labour.” He held his house and an acre of ground as a sub-tenant under a farmer called Daniel Regan, for which he paid three pounds; two pounds for the acre of ground, and one pound for the lease of the house. The location of his acre of ground varied from year to year.

“The acre I have this year I cannot have it next year; he will have it himself. I must manure another acre, and without friends I could not live; without having some respectable friends who assist me, I could not appear as I am.”

Sullivan worked as a daily laborer for Daniel Regan for a wage of sixpence a day and meals. When that work wasn’t available he said that he went further south in Cork or north to Tipperary or Limerick, earning one pound or thirty shillings, according to the local wages, at the harvest or in digging potatoes.

He and his wife had five children, the eldest of whom was twelve. Of the local farmers he said, “They do not employ any of the children—not one; and even we must go ourselves into the country for the want of employment here: and I blame much the landlords of the country for that, though they are very indulgent.” When asked how he managed to support a family of seven on sixpence a day he said that he could earn a little more from road making for the landlord. The family’s food consisted only of dry potatoes. Did he ever eat fish? “No, not one, except they may bring a pen’orth home in a month; but it is not once in a month, or once in three months. If my poor wife sells her eggs, or makes up a skein of thread in the market, she may take home with her a pen’orth or two pen’orth of something to nourish the children for that night; but in general I do not use 5s. of kitchen from one end of the year to the other, except what I may get at Christmas.” Did he ever have milk with his potatoes? “Not a drop. I have no means of getting it. I would think myself middling happy if I could give the five children that; and if they were near a National School, I could give them schooling. I have an idea of giving them schooling as well as I can. A better labouring man than what I am cannot afford his children any schooling, and even some of the people called farmers in the same place.”

He testified that while there were some free schools, none were convenient to where he lived. Was he anxious for his children to be taught to read and write? “Yes; and so I am striving, but without the assistance of my good friends I could not do it.” His wife contributed in a small way to the family income by raising chickens. He had a small garden attached to the house in which he raised about 400 cabbages. He had a pig, but not a pig-house, so that the pig lived in a corner of their house with the family. He could not build a pig-stye outside because he did not know if he would have the same house next year. Of what did his household goods consist?

“I have a chaff bed and bed-clothes that would do my own business, but I am in want of a second one. I cannot afford to have it. I cannot complain myself, but I could complain for others. There are others of the poor working class, as I am myself, who have no beds, nor more than a gentleman or even a wealthy farmer would think too good for his pig, and they may lie in the clothes they wear by the day.”

Even those who would be considered farmers in his district were badly off. Of them he said,

“... one out of 100 cannot drink a pint of sour milk among five in family from about Christmas until about the 17th of March or so; and then generally they are forced to sell the sour milk in order to meet the rent, or pawn their clothes. I know in different places three women in one house trusting to one cloak, and for a time, perhaps, it might be in the pawn office.”

When asked of what class were these poor women, he replied that they worked for farmers. When asked what was the smallest quantity of land upon which a man could support himself and his family, to which he replied:

“They could, I know, where they are encouraged in that place, support themselves by ten acres, properly cultivated, of good light land, better than what they are doing by thirty acres, from the want of capital and means.”

Did people of his class ever immigrate to America? He replied, “Not many in the place, not in the very neighbourhood.” And why did they not emigrate? “.. for want of money.” Supposing the means of emigration were given to them, would they be willing to leave Ireland?—Answer: “They are not anxious for it—they have not the courage; they are not so willing to emigrate.” The questioner continued: “Those people you describe as being so wretched in their condition—supposing lands were supplied for them in America, would they be willing and anxious to emigrate? Answer: It is hard for a man to account for another man’s mind, but of course they would.”

For the twenty years prior to 1840, the survival of most families in the west of Ireland was dependent on the males of the family traveling for work in England each year. The outflow of people from these counties during the famine years suggests that those who were now emigrating were the slightly better off, many of them former seasonal migrants who could afford the passage. Many peasant farmers whose survival depended on work abroad carefully calculated their gains and losses, as did Michael Sullivan.


Emigration to America from Ireland’s Eastern Counties

The Pilot data show that an increase in emigration to America from counties of the eastern seaboard such as Dublin, Carlow, Wexford, Down, and Louth also began relatively late, but for very different reasons than the western counties. The economy of these counties was dependent on grain and cattle raised for export; Louth had mixed farming as well as some factory production of textiles. The countries were prosperous relative to the rest of the country, because of their market-oriented connection to England. But it was an uneven prosperity and many individuals saw their livelihood decline year by year. As with people in the far west, easterners saw their margin of safety narrow each year, and the Famine gave the final shock. A County Louth man wrote in 1848:

“... I really cannot say how long we will live in this country. The potato crop has failed in this country this year as it did in 1845 with this difference that the distemper of infection set in this year about the end of June before the late crop planted in May had time to form. The early ones are very much infected in places but the disease is progressing and we all consider that there will not be a potato to put in November. We have also had great rains and severe gales of wind which it is feared has injured the cash crops so that you see there is a poor look-out for the ensuing spring and summer. Should the potato crop fail as anticipated my business falls to the ground.”

His attitude was typical of enterprising individuals who, having lost their faith in the land, would then turn their sights toward America. Four years of successive failure of their main subsistence crop broke the dream that it was possible to remain in Ireland.

The “Missing Friends” advertisements remind us of the difficulties that surrounded emigration. Ties of community and family could be broken, but the searches represent the tremendous effort that family and friends made to reconstitute in America what they had lost in leaving Ireland.  The column was critically important in this process of rebuilding lost ties. The information in the ads is still important in today’s world, valuable for scholars as well as family historians who wish to learn more about the nineteenth century world of their ancestors.

Ruth-Ann Harris