An Immigrants Tale

The Universe is not made of Atoms; It is made of stories. —Muriel Rukeyser. Like this one.

Halcyon, Adelaida, Estrella, Santa Rosa, Saint Patricks and an almost lost Santa Manuela, places where our first immigrants found their final resting place. Some are small family graveyards spotted on private properties. They are all old and sad, barely cared for or visited.

Located near the famed San Andreas Fault, the Parkfield Cemetery is a chronicle of heartbreak. With no sign at the entrance, no grass and no noise, this cemetery marks a nearly unknown place, an Old West-style graveyard where intense summer heat discourages visitors and dries out the soil. It is a sere, dusty place of forgotten people. Many of the 94 bodies buried here once belonged to children who died from the diphtheria outbreak in the 1880s. Also, here is the tombstone of Louisa Kidwell Lee, who died in 1893, According to her tombstone, she was the granddaughter of the Rev. Jonathan Kidwell, a soldier in the American Revolution.

Not too far from the home I grew up in was a little spot reached by a short walk up behind the elementary school I attended. At the top of a small canyon in a spot shaded by an old oak tree lie Francis Ziba Branch, his wife Manuela and their children. Like most family sites it is seldom visited and normally only by those that have some distant connection to the family and its history. Don Francisco was buried there in 1874. After nearly a century and a half this little place of peace is nearly completely forgotten.

Though there are likely no earthly remains below ground, the markers raise questions in the mind about who they were, what kind of lives did they live and how did they get here.

Up past Port Orford, Oregon, over on the coast is another private graveyard, located alongside a road that leads to the Cape Blanco lighthouse. It is situated on a bluff overlooking the old Hughes ranch which is nearby the Sixes river. It is small. Just a very few people are buried there. There are some members of the Hughes family who ranched on the rivers plain just below. There are some laborers who ended up at the ranch and served the family for decades. There are also a few neighbors buried there.

The Sixes flows only about 31 miles through coastal forests in southwestern Oregon. It drains a rugged region of the Klamath Mountains. The river rises in the mountains of northern Curry County, south of Sugarloaf Mountain. The Sixes flows generally west, and eventually enters the Pacific just north of Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in Oregon. The mouth of the river is along the coast just to the north of the Cape. Directly offshore the river, the magnificent Castle Rock appears to sail off towards China attended by its convoy of smaller rocks thrust up from the ocean floor. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a hard place too. Howling winds in the winter and spring, fog, cold and damp descends like a pale curtain much of the year.

When Patrick Hughes arrived here in 1850 it was quite literally the end of America. That wandering man Daniel Boone crossed the great barrier of the Appalachian mountains into Kain-Tuck-Ee in 1775 and in the next 24 years moved himself west to Missouri Territory. He explored 800 miles towards the Pacific in his entire lifetime. Lewis and Clark went west in 1805, John Coulter, the first mountain man followed and within thirty years our valley, 2,100 miles west of Missouri found its first Irish settler in Francis Branch. The Sixes River had its first Irish in Patrick Hughes.

One of the variants of the name used by the Kwatami, was “Sik-ses-tene”, which is said to mean “people by the far north country”. This is most likely the real source of the name for the river. The spelling “Sixes” was used by miners drawn to the Oregon Gold rush who were familiar with the Chinook word “sikhs”. In the way that we do, a local name with unfamiliar spelling or pronunciation is quickly bastardized and becomes the name of record. So Sixes it is.

Patrick Hughes was himself an emigrant. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1830, he immigrated to the United States in 1850. He met and married Jane O’Neil in 1853, and the couple sailed for California in 1856. Patrick Hughes worked at gold mining before traveling north to Curry County, where his wife joined him. The Oregon gold rush started in 1850, around the same time people started digging up California. The first miners found gold in the Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon, working their way along the Rogue River to the Pacific Ocean. Hughes was attracted to the Oregon Coast by the gold in the Sixes River. Like most gold seekers this didn’t pan out and instead he homesteaded along the river. He built a large dairy operation over the next fifty years and shipped his products south to Port Orford by wagon and on to destinations along the west coast including San Francisco, less than a two day sail away.

Patrick Hughes house on the Sixes River

The Hughes Family Cemetery was built around the little Catholic church (St. Mary, Star of the Sea) which Hughes and his wife built. Buried there are various members of the Hughes family and their Irish immigrant neighbors. Hughes built the little church in that isolated little place in order for the tiny community to worship. Much of the original Hughes family was laid to rest there along with neighbors and those who worked on the ranch. Stones commemorate Michael Duffy, a neighbor, Frank McMullen and his wife Catherine. Buried nearby is William O’Shannon. A curious thing, beyond the fact that they were all born in Ireland is they were almost all the same age and died within just a few years of each other.

Denis McCarthy has a stone there. He worked as a stock raiser for the Hughes for the most part of his life. He was born in 1819 in Icheegeelagh Parish, Cork and baptized in the Catholic Church by Father Humphrey before he was a year old. He father Denis held him as the Priest anointed him with oil, all praying for a baby’s future. As with an enormous number of Irish he served time in an English jail for theft. In Denis case, hay. Upon release he bolted for America arriving in New York aboard the steam packet St. Patrick. He was 22.

He was lucky in a couple of ways. One, he wasn’t transported to Australia, for it was they heyday of Britains policy of ridding its population of the so-called criminal element by banishing them to the penal colonies. Penal records for the time list Denis McCarthys by the dozens, all transported to the penal colonies in Australia or even sold as chattel slaves to the British sugar plantations in Jamaica. Most of them were shipped off for crimes so inconsequential as to be laughable today. It was the Irish/British courts way of ridding the Island of the “Pernicious Scum,” the native Irish. The obverse of that coin is that the Irish were so poor that theft was a risk people took in order to simply survive.

The English overlords had introduced the Penal Laws in Ireland in 1695. It was a purposeful attempt to crush the Irish, both as a people and as a state. Ireland had stood in the shadows of the great powers of Britain for centuries. From the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I thereafter, to the invasion by Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s puppetry over Ireland had continued to dehumanize the Irish peoples. The British intensified the injustice brought upon Ireland when they stripped the Catholic Irish and other religions known as Dissenters of their religious freedoms and nearly all of their holdings including land.

Dissenters and Irish Separatists were Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dissenters (from the Latin dissentire, “to disagree”) could be members of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Free Thinkers, Seekers (Quakers), Puritans and Unitarians. They all in some ways disagreed in opinion, belief and other matters with the established Anglican church. Various rules were created to suppress the Catholics in order to make sure they did not rise to challenge British power. Any practice of Catholicism and communication in the Gaelic language was forbidden and labelled as rebellious against the powers of Britain. Catholic priests were banished, Catholic schools were banned, and Catholics were forced to pay a tithe to upkeep the Anglican church. Brave teachers who continued to teach their students their religious beliefs and their history in the forbidden Gaelic tongue did so in remote areas, hidden and away from the Protestant English. These were the Hedge Schools and the hedge master, if arrested was subject to immediate hanging. Suppressing the religious and linguistic practices of the Irish were a few of Britain’s many strategies that contributed to the weakening of a cohesive Ireland as a whole.

A recreation of a nineteenth century Hedge School.

Irish immigrants were absolutely desperate for land. The Popery Act of 1703, passed by the British parliament, forbade Catholics to pass down their land to their eldest son, and instead required landowners to distribute the land equally amongst all sons. If the family bore only daughters, the lands were to be also split equally amongst the daughters. By the early seventeen hundreds, the Irish who made up 90% of the population owned less than 10% of the land. When Denis was born, hope for improving the lot of the family was gone.

Laws for tenants insured that survival for Irish farmers was and always would be at a subsistence level. If a farmer’s production exceeded his land rent by more than 31% he and his family were subject to eviction by the landlord. The entire system was designed to crush the Irish and drive them off the land. This made them laborers subject to the whims of the great lords who controlled the country. It was a tenuous existence at best. Dispossessed people died of starvation, lying in roadside ditches like so much trash. People died with green around the mouth from eating grass and nettles. At least a million Irish died in the six years of the potato blight.

“Rotten potatoes and sea-weed, or even grass, properly mixed, afforded a very wholesome and nutritious food. All knew that Irishmen could live upon anything and there was plenty of grass in the field though the potato crop should fail.” (The Duke Of Cambridge, Adolphus, Son of King George III, January 1846)

“The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Filthy Irish people. The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”.” (Sir Charles Trevelyan, 1st Baronet KCB, 1st minister of his Majesty’s Treasury charged with administrating relief for the millions of Irish peasants suffering during the Famine. 1847)

With the coming of the potato blight in 1840 even this meager existence became nearly impossible. Potatoes were the primary diet for the Irish. Ireland was a very productive land, but nevertheless, wheat, mutton and pork, which were still produced in abundance were sent out of the country in order to profit the landlords. The vast majority of these products where shipped to Britain to feed its citizens.

The 1840s saw a significant number of people flee from the island to countries all over the world. Between 1841 and 1857, death and starvation led to mass emigration mostly to Great Britain and North America. Ireland’s population fell by over 2 million. The population fell by almost 35% and in some rural counties by as much as 50%. This Diaspora meant that Americans of Irish descent make up more than five times the population of Ireland today.

However, the common argument of the mass emigration from Ireland being a “flight from famine” is not entirely correct. The Irish had been coming to America since its inception. After all, eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish, three of them born in Ireland. My own ancestor Leachllain Shannon served in the 1st company, 8th regiment of the Pennsylvania volunteers during the French and Indian war. His son Daniel was a soldier during the revolution.

Once conditions in Ireland were improved, emigration did not slow down. After the famine was over, the four years following produced more emigrants than during the four years of the blight. The famine was considered the final straw in convincing people to move. There were several other factors in the decision making too. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution was generating a voracious appetite for cheap labor. The Erie Canal and the coming of the railroads, the rise of vast cotton mills in the northeast and the opening up of the western territories needed workers. During the civil war, Irish men were signed up for the Union Army as they came down the gangplanks of the the ships that brought them. Around 200,000 Irish served in the Union army alone. A high percentage of Scots-Irish from earlier immigrations fought for the confederacy.

The Bridge of Tears, Donegal. A place where families said goodbye to their loved ones.

As with most immigrants, the money for a ticket to the US wasn’t easy to come by. Average wage in 1840 Ireland for a days labor was six to nine pence, less than a shilling. 240 pence to the pound meant that it took a minimum of six months work by a day labourer to raise the money. A ticket to New York in steerage, the lowest class of passenger was about 5 pounds for the trip. For many emigrants, payment of the passage to America was one of the most significant events of their lives. Some who could afford it paid their own, but the majority of emigrants received the passage from a family member, usually a sibling who had already made the journey across the Atlantic, paving the way for younger brothers, sisters or even parents to follow.My great uncle Pat Moore brought his three sisters and his father after he established himself here. In the 18th century it was common to sell oneself into indentured servitude in the west in order to make the passage. Indentured Servitude was a binding contract in which the servant agreed to work for his or her master for a specific period of time until the cost of passage was paid off. Contracts ran as long as seven years in which the person was essentially owned by the lien holder. Thats right, owned, having no rights under the law and bound to serve the master in all things. Imagine signing the documents in Ireland with no idea of who or what you might find when you arrived at your destination. Indentured servants were auctioned dockside.

The trip itself could take anywhere from a month to three or more depending on the season. Winter in the Atlantic can be unbelievably brutal with constant gale force winds, ice and the pounding of the ship in the furious waves. For the first time, steam allowed sailing ships to buck the northern passage and its prevailing winds. Steamship companies made huge profits since it only cost about 60 cents a day to feed each immigrant, they could make enough profit on each crossing to pay off the cost of building the ship. The shipping companies sent traveling salesmen throughout Ireland and Scotland to hustle tickets. They placed advertisements in newspapers and attended public gatherings. Working on commission, they earned a very good living during the potato famine, signing up young men like Denis McCarthy.

The Steam Packet Saint Patrick.

The ship Denis traveled on was the Saint Patrick pictured above. She was sailing ship that had been converted to steam and powered by paddle wheels. Built in 1827 she was already old in 1840. Passengers would be crammed into every part of the ship. Locked below decks in the hold and the lowest part of the hull were hundreds of people, packed into every available space. They were seldom, if ever allowed up on deck. Glasgow, Scotland was the beginning of the ships passage. Here they loaded Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances, for they were a “Troublesome People” and were being forcibly removed from their homes by the British. They sailed to Londonderry in the north of Ireland and then Belfast on the east coast and finally Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork.  The majority of emigrants left as teenagers or in their twenties and many would never have needed to travel very far from their homes. The prospect of a move to America must have been monumental. There was the distinct possibility they would never, ever return to their families. For parents and siblings it must have been as if the immigrant had died. Denis would have left from his home in rural Cork boarding the Saint Patrick in Queenstown.

Going Aboard

Many, many did die. With nothing more than buckets for toilets, and only sea-water to wash with, disease was rampant. Cholera and Typhus accounted for a great many deaths. Those who died were buried at sea, although buried is simply a political term for someone whose remains were simply dragged on deck and tossed overboard. Perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, sharks learned to follow the ships looking for a meal. With death rates commonly reaching 20%, and horror stories of 50% dying, these vessels soon became known as “Coffin Ships”. Long cónra in Gaelic was how the ships were styled. The shipping lines, among the most famous in western history, White Star and Cunard could not get ships into service fast enough and consistently shipped passengers on old and nearly derelict vessels in order to generate massive profits. Ships agents fanned out across Ireland and Scotland touting the accommodations of their ships. The promised three cooked meals a day, clean and spacious accommodations when in fact 300 to 400 hundred passengers would be crammed below decks in rat infested holds and fed on the cheapest food that could be found. Typhus carrying fleas, mites and lice infested the dark, dank holds of these ships. The British sailing ship Larch left Sligo in northwest Ireland with 440 passengers; 108 died at sea, and 150 arrived sick in Boston. Consider the Sir Henry Pottinger, a P&O ship which left Cork with 399 in steerage of which 98 died and 112 were landed sick in Montreal. Many of the Famine ships carried few if any cabin or first class paying passengers, they weren’t necessary because the people in steerage were vastly more profitable. Death on board was of little consequence as passage was paid up front.

In the St Lawrence River, some 30 miles east of Quebec City, the quarantine station at Grosse Isle was soon overwhelmed with the numbers of sick passengers crawling or carried off the coffin ships. It couldn’t treat those that were ill, let alone provide for those that were not. So those that appeared healthy remained onboard their immigration ships and were simply waved on to Montreal. 

Unfortunately, many had already caught typhus ,–the fever that ran rampant on their overcrowded and filthy vessels – and they were to become ill further upriver. Soon, it was Montreal that was overwhelmed with the dead and dying. 

Ten years after the year of the coffin ships, workers building the city’s Victoria Bridge unearthed a mass grave containing the remains of over 6000 Irish immigrants. A 27-tonne granite boulder marks the spot beside the bridge’s entrance where an annual ceremony remembers those who died escaping poverty and hunger. Their families in Ireland likely never knew their fate. They were simply dumped in a mass grave and forgotten.

As the old saying goes, “When the Irish arrived in America they thought the streets would be paved with gold. But not only were they not paved with gold, they were expected to pave them.”

The politicians and the press of the time excoriated the immigrants, referring to them as vermin, drunkards, louts, animalistic in their desires and the worst example of humanity on earth. In the cities that they settled in, signs stating no Irish, no Catholics need apply were common.

The Irish Monkey. Cartoon, Frederick Burr Opper**

In countless cartoons the typical Irishman (“Paddy”) was shows to be violent, ignorant, drink-prone with a pronounced prognathism of the jaw-line to indicate a simian personality. An ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering long after the period of its most deadly potency. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser or the caricature that is the mascot for Notre Dame University. Perhaps the Irish survived by embracing the negative stereotype and making it an inside joke that they have ownership of.

Many of these Irish immigrants came to the major port of New York City, as well as Boston and Philadelphia.

Denis McCarthy, Uncle Patrick Moore and Leachlainn Shannon arrived before there was any formal receiving station for immigrants. The ships would anchor off Staten Island where officials came aboard for the quarantine check. The obviously diseased were detained aboard but the rest of the passengers were loaded onto lighters and towed across the inner harbor to the foot of Manhattan and simply herded ashore. There they were met by a mob of thieves and pickpockets, pimps and men hawking fake Railroad Tickets. Other men pushing land sales in the west and for the extremely lucky a friend or relative.

Because of the large increase in immigration in the mid 1800’s and in an effort to protect the newly arriving immigrants from scam artists, the State of New York opened an immigration processing center at Castle Gardens in August of 1855.

The complex that made up the Castle Gardens immigration center included a labor exchange where jobs were posted, a hospital and medical offices, a currency exchange and a translators office with employees who spoke dozens of languages and dialects including both Irish and Scots Gaelic which was the spoken language of the majority of Irish until three-quarters the way through the 1800’s.

The ships let the first class and cabin passengers of at one of the piers on the Hudson River side of Manhattan and then proceeded to Castle Garden where the steerage passengers were herded down the gangplank. All immigrants had to land at the depot which was closed to anyone else such as thieves and the scam artists. Individuals had their names checked against the ships manifest, underwent another brief medical exam and passed through customs. If there was no-one to meet you, you were free to go.

Castle Gardens, print collection Maggie Land Blanck
Harpers Weekly September 2, 1865
“Since 1847 about three million of emigrants have arrived at this port. Last year the number of these was 182,916, being an increase of 30,000 over the pervious year. The largest number on record is 319,223 — the number of arrivals in 1854. If we take the number of arrivals at this port in 1864 we shall find that 90,000 were from Ireland, nearly 60,000 from Germany and about 24,000 from England. These countries are the main sources of emigration.”
Immigration statistics 1864

These new Irish immigrants entered the country and found that the New World had as many challenges at the Old. Coming from rural backgrounds, many Irish found themselves without the necessary skills for the new industrialized, urbanized economy that was springing up in the United States. Many Irish had to seek jobs as laborers to make ends meet, paving the streets and digging the canals of an expanding New York City while the women were obliged to take jobs as maids and laundresses. In the old city of San Francisco there was a place called Washerwoman Lagoon where women went to launder clothes in the small freshwater lake at the foot of Telegraph Hill. It was hard, brutal and demeaning work but it was all they could get.

Choosing a “Girl.” collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Unfortunately, the Irish faced another major challenge in the United States – racism. Much of the same prejudices against the Irish, for their race and their religion, followed them to the New World. American politicians, fearful of the Irish, sought to marginalize them and created a political party, the Know-Nothing Party, whose major focus was anti-immigration xenophobia. This party believed that the Irish could not be trusted because of their “allegiance” to the Pope in Rome and because of their insular “clannish” tendencies to look after each other. When John F Kennedy was running for president in 1960 politicians complained that if he was elected, the Pope would run America. Hatred, xenophobia and demagoguery die hard.

From Harvard University’s Neiman Reports, 1960

Denis McCarthy. William O”Sullivan, Michael Duffy and Patrick Hughes all lived in the windswept, foggy Sixes valley for half a century and they laid down their burdens in the little Saint Mary, Star of the Sea Cemetery on the hill above the land they lived on. For the greatest part of their lives they toiled in a new land, laying down a foundation upon which this country is built. Only Patrick ever married. O’Sullivan had two brothers in America according to a newspaper ad run in Chicago in1864, in which he asked for information as to their whereabouts. One brother served with the 90th Illinois infantry on Sherman’s March to the sea but there his record ends. Neither of the two other O’Sullivan brothers passing is marked.

Here at our home most of the first settlers were Irish born. Great Uncle Patrick Moore and his wife Sarah, his three sisters and his father too. Great Grandfather and grandmother Jenny and Samuel Gray, John Corbit and his wife Mehitabel, The brothers Donovan, the Ryans, the Sullivans, McNeils, Daniel Rice, the Phelans and the Steele Brothers all put down roots here. I think, in most cases they bet that there was something better here in this country that made the hardship, and the separation from their homes worth the price they paid.

Sam and Jenny Gray wedding photo. Shannon Family Trust photo

My great-grandparents Sam and Jenny Gray. Both born in Ballyrobert Dough, county Antrim Ireland. Married on the 12th of May, 1881, they took the ferry to Glasgow and boarded the States Liner SS Alabama for America. They arrived at Castle Gardens on Manhattan Island on June 6th, ’81. They came here because Jenny’s aunt was Mrs Patrick Moore of Arroyo Grande. Their honeymoon to America lasted until May 1st, 1941 when Sam died at his home in Santa Maria. Neither of them ever saw their families again.

So, Boyo, on the 17th, raise a glass o’ Guinness to your ancestors and wish them a long and merry life, for it was their courage and determination that got you here.

Note*: I have a personal friend, an Englishwoman, who once said to me, “Whats the matter with you Irish, you’re all crazy.”

Note**: Notice the goat in the background of the cartoon. My grandmother hated goats, she said “Only the shanty Irish kept goats” She wouldn’t have one around.


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