Searching for Leitrim’s missing emigrants

Missing: John, Charles and Patrick Ford. Originally from Cloonborny Nesbit, Mohill. Sons of John and Ann Ford (McGushin) - “Parents sorrowing for them”. 150 years after it was published this missing person advert, placed in the Catholic newspaper ‘The Boston Pilot’ in September 1860 brings home the tragedy of emigration during the Irish Famine.

Missing: John, Charles and Patrick Ford. Originally from Cloonborny Nesbit, Mohill. Sons of John and Ann Ford (McGushin) - “Parents sorrowing for them”. 150 years after it was published this missing person advert, placed in the Catholic newspaper ‘The Boston Pilot’ in September 1860 brings home the tragedy of emigration during the Irish Famine.

Patrick Ford arrived in Lowell, Massachusetts, America in 1848 during the height of the Famine. He was joined two years later by his brother Charles with a third brother, John, joining his siblings in 1852. Patrick and John disappeared in the first few years after their arrival in America. The remaining brother, Charles, is recorded as having moved to Tennessee in 1857 where he worked as a timekeeper, but shortly after, he too vanished.

There is no word on whether John, Charles or Patrick were ever seen or heard from again. The likelihood is that they perished during those harsh first few years in America, or that, as young men in their prime, they were one of hundreds of thousands who sought to gain permanent status in America by joining the armies battling in America’s civil war.

Missing Friends

This ad is just one of over 650 placed by Leitrim families between the 1830s and early 1900s in The Boston Pilot. In October 1831 an advertisement appeared in the paper seeking a Patrick McDermott, whose wife and family, newly arrived from Ireland, would be returned by the Emigrant Commission if he was not located. This was the first ad in what became known as the “Missing Friends” column which ran for 90 years. A special database has now been set up by Boston College - - listing thousands of advertisements placed by families throughout Ireland. Each highlights a personal story of loss and desperation for the loved ones of the missing.

Stories like that of brothers Charley and Francis McLaughlin from Drumcara, Fenagh who left for America in 1818 but disappeared 10 years later in Baltimore. “Missing for 20 years” reads the advertisement published by their sister, Honora, in 1848. Missing even longer is Patrick Farrell, Cattan, Cloone. In 1868 his brother made an appeal for information noting “he is about 35 years from home”. They had not heard from him since his arrival in 1833.

In February 1866, Bessie Baxter, living in Newburgh, New York, advertised for information on her two brothers, James and Andrew Baxter who were missing for 24 years. The last information Bessie had on her siblings was that they were living in Sullivan, New York in (1842) and despite moving to the area herself, she had not been able to locate them.

Rodger O’Connor faced a similar loss. In August 1849 he appealed for help finding his four sisters, Ellen, Mary, Bridget and Catherine who emigrated from Cloonclare, near Manorhamilton in 1839. The family hadn’t word from any of the sisters in over a decade.

For others the search involved not a sibling, but a parent or, in some cases, a spouse. Michael Beaty’s wife Mary, from Kiltoghert near Carrick-on-Shannon, disappeared after the family arrived in Castle Garden, the immigration centre in New York in 1860. Ann Keany placed a desperate advertisement searching for her husband in August 1854. She knew that Thomas, a native of Rossinver, had reached New York in 1850, but poor Ann and her family had no word of his fate in the four intervening years. She must have been devastated, waiting for news in her home in north Leitrim, news that would never come.

Hopefully Margaret Bradly, Cloonclare, Manorhamilton had more luck locating her husband, Thomas. He made the journey to Boston in 1859 and from here moved on to New York. She followed him to America in July 1860 but fell ill and made her plea for his whereabouts in November that year, listing her residence as the Marine Hospital, Chelsea.

Sometimes the searching continued down through the generations with children and grandchildren of the missing never giving up hope. In 1854 Charles Cannon, Oughteraugh, Carrigallen appealed for information on the whereabouts of his father Francis who disappeared in St Louis, Missouri. Francis had arrived in America in 1834 and the family had no knowledge of his whereabouts.

Vanished children

As perilous as the journey to America or Canada was for adults, for children, chances of survival were slim indeed. In November 1851, James McNiff placed an advertisement looking for information on two children from the parish of Cloone in south Leitrim. Andrew and Catherine Prior had made the journey to Quebec, Canada with their parents in 1846 aged just 10 and 9 years, respectively. Tragically, their parents didn’t survive the journey and there was no one to meet them on their arrival in Canada. Five years later James McNiff sought information on their whereabouts but with no social welfare, no supports and no one to care for them, it is very unlikely that either Andrew or Catherine survived long in their new home.

They weren’t the only children caught up in the tidal wave of Famine emigration. In February 1850, Ellen Dowlan Hand, living in Salina, New York, appealed for any information which would help her discover the fate of her twin brothers, James and Michael Dowlan. The boys had emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1849 aged 12. She knew their intended destination was Boston or Lowell, but had had no word of them in the six months since their arrival.

One of the most tragic ads featured is the story of Cusion McBride. As a seven year old Cusion emigrated to Quebec, Canada from Glenfarne in the company of an aunt Ms McGlohan. After landing in 1850, they made their way to Toronto before arriving in Buffalo, New York where they ended up in the company of a Dr Price. Five years later Cusion’s mother, Rose McBride placed an advert looking for her daughter in ‘The Boston Pilot’. She listed her own address as being that in Townawanda, New York, just a few miles from Buffalo. She had not seen her daughter since she boarded the boat for Canada.

For some families the American Civil War added to their fears for loved ones. In July 1865, Michael Kelly placed an ad in ‘The Boston Pilot’ seeking information on his brother James Kelly, who emigrated from Killargue in north Leitrim. He knew his brother had joined the Army in New York and had been sent to North Carolina, but that was the last heard. With the Civil war claiming hundreds of thousands of casualties it seems likely that this young many may well have been one of the fallen.

For 90 years the advertisements continued in ‘The Boston Pilot’. Many of the stories are tragic, many probably ended in heartbreak, but for everyone who placed a small print advertisement, the ‘Missing Friends’ column remained their last hope of seeing their loved ones again.