Thursday, July 29, 2021

An Offer They Couldn't Refuse


When I'm stuck with a research question—those pesky brick wall ancestors!—I have to pull back from that laser-locked focus on that particular problem to take in the bigger picture. That's when I reach for an overview of the situation which that ancestor might have been dealing with.

In the case of my father-in-law's great-grandmother's Kelly family, that meant being an Irish immigrant who, arriving in America, opted for the unusual choice of settling in the midwest.

Of course, I have questions. I still don't know exactly when the Kelly family arrived in Lafayette, Indiana, though it was at least by 1853, when Catherine Kelly's father was buried in that city. Nor do I yet have an idea of how the family arrived in Indiana—it could have been over land or, just as easily, via rivers.

In such a research pickle, I search for broad categories in genealogy-friendly resources. Prime among them is the wiki, which provides clues for possible next steps. This time, I looked for topics on immigration, Irish in America, and particularly Irish immigrants to Indiana or, more broadly, the midwest.

Between the FamilySearch wiki and some exploration on Google, I stumbled upon some scholarly articles in journals, and suggestions for books—some of which I'll mention later this week. But the first point that caught my eye was information which made it quite clear that the midwestern states, in seeing the flood of immigrants arriving on New York and Boston shores, did not sit idly by, hoping, "Oh please, oh please, pick me."

They went hunting for customers.

While the lore in many Indiana counties was that the Irish came there to build the canals, there were many Irish who arrived in Indiana long before the canal era. According to an article in The Hoosier Genealogist, "Irish Immigrants in the Hoosier Hills, "Those pre-canal Irish joined an already-established Catholic settlement that had its inception here in the early nineteenth century."

Indeed, contrary to the prevalent understanding that the Irish came to America in the 1850s on account of the famine there, the Potato Blight itself occurred in 1845—and even before that time, a large number of Irish had left their homeland as early as 1820.

While that 1820s immigration pattern was likely too soon to include our Kelly arrivals, such information helps to paint a picture of a pattern of settlement. Keep in mind that the river areas in what is now Indiana were once roamed by French trappers and traders with the Native American population there. The subsequent influx of French settlers brought with them their religious traditions, and thus the Catholic church followed.

With that initial step, Catholic immigrants from the British Isles, having previously settled in Maryland, traveled overland, first to Kentucky, then onward to Indiana. Among them, of course, were a number of Irish settlers. Eventually, communities of Irish Catholics formed around those initial French Catholic settlements in Indiana.

Closer to 1850, another factor influenced Irish immigration into the area: agents sent by midwestern state governments to entice Irish immigrants to settle in their state. In "Understanding Midwest Migration Patterns to Further Family History Research," an article by Rhonda McClure published in the BYU Family Historian, by 1850,

The states were just gearing up with their representatives and other efforts to entice immigrants to come and settle in their states. Eventually, thirty three states and territorial governments created immigration bureaus.

While Indiana wasn't the first to do so—that honor went to Michigan, followed by Wisconsin—several of the midwestern states sent agents to large ports like New York City with the sole purpose of recruiting arriving immigrants to settle in the state they represented. This was followed by publications designed to entice immigrants to settle in specific midwest locations and, eventually, advertisements in newspapers in European cities. Even further, one state governor suggested that "emigrant agencies" be set up in "chief towns in Europe" to attract specific immigrants to his state.

Of course, given the literacy rate of many of Ireland's poorest emigrants, written documents designed to target these arrivals may not have been the prime instrument to influence their choice of final destination. But it gives an idea of why many who followed the typical immigrant path at first—to New York or Boston—might have instead ended up, inexplicably, in Indiana. 


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