Monday, August 15, 2022

A Reason to Set Sail


When it comes to mid-nineteenth century Irish immigrants like my husband's second great-grandfather, John Stevens, it is not hard to understand why they wanted to leave their homeland. John Stevens, who arrived in America in the early 1850s from his supposed native County Mayo, most likely left because of the desperate conditions created from years of the Great Famine.

That, however, did not by itself provide the reason to set sail. Whether in good years or poor, it takes money to travel. That fact was not any different then than it is for travelers today. No money; no ticket—unless, of course, there is an alternate plan available.

In an article at, "Ireland Emigration and Immigration," the informative wiki provides a long list of clickable resources for tracing Irish ancestors through passenger lists and other documentation. One subsection of that wiki is worthy of our attention at this point of puzzling over the lack of records for our John Stevens' travels from County Mayo to the state of Indiana. Under the heading, "Types of Emigration from Ireland," there are four categories of emigrants listed for the years 1780 through 1855, categories including most of the people who left Ireland during that time period.

Let's take a look at each of those four categories to examine which one might best fit John Stevens' possible condition at the point of his emigration.

The first of those categories we'll consider is that of military personnel. While I have harbored a suspicion that John Stevens might have been a deserter from military service, this category of emigrants usually included those men who were currently in service. Those were the soldiers who were offered inducements to remain settled in the British colony in which they had been serving at the point of their discharge. While this might have seemed an attractive offer, it was generally employed in the case of those serving in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand. Of course, the United States had long since ceased to be a British colony by the time of John Stevens' arrival in Indiana. Although the colony of Georgia might have been such an example in the early seventeen hundreds, we can nix that category in the much later date of John's case.

The next category to consider would be that of transported prisoners. While my father-in-law did have some relatives in his family who were threatened with a sentence of transportation, that case was usually employed only for shipment to Australia by the time John Stevens left Ireland. Once again, this would not provide the reason for him to set sail to America.

Of course, the third category could likely include a story like John Stevens' means for leaving Ireland: as a free emigrant. It is true that many emigrants left Ireland to seek a better life for themselves and their family. But while they were seeking opportunity in a new land, this story line requires one additional condition: the means to leave. Those poverty-stricken, nearly-starving Irish peasants with the greatest reason to leave often were the ones with the least means to do so.

That leads us to the fourth category of emigrants: those who needed to leave, but lacked what it took to make that trip happen. Thus, the category of "Assisted Emigrants" became an alternate way for those who so desperately needed to find a better life to actually achieve the means to do so.

While assisted emigration required the largesse of others—a limiting factor in a place experiencing such dire conditions overall—it was more widespread than one might think. Tomorrow, we'll examine some examples of assisted emigration and consider the possibility of whether our John Stevens might have benefited from such an offer.


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