Thursday, August 18, 2022

Different Than the Rest of the Crowd


While most Irish refugees to North America during the years of the Great Famine may have headed to New York or Boston, my husband's second great-grandfather John Stevens had to be different than all the rest. Instead of choosing those typical northern American ports—or destinations in Canada, or perhaps Australia or New Zealand—John Stevens chose to head to the port of New Orleans.

Why he did so has always puzzled me. For the longest time, his stated 1850 date of arrival on his immigration papers was one falling in the gaps of what was available in digitized records collections. Although such online collections are now more complete than when I first began this search, I still haven't located any record that match his details.

With such research trouble, I've begun to wonder whether John arrived from somewhere other than Ireland itself—for instance, traveling through one of the Caribbean islands. Hence, my goal in exploring the background information on the more general topic of Irish emigration itself, especially from John's supposed homeland in County Mayo.

Today, I begin to see some positive signs that he could indeed have arrived through the port of New Orleans. Though some of the statements I've uncovered do not come sourced or footnoted (hey, one is simply an Indiana newspaper), I see them as way-pointers in a long journey to arrive at the truth of this ancestor's travels.

True, both and have digitized copies of passenger records for the port of New Orleans. But let's first look at who might have arrived in New Orleans in general.

New Orleans is situated in what is now the state of Louisiana, located in the deep south of the United States. By virtue of its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the port's significance has always been its entry to a vast waterway connecting this Gulf port with much of the American midwest. Indeed, John Stevens made use of that transportation feature by continuing his immigration journey northward to the state of Indiana, where he finally settled.

Apparently, the Irish began arriving in Louisiana from the 1820s, and in increasing numbers during the famine years. New Orleans by 1840 had become the third most populous city in the United States—not to mention, the wealthiest. Perhaps on account of such reasons, rather than simply heading west across the Atlantic to New York or Boston, a significant number of Irish emigrants knew to sail farther south.

According to one newspaper column—unfortunately unsubstantiated—the port of New Orleans was considered "less regulated and more lax in following immigration law" than other American ports, leading some immigrants to "purposely choose" this as their port of entry. One other detail supposedly shared by immigrants was knowledge of the likely times for outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever in New Orleans, meaning those in the know would time their travel to avoid the months between May and November.

This last detail, although unsubstantiated in the newspaper report, caught my eye for one reason: what seemed to me to be the odd time John Stevens selected for his arrival in America. According to his Declaration of Intention, John Stevens arrived in New Orleans in the month of December. Could he have known of this bit of travelers' advice?

While digitized copies of the passenger lists for arrivals in New Orleans are now available for the years 1820 through 1945—and arranged by date of arrival in port—I did notice the collection notes admitted, "Some arrival dates are not represented in the data." True, in the past I had only searched for John's surname as spelled exactly "Stevens" and not "Stephens," so it is worth taking another look. But having his declared date of arrival, I have not been able to spot his entry in past forays into this record set.

However, seeing that mention of travelers' hesitance to arrive in Louisiana during the height of the malaria season does give me a slight glimmer of hope that John Stevens did indeed arrive in New Orleans just when he said he did. Now, it's just a matter of finding the record to have appropriate confirmation of this step in his emigration journey.

Of course, to be able to see that the entry is indeed for a man named John Stevens—and that the name wasn't simply an alias—would bolster my confidence, as well. After all, if he did indeed come from County Mayo, I have not seen many encouraging signs that his was a surname included among the residents living there during famine times.

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