Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Means to Migrate


Living on an island can be limiting. When hard times hit, few options are available for impoverished residents seeking to escape their plight. The ocean does not make a compassionate partner for those desperate to leave their problems behind. Those who need to leave must first find a suitable form of transportation.

For the Irish, the specter of famine was a cyclical occurrence. The Great Famine of the late 1840s was not the first time the Irish felt the multiple pressures of poverty, hunger, and accompanying disease. It certainly was not the first time it occurred to Irish residents that the only way to find relief was to leave home. With no means to flee from their predicament, though, it took the help of others to provide a way of escape.

Those others, it turns out, had vested interests in ridding their property of the least productive, or those more likely to become a burden upon landlords or Poor Law Unions. Some of those landlords, having paid the way for tenants to leave their property—and thus, their obligation of support—kept estate records which can now be accessed by researchers.

Over the years, famine after famine, it turns out that there were several programs established to aid the destitute of Ireland in finding a better life somewhere else. One example that springs to mind is the series of programs encouraging immigration to the British colonies of Australia and New Zealand. 

There were, of course, other programs established, sending Irish residents far across the globe. One such "assisted emigration" program, sometimes referred to as the Tuke schemes, sought to provide transportation for western Irish families to the American and Canadian midwest. Descendants of those emigrating families can trace their ancestors' progress through preserved records of that era. That funding program, however, was established in response to a famine subsequent to the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Given that the focus of our study—the emigration of John Stevens from County Mayo about 1850—would not have been in Ireland during the time period of the Tuke schemes, he certainly could not have availed himself of such assistance. That, however, doesn't rule out other assisted emigration programs.

The first such assisted emigration program I became aware of was that of Peter Robinson, Canadian politician and Commissioner of Crown Lands. The Ontario city of Peterborough is named after him. Long before the time of the Great Famine in Ireland, Robinson proposed moving a select group of people from the area around County Cork to land near what is now known as the Ottawa Valley. Robinson's program had stringent requirements: all Irish emigrants had to be Catholic peasants younger than forty five years of age. Three hundred families were selected to participate in the program, each family receiving seventy acres of land, necessary supplies, and tools for building and farming.

In all, eleven ships sailed from Queenstown (now Cobh) to Ontario, from 1823 through 1825. As the next few years mark the hundred year anniversary of that project, people are now beginning to share stories of their Robinson scheme ancestors. Fortunately for descendants of those emigrants—and those descended from the relatives left behind—Robinson kept good records. Lists of the emigrants can be found (or referred to) in various articles online, as well as a list of the ships used in the project.

Once again—beginning to sound like a Goldilocks story—this emigration scheme occurred not too late for our John Stevens, but too early.

There were many other emigration schemes, though. Because it was far easier for destitute Irish to pour across the channel between Ireland and Great Britain, that is exactly what many emigrants did—to the dismay of British politicians concerned about the impact that movement would have upon the labor market closer to home. That, more than the condition of abject poverty itself, may have been the impetus for development of several other schemes—some partially successful, others not as beneficial.

FamilySearch provides a listing of the top ten landlords devising assisted emigration schemes in the nineteenth century. Reviewing this list, I see not one name mentioned having oversight of properties in County Mayo. Not that there weren't others, of course, but the possibilities are becoming slimmer that such a deal was offered to our John Stevens. However, taking a look at the long list of estate rentals in County Mayo now held by the National Library of Ireland, with a lot of diligent cross-referencing, it still may be possible to find any such schemes offered in John Stevens' homeland.

In the meantime, there are other details to consider in the story of John Stevens' travels from Ireland to Indiana. We'll explore one of those clues tomorrow.   

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