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Boston College Launches Nation's First On-line Database
For Tracking "Lost" 19th and Early 20th Century Irish Emigrants

 

CHESTNUT HILL, MA –- For many Irish of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the only hope of finding friends and relatives who had emigrated from Ireland to the United States rested in The Boston Pilot, the city's Catholic newspaper. From October 1831 to October 1921, the paper's "Missing Friends" column featured advertisements placed by Irish seeking others who were "lost" following emigration.

Now, nearly 175 years after the first "Missing Friends" column appeared in print, Boston College is adding a technological twist to its history by making this extraordinary collection of more than 31,000 records available as a searchable on-line database.

"Information Wanted: A Database of Advertisements for Irish Immigrants Published in The Boston Pilot," is designed to provide a text record for each ad that appeared, simple and advanced search mechanisms, and helpful historical background on Irish immigration and The Boston Pilot. The site also offers a list of other print and on-line resources to help users trace the family tree.

The database is an electronic rendition of an eight-volume set of books titled The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in The Boston Pilot (New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 1989-1993), of which BC Irish historian Ruth-Ann Harris (shown at left) was a researcher and editor.Boston College officially launched the Web site with a St. Patrick's Day 2005 event attended by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, project head Ruth-Ann Harris, and BC historian Thomas O'Connor, noted for his research of Irish and Boston history. Also in attendance were Irish scholars and friends, many of whom were eager to give the new database a try.

"It seems particularly appropriate that this is a project of Boston College, which was founded in 1863 to serve the sons of Irish immigrants," said Fr. Leahy. "Just as those who use this resource may be seeking a connection with their family's roots, so this University continues to seek ways to honor its own Irish Catholic heritage."

The advertisements contain ordinary but revealing details about the missing person's life: the county and parish of their birth, when they left Ireland, the believed port of arrival in North America, their occupation, and a range of other personal information. Some of the on-line records may have as many as 50 different data fields, while others may offer only a few details.

"These 'Missing Friends' advertisements provide a window on Irish immigration and the difficulties that surrounded it," said Harris. "Ties of community and family could be broken, but the searches represent the tremendous effort that family and friends made to reconstitute in America what they had lost in leaving Ireland. The column was critically important in this process of rebuilding lost ties."

Harris knows something of leaving family and home for uncertain surroundings. Born in Liberia of English parents, she was sent to London as a small child at the outbreak of World War II, only to be caught up in The Blitz, the Nazis' bombing campaign of Great Britain. The barely school-aged Harris was then relocated to Canada, where she stayed for five years until she was reunited with her parents.

"I suppose that's a major reason why I've always been interested in people and why they move," Harris said. "When you collect immigration stories, having one of your own gives you a certain insight."

ABOUT "MISSING FRIENDS"

There was a tidal wave of Irish immigration to North America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The average number of immigrants to the U.S. was approximately 5,000 per year between 1821 and 1830, with most settling in New York and Boston. Some came to escape political upheaval, famine and poverty, while others simply hoped to start a better life in the new world.

During this time, formal communication was by the written word, but an international postal system was only just emerging, making it difficult for those who had immigrated to keep in touch with those they had left behind. The result was that many of those in Ireland had no idea where their relatives and friends might be. Many new Irish Americans simply became "lost" to those who cared for them.

In October 1831, an advertisement appeared in The Boston Pilot seeking a Patrick McDermott, whose wife and family, newly arrived from Ireland, would be returned by the Emigrant Commissioner if he was not located. This was the first ad in what became known as the "Missing Friends" column, which ran for ninety years. Almost immediately the ads became popular, were widely used, and increased the paper's circulation nationally and abroad, including Ireland and Australia.

In the 1840s, when immigration grew to over 78,000 per year, and in the 1850s, when it topped 90,000 per year, the circulation of the Pilot reached close to 50,000 per week, the paper circulated nationally and was deemed "the great Irish paper in America".

With very few exceptions, almost all persons sought were emigrants from Ireland, and the advertisements contained data about the county and parish of origin of the emigrants, when the person sought left Ireland, where and when he or she was believed to have arrived in North America, his or her occupation, and a range of other personal information about the individual. Facts about the relative or friend who originated the search were also included, such as relationship to the person sought and address.

For example, the search for Hugh McDonald by friends in Ireland some fifty years after his emigration appeared in the following advertisement in January 1852: "Of Hugh or Michael McDonald, son to Hugh McDonald, Esq., parish Kilcummin, near Keeper Hill (Co. Tipperary); a gentleman who acted a distinguished part in the movement of '98, after which he emigrated to this country, in which he found a home. His son, Hugh, was in Perry township, Brown County, Ohio, 10 years ago. Should either of them, or any person knowing them, see this, they will confer a favor by writing to CORNELIUS O'BRIEN, St. John, N.B., who will inform their friends in Ireland."

Some advertisements reflect, or hint at, the more personal and emotional aspects of this separation: parents trying to find the whereabouts of their 12-year-old daughter who had traveled alone to New York City; a grown son thought to have died of cholera after arriving in the US "but subsequentey (sic) still lives"; a wife's precise descriptions of her missing husband, from his height (5-foot-7) to his "black-whiskered" facial appearance to his "drab sack coat" and "blue striped shirt."

Harris has come to appreciate the literary as well as the historical and demographic qualities of these advertisements. "These are, for the most part, unending stories," said Harris. "In its introduction to the column, The Boston Pilot claimed that 'more than three-fourths of those advertised for are found,' and the fact the column ran for 90 years suggests it was successful. Some people in fact did submit ads saying they had located the person they were looking for. But we don't always know if the parents found their young child, or if she was safe and healthy, or whether couples that were reunited lived happily ever after.

"These notices serve as a kind of snapshot of people's lives - we have some idea about who they were, where they were from, but we can't necessarily be sure what happened to them."

Despite such limitations, the information in "Missing Friends" has proven to be immensely valuable to historians such as Harris, who studies labor and economic trends.

"Many immigration records from that era were not especially precise," she explained. "A passenger might be identified as being from Ireland, but nothing more specific; or if the ship stopped in or originated from England, the passenger might even be identified as English. Data like that in 'Missing Friends' - which gives names, birthplaces, destinations and the like - help form a more complete picture of Irish immigration patterns.

"The information in the ads is still important in today's world; valuable for scholars as well as family historians who wish to learn more about the nineteenth century world of their ancestors."

The Boston College "Information Wanted" database is sponsored by Boston College's Irish Studies Program -- a component of the University's Center for Irish Programs -- and the BC Office of Marketing Communications. It is located at http://infowanted.bc.edu/.

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