mad in pursuit notebook



This month is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's signing of the Homestead Act -- big giveaway of government land, opposed by the South because they thought government land should be sold to private enterprise -- that is, big slave-holding plantations. But when the southern states seceded, Lincoln saw his opening.

My great-great grandparents Patrick and Mary Barrett were recipients of Homestead Certificate #94, issued in 1870, for the 40-acre area they had developed for at least five years. In 1874 they were able to add another 40 acres, Homestead Certificate #1465. According to the May 2012Smithsonian, four million people filed claims "braving plagues of insects, hazards of weather and their own unfamiliarity with agriculture." 40% of them were able to finally take ownership of their land, which amounted to 270 million acres in 30 states.

So I think the Barrett story should be told.

I'd like to do a radio piece based on the story I've told so many times about them, including the chapter in Tribe of the Breakaway Beads.

So I dug out my research and started going over my facts. Funny... our trip to Ireland opened my eyes to more details about the realities of the Great Hunger. And a little more research has led me to the conclusion that the Barretts were most likely evicted from their land in Mayo. 

In my mind's eye I had developed this story of one family at a time leaving a blighted village, having an "American wake" to say goodbye, relatives and friends giving them a tearful farewell. That may have occurred later or when a family was able to scrape up enough dough for one child to emigrate. But at the beginning of 1847, chaos ruled. English politicians were fed up with providing relief to ignorant, lazy Irishmen and passed the problem over to the localities and the private sector.

The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated... The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people. [Sir Charles Trevelyan]

Charities collapsed and few landlords were interested in feeding people when they could be shipping their successful grain harvest off to England. So the land owners began mass evictions, hiring hungry, terrified people from one townland to tear down the houses in another.

The fact that all eight members of the Barrett family left together suggests they had become homeless.

I had figured they made their way to Queenstown in Cork for their exit. But a closer reading of the record, with a little more research, suggests that they made their way to Liverpool, England, with hordes of other refugees. (It's possible that their local governments and/or landlords actually gave them the money to get lost.) 

The Irish first headed for Liverpool, a city with a pre-famine population of about 250,000, many of whom were unskilled laborers. During the first wave of famine emigration, from January to June of 1847, an estimated 300,000 destitute Irish arrived in Liverpool, overwhelming the city. The financial burden of feeding the Irish every day soon brought the city to the brink of ruin. Sections of the city featuring cheap lodging houses became jammed. Overflow crowds moved into musty cellars, condemned and abandoned buildings, or anywhere they could just lie down. Amid these densely packed, unsanitary conditions, typhus once again reared its ugly head and an epidemic followed, accompanied by an outbreak of dysentery.

The cheap lodging houses were also used by scores of Irish waiting to embark on ships heading for North America. Three out of four Irish sailing for North America departed from the seaport at Liverpool. Normally they had to sleep over for a night or two until their ship was ready to sail. Many of these emigrants contracted typhus in the rundown, lice-infested lodging houses, then boarded ships, only to spend weeks suffering from burning fever out at sea. [thehistoryplace]

The Barretts were lucky to ship out from Liverpool in March on the Mertoun. It had probably docked at Liverpool with a load of cotton and needed ballast for the return trip to New Orleans, so packed 253 Irish in the hold. Only 9 people died during the 9-week passage.

I can't help contrasting the beginning of their story -- the despised and dispossessed within the richest Empire on the planet -- with the end -- reward for their hard work in the land of opportunity. Wasn't it great that Abraham Lincoln and his supporters had so much faith in the soul of poor immigrants, that they understood how a "giveaway" ultimately benefitted us all?

Jun 3, 2012