Barretts of Catawissa

The Family of Mary Gardiner and Patrick Barrett

Famine Fever Fire Farm

When the Going Gets Tough: Meet Patrick and Mary Barrett

You might say that history is a river and most of us live quietly on the banks. But others can't escape that wild river twisting and flooding through their lives. When I look back at my great-great grandparents, I can only shake my head in wonder. [1]

Passage from Ireland

My great-grandparents left Ireland at the height of the Great Hunger. Millions were dying. Millions were fleeing for their lives.

Mary Gardiner. By the Barrett family account [2], Mary arrived with her brother, but he fell victim to the fever and died. I haven't been able to find the record of her passage. Somehow Mary was able to make her way to St Louis.

Patrick Barrett was one of those whose entire family found their way from Mayo in the northwest to Cork on the southern coast of Ireland. There were seven of them — his parents Martin and Nelly, his brothers Martin and John, his sisters Catherine and Sally, and himself.

Somewhere I read that when our 19th-century ancestors left home, their going-away parties were designed like Irish wakes. At dawn, after a night of drinking and crying and blessings, the emigrants needed to walk or take the horsecart to meet the stagecoach or train to travel the long distance between Mayo or Galway to the port of Cobh. History tells us the grief was passionate and overhwhelming.

You can imagine the scene at the port. Throngs of starving people pushing and shoving their way to a vision of safety and full bellies, willing to leave behind forever the land they loved. Cobh was the threshold between family, childhood, and hunger on one side; the hopeful unknown on the other. I also read that the band on the dock played the uptempo reel "St. Patrick's Day" as everyone waved goodbye. As soon as the ship pulled away, the tempo of the tune was changed to a funeral dirge. Can it be any sadder than that?

In early March of 1847, 253 starving people — including the seven Barretts — piled aboard the Yucatan [7]. The ship had come from Liverpool, England, where it had probably dropped off cotton. Now it need ballast for its return to New Orleans. Someone did the math: X number of human beings equals Y bales of cotton. The ship battled the wintry north Atlantic for nine weeks before arriving in New Orleans. This voyage was lucky. Only 9 people died. [Below: detail of ship manifest.]

Yucatan Ship Manifest 1847

New Orleans

The Barrett family arrived at the busy Mississippi River port of New Orleans on May 10, 1847— the beginning of summer and the height of a nasty yellow fever epidemic, which would take 2306 lives that year [4], along with the lives routinely claimed by malaria and cholera. The available work amounted to swampy ditch digging — work too dangerous for valuable African slaves.

As New Orleans was a thriving port city, the itineraries of many boats ended here and the passengers simply stayed. In addition, Irish immigrants often found cheap passage to New Orleans because after cotton ships unloaded their cargo in Liverpool, captains needed to load their holds up with human ballast for the return trip. Conditions, needless to say, were far from ideal. (from New Orleans Online.).

Most [famine] Irish who arrived at the port of New Orleans stayed in the city, primarily because they could not afford passage farther inland. Crowding into the city's riverfront neighborhoods, they strained its limited housing, employment, and education. Forced to compete with slaves and free blacks at the bottom of the economy, many New Orleans Irish took low-paying, often dangerous manual jobs, such as digging canals and ditches, building roads, levees, and railroads, and laboring on the docks and in the warehouses. The mortality rate was especially high among canal diggers, who were highly susceptible to yellow fever, malaria, and cholera. (Source; see also note [8])

We don't know what happened to the Barretts in New Orleans. Patrick's mother and siblings disappear from recorded history. It cost money to make the riverboat passage from New Orleans to St Louis — maybe the able-bodied Martin and oldest son took off for parts north to make their fortunes, and planned to send for the others. What happened to the others? Did they stay in New Orleans? Did they settle up river? Did they succumb to yellow fever or other ills of swampy river valleys and miserable living conditions?

St. Louis

St. Louis 1854... arrow marks where Patrick and Mary lived

Somehow Patrick and his father worked their way up the Mississippi to St. Louis. They arrived some time between summer of 1847 and mid-1849. Pat met Mary Gardiner there (we assume) and they married on 21 October 1849. The address on their marriage license shows them living on Green St, about where the arrow is on the picture above.

Marriage Barrett Gardiner

In 1849 St Louis, cholera raged, killing more than 7,000 people in St Louis — approximately one-tenth of city's population.

The year opened with promise of great prosperity, not only in a commercial point of view, but with certainty of a large increase in population. Everything was fine until the first week of February, when the Asiatic Cholera broke out with great virulence and the deaths amounted to nearly 300 a week.  The deaths were so numerous that the stock of hearses and carriages in the city was entirely inadequate to the demand, and wagons, furniture cars, even drays and carts were extensively used in transporting the dead to the cemeteries. 

...the weather was unusually warm, and by the third week of June the cholera claimed a minimum of 930 lives and did not ease its ravages until the following October when it came to an end to the immense relief of the scant population remaining. [5]

As if cholera weren't enough, fire broke out on the waterfront. On May 17, 1849, the steamer White Cloud caught fire. It broke loose from its moorings and, as it drifted downriver, sparked fire to the rest of the steamers and fire spread into the city.

The fire fiend was rampant and destruction loomed up grandly on every side of the burning boats. Flames leaping hundreds of feet in the air lit up the sky and could be seen for miles.  The hoarse shouts of the firemen vainly attempted to make on stand after another as the flames raged on enveloping everything combustible within reach.  By daylight on May 18th the firemen, after laboring for eight hours, were completely demoralized and exhausted.  Sick at heart and desperate, the brave men stood at bay. The entire business portion of the city seemed irretrievably doomed unless something was done. "What can be done?", was the all absorbing question of the hour and after a hurried council was held by the officers of the different companies, powder was the agent resolved upon to stay the hand of the destroyer which seemed intent upon the entire destruction of their homes and hopes.  Six buildings were blown up in succession, the last one proving the culminating point of the conflagration, and causing the death of one of the bravest and most active firemen of St. Louis, Capt. Thomas B. Targee of Missouri No.5, who while in the act of throwing a keg of powder into Philips Music store was blown to atoms. 

Thus closed the largest and most destructive fire which this city has ever experienced.   It lasted from nine o'clock in the evening of May 17th until eight in the morning on May 18th, and involved the loss of three lives, 430 houses, twenty-three steamers, nine flatboats and barges, the Republican, Reveille and Evening Gazette printing offices, the post-office, three banking houses and property amounting to $2,750,000. This terrible blow paralyzed the city for sometime. [5]

The Barretts moved away from the river. The August 1850 Census shows Mary, Patrick, their infant son John and Pat's father Martin living in the 4th Ward with the Owens family. Their second child Frank was born in 1852.


Shortly after their second child was born in 1852, Patrick and Mary had enough of History and moved out to the Irish enclave of "Armagh" near the village of Catawissa, in Franklin County, Missouri, tucked between the Missouri and Meramec Rivers. Ten years later, of course, the Civil War raged around them. But that's a story for another day. [See Catawissa story>>>]

Love in the Time of Fever

For Mary Gardiner and Patrick Barrett, their passage from childhood in Ireland to adulthood in America was five years of hell. They lost their homes and their families. In Ireland, on their ship, in New Orleans, and in St Louis, everywhere they looked, someone was dying. At any moment, they themselves might run out of food again or succumb to the latest fever.

How do people endure? What gives some people the power to get through it all -- not only get through it, but fall in love and eventually find safety, stability, and a new community?

Is it religion? Belief that you are in the hands of God? I've heard that the Great Hunger scared the Irish out of their sacrilegious ways. But here's a fact: the Barretts' son John was born within 4 months of their marriage [1]. So apparently Patrick and Mary didn't spend all their time at church praying for their lives. Or maybe God implanted in them that impulse to face death with new life. The civil formalities get taken care of when they may. It's probably no accident that a favorite saying in my mother's family is "God helps those who help themselves."

Is it dumb luck that some survive year after year of famine and pestilence? Or do survivors have a certain kind of grit? A certain kind of savvy that pushes them to the head of the bread line? A certain kind of energy that makes them walk a little farther to the pump with clean drinking water?

I imagine that one thing you don't do is stand still, musing about the terrible times you live in and the imminent end of the world. I think that survivors live in the moment, concentrating on getting one foot in front of another. Like long-distance swimmers they have to raise their heads once in a while to make sure they're moving in the right direction, but 99.99% of their energy goes into keeping their arms and legs in motion. Don't philosophize, don't ponder, just get going! Grab your loved ones and go — Mayo to Cobh, across the Atlantic, up the Mississippi, enough of cities, out to Catawissa; plant a potato and start a new life.


[1] See detailed family facts, with dates and offspring here.

[2] The History of Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Crawford and Gasconade Counties (Goodspeed)

[3] Cholera in St Louis from History's Time Portal to Old St Louis

[4] New Orleans yellow fever deaths.

[5] The Great St Louis Fire of 1849 by Tom Lynch from Volunteer Fire Department of St. Louis. Published 1880. And the St. Louis Fire Department Yearbook 1857-1991

[6] Emigration to North America in 1847 The Ships List.

[7] The ship was the Yucatan (Captain Hamilton) or "Mertoun"-- see this listing from The Ships List . An autumn voyage of this ship that same year took about 9 weeks to complete.

[8] New Orleans "new Irish" famine refugees

[9] 1850 Census