Richard Burke was born between 1786 and 1790 in Ireland, probably in County Clare close to or in the village of Broadford, which is about twelve miles due north of Limerick. I have no idea who his parents were.
I can only guess when he get married, based on the 1819 birth of Edmond, who was probably his first child. That suggests Richard married in 1817 or 1818 when he was in his mid- to late-twenties.
I know very little of Richard’s wife. The 1919 death certificate of their daughter, Ellen Fitzgerald, gave her name as Mary Brown. That information was reported by Ellen’s son, James Fitzgerald, who likely never met his maternal grandmother or grandfather. When Ellen married in 1855, though, she named her mother as Helen, not Mary.
Perhaps Mary Brown died when Ellen was young, and Richard re-married Helan. Perhaps Mary Brown’s full name was Mary Ellen, and she went by Ellen or Nellie on a daily basis. Helen and Ellen were interchangeable at the time.
It doesn’t make it any easier that the two records we have of Helen Burke’s existence list conflicting birth years, one in 1794, the other in 1804. If she was born in 1804, she would have been just fifteen when her first son was born.
I believe Richard and his wife had at least four sons and one daughter: Edmond, born around 1819; Patrick born around 1825; John born around 1830; Frank born around 1835, and Ellen born in 1839 when Richard was almost fifty.
Other than their daughter, Ellen Burke and their son, Frank, the relationships are inferred based on who was living with whom in Wisconsin, combined with notes from the 1970s made by Richard’s great-grandson, Joseph John Fitzgerald.
There is no obvious record of Richard Burke and his wife in Ireland, nor of the birth of any of their children. There are few Catholic Parish records in County Clare earlier than the 1820s, and I’ve found nothing of the family in Broadford other than Edmond’s 1847 marriage, and the 1848 birth of Edmond’s son.
Ellen’s grandson, Joseph Fitzgerald, wrote in the 1970s that “I remember my grandmother telling me that she was on the streetcar in this country and noticed that everyone was in mourning. She asked who had died and was told that tailor had died. The Burke family could not understand why everyone was in mourning because of the death of a tailor. They learned afterwards that the people were in mourning because of the death of President Taylor who died [on 9 July] 1850.”
Knowing that eleven-year-old Ellen Burke came to America shortly before July of 1850 tells us that she and her family were refugees from Ireland’s Great Hunger, which lasted from 1845 to around 1849, and drove Irish immigration for years after.
I can’t document the Great Hunger in this video. If you want to dig into a serious book, Cecil Woodham-Smith’s 1962 The Great Hunger is a phenomenal read. If you don’t have that kind of time, invest ten or twenty minutes on youtube.
Here’s a quick summary. In County Clare, potatoes were basically the only crop, and thus the only food that people ate. Year round, if you were lucky, every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, was 100% potatoes. They were typically boiled in buttermilk with a few herbs. It may have been repetitive, but it was nutritionally adequate.
The first year of the Famine was 1845 when Richard was in his mid-50s. That year was a partial crop failure. In 1846 & 1848, the entire crop on the entire island failed. My use of the word “entire” also is not an exaggeration. There was no food to eat for the vast majority of Irish. Literally. No. Food. Millions of Irish survived by eating leather and grass and shrubs.
Think Ethiopia in 1984. Think of all those images we saw on TV. Except for this image: there was no LiveAid in the 1840s. There was no international aid at all. Ireland died.
Observers reported that starving children in County Clare, while losing most of the hair on their heads, grew a soft fur on their faces. Children around Ireland had green mouths from eating grass.
The government in London’s fundamentalist, religious belief in laissez faire capitalism, in Adam Smith’s invisible hand, combined with its shocking ignorance of Ireland’s economy, made the Great Hunger far worse than it should have been.
Still, famine wasn’t the leading cause of death. It was disease. The famine led to fatal epidemics of typhus, relapsing fever and dysentery.
And so Ireland died. Between the 1841 and 1851 census, Ireland’s population declined by ~20%, from 8.1 million to 6.5 million in 1851. A million Irish died, and another million had fled by the mid-1850s.
So… how did a million subsistence farmers get the money to pay for a multi-week passage from Ireland to North America? Potatoes are inferior goods: the more money you have, the less you buy. The poorer you are, the more you buy. And many Irish couldn’t even afford to buy potatoes. The reality is that the poorest Irish simply died.
The voyage across the Atlantic cost a significant amount money. Unless their landlord was willing to pay for their passage—which was not unheard of—Irish famine refugees had at least some assets to sell, perhaps a cow and some meager savings.
During the complete crop failure in 1848, Ireland’s economic foundation—its middle-class farmers—joined the exodus. They had survived the famines of 1845 and 1846, but they couldn’t avoid the epidemics of typhus, relapsing fever and dysentery, let alone the social and economic collapse. Even though the Potato Blight ended with the crop of 1849, the exodus continued into the early 1850s.
Whether the Burke family’s passage was paid by their landlord or by selling a prosperous and profitable farm, they fled Ireland.
First to depart was Edmond, Richard’s eldest son. Edmond and his wife, Margaret Vaughan, departed Limerick with their newborn son aboard an American ship named the Charles in January of 1849 with 173 other desperate Irish, arriving in Baltimore on 1 February 1849.
Crossing the Atlantic in winter was dangerous, and Limerick was not a port for international departures. This was a risky, desperate trip, and at least two women boarded nine months pregnant, giving birth aboard.
Still, it wasn’t a coffin ship where up to 20% of passengers died en route, and another 20% sick on arrival. Only seven people on the Charles died, just 4%. Six of them were young children, including Edmond’s infant son, Michael.
Richard and his family followed Edmond, arriving in North America in early 1850 just before President Taylor died. That said, there’s no record of his arrival with his younger children, Ellen and Frank in Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia or New Orleans.
Richard’s son John followed half a year later, arriving in New York in November of 1850. As to Patrick, who knows.
The Burkes are an example of chain migrations. Today, that term is a toxic, racist mess, but the reality is that people have always immigrated in groups, not as individuals. The Burkes didn’t come to America together: they came in a chain, starting with Edmond’s family in 1849, followed by Richard in 1850 with his young children, then John later that same year.
So in what port did Richard and his family first step ashore? My money is on Quebec City, which was a major destination for Irish refugees. We tend to think of cities such as Boston and New York when we think of Irish immigration, and in 1847 those cities recorded the arrival of 13,000 and 52,000 Irish, respectively. But Quebec City saw the arrival of more than 100,000 Irish that same year.
Why Quebec City? It wasn’t just because the Crown kept fares to British North America cheaper than to U.S. ports. It was also very much about the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. The Crown offered free passage up the St. Lawrence for Irish refugees who committed to living in Canada. Many took the offer, only to walk south to the United States. But the St. Lawrence also connected to the the Great Lakes via canals completed before the Great Hunger.
Richard’s great-grandson, Charles Clyne, noted that the Burkes stayed in Buffalo, New York for a time before settling in Wisconsin. In 1853, a seven-day ferry trip—possibly by steam—from Quebec City up the St. Lawrence River, past Buffalo and over the Great Lakes to Chicago cost just thirty-five cents, about $12 today if you believe internet inflation calculators.
Rail sounds like an attractive mode of transport, but in 1850, it was concentrated in the northeast. The first railroad to Chicago was only completed in 1848, and in 1850, there were only five miles of operable railroad in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. When the Burkes came to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, it was still frontier territory for white Americans, and Lake Michigan was the highway to that frontier.
However they got there, the Burkes were living in Cato, Wisconsin in 1855 when Richard was in his mid 60s.
In June of that year, sixteen-year-old Ellen married Joseph Fitzgerald, while Edmond had a son a few months later in October. A year later in October of 1856, John appears in Wisconsin naturalization records. In January of 1857, John married Alice Finnegan in nearby Manitowoc Rapids.
In the 1860 U.S. Census, seventy-year-old Richard and fifty-six-year old Helen were living with thirty-six-year-old Patrick Burke in Rockland, Wisconsin. Next door were thirty-year-old John Burke and his young family, along with twenty-five-year-old Frank Burke. Richard reported his profession as “gentleman” while Patrick, John and Frank were all farmers.
Rockland is 25 miles northwest of Cato, where both Edmond Burke and Ellen Fitzgerald were living at the time.
Richard’s reported profession on the 1860 census, gentlemen, provides an entertaining hint of Irish history. Perhaps Richard was just having fun, but it’s also possible he was making a claim to the Barony of Castleconnell.
The Burke surname in Ireland dates back to an Anglo-Norman adventurer, William de Burgh who first settled on the island in 1185. The de Burghs are mostly associated with the north of Ireland, but a Burke was elevated as Baron Castleconnell in 1584 by Elizabeth I. Castleconnell is on the River Shannon in County Limerick just twelve miles southeast of Broadford. The barony was attainted and forfeit in 1691 shortly after Catholic King James II was overthrown by his nephew, the Protestant William of Orange, and William’s wife Mary, who was James’ own daughter.
The odds that Richard Burke was a direct descendant of the 8th Baron Casteconnell via a chain of first-born sons is pretty unlikely. But it’s a fun story to play with. If it is true, the current pretender to the Barony is probably a descendant of one of John Burke and Alice Finnegan’s three sons. Edmond’s direct male line ended when his grandson, Kenneth, died in 1981.
In the 1870 U.S. Census, eighty-year-old Richard and seventy-six-year-old Ellen Burke were living with thirty-five-year old Frank in Cato, the same town as Edmond. John had moved to Chicago, Ellen had moved to Maple Park, and there is no further record of Patrick. He had probably died.
By 1880, Richard’s wife Helen had passed away. There’s no record of her burial.
Richard, by then into his 90s, was living with his son Frank and his young family in Cato.
Richard passed away sometime after 1880. I don’t know when, exactly. His death didn’t generate a probate record in Manitowoc, nor can I find any record of his burial, let alone a tombstone. I suspect that his estate and his family, like many famine refugees, didn’t have the money to afford a tombstone for his grave.