Ellen Burke (1839-1919)

Ellen Burke was born on 8 April 1839 to Richard Burke and Mary Brown in the village of Broadford, about twelve miles due north of Limerick. 

I have been unable to find any record of Ellen in Ireland, or for any of her family, so everything about her life before her marriage to Joseph Fitzgerald in Wisconsin in 1855 is educated guesses. The only exception is for the marriage in Broadford of a man I believe was Ellen’s brother, as well as the birth of an infant boy I believe was her nephew.  

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 Ellen Burke came to the United States 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. 

To learn more about Ellen’s likely experience during the Great Hunger, please visit the entry about her parents, Richard Burke & Mary Brown

Quick summary: I believe Ellen fled Ireland in the spring of 1850, arriving in Quebec City with her father, her brother Frank and probably her mother or step-mother.  

Ellen’s grandson, Charles Clyne, noted that she stayed in Buffalo, New York for a time before settling in Wisconsin. Considering that a seven-day steam ferry ride from Quebec City up the St. Lawrence River, past Buffalo and over the Great Lakes to Chicago cost just thirty-five cents in 1853, about $12 today if you believe internet inflation calculators, I think that’s the route Ellen and her family took from Quebec City to Buffalo and thence to Wisconsin.  

In Buffalo, eleven-year-old Ellen Burke met a young man a decade her senior, Joseph Fitzgerald. I find it hard to imagine a young man in his twenties finding an interest in a little girl, so there must have been more of a reason why both the Burkes and Joseph Fitzgerald ended up in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. 

The reality is that people didn’t emigrate alone. They followed family and friends not just to a city or a state, but to a very particular, small place, whether it was a tiny town like Cato, Wisconsin, or a few city blocks in a neighborhood within a big city. I’ve actually seen an 18th century village in Württemberg that essentially transplanted a third of its population four thousand miles away to found another small village in Pennsylvania. 

I’ve spent days trying to find a bigger connection between Broadford, County Clare, and Cato, Wisconsin, to no avail. In 1860, almost 30% of residents (211 of 739) were born in Ireland, and I’m not counting children of Irish refugees born in Wisconsin. I am convinced that many of them were born in the Broadford area just like Ellen, but I can’t prove it for a single resident.  

No matter the connection, I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Joseph Fitzgerald, who was probably born and raised just a few miles from the Burkes in County Clare, ended up in Cato, Wisconsin via Buffalo just like the Burkes. 

Whatever drew the Burkes to Cato, Wisconsin, they weren’t the only ones: in 1850, the county had less than 4,000 residents. The Burkes were among more than 18,000 new arrivals who increased the population by 500% by 1860.  

On 10 June 1855, sixteen-year-old Ellen Burke married twenty-seven-year old Joseph Fitzgerald at St. Boniface’s church in the nearby county seat of Manitowoc.  

Broadly speaking, Ellen married at an exceptionally young age—the median age at first marriage at the time was in the early twenties. Even for Irish Catholics, who tended to marry much younger than their protestant counterparts, sixteen was still very young.  

When I find someone marrying in their teens, I always look for a story, whether it’s a religious revival or an orphan or a shotgun wedding. But all I can speculate is that the Burkes were Irish refugees struggling to survive in the United States. It’s not an unreasonable supposition: most Famine refugees lived hand-to-mouth. It was their grandchildren that became police officers and lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs. 

On 6 January 1857, Ellen gave birth to her first child, Jane. She was followed by Mary eighteen months later in July of 1858, and then Margaret in 1863.  

In 1865, ten years after getting married in Wisconsin, Joseph and Ellen Fitzgerald moved to the town of Lodi, Illinois, in Virgil Township. The town was renamed Maple Park in 1880.  

They had a son there, James, who was born in November of 1868, when Ellen was 29.  

Ellen later reported giving birth to six children, so two must have died very young. Considering she was just 29 when James born, I suspect those two children were born and died in Maple Park.  

What attracted Ellen and Joseph Fitzgerald to Maple Park?  

When the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad opened of a rail line in 1853 connecting the tiny village of DeKalb to Chicago sixty-plus miles away, it opened up the otherwise sparsely settled area to development. The population of Kane County almost doubled before Ellen moved there, from 16k in 1850, to 30k in 1860. During Ellen’s life, Kane County tripled in population. 

It’s not that Manitowoc County wasn’t growing as well: population went up by 50% in the same period. But the main engine of economic growth for the period—railroads—had difficulty getting underway there. When the Burkes arrived, the entire county of Manitowoc had only five miles of operable rail line at the time, and construction was hampered by financial problems. Rail service only began there in 1872, well after Ellen and Joseph Fitzgerald had left. 

By 1880, Illinois had close to 8% of total miles of railroad in the United States. Northeastern Illinois simply had better economic opportunities.  

The move appeared to work well for Ellen and Joseph Fitzgerald. In the 1870 and 1880 census, they ran a saloon which they valued at $1,200. This wasn’t a particularly valuable piece of real estate compared to some of the farms close by, but quite a few residents of the area owned substantially less. The Fitzgeralds were doing OK, and probably better than most Famine refugees. 

In 1876, the first of Ellen’s children, Mary, followed Ellen’s precedent of marrying young, tying the knot at age eighteen with John Clyne, an Irish immigrant twelve years her senior. The marriage didn’t last, ending in a divorce—an extremely rare occurrence for the time. 

Jennie, Ellen’s eldest, married James Costello in 1888. Her third-born, Margaret followed closely, marrying Alfred Dobson in 1889.  

By 1900, sixty-one-year-old Ellen was managing a much smaller household, with her 72-year-old husband now retired, and their only unmarried child, James, living with them as he started up a dry goods store across the street. 

James Fitzgerald married Theresa McGirr in 1901, and eventually moved to an apartment above his dry goods store.  

On 4 April 1904, Ellen’s seventy-five-year-old husband died of a heart attack. The couple must have saved up enough money so they could own their home free and clear, and in the 1910 census, Ellen reported she was living off her own income. Her grandson suggested years later that Ellen still needed some financial help from her son James. 

Judging by undated photos from the 1910s, Ellen had had a stroke: you can see that one side of her face is slack, a common sign of a stroke. 

She survived her husband by fifteen years, succumbing to a stroke on Thursday, 10 April 1919. She was buried at St. Mary’s Church in Maple Park on that Sunday.