John McGirr (1813-1878)

John McGirr’s story is one of the barest of Joseph John and Nellie Fitzgerald’s ancestors, but what I do know shows he was a fascinating outlier in the Irish Catholic experience.

In brief, John McGirr was born in 1813 in County Westmeath, Ireland. In 1849, while in his mid-30s, he fled Ireland’s Great Hunger, arriving in New York on 4 April 1849. He quickly made his way to northeastern Illinois, purchasing a small parcel of land south of DeKalb on 17 March 1852 for $40. In 1854 John married Mary Powers—a Famine refugee from County Waterford. The couple had twelve children together, half of whom died: two in their teens and four very young. John spent the latter half of his life expanding his farm, eventually owning land worth $30,000 according to one valuation. He died in his mid-60s on 12 August 1878 when his eldest was 23, and his youngest six.

Beyond that, most of John’s life is full of mysteries, with a few standing out. For example, why is there no record of his arrival in New York? There are no gaps in New York’s ship lists in that period. What brought him to Dekalb? There’s no evidence he had family there before him. How did he jump so quickly into being a successful farmer—just two years after fleeing Ireland—when most Irish had no agricultural expertise beyond planting a potato?

The biggest mystery, however, comes from a brief description of John in a biographical entry for one of his sons in Past and Present of DeKalb County.

The entry reports that John “acquired a good education in his youth” and “on reaching manhood he was employed as a bookkeeper in a mercantile house in Dublin.”

This brief tidbit may seem innocuous today, but it describes an exceptional experience for an Irish Catholic who fled his home during the Great Hunger.

Cecil Woodham-Smith in her critically acclaimed history “The Great Hunger” wrote of the typical Irishman of the time:

“The Irish had no technical skill to offer; they were not carpenters, butchers, greengrocers, glaziers, masons or tailors; it was not customary for every man to have a trade in Ireland, and the Irishman’s agricultural knowledge was apt to be limited to the spade-culture of a patch of potatoes.”

This does not describe John McGirr. He had an education that earned him a job as a bookkeeper in a country where in 1841 53% of people could neither read nor write. That may seem high, but literate at the time might mean you could write your name and struggle your way through a book for first graders. By contrast, the literacy rate in the United States at the time, excluding slaves, was well above 90%.

Education for Catholics was largely illegal under the 1660s-era Penal Laws, with the most oppressive anti-Catholic education measure stretching from 1723 to 1782. Even after repeal in 1782 it’s not as though education for Catholics in Ireland suddenly blossomed. Most couldn’t afford it. The Penal Laws were so broad, so punitive, that they had driven most Irish Catholics into abject poverty. Even in 1845, much of Ireland didn’t even operate with a cash economy. There wasn’t even much bartering. You just ate (and paid rent) with the potatoes you grew.

It wasn’t until 1831—when John was seventeen—that the English Parliament set the groundwork for free, public education in Ireland, establishing a national board of education that would pay for the construction of elementary schools and cover salaries for teachers. Link.

Before then (and actually well after), Irish Catholics who could afford it would pay for their children to attend so-called hedge schools, though they were more commonly conducted in houses or barns than hidden by a hedgerow as in this museum exhibit. John was probably one of the as many as 400,000 Irish kids who are estimated to have attended hedge schools in the 1820s—about a quarter of the population between ages 5 and 20.

Hedge-schools also weren’t free: teachers were typically paid per pupil per subject.

So how did an Irish Catholic like John McGirr get not just an education good enough to qualify him to become an accountant, but good enough to beat out other qualified Protestant job seekers in a society that discriminated against Catholics? The answer almost certainly starts with John’s parents, about whom I know nothing. What did his father do for a living that not only freed his son from laboring to keep his family fed, clothed and housed, but could also afford to pay for a thorough education? Had an ancestor obtain an illegal education abroad, giving the family an economic leg up? I doubt we’ll ever know.

Another mystery is John’s arrival in the United States, which he reported in his 1860 naturalization documents, as in New York on 4 April 1849. Only three ships arrived at the port of New York on that date, from St. Thomas, Puerto Rico and Germany. Needless to say, John does not appear on any of those ship lists.

Of course, John might have misremembered the date of his arrival at the port of New York. But there aren’t any solid matches: the best two records from before 1852 are for the 1849 arrivals of a 35-year-old tailor named John McGuire and a 34-year-old shoemaker named John McGarr. Those professions don’t match, and the tailor can be found elsewhere in the U.S.

I think the most likely explanation is that while John’s first entry to the U.S. was in New York, it was at Buffalo via the St. Lawrence River rather than at the port of Manhattan.

So why the Chicago area? People didn’t immigrate alone, but when they did, they did it in a chain, following relatives who preceded them. Unfortunately, I can’t find any good cluse. There were a few McGirrs in Illinois, but most of them were far from DeKalb and they were born in the United States.

The only exception was an Ebenezer McGirr and his small family who were living in the same place as John in 1860: Afton Township. It’s too much of a coincidence for Ebenezer to be anything other than John’s family, though with Ebenezer almost two decades younger than John, the men are as likely to be cousins as brothers. That age difference also suggests that Ebenezer followed John, not the other way round. Ebenezer is a dead-end, unfortunately—neither he, nor his wife Catherine, nor their son James, appear in any records other than the 1860 U.S. Census.

So what was John’s experience starting a farm in Illinois? Stories related by his descendants decades later say that he purchased 160 unimproved acres in Afton Township from the U.S. government. This wasn’t the case. He actually purchased a smaller plot from one Daniel Washburn in March of 1852.

But it was almost certainly unimproved land and John had to clear it himself. De Kalb County was really frontier land in 1852.

When I think of the U.S. frontier in 1850, I tend to think of land west of the Mississippi River, but that wasn’t really the case. It was more a combination of transportation costs and the presence of Native Americans.

White settlement in Illinois started in the south, as people from Kentucky and Indiana followed the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. In the early 1800s, Northern Illinois was still the home to the Sauk and Meskawaki. Chicago was only founded in 1833, after U.S. soldiers drove the remaining native population out of northern Illinois in a brief, lopsided 1832 conflict called the Blackhawk War.

John arrived in northern eastern Illinois a mere seventeen years later when the entire Chicagoland area was sparsely populated. It was also just two decades since the Welland Canal had bypassed Niagara Falls, connecting the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, providing an alternate entry route to Illinois than the Ohio, Wabash and Mississippi Rivers.

Water transportation drove population density. Kane County, where John first settled, had nearly 32 people per square mile. In contrast, neighboring DeKalb County had just under 12 people per square mile. That’s similar to South Dakota’s population density today. Why? The Fox River, which ran through Kane County, enabled commerce from its headwaters in Waukesha through to where it joined the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi, in Ottawa. The Kishwaukee in DeKalb County was much narrower and shallower.

It took the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad to make DeKalb County a place worth settling. In 1853, the company opened a line into DeKalb County, cut the six+ hour, twenty-mile walk to Geneva, Elgin or Aurora to perhaps less than an hour.

When John purchased that plot of land in 1852, he knew the railroad was coming, and he got in on the ground floor. Afton Township was organized two years later, and John is listed as one of the earliest settlers in an 1868 county history. He was there so early that the road on the southern edge of his farm is named McGirr Road.

John spent the next decades expanding his farm, and by 1876, two years before his death, a listing of DeKalb County taxpayers valued his property at $30,000—about $730k today. To put that return into a modern context, its like John bought ten shares of Amazon in 1997 when it cost just $4 per share. Twenty-four years later, a share costs $3,100.

Not that John simply sat on a few shares in his portfolio. That kind of return took work, and it raises the last question. Considering that the agricultural skills of most Irish were limited to using a spade to plant a potato, how did John learn to farm? While I have no evidence to prove it, the most likely answer is that John’s parents were successful farmers in County Meath.  

When John made out his will on 9 June 1878, he was able to bequeath over 100 acres to each of his sons, a thousand dollars to each of his daughters—about $25k today—and a comfortable annuity of $300 to his wife.