Immigrant Thomas McElhiney
(Arrived from Ireland, 1869)

In the history of immigration to the United States, the "Irish Potato Famine" holds special significance.

Because of this famine, one of the largest migrations of Europeans left their homes for the opportunity and land offered by the still opening American frontier. People needing land met land needing people. The James McElhiney family from County Donegal, Ireland, contributed two sons and a daughter to that migration: first Anne, then John, and finally Thomas. His fourth and youngest child grew to adulthood, married but then died while still in Ireland. She too had wanted to emigrate.

The Ireland just before the famine was experiencing an historically unprecedented period of prosperity. Although - or because of - the ownership of much of Ireland was in the hands of mostly absentee English landlords, the demand for Irish goods and farm products was strong. Between 1800 and 1841, the population of Ireland grew from 5 million to almost 8 million. Most of the Irish lived on small farms or even small plots of land created by the continuing division of family estates among surviving children. For those on the land, life was hard and precarious. Despite its overall growth, years of suffering put over half of the Irish population in desperate straits. For many of them, the Irish potato was all that kept them alive.

Potatoes, native only to the Western Hemisphere, probably arrived in Europe, via Spain and its conquistadors, as early as 1590. It quickly spread throughout Europe, and especially Ireland. Within a few years, it had become a staple of the Irish diet. It was the most valuable crop in the country. People depended on the potato for a source of food and income. A large quantity of potatoes could be grown on a relatively small plot, making it possible to feed many with only a small section of land. Because of this, when the potato blight hit Europe - including Ireland -- in 1846, its consequences were devastating. [Interestingly, over 150 years later, the origin of the blight is still under discussion.]

According to one report, the blight "left acre upon acre of Irish farmland covered with black rot." The blight produced a years long famine: from 1846-1850. In turn, the Famine produced a remarkable upturn in Irish emigration to the United States and other English speaking countries.

People desperate for food sometimes ate blighted crops, got sick, and outbreaks of cholera and typhus sometimes resulted and spread to entire villages. Also as a result of the blight, prices of other available foodstuffs soared, and left Irish Catholic subsistence farmers unable to pay (with potatoes) their rents to their English and Protestant landlords. Consequently, many were evicted from their homes. "Other landlords paid for their tenants to emigrate, … (but, crowding into ships destined for the United States and elsewhere), many ships reached port only after losing a third of their passengers to disease, hunger and other causes."

The combined forces of famine, disease and emigration depopulated Ireland: its population dropped from 8 million before the famine to 5 million only a few years later. During that period, almost one million Irish dies, and another 2 million emigrated. According to many Irish, the period is know and "The Great Hunger" and "The Great Devastation."

County Donegal did not escape the effects of the famine. And neither did the James McElhiney family. Slowly, after years of thought and worry and suffering, one by one, all the members of this nuclear family came to America or they died.

The patriarch of the family was a Mr James McElhiney. He and his wife Elisabeth had four children: Anne (born around 1821), Thomas (the first son, born either in 1824 or 1830 - records conflict), John (born in 1833), and Elisabeth (probably the youngest of the four).

Anne married while still in Ireland, had four children from 1844 to 1851, but soon after the Famine emigrated to America with her husband and family. By 1854, they were settled in Ohio, where their fifth child was born.

Around 1856, second son John also emigrated to America. He settled in Crawford County, in the northwestern part of Pennsylvania. After his arrival in the United States, he married an woman born in the United States. The first of their five daughters was born in December 1860.

Elisabeth, perhaps the baby of the McElhiney family, lived for a long time with her parents and brother Thomas on their farm in Ireland. For most of those years after the Famine, her desire was to join her brother and sister in the United States. Letters from Ireland to the relatives in the U.S. repeated her interest in emigrating - attested by her requests for funding to enable her to do so. Alas, she never made it: she married in Ireland in 1866, then died soon after.

Thomas, as the eldest son, stayed with his elderly and increasingly infirm parents on their farm. He helped them through the Famine and thereafter, watching as his older sister and younger brother left Ireland for good. He intended to join them some day, but only after his parents (who could not travel), were cared for through their old age. He married in 1865, had two children while still in Ireland. By December 1869, both of his parents were dead. After leaving the land to a relative, he emigrated to the U.S., probably joining his brother John in Pennsylvania until he got established. A few months later, he sent for his wife and two children to come join him. They arrived in June 1872. The U.S. was good to him, and he to it. Four more children were born in the United States. He died in 1889.

The following are excerpts from letters written over a twelve-year period by the father, James, to his son John in the United States.


October 12, 1856
Dear John,

We sit down to answer your welcome letter to let you know that we are all in good health at present and in hopes that these lines will find you in the same. We are happy to think there are so many friends and acquaintances of yours together (in America). It will keep you in mind of home as there are so many of you together in one place. … Thomas Peoples (Anne's father-in-law) has had the fever. He is recovered. Dear John, (we had) a bad crop of potatoes… I may say that we never (saw?) them worse. The failure set in early and our crop was struck at once … (consequently), we had a great loss in seed. … Over one half of them did not come up. … We have very fine weather at present to get in the potatoes, but they are very small. … The oats did reasonably well … produce of all kinds sells high. …

[I] am (feeling) very poorly … We wish you to let (us know) if ever you intend coming (home to Ireland)? We are still in hopes of seeing you. Your mother takes no rest talking and thinking about you. … Your sister wishes to be remembered to you. She wishes you to let her know if you think she could come to America) and (if so) she will go out in the spring. We jointly send our love and blessing to you. We remain your ever kind father and mother.


January 14, 1858
Dear John,

I received your kind and welcome letter. We were glad to hear from you that you were well at that. … We are all well at present, and hope that these few lines will find you in the same enjoyment of health … Dear John, your Mother and I think long to see you once more. It would be a happy meeting with us but I hope the time will wear sound. … Our crops did well this season. …

From Elisa:
My dear brother. I am glad to hear from you and would be glad to see you. I would be happy to go there (to America) if you would allow me to go. … Don't deceive me. Tell me the truth. If I don't go, I will marry shortly and leave (my) rooms (in the house) for Tom. My Father and Mother are failing fast, and Father is back with the pains -- but the will of Providence must be. … We all think great long to see you , …


January 20, 1862
Dear John,

This is to inform you that we have received your kind and welcome letter safe. It gives myself, your mother, brother and sister the utmost pleasure to find that you and the Mrs and child are all in the enjoyment of excellent good health … We are all, thank God, in the enjoyment of perfect good health. Indeed, your Mother and I must confess that old age is sinking us both, but no wonder as time and old age will prevail and pull the strongest of the human creation.

From Thomas:
My dear brother. I would like very much to be there (in America) along with you, but as Father and Mother is so far gone in old age, I cannot think of leaving them now. … Your sister Elisabeth is anxious to also go there and if you think that that place would suit her, she requests you to let her know just the truth of your mind and we will send her to you. I am still single, but if I put off (marriage) much longer I will be an old man -- for I am almost a bachelor already. Nevertheless, I will not change until I hear from you. When you write again, let us know what kind of land you purchased, if you have much of it cleared and what quantity you can have under crops and how you are managing on it. The crops (here in Ireland) have not done very well this season, especially the potatoes. They were nearly as bad as the year of the destitution (famine). … Father, Mother, Brother, Sister all think in kind love and blessing to you, the Mrs and child, and may God bless you all. …


March 1, 1862
Dear John,

This is you inform you that we read your kind letter yesterday which gives your mother, myself, brother and sister the extreme pleasure to find by it that you and your Mrs and children are all in the enjoyment of good health and also that you have got an increase to the family … Dear John, you say you got no letter for the past 12 months from us. We answered you're letter the very week we got it but it seems it did not reach you. Your Mother has her health pretty well, but myself is very bad with pains in my whole frame. I am scarcely able to stir about. Thomas and Elisabeth are both in good health. Elisabeth wants you to answer this immediately and let her know whether you advise her to go there (to America) in May or wait until August as you know the best season to go out there. This season has turned out very bad. The crops never were worse here. Tom says he should like very much to see you there, but our frailty (has) caused him to (stay here). He seems unlikely to change his life until he sees us buried …


November 10, 1863
Dear John,

This is to inform you and the Mrs that we are all in the enjoyment of perfect good health. … We have got in (harvested) all our season's crops (this year) and are very thankful of how (well) it has done, but the potato crop seems to be very much on the decline as the old failure in them as much this season as any come before. I am sorry to have to tell you that I am still in a very poor state with pains in my limbs. I am so far decrepit with the agonizing pains both day and night but especially in the night. … Your Mother stands by her old age well. She is striving to work about as usual. Your sister would have gone out (to join you in America) last spring but the (harvest) season turned out so bad that it hindered her … Thomas is still single. Write to us …


August 30, 1864
Dear John,

… I have to tell you that I am still deeply infected with pains in my limbs. So much so that I am nearly a cripple. But I must bear with all patiently until I get my final call to enjoy the pleasure of being with the Lord in Glory where we will have no pain. Your Mother is firm and strong yet. Thomas has a notion of going there (to America) if we both were provided for in a future state. But he must bear the burden of us here (on Earth) with patience. Your sister Elisabeth is very anxious to go there also. She says if you pay her passage next spring she will go. I hope by this time you have got your crops secured. … We have had a very good summer for the present. … The crops is good but the grain crops is very short. The potatoes is but small. … Write soon and let us know if John Peoples (his son in law) has got home from the (U.S. Civil) War, …


November 14, 1866
Dear John,

… myself who is and has been for a long time past in great hardship all with pains in my limbs and my legs still running bad water. I am scarcely able to rise or lie -- but the Lord's will must be here with me. Your Mother was very sick for a long time, but now she is in a favorable state. Your brother Thomas and (his Mrs) are both well and has (even) got a young daughter. … It is three weeks old and is thriving well. Your sister Elisabeth is well and living with her husband … I (am supposed) to give her L 15 (for her new home). But, by the bad crop of potatoes we had this season and the last it will be impossible for us to pay her (everything we owe her). If in your power, send me a few pounds to enable us to (pay our debt to her and her husband). Our land, (now) being almost moss, is worn out. It will give little or no crop. If your Mother and I was dead, your brother Thomas says he would give up and go to America. …


November 19, 1867
Dear John,

…Myself I am both frail and decrepit. I am not able to go to and from the room, even on crutches; all with pains in my limbs and bones. I may say that not one part of my frame is free (of pain) more than another. … Indeed your Mother is frail too, but she is able to stir about. Dear John, I am sorry to have to relate that the bad crops through (the past) two or three years has set in hard on us, and this season is worse than any, as I can't say that our potatoes is any, … Thomas wishes to let you know that he and Mrs intend to sell all and go there (to America), and to leave us both behind. I must say go he must do, as here and hold ground he will not be able. …


Two years later, with both parents dead, Thomas finally emigrated to America, joining at long last his brother and older sister. His younger sister had married in Ireland and had died.

The Thomas McElhiney family had come to America.