From 1831 through 1916, the national Boston Pilot newspaper printed some 45,000 "Missing Friends" advertisements placed by friends and relatives in attempts to locate loved ones lost during emigration. These ads, consolidated into edited volumes, provide a valuable record of a poor emigrant population trying to reach one another.
“Since it was a very large movement of people, many of whom left little behind, it’s hard to know the personal stuff,” said Emer O'Keeffe, an editor of several of the volumes. “This is what the ads provide; they speak directly to us, and this intimacy makes them appealing. John Fallon ‘had light hair, blue eyes; was about four feet, four inches in height; wore a blue spencer, a new scoop shovel cap, a fancy pants and had a freckled face.’ You can really see this boy! You can often glimpse a personality. Thomas Sullivan was described by his wife as ‘of medium height, brown hair, fair complexion, and free in conversation.’ The vulnerability of individuals left stranded is also clear. James Rourke’s wife and children were ‘daily mourning his absence.’ Catherine Kelly sought her husband, signing herself ‘the mother of his four living children.’ The voices of these emigrants resonate still.
In their own words, through the Boston Pilot listings, emigrants express their hope, fear, and loss. “The ads run the gamut of immigrant experience and the tone reflects this,” Emer O’Keeffe said, “From personal emotions – vulnerability and loss, hope and pride when things are going well – to the larger social movements. The tone of the 1847 listings, for example, is very different from that of the 1890s when the immigrants are more prosperous and social networks much more evolved. … [Famine emigrants] certainly didn’t give up the hope of locating [their loved ones]. Many immigrants placed ads again and again for a family member they might not have seen or heard from in decades. And the ads weren’t cheap: thousands paid their daily wage and more ($1) for an ad that would run three times.”
Emer O’Keeffe embarked on this project with a personal resonance. “I came to the U.S. in 1983 to attend Northeastern University’s graduate history program,” she told Irish America. “The 1980s was a very grim time economically in Ireland, with huge numbers of people emigrating to the U.S., England, and Australia. Most of my undergraduate class ended up emigrating. But I was the only member of my large family to leave home, and back then it wasn’t as easy to stay in touch. We didn’t have cell phones or e-mail, and phone calls were more expensive. We wrote a lot of letters! It was easy to empathize with the homesickness many of the immigrants experienced; as well as the need to stay connected with family and to create an Irish community in America.”
Boston Pilot Listings from 1847:
16 October 1847
Of DENNIS MCCARTHY, late of Killmichael, co’y Cork, who sailed from Liverpool on the 1st of last May, and left his wife, Ellen Ahearn, in Quarantine near Quebec, in June. She is now in Troy, N. Y., and wishes to know his whereabouts. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by addressing a line to Ellen McCarthy, care of Stephen Duffy, Troy, N. Y.
Of JOHN QUILMAN, late of the parish of Inch, co’y Tipperary, who sailed from Waterford with his family last April. His daughter, Mary Harrington, wishes him to know that her husband, James Harrington, died on their passage to this country; also her two children since. She is now in Troy and wishes to know where her father is. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by Mary Harrington, care of S. Duffy, or Mrs. Daly, Fifth street, Troy, N. Y.
27 November 1847
Of ANTHONY and PATRICK WATERS, natives of co. Mayo. They are informed that their sister, Mary, who was married to Patrick Boyle, is anxious to hear from them. Her husband died on the passage. Should this meet their eye they will write to her immediately, care of the editor of the Pilot, Boston, Ms.
4 December 1847
Of BERNARD MURPHY, who emigrated from co. Armagh, parish of Grangemore, townland of Aughmagorgan, in April last, with his father and 2 sisters. He parted from his father at Quarantine Island, below Montreal. It is supposed he went to Kingston. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by his father who is now living in Dover. If by letter, address Patrick Grimes, Dover, N. H., or John Doran, No. 6 Canal street, Boston, Ms.
11 December 1847
Of CATHERINE GILLEN, who landed in Boston last spring, with her father and family. She was sick and went to hospital and has not been heard from since. Any one knowing anything of her would confer a favor on her father, Hugh Gillen, by writing a letter to him in care of John Devlin, Pawtucket, R.I.
18 December 1847
Of BRIDGET CARROLL, a native of Killacooly, parish of Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, who was taken into Grosse Isle hospital, below Quebec, in June last, and has not been heard from since. Any information respecting her will be thankfully received by her brother, Patrick Carroll, care of Mr. Samuel Downer, Second street, South Boston, Ms.
1 January 1848
Of PETER and ELLEN CARR, natives of county Down, parish of Gervathey, who left home in April and landed in St. John, 4th July. They came in the ship Ambassadress. Ellen had the fever and was taken to Patridge Island, and Peter remained with her. Any information of them will be thankfully received by their brother, John Carr, Lawrence City, Ms.
* Article originally published in May 2010, courtesy of Irish America.