Bringing Your Ancestors to Life: The History of Irish Immigration into Maine

As I began researching and writing about my Keegan ancestors, I sought more information about Irish immigration into Washington County. They Change Their Sky: The Irish in Maine, edited by Michael C. Connolly, was recommended in a post comment. Recently, I found the book at Lubec Memorial Library among their fine collection of books on Maine history. It is a delightful book packed with well-researched information about the Irish immigration into Maine. The foreword was written by Senator George Mitchell. An entire chapter is devoted to Washington County entitled: “Ireland Along the Passamaquoddy: Rathlin Islanders in Washington County, Maine.” A portion of the chapter focuses on Trescott, West Lubec, Pembroke and Perry. My ancestors immigrated to Trescott in 1836.

I wondered how they decided to come there, how they lived out their lives. After I read the book, I wrote a summary about the families of my GG and great grandfathers, weaving the genealogy with details from the book, working my way through time up to my grandmother Elizabeth Keegan Rier. Next, I am starting on a bit of historical fiction that begins when Grammy Rier was a little girl, living on a farm in Trescott.

I hope to bring my ancestors to life!

MY GREAT GREAT GRANDFATHER JAMES KEEGAN SR.

In 1836, James Keegan arrived in the New World from Dublin, Ireland, with his young bride, Elizabeth Moran. Their port of entry is unknown, but many Irish immigrants who settled in Washington County, Maine came into Canadian Maritime ports because fares for passage were half the price into America. James may have worked in Canada for a time as did many other Irish immigrants to save money to purchase land and build a homestead. The couple settled in Trescott among other early Irish pioneers who made permanent homes there before the Great Famine in Ireland began in 1845.

Trescott, West Lubec, Pembroke and Perry attracted Irish families where farming, fishing, shipbuilding, and cutting timber provided opportunities for newcomers, as did the Pembroke Irish Works, a thriving foundry. James followed other Irish farmers who settled primarily in Trescott and West Lubec. They found cheap land, plentiful fuel, and Cobscook Bay offered a means of transport. As early as 1829, three pioneers from Rathlin Island off the Northeast coast of Ireland, Neil Black, Dundan Bradley and Lauglin Black, acquired land along Cobscook Bay. They joined other Irish families there, many from Ulster, fishing the Cobscook coves and farming the land between Trescott and Lubec.

There was a strong sense of community and shared traditions in these small towns and villages in eastern Maine. Often whole families from young children to grandparents crossed the Atlantic together, built homes and worked the land. A pathfinder or pioneering family established a base, sent letters and money for passage to friends and kin in chain migration. In 1844, the year James appeared at the Supreme Judicial Court in Machias to petition for naturalization, he was one of 126 immigrants from Ireland and England. Most of those who specified a port of entry traveled via Saint John or Saint Andrews, New Brunswick or Halifax, Nova Scotia.

This growing community drew the attention of the Catholic Church, already having established a presence in eastern Maine. As early as the 1830s and 1840s, circuit riders from Eastport and missionary priests from Pleasant Point ministered to the Irish flock. In 1852, the Saint Mary’s Catholic Church was built beside a forest of pines in Trescott.

James built his home beside the Saunders Meadow Stream not far from the South Branch of the Cobscook River, west of the Bay. The Murray and Moran families built homes on that stream, close enough to Saint Mary’s Catholic Church to hear the bell ring on Sundays. The family story is that James’ home was built of wood and stone into the side of a hillock. Homes the Irish built were not of thatch and stone as in the home country. Instead they took on the character of their Yankee neighbors as timber was plentiful. The Irish kept their Catholic identity but quickly adapted to their new environment in terms of building styles, material culture, and farming. Irish farmers like James learned new methods and how to use new implements, including using oxen as draught animals, a technique unknown in Ireland. Farms grew a variety of crops from locally obtained seeds: barley, peas, pumpkins, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, garlic, onions, radishes, turnips, cabbages, lettuce, parsley and melons. Corn, beans and squash came from the Passamaquoddy. Cattle provided milk and butter. Apples from seedlings brought from Europe were harvested and cider made in the Fall. Wild blueberry and cranberry abounded. As in the home country, sheep were raised for wool to make clothing.

In 1838, James and Elizabeth’s first child, William, was born. A daughter, Mary, arrived two years later followed by six more children in the coming years: Anne, John, Eliza, James Jr., Catherine and Thomas. James Sr. farmed all his life and was active within the community, serving as the Superintendent of the School Committee for 32 years. He died in 1879 at the age of 67; his obituary lauded his devotion to his family, his Church and his dedication to education.

MY GREAT GRANDFATHER JAMES KEEGAN JR.

James Keegan Jr. was the 7th child of James and Elizabeth Keegan, born in 1847. He worked on his father’s farm growing up and well into adulthood, as did his younger brother Thomas. One year after James Sr. died, the Keegan homestead was occupied by his widow Elizabeth, age 74, James Jr., age 32, Thomas, age 29, and his wife Katherine (Kate), age 28. James Jr. likely delayed marriage after his father’s death to assist in caring for his mother and working the farm. He married Margaret “Maggie” Murray in 1886, who lived close by, the daughter of Irish immigrants via Saint John, New Brunswick. James and Maggie had seven children between 1887 and 1895: Winnifred, Tresa (Teresa), James, Mary, Elizabeth (Lizzie), Katherine (Kathe), and Margaret (Maggie). Sadly, James’ wife Maggie succumbed to a bout of pneumonia and died in 1896 at the age of 38 leaving James to care for their children, including their infant daughter. Three years later, James Jr.’s mother, Elizabeth, died at the age of 80. By 1898, Thomas and his wife moved to Lubec with their youngest children Fred, age 14, and John, age 12. where they raised their five children. He partnered with James McCurdy to open the Union Sardine Company while James Jr. stayed at the Trescott homestead with his children.

Life must have been tough for a man raising seven children alone, albeit with the help of his family and neighbors. My grandmother was his 5th child, Elizabeth. I was told that Grammy had to quit school after third grade to work in the sardine camps in Lubec. By 1910, she and her eldest sister Winnifred worked as servants in households in Lubec. The next year, at age 19, my grandmother married Frank Rier, a mechanic from Lubec, in Leominster, MA where her sister Mary lived.

Related posts:

Searching for Grammy Rier’s Parents and Siblings.

My Great Great Paternal Grandfather, James Keegan.

Visiting the Gravesites of My Great and Great Great Grandfathers. James Keegan Sr. and Jr. families.

 

Visiting the Gravesites of My Great and Great Great Grandfathers

James Keegan Sr (1812 – 1879) and his son James H Keegan Jr. (1847 – 1927) were laid to rest in Chapel Hill cemetery in Trescott, ME. James Sr. immigrated to Trescott from Ireland in 1836. I had seen their gravestones on the findagrave.com website but I wanted to go there myself. I had hit a roadblock in tracing James Sr in Ireland. My cousin Teresa had visited Ireland and requested information about him from the Meath Heritage & Genealogy Centre in Trim, Ireland, County Meath. The Centre found one listing for a James Keegan born March 27th, 1812 to Pat Keegan and Elizabeth Keating. But the birth date for this James did not match the birth date on his gravestone (October 6, 1812). I noted that County Meath was misspelled on his gravestone as Meade, perhaps the date of birth was not accurate either. The Centre’s search covered 1812 +/- 5 years and found two other James Keegans:

(1) 8th November 1814 – James born to John Keegan and Elizabeth Camble (Oldcastle).

(2) 25th July 1816 – James born to Thadeus Keegan and Mary Newman (Kildalkey).

With no other information to go on, such as James’ parents names etc in Ireland, the Centre wrote that there was no way to know which James Keegan was our ancestor. It occurred to me that I did not know the name of James’ wife and emigrating from Ireland in 1836 at the age of 24, he may have been married in Ireland. If I visited his gravesite, perhaps I could find his wife and her name there too.

I strolled around Chapel Hill Cemetery looking for his gravestone. It is a small and beautiful cemetery nestled against the woods, now bright with the reds, yellows, golds and greens of Fall.

chapelhill

Among a carpet of red cranberries and green moss were stones that marked the graves of many Irish/Scottish immigrants and their descendants: Sullivan, Murray, Kelley, McCarty, McQuaige, McCurdy.

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I found James Keegan Sr.’s gravestone in the front corner close to Rte. 189 and Chapel Hill (Timber Cove) Road. I was so pleased to find it, followed by disappointment that there was no other stone close by, nor his wife noted on his gravestone.

james.sr

Beside this gravestone was that of his son James Jr. There were no other Keegan gravestones or markers. Engraved on the front of this stone was his date of birth , no date of death, his wife Margaret (1857 – 1897). Their daughter Winnifred, born in 1887 and died in 1918 (the year of the great flu pandemic) at the age of 31, was buried with her parents.

james.keegan.jr.grave

Then I looked at the back of James Jr.’s stone. Names were engraved there, difficult to see under the lichen and moss, but I knelt and read:

James                  1812                  1879

Elizabeth            1809                  1889

William               1838                  1880

Anne                    1841                  1897

The birth date on the back of the stone of James Sr. looks like 1814 but closer inspection reveals 1812. Elizabeth is likely James Jr.’s mother, William and Anne, his brother and sister. James Jr. had a brother named Thomas who lived in Lubec with his family in 1910. He must be buried elsewhere. I don’t know the names of the rest of the family.

The photo of the back of the stone is not very clear but I will try another day in different sunlight.

gravestone.james.keegan.jr.back

Back home on the computer, I began to search for Maine vital records about James Keegan Sr. and his wife Elizabeth. I hadn’t found much about him before, except a photo of his gravestone and the record of his US naturalization in 1843.

An entire page of records popped up on the computer screen.

The 1840 census didn’t hold much information, just the name of heads of households, the number of individuals in the house and their age range. His name is spelled James Kegan, male between 20 and 30 years of age. One female between 20 and 30. One male child and one female child under the age of five. If I am reading this census correctly, the household consists of James Sr. (about 28 years old), his wife Elizabeth about the same age, a son and a daughter under the age of five.

The 1850 census yielded more information. Since arriving in Trescott in 1836, James Sr. and Elizabeth had seven children.

James Kegan, age 41, a farmer, value of real estate 300″ (?), place of birth, Ireland.

Elizabeth Kegan, age 40, place of birth, Ireland.

William, age 12, born in Maine and attended school in the last year.

Mary, age 10, born in Maine and attended school in the last year.

Ann, age 9, born in Maine and attended school in the last year.

John, age 8 and attended school in the last year.

Eliza, age 6.

James, age 3 (my great grandfather).

Catherine, age 1.

1860 Census. The spelling of Kegan is now Keegan. Mary, about 20 years of age that year, is no longer in the household and their last son Thomas was age 9.

James Keegan, age 48, born in Ireland.

Elizabeth Keegan, age 48, Ireland.

William Keegan, age 22, born in Maine.

Anne Keegan, age 18, Maine.

Elizabeth Keegan, age 18, Maine. (Eliza in 1840 census).

John Keegan, age 16, Maine.

James Keegan, age 13, Maine.

Catherine Keegan, age 11, Maine.

Thomas Keegan, age 9, Maine.

It is apparent that ages do not exactly coincide between each census.

One year after James Sr. died in 1879, there were four that lived in the Keegan household according to the 1880 Trescott census.

Elizabeth, age 74, mother, widowed, keeping house, born in Ireland. father and mother born in Ireland.

James, age 32, son, single, farmer, born in Maine, father and mother born in Ireland (my great grandfather).

Thomas, age 29, son, married, farmer, born in Maine, father and mother born in Ireland.

Catherine, age 28, daughter-in-law, married, housekeeper, born in Maine, father and mother born in Ireland.

The search yielded two more documents. The records of death for Annie and Eliza Keegan, daughters of James (Sr) and Elizabeth Keegan.

Annie died in Machias on September 15, 1897 at 55 years of age. Place of birth: Trescott. Widowed. Occupation: Housework. Cause of death: Chronic spinal meningitis. Her mother’s maiden name is written as: Elizabeth Morran.

Eliza (Keegan) May died in Lubec in 1920 at 76 years of age. She was a resident of Lubec for 17 years, previous residence Trescott. Date of birth: March 22, 1844 in Trescott. Occupation: Housewife. Maiden name of her mother: Elizabeth Morris. Eliza is the deceased was the wife of James May. Cause of death: Valvular Endocarditis. Duration: Indefinite. Contributing cause: Lobar Pneumonia. Duration: One week.

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What discoveries! I found the names of the children of my great great grandfather James Keegan Sr. At last, I know my great great grandmother’s name: Elizabeth. Her surname is either Morris or Morran (Moran?). They were surely married in Ireland as they came to Trescott in 1836 and their first child William was born the same year in Maine.

That should be enough information to search Irish records and go back further in time.

What is particularly precious is that I can begin to see them, envision their lives that began in Ireland and came so far to live off the land and settle in Trescott and Lubec.

My ancestors peek through the mist of time.

Related posts:

My Great Great Paternal Grandfather, James Keegan.

Searching for Grammy Rier’s Parents and Siblings.

References:

United States Census, Trescott, ME, 1840.

trescott.census.1840

“United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M6VC-TSD : 12 April 2016), James Kegan in household of James Kegan, Trescott, Washington, Maine, United States; citing family 56, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

trescott.census.1850

“United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MDHL-7P5 : 26 July 2017), James Keegan in entry for James Keegan, 1860.

trescott.1860.census

United States Census, Trescott, ME, 1880.

trescott.1880.census

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Grammy Rier’s Parents and Siblings

My paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Keegan Rier was born in Trescott, Maine, September 15th, 1892. I never knew the names of her father and mother except to know that her maiden name was Keegan. Grammy told me that her mother died when she was about four years old and she had no memory of her. I could not imagine what it would be like to lose your mother as a little girl, and wondered how her father had raised her. I never knew the name of all of Grammy’s siblings. She talked about two sisters, Mary who lived in Leominster, Massachusetts, and Theresa, who lived in Boston.

According to the 1910 census, one Keegan family lived in Trescott. James Keegan was the head of household, had four daughters and one son who lived with him, but had no wife. Two daughters matched the names of Grammy’s sisters, Theresa (spelled Tresa in the census) and Mary. The son was named James E which may be James Eugene, my father’s name.

Where is Grammy? She would have been 17 or 18 years of age at the time. Grammy told me that she had only completed school through the third grade as she criticized her own penmanship writing letters. Her writing was meticulous, but I sensed that Grammy was self conscious about her lack of education. My Uncle Barney said that Grammy went to work in the Lubec sardine industry as a young girl to help support the family. I searched the 1910 Lubec census and found Lizzie Keegan (her nickname) age 17. She is listed as a domestic servant in the household of Henry and Ella Godfrey at 18 Summer Street, Lubec. There are two boarders and another domestic servant in this home. In 1910, Grammy was working for a family and lived in Lubec. She probably worked in the sardine industry too, work she enjoyed into her 80s.

I note that the eldest daughter of James Keegan, Winnefred, age 23, is listed in both the Trescott and Lubec census. Winnefred was a domestic servant in another Lubec household, the Trecartin family.

I don’t know why Grammy never talked about her brother and sisters, except Theresa and Mary. Perhaps they moved away and she was disconnected from them or they died before I was born and didn’t hear their stories.  My father is likely named for her one brother. Her sister Katherine is listed as the same age as Grammy but I doubt they were twins or I would have heard about it, perhaps they were only a year apart, and Grammy turned 18 in September of 1910 after the census.

I searched for the burial site of James Keegan and found his grave at the Chapel Hill Cemetery in Trescott. He was born in 1847 and died in 1927 at the age of 80. He is the son of James Keegan, my great great grandfather who first came to Trescott from Ireland.

From his gravestone, I learned the name of his wife, my great grandmother, Margaret Murray Keegan, date of death 1897. Their eldest daughter, Winnefred died in 1918 at the age of 31, was buried with her parents. It was the year of the great flu pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide, but I do not know if flu was the cause of her death.

Now I must document my Keegan ancestors using vital records. I found Grammy Rier’s birth certificate although she was not yet named. This verifies that she is indeed the 5th child of James and Maggie Keegan, born September 15th, 1892 in Trescott, Maine. James Keegan’s occupation was farmer. I’ll bet he had a fine Irish root cellar in his home.

record-image_9398-4d9j-55

I found the death certificate for Maggie (Margaret) Keegan. She died May 21, 1896 at age 38. Cause of death: Pneumonia/Bronchitis. Place of birth: St John, New Brunswick. Gravestones and websites are not always correct.

record-image_9398-4d9j-d2

Grammy Rier lived with us in Machias at the home of my maternal great grandparents every winter when I was growing up. She taught me how to knit mittens when I was barely 10 years old. I can still smell her bread, hot from the oven. Her bedroom was at the end of the hall, close to mine. As I drifted off to sleep, Grammy whispered the rosary, kneeling beside her bed. “If you don’t finish the rosary and drift off to sleep, the angels will finish for you,” she told me.

Grammy died in April 21st of 1985 in Lubec at the home of her son Barney and his wife Rebecca, just months from her 94th birthday. I still miss her.

I celebrate her life.

 

 

 

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My Great Great Paternal Grandfather, James Keegan.

He was born October 6th, 1812 in County Meath, Ireland and immigrated from Dublin to Trescott, Maine in 1836 at the age of 24. He was naturalized as a US citizen in 1843. He died February 8th, 1879. According to his obituary published in the Machias Union, James Keegan was a well-loved resident of  Trescott for 43 years. My uncle Raymond told me when James arrived in Trescott, he built his home into the side of a hillock to keep warm, an Irish tradition.

My grandmother, Elizabeth Keegan Rier, was born at this homestead. James Keegan was her grandfather. Grammy told me her mother died when she was about four years old. I never knew her mother’s name. I don’t know the names of all of Grammy’s sisters and brothers. She talked about only two sisters, Mary and Theresa who both lived in Massachusetts. I have research to do on my father’s side of the family, the Keegans and the Riers.

Grammy said she lost her mother when she was small and didn’t think she would know how to be a mother. My Dad, James Eugene Rier, was born in Trescott. My grandparents Frank and Elizabeth Rier later moved to Lubec. Grammy overcame any fears of motherhood and had 11 children, 9 survived childhood.

The US naturalization card of James Keegan.

keegan-naturalization

It is obvious that I have my share of Irish roots. My maternal ancestors, the Means family, originated in Scotland (the Menzies clan), immigrated to northern Ireland in the 1650s during the period of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms.” They had been driven out from Argyll by persecution for their beliefs and stubborn refusal to yield to the English.  In 1718, they departed to America to make a new life. They  landed in Boston, then on to Falmouth (Portland, Maine), at the time a part of the colony of Massachusetts. My maternal ancestors are Scottish, Irish, and a bit of English along the way.

The Irish made up the largest mass migration of refugees the state of Maine has ever seen, escaping famine and oppression. James Keegan left Ireland in 1836. According to this resource, the conditions in Ireland at the time were in decline.

“By the 1840s, famine was no stranger to Ireland, as the post-feudal peasants had suffered hunger for decades as a result of oppressive land and food policies, overpopulation and over-reliance on the potato. It’s been estimated that a third of Ireland’s population depended on potatoes for nourishment, while wheat, barley, poultry, pork and beef were often sold to pay rent to the absentee landlords in England. As the population of Ireland doubled from 4 to 8 million between 1780 and 1845, the increased demand for land required families to subdivide plots into smaller and smaller parcels to accommodate new generations. The potato became the only crop that could produce a significant yield in such limited acreage. While the potato has been credited with helping Ireland’s population boom, it also led to the demise of about one million people who starved after the potato blight hit in 1845.“

Keegan decided to settle in the small seaside community of Trescott, Maine, with an economy based on farming, fishing, lumber, shipbuilding, and raising sheep. Harbors were at Bailey’s Mistake, Haycock Harbor, Moose Cove and the Bay at the South Branch of the Cobscook River (now called Whiting Bay). A man from Dublin, Ireland could feel at home there close to the sea. His obituary indicates that James was a respected member of the community and thus, he and his family did not face the prejudice he might have elsewhere in the state.

The documents in this post were given to my father in 1993 by Lyman Holmes of Machias, Maine. Many thanks to Lyman!

Related post: Searching for Grammy Rier’s Parents and Siblings