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.

 

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A Story About Stephen Otis Johnson

given to me by Phil Watts, a history buff and close family friend from Roque Bluffs, Maine. My maternal grandfather, Ezekiel “Zeke” Johnson, grew up in nearby Kennebec and was a descendant of Stephen Otis Johnson. I don’t know the origin of the story or its authenticity, but it may contain hints that aid research on this branch of the family. Stephen Otis Johnson was born in England, the first Johnson ancestor who came to this country and fought in the Revolutionary War.

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Philip S. Watts, a second father to me.

“I can tell you one thing about the Johnson family,” Phil said. “They were all PRECISE.”

He told me that a woman in the Johnson family (I’ve forgotten her name now) kept the records of births and deaths in the town of Roque Bluffs for many years.

He continued, “After the records were turned over to the town office, she was called upon many a time when there was a question about documents and she made corrections.”

I laughed. “Well, that explains my mother’s penchant for precision. She could see a crooked curtain or hem instantly. And, she always edited my writing.”

I don’t consider myself precise. But, I can’t stand the sight of a crooked curtain, picture or hem. I could edit my writing forever. I admit, I have a few family members who will remain unnamed to protect their identity, who are most definitely precise.

Philip Watts’ Revolutionary ancestor was Samuel Watts who jumped aboard the Margaretta with my ancestor Joseph Getchell Jr. in the first naval battle of the American Revolution. Samuel’s sister, Hannah Watts Weston, was a heroine of that battle.

I wonder if our ancestors knew that hundreds of years later, their descendants knew each other, grew up around each other, and talked about history, our proud history.

 

 

My Great Uncle Charlie and Aunt Louise

They lived in Lubec, Maine in the winter and on Indian Lake in nearby Whiting for the summer. My family had a camp at Indian Lake from the year I was born, so we visited each other often. I have many warm memories spending time with Uncle Charlie and Aunt Louise. Since my grandfather Frank Rier died before I was born, his brother Uncle Charlie was special and so was Aunt Louise. They were my other grandparents, as my maternal grandmother Harriet died before I was born too.

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The summer home of Charles and Louise Rier at Indian Lake, circa 1960s.

 

 

 

 

 

When Uncle Charlie and Aunt Louise got older, they stayed at our family home in Zephyrhills, FL for the winter. Every day, Uncle Charlie went to town with other men in the neighborhood, sat, chatted, and watched the morning go by. Chairs lined the sidewalk outside a restaurant, especially for these men. I can see Uncle Charlie sitting there now, smiling in the sun.

The Rier family home in Zephyhills (L) and Uncle Charlie posing for a photo with a man I do not recognize but he may be from Lubec and visiting FL (R).

 

My family stayed at the “little pink house” for a month each winter from the time I was five years old until my brothers went to college. Mom collected our homework for the month, so there was school time, and lots of fun time. When we arrived, Aunt Louise and Uncle Charlie stayed in a travel trailer in the back yard so we could all be together for that month.

On my 12th birthday, they came to visit at our home in Machias. Uncle Charlie carried a chest to the dining room table. Aunt Louise smiled and said, “This is the family silverware. I want you to have it and take care of it. Happy Birthday, Sherry.”

I picked up the lid of the old chest and looked inside. My eyes grew wide. There was a beautiful antique set of silverware for 12, complete with forks in four different sizes, carving knives, and serving spoons. I thought of objecting to this large gift but knew that Aunt Louise and Uncle Charlie had no children. I was the girl they chose to keep that silverware safe for the future. I was honored. “It’s beautiful! I will always treasure this gift,” I said as I hugged them.

I still treasure that silverware as I am filled with memories of Uncle Charlie and Aunt Louise, and my 12th birthday, when I bring it out for special occasions.

When I researched my grandfather Frank’s family history, I found that Uncle Charlie and Aunt Louise (Thaxter) married in October 9, 1908. She was 17 and worked at the (sardine) factory; he was 20 and a laborer. Charles Rier’s parents were Burpee Rier, a merchant in Lubec and Emma Batron, a housewife there. Louise’s parents were Charles Thaxter, a laborer in Lubec, and Mary Preston, housewife.

 

I also found that Uncle Charlie and Aunt Louise had a son on October 14, 1910, stillborn. How sad.

 

I had heard the name of Dad’s grandfather Rier, Burpee, when I was growing up. I thought it must have been a nickname, possibly dubbed on a baby with chronic colic. Evidently, it was his name legal name, at least as an adult, as shown by these records. Months ago, I had searched Maine vital records for more information on Burpee Rier. I could find no birth record, he was not listed in the 1910 Lubec census.

Yesterday, I searched again, but not in vital records of Maine. I found this site, which may or may not be accurate. It lists Burpee Rier’s parents as Ingraham and Mary Rier, both born in Nova Scotia. Dad always told me the first Rier to arrive in Lubec was Ingraham. He used to point at his tombstone in the Lubec cemetery as we rode by. Then there was the family story about the Rier brothers from Germany who fought in the Revolutionary War as Hessian soldiers and “jumped ship.” One brother went to Nova Scotia and one to Lubec. My theory was both brothers went to Canada after the war, along with other Loyalists, soldiers, and servants hired by the British. If this site is accurate, Ingraham came to Lubec long after the Revolutionary War.

Now I had a lead to search Nova Scotia records for the family of Ingraham Rier, that started with this story about Uncle Charlie and Aunt Louise. Very exciting!

And now, there is much more research to be done to track down the Rier ancestors. I am not yet a member of ancestry.com so it will take awhile. I’m also a novice at obtaining census and vital records in the US and certainly in Nova Scotia. Any advice and tips are greatly appreciated!

Related post:

My Paternal Grandfather Frank Rier and the Rier Brothers from Germany.

On Father’s Day, Remembering My Dad James Eugene Rier — Voices of Ancestors

The Early Years: 1914 – 1942 Dad was born September 9th, 1914 in Lubec, Maine, the second child and first son of Frank and Elizabeth Keegan Rier. He had an elder sister Marion. As the years went by, Dad had four brothers: Francis (“Babe”), Julian (“Barney”), Paul, Raymond and three more sisters: Evelyn, Patrica and […]

via My Dad James Eugene Rier — Voices of Ancestors

Your Preservation Stories

Preservation pays off—read stories of family discoveries people have made due to the preservation efforts of others. Piles of old documents sitting around in the attic. Old family keepsakes gathering dust. Each piece of your family’s past has a story to tell, but unfortunately, these stories can be forgotten or lost if steps aren’t taken…

via Your Preservation Stories — FamilySearch Blog

Dad’s Graduation from US Army Air Corp Advanced Flying School.

Brooksfield Texas. Saturday, March 7th, 1942.

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Dad’s card is on the inside of the announcement.

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He wrote to my mother on the back:

To Louise, In memory of all the lovely times we spent together. If I ever get home again I’ll drop in. I’m sure a long way from Maine now. With regards, “Gene.”

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Soon, Dad received his assignment to West Point.

Dad sounds homesick. He used to tell stories about Texas. He hated the weather, infernally hot to a man from Lubec, Maine. His dating experiences were not good either. He and a buddy took two women to a restaurant for dinner.

“They were so stuck on themselves. Puffy hair and all. They thought their s#^t was ice cream.” Dad said.  After a boring conversation, the two men quietly paid the bill, went to the restroom, and crawled out the window to escape a nightmare double date. I expect they wanted these women to know they were not impressed with their highfalutin attitudes.

Dad missed that woman from Machias, Maine, Louise Johnson. He must have decided to propose as they married less than a year later, February 15th, 1943.

Related posts:

Mom Keeps Men at Stewart Field Air Force Base on High Alert. 1944. 

My Dad James Eugene Rier

 

 

 

Growing Up in the 50s and 60s, We Knew How To Have Fun!

Every summer from the year I was born, my family lived and played on Indian Lake in Whiting, Maine. We were “upta camp” as mainah’s say.  We spent most days in or on the water swimming, boating, fishing, or sailing, only coming out to refuel on Mom’s lunches and dinners. The first time Dad took me out on the surfboard, I was four or five. Soon after take off, Dad lost his grip on me and I slid between and under his legs into the water.  I remember my surprise to see Dad’s legs fly by. By the age of eight, I learned to water ski; I had to keep up with my elder brothers, David and Jimmy, and their friends. In this video of multiple 8mm movies, I am the wild child, most often in the yellow bathing cap. For the life of me, I cannot understand how my parents let us (no – encouraged us) to do all these antics. They were having fun too!