The Ties that Bind: An Emigrant Derry Community & Those Left Behind

The google image below is the modern view of a rural laneway in Ballyriff townland, near Magherafelt in Co. Londonderry. Over a century ago, it was a road that was well known to Thomas McKinney. He had spent his entire life walking it, making a living for himself and his family in the surrounding fields. The Griffith’s Valuation records Thomas living just off this lane, renting a house worth 15 shillings from landlord Robert Archer. Some of his wider family also made their home in Ballyriff. The valuation records two other McKinney’s (recorded as McKenny) renting in the townland, with three more of that name holding lands in the parish of Artrea, of which Ballyriff forms a part. Thomas had the good fortune to live a long life. Born in the 18th Century, he had married Susan Bates in Woods Chapel around the year 1812, and started a family. Thomas lived to see many of his children permanently emigrate to the United States. As was often the case, they would congregate with other Derry emigrants in America; in the McKinney case that was around Brighton, Massachusetts. Thomas would never see them again. However, the remove of thousands of miles didn’t mean they were completely lost to him. In his old age, his sons, daughters and former neighbours in America rallied to his support, demonstrating in their words and deeds their sense of responsibility towards him. (1)

Thomas McKinney had at least one son and two daughters living in Massachusetts during the 1860s. By that time his wife had passed away, but at least one other daughter had remained at home in Ireland with him, though she had difficulties with her sight. In America his son James had spent the 1850s working as a laborer, but with the onset of the Civil War he decided to enlist as a private in the 26th Massachusetts Infantry. Operating principally as a teamster, James spent much of his war around Louisiana and the Gulf. He re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer on 4th January 1864, a year which also witnessed a change of operational base for his regiment. Before he long he found himself part of the 19th Corps in Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. It was in that capacity that the 26th Massachusetts would experience their worst day of the war, on 19th September, at what became known as the Battle of Third Winchester/Opequon. Though the engagement ended in victory for the Union, it also ended in death for James McKinney. (2)

Back in Ballyriff, Thomas– now well in his 80s– had to cope with the loss of a son who, despite the fact they had not seen each other in 20 years, still formed an integral part of his emotional and economic life. The importance of his long departed boy was accentuated by Thomas’s physical condition, which in 1869 was described by Magherafelt physician Francis Auterson as follows:

He is an old man apparently of above eighty years of age…he is very infirm and wholly unable to earn his living by any manual labour. (3)

In the absence of his son’s remittance from America, Thomas instead sought a dependent father’s pension. His first step was to make a declaration relating to his background and circumstances. Thomas’s statement captures something of the vast remove of rural Ulster from the seat of the American Civil War– the battle in which his son died is referred to incorrectly as “the battle of Wincastle near Richmond.”

Solemn Declaration

City and County of Londonderry to wit.

Petty Sessions District of Magherafelt, in the County of Londonderry Ireland

I, Thomas McKinney, of Ballyriff in the parish of Ardtrea and county of Londonderry, Ireland; do solmenly and sincerely declare that I was married to Susan Bates in or about the year of our Lord One Thousand eight Hundred and twelve by The Revd J.M. Marshall, then the Officiating Minister of Woods Chapel in the parish & County aforesaid. But as the said Revd J.M. Marshall is dead & none of his Register books to be found, I cannot procure the Official Certificate of my marriage. I further declare that I had a son named James who emigrated to America in the year 1846 or 47 and who enlisted in the United States Army; and I am informed he was shot in the battle of Wincastle near Richmond.

I am now about 88 years old. And I make this solemn declaration conscientiously believing the same to be true, and by virtue of the provisions of an Act passed in the Sixth year of the reign of his late Majesty King William the Fourth, chapter sixty two, for the abolition of unnecessary oaths. (4)

The Battle of Opequon (Third WInchester) by Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress)

The Battle of Opequon (Third WInchester) by Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress)

The scant detail Thomas was able to provide regarding his connection to James was insufficient to secure a pension. He now had to rely on his departed neigbours and children to help furnish the evidence required, in the form of affidavits from immigrants both old and new from Derry who were then living in Brighton. If Thomas’s reference to the “battle of Wincastle” demonstrates how the major events of the Civil War could become blurred at such a remove, the response of the expatriate Ulster community in Brighton to his plight demonstrates just how connected Irish immigrant communities remained with their local areas of origin. Among them were Francis and Rose Donnelly, who gave their affidavit in Brighton in 1867. By then they had been in the United States for 20 and 17 years respectively (and clearly, with the use of words like “aught”, had not lost their Ulster accents in the intervening period):

we… have known Thomas McKinney…ever since we can remember, and that is nearly fifty years, and well knew the wife of said Thomas…her name was Susan…Thomas and said Susan cohabited together as man and wife from as far back as we can remember until we came from Ireland to the United States and they were always known and reputed…as husband and wife and we never heard aught to the contrary. After we left Ireland we presume they continued to live together as husband and wife but of that we cannot speak of our personal knowledge because we were not again in Ireland. We knew Henry O’Neill and Jane O’Neill , witness of said marriage, and they are both dead. (5)

Francis Donnelly would later elaborate on how close he had remained with Thomas McKinney’s children in Brighton:

I [Francis Donnelly] have long lived in Brighton and there I long knew and was intimate with…James and his sisters. From what they told me before…James died and from statements made by…James himself I obtained the information which I have given above. I often heard…James declare his intention to contribute to his father’s support and I often heard from his sisters before James died statements as to what money he had sent home to his father and what use said money was intended for. (6)

Yet another Londonderry emigrant in Brighton, Sally Scullen, joined with Francis Donnelly in providing a second statement in support of the octogenarian Irishman:

…Thomas…has no property nor any means of income whatever. He lives and has always lived in County Derry in Ireland…James had been for more than twenty years in America when he enlisted and he was then about thirty-five years of age. He was a laboring man and his pay for several years before he enlisted would average from one dollar and a half to two dollars per day. For the last twelve years before he enlisted he lived and worked in Brighton, boarding most of the time with me or the other of his sisters. He was steady, temperate and industrious. His father, meantime, was very unable, by reason of advanced years, to do enough for his own support and for two or three years before…James enlisted the latter was accustomed to send sums of money out of his own pay and wages for the support and maintenance of his father. We believe that he sent home to his father from fifty to one hundred dollars on each of these three continuous years last before his enlistment. He sent the same in small drafts from time to time and…Thomas received said amounts and was by said monies supported. With the same he paid rent and provided himself with the means of livelihood. (7)

Interestingly, unlike Francis Donnelly, who was a longtime resident of Brighton, Sally was a new arrival. She had travelled from Londonderry only a few months prior to her affidavit, and brought with her the “Irish” side of the story of remittance:

I Sally Scullen came to America first arriving in Octr last. Before this I had always lived in Ireland as neighbours to said Thomas and was well and intimately acquainted with…Thomas and with the whole family and from him and from them I often used to hear, before James, his son, died, about the support which was furnished him by said James. I know the facts testified to from the statements made by…Thomas himself and other persons made both before and after [James] enlisted and I knew them of my own observation that the said father had no means of support save what he had from his children and especially from James. (8)

The statement of Thomas McKinney made in Londonderry (Fold3/NARA)

The statement of Thomas McKinney made in Londonderry (Fold3/NARA)

Aside from former neighbours, Thomas’s daughter Alice was also on hand to give a statement, which was set down in 1869 under her married name of McFlynn:

my father…is now in the 84th year of his age and by reason of his extreme age alone is now not and has not for the past six or eight years been able to do enough labor to support himself. My brother James…gave me upon one occasion whilst he was in the army fifty dollars and directed me to send it to his father for the support of the latter and I did accordingly send the whole of it to him…James was then home on a furlough. Upon another occasion…James sent me home from the army $200 in greenbacks by Adams Express and directed me to send this to his father and to be applied for his (the father’s) support and I did accordingly send the whole of said two hundred dollars home to my father in small drafts and he received and was supported by the said monies. My brother…James always furnished money to send and sent money himself to his father for at least five or six years continuously before he died and it was his express intention to contribute all that he could for his father’s maintenance. I have often, before…James enlisted, sent his money, which he frequently gave me for the purpose, home to his father in drafts which I myself purchased. He contributed as much as seventy five to one hundred dollars per year to his father’s support during the last six years of his (my brother’s) life. (9)

Thomas’s daughter also offered another explanation as to why there wasn’t more in the way of documentary evidence:

I am the daughter of Thomas McKinney…all the children of…Thomas McKinney were baptized in the same parish in which he was married, that is the Parish of Ardtrea, County Londonderry, Ireland; and the Register books of said Parish are lost…there is no record of the baptisms of any of his said children now to be found. (10)

The weight of support from the Derry emigrants convinced the pension bureau of the propriety of Thomas’s claim, and he duly received his pension. The file serves once again to demonstrate not only the transnational impact of the American Civil War, but also the extremely strong ties of community and obligation that bound many Irish immigrants to those they had left behind, even many decades after their departure. Thomas McKinney passed away in 1873. In a postscript to his file, the daughter who had stayed in Ireland with him– now nearly blind– made an appeal to the bureau for the continuance of the pension on her behalf, so reliant had the family become on it. Her request was communicated through an intermediary in Belfast, John Archer, perhaps one of the family who were the McKinney’s landlords. The lack of further detail in the file suggests her appeal was unsuccessful.

5 Chichester Street

Belfast 9th April 1873

Ireland

D.C. Cox Esq.

Sir,

Thomas McKinney departed this life on 4th inst, a few days before his last quarters pension came to hand. He leaves a daughter that is almost blind, and in no way able to earn a living for herself, but was depending on her father and his pension while alive. She is of opinion that if her case was made known to you that she might be allowed the same pension as long as she lived, and to satisfy her I promised to write and leave the matter plainly before you which I have done truthfully and candidly, and respectfully request that you will be kind enough to write me a reply so that I may be able to satisfy her on the point.

I am, Sir,

Yours Respectfully,

John Archer. (11)

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Griffiths Valuation, James McKinney Dependent Father’s Pension File; (2) Pension File, Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors; (3) Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.; (9) Ibid.; (10) Ibid.; (11) Ibid.;

References & Further Reading

Griffith’s Valuation: McKenny, Artrea, Londonderry.

WC131493, pension file of Thomas McKinney, Dependent Father of James McKinney, Company K, 26th Massachusetts Infantry.

Massachusetts Adjutant General. Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War. [Original page scans accessed via ancestry.com].

Civil War Trust Battle of Third Winchester Page.

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Categories: Battle of Third Winchester, Derry, Londonderry, Massachusetts

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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2 Comments on “The Ties that Bind: An Emigrant Derry Community & Those Left Behind”

  1. John Murphy
    June 5, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    Another great story Damian, thanks.

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