Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Irish Who Built the Canal

When doing genealogical research, I often turn to census reports for information, as they consist of data compiled by takers going house to house. But these listings are a good showing of the neighborhood your ancestors lived. When looking up my mother’s maternal ancestors, I noticed that my 2x great-grandparents lived in a neighborhood predominantly made up of Irish names. And I noticed that many of their neighbors were either born in Ireland, or their parents were born in Ireland.
Many of the Irish men who worked on the Erie Canal in Lockport, NY ended up settling there. I am currently (until I prove otherwise) running under the theory that my maternal Irish ancestors were among these settlers. Born after the canal opened, my known Burke ancestors worked on or near the canal. This family lived numerous places but settled in a small house around the corner from where I grew up.
My great-grandmother Margaret Loretta Burke (1892-1938) grew up in that house. My 2x great-grandparents Frank Burke (b.1863) and Eliza Conners (b.1866) lived there. My 3x great-grandparents Thomas Burke (1832-1885) and Ellen [unknown] (1838-1897) lived in Lockport, where he held a number of city jobs, including sailor, boater, policeman, hostler, livery, and a state worker along the canal. Thomas’ mother was born in Ireland. Eliza’s parents, 3x great-grandparents David Conners (1838-1903) and Mary Dowd (1837-1903), were both born in Ireland, a decade after the canal was finished.
At the very beginning of the Canal project to dig 363 miles across New York State, they found they lacked the heavy man power to keep their desired pace towards progress. No group wanted to work on the canal, as it was backbreaking labor, from sun-up to sundown, and the pay was low. And so, the project managers looked to the group of people no one wanted for help. In 1818, the New York government started recruiting Irishmen straight off the boat in New York City.
While the majority of the Irish immigrants came over during the potato famines of the 1840s and on, according to the first census taken in 1790, there were already 44,000 people of Irish birth registered out of a total population of 3.9 million. We might not think that sounds like a lot of people today, but that was more Irish than anyone wanted in America.
Of all the cultures immigrating to America, author George E. Condon writes in Stars in the Water that the Irish were lowest of the lot. Anyone with a hint of brogue was considered a foreigner, no matter how long they’d been in the country. In fact, many job ads throughout the 1800s closed with the line “Irish need not apply.”
And yet, according to Lionel D. Wyld, in Low Bridge, “the Irish turned ‘Clinton’s Folly’ into the Grand Western Canal.” By the end of 1818, there were 3,000 Irish at work on the canal. About 2,000 of them were working in Lockport, where the biggest drop in the canal’s elevation was.
The temporary workers lived in small dirt-floor shanties along the canal. What was it like for these strange men who found themselves in a stranger land? What did they make of the darkness of the unfamiliar nights? What did the large island men think of the wild forests?
According to Samuel Hopkins Adams, a well-known muckraker, “The country at the end of the voyage was rougher than anything the men had known in Ireland. Owl and wildcat music in the woods kept them awake and scared at night. The first time a snake came into camp, the whole lot nearly deserted. There are no snakes in Ireland. They thought this one was the devil.”
It was not uncommon for men to disappear during the night. But those who stayed worked hard. For their long shifts of extreme labor, they made between 37 and 50 cents a day, depending on their skills. Despite popular mythologies about the Irish being natural laborers, they were not used to such work in their native country. But their wage on Irish soil amounted to a mere 10 cents a day. So they adapted and acclimated, and accepted the whiskey that went around as part of their keep. It kept their muscles loose as they labored and sweated it away in the hot sun before it could intoxicate them. Condon writes that the Irish moved quickly, filling the land with work songs as they toiled for low wages and whiskey.
When I came to this wonderful empire,
It filled me with the greatest surprise
To see such a great undertaking,
On the like I ne’r opened my eyes.

To see a full thousand brave fellows
At work among mountains so tall
To dig through the valleys so level,
Through rocks for to cut a canal.

So fare you well, father and mother,
Likewise to old Ireland, too,
So fare you well, sister and brother,
So kindly I’ll bid you adieu.
Many locals, themselves children of immigrants, were scared of the strange sounds of the Irish tongue. They worried their homes would be pillaged, as if the workers moving across the state were a band of beggars and thieves. Sometimes, they did not help their reputation. On Christmas Eve 1822, a fight broke out in a tavern between the townspeople of Lockport and drunken Irish canal workers. A man by the name of John Jennings died, and eight Irishmen were indicted for his death.
Cultures may have clashed, but humanity won out. In the fall of 1823, two runaway slave hunters from Kentucky arrived in Lockport, procuring a warrant to arrest Joseph Pickard, a local black barber. Pickard was a runaway who had found his way to freedom and independence. In the judge’s office, he became so spooked at the thought of being sent back that he leapt out the open second story window into the throng of canal workers who waited below to see how the judge would rule.
Lockport was heavily peppered with Quakers and anti-slavery sentiments. When Pickard jumped into the crowd of workers, the hunters came after him with their pistols drawn. The Irish engulfed Pickard and held the hunters fast until order could be restored. The judge dismissed the warrant, as the men could not produce proof that Pickard belonged to their client. On this issue, the townspeople and the workers found common ground.

            The workers continued construction on the canal that would ultimately be responsible for the city that Lockport would become. On October 26, 1826, my 3x great-grandmother Ordelia Whitcher (paternal side) was on board the Seneca Chief with Governor DeWitt Clinton as it passed through the locks, cut and carved from the limestone by Irish hands. 

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