Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Can Oral History Uncover Family Links That Stretch Across New York from Derry To Montana?

The Butte, Montana Skyline

More than a dozen years ago, I began collecting every scrap of data I could find on a group of Irish Catholic immigrant families who settled in the Finger Lakes region of New York State near Hammondsport as early as 1838. These families, who were joined by others in a series of chain migrations that spanned more than four decades, formed the nucleus of my personal prosopography (group biography) project.

One of the individuals in my project was a farmer named Patrick York, who came with his parents to Trenton, New Jersey and then moved to New York State.

On Wednesday, 23 February 1892, the Hammondsport Herald, the weekly newspaper published in this small Steuben County NY village at the foot of Lake Keuka, noted the passing of Patrick York, age 63, a native of County Derry, Ireland, who had arrived in America about 1852 and settled in Hammondsport during the Civil War. 

Ten years later, the Herald reported the death of his wife’s sister, Bridget Quinn, herself a former Hammondsport resident, far away in Butte, Montana. By then, York’s daughters Minnie and Nancy had also moved to Butte and found employment there as school teachers.  Another of his daughters, Mattie York, married attorney (later Judge) William J. Naughten in Hammondsport in 1903 and then moved to Butte, where her sisters and her husband’s brother James Naughten were living. She was joined in Butte a year later by her unmarried sister Nellie York.

One of her husband’s brothers, Rev. Francis James Naughten, had been the pastor of St. Gabriel’s Church in Hammondsport for many years. By 1904, Father Naughten had been transferred to the Catholic Church in nearby Hornellsville, but most of his close relatives, by blood and marriage, lived far away in Butte, Montana.

Why Butte?

The story of Butte, Montana is a uniquely American story of immigrant success.  It is also the story of the Irish laboring class, who came in waves, directly from Ireland, from Irish urban ghetto communities in the Midwest and Northeast, and from places like Steuben County, New York in search of work and fortune.  

Butte was a mining town, home to Cavan immigrant Marcus Daly, whose Anaconda Copper mine made him fabulously wealthy.  Butte was overwhelmingly Irish, an "Irishtown", with robust Ancient Order of Hibernians and Clann-na-Gael chapters, five Catholic parishes (one of which – St. Patrick’s – claimed 10,000 members by 1901), and neighborhoods called "Dublin Gulch" and "Corktown".

The story of Butte’s Irish community was wonderfully told in 1989 by David M. Emmons in his masterful book called The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875 – 1925. My personal interest, of course, was in the magnetic draw Butte seemed to have for the rural eastern Irish, who grew up in places like Hammondsport, NY.  Little is known about what actually drew them to Butte.   

Was it extended family? Letters from friends? Newspaper accounts? Recruiters?

Someday, I may find the answer to the question of why Patrick York’s four daughters all moved from Steuben County to Butte, Montana.  In fact, the possibility of finding that answer was just greatly improved by the announcement that Michael Collins, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, has presented a check for $100,000 to the University of Montana – Missoula to help support an oral history project called “The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana”, which will be housed at the Butte – Silver Bow Public Archives. Details can be found on Montana Sen. Max Baucus’s website here

On behalf of all of us who trace the fortunes of Irish immigrant families, and as my Derry-born great-great grandmother (who knew Patrick York and his daughters) would likely say – “Go raibh mile math agaibh”, Mr. Ambassador!

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