Irish Immigrants in Wethersfield from 1860 to 1900
by Julia Pizzoferrato
Wethersfield’s proximity to Connecticut’s bustling capitol, Hartford, made the town a convenient landing place for many Irish immigrants from 1860 to 1900. Both Hartford and Wethersfield offered employment opportunities to new residents either as domestic servants, farm laborers, or industrial laborers, and once an Irish community began to establish itself in the area, Wethersfield became home to a religious and ethnic community that was not fully embraced by their fellow townspeople.
The 1860 census saw an influx of a few hundred Irish immigrants into the Wethersfield community. While census data can be fraught due to missed, skipped, or inaccurate information, it can help to illustrate generalizations about population, family, residence, and vocation among other details. Initially, the proximity to the populous Hartford and the building of the Enfield Canal were the primary attractors bringing Irishmen to Connecticut and the Wethersfield area. In 1860, Wethersfield’s Irish population was majority male whose recorded vocation, was farm labor, whereas the few Irish women who had settled in town were either domestic servants or operating within their own domestic sphere.2 At this time, Irishmen were farm laborers, not independent farmers, pointing to a lack of land ownership, and a very low socioeconomic status within the town’s economy. Instead, Irishmen worked on rented lands or as hired laborers in other farmer’s fields.3 Both the male and female immigrants were also relatively young with both genders’ average ages falling in their late 20s. 4
The unmoored nature of these initial Irish immigrants can be seen in a primary source, George Harris’s 1863 diary entries. Harris worked on his father’s farm with hired Irishmen Michael Meehan, Michael Kennedy, and a man named Patrick. Harris detailed the activities that he and the ‘boys’ – his (possibly derogatory) reference to the hired laborers, would engage in throughout the workday. Their activities included destoning and plowing farmland, milling farm products, planting and fertilizing, harvesting, transporting, and processing produce.5 The work was constant, physically demanding, and done by a relatively transient workforce. Harris’s diary entries spanned about four months, and throughout that time, Michael Meehan and Michael Kennedy would come and leave his father’s employ, completing the agreed-upon amount of labor for their pay.6 Harris’s account helps to demonstrate the initial service roles that Irish immigrants had in Wethersfield as a basic, temporary workforce hired to carry out unskilled tasks in households and on farmsteads.
During the 1860s, Irish immigrants in Wethersfield and across the North were also involved in the Civil War. George Harris references this in his diary when discussing his father’s farm hand Patrick, who feared getting drafted to fight for the Union. Irish-born Wethersfield residents played their part in the Civil War, serving in various military units including the seventh and ninth infantry regiments. The ninth infantry regiment was notably a unit of mostly Irish-born volunteers, which led to the unit being known more colloquially as ‘the Fighting Sons of Erin’ for their fervor in service.7 In many cases, these Irish Union soldiers were in comparable situations as free African Americans serving in the army. Both groups of men who fought for the Union were often not socially accepted within the society they were laying down their lives for or by the soldiers they were fighting with.8
By the 1870s and 1880s, the average age of Irish immigrants in Wethersfield increased by several years into the mid-thirties, and male Irishmen continued to outnumber their female counterparts. The vocations of the Irishmen expanded past unskilled, hired farm labor to include jobs such as independent farmers, gardeners (and farm gardeners), railroad workers, coachmen, blacksmiths, spinners, joiners, mill workers, steamboat workers, shoe and boot shop workers, and machinists.9 Over these two decades, unskilled agricultural labor became less common, and industrial labor and independent land ownership or tenant farming became more frequently seen among Irishmen in Wethersfield. Women, on the other hand, maintained their previous positions in the Wethersfield community as domestic servants or as wives keeping their own homes.10 However, it also became increasingly clear that women’s work outside the home was confined to unmarried, single females, while married women would keep house and raise their own children.
The 1870s and ‘80s were also a period of assisted emigration in Ireland, as that country tried to lessen the burden of their poor houses by emptying them and helping the former occupants immigrate to the United States. During this time, the number of female Irish immigrants increased because it was easier for them to find jobs as domestic servants than their male counterparts as laborers in agriculture or industry. 11
Further evidence of the Irish experience in Wethersfield in the 1870s and 80s is recorded in the Annual Selectman’s Reports. These documents illustrated the state of employment and socioeconomic status of some of the settled Irishmen in town. Through records of paid labor to certain Irish workers, historians can see that several immigrants found work throughout the town building the Wethersfield’s roads and highways, or producing goods on the Town Farm.
However, there was a distinction between the laborers paid for work on the highways and paid for work on the Town Farm. The Farm in particular was sometimes used as a way to provide a job to town indigents otherwise unable to support themselves, which would force the town to provide a job to town indigents otherwise unable to support themselves, which would force the town to provide financial support through alms.
Apart from the evidence of labor patterns, the Selectman’s Reports also left clues as to Wethersfield’s connections to Ireland through their settled immigrant population. The 1888 Report notes that the town paid $25 for a ticket to Ireland for a Jim Clark.12 While contextualizing or explanatory details are scant in these documents, Wethersfield had tangible trans-Atlantic connections to Ireland.
However, despite their existence, these connections were not often highlighted or remarked upon societally. The Wethersfield Farmer, a periodical published from 1886 into the 1890s overtly omitted news relevant to the Irish population in town as seen in the census data. Notably, the paper also excluded information regarding the organized Catholic community operating in Wethersfield at the time. From weekly issues released between 1887 to 1889, remarkably few references were made to the local Irish or Catholic populations, bar small notes, for example in the paper’s August 2nd, 1888 issue, it was reported that Ms. Maggie Hickey and Bridget Donnelly were to soon leave from the port of New York for Ireland.13 Otherwise, the Irish immigrant population in Wethersfield was only referenced through reader inferences or generalizations. Examples include the authors referring to potatoes as ‘murphies’, and bemoaning the decrease in the unskilled Irish labor force, causing farmers to increasingly hire Italian farm laborers instead.14 Local stigma against the Irish and Catholic populations in Wethersfield can clearly be seen through the paper’s refusal to include their activities, accomplishments, or local events in the community publication which otherwise reported on extreme minutia about other residents, like a local farmer buying a new horse, a resident coming down with illness, vacations taken by town notables or even shameless advertisements woven into factual reporting.
The Farmer’s lack of reporting about Irish-born residents was taken even further in terms of reporting about Wethersfield’s Catholics. Catholics had lived and worshiped in Wethersfield since the pre-Civil War era, and by the mid-19th century, Wethersfield had about 150 adult Catholics living in the town.15 By 1859, there were enough Catholics in Wethersfield for the establishment of a mission of Hartford’s Saint Peter’s Catholic Church.16 Wethersfield would then come to establish its own Catholic church Sacred Heart in 1897, illustrating the considerable growth of its Catholic community.17 Despite Wethersfield being an active mission of Hartford’s St. Peter’s church and active Catholics engaging in worship and religious activities during the late 1880s, the Wethersfield Farmer makes no real mention of any news pertaining to parishioners or Catholic church events. The Farmer references ‘the Catholic church’ to give funerary details after the death of a John McBride, and the marriage of Mary Sexton and John Conery in 1888. However, these entries are the first, and some of the only mentions made of Catholics in this periodical. The omission of similar news preceding and following the 49th and 50th issues of the Farmer is clearly deliberate when readers are frequently informed weekly of the events of Wethersfield’s Congregational, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist churches and worshippers. The Farmer reports on these denominations’ marriages, funerals, fairs, choral presentations, and other activities relating to the Protestant faith.18 Clearly, the publishers of the Farmer attempted to engage in a level of ethnic and religious erasure by refusing to mention members of the social groups they did not accept as legitimate members of their community.
Unfortunately, there is no existing census data from 1890 to reference. However, 1900 showed a different Wethersfield for many members of the Irish Diaspora. By 1900, many of the Irish immigrants initially seen in 1860 had slowly disappeared or reached considerable ages.
Their native-born offspring had either continued to work and operate in Wethersfield or moved elsewhere. Irish-born people, specifically women in Wethersfield in 1900 were generally younger than they had been in the previous three decades and female immigrants outnumbered their male counterparts for the first time since 1860.19 Many Irish-born young women in Wethersfield were married to naturalized US citizens with immediate Irish ancestry as first or second wives and started families.20 Irish men in town continued to act as farm laborers and independent farmers, and also took on increasingly skilled labor positions like carpenters, engineers, tanners, and management positions, for example, a railroad section foreman. Female Irish immigrants remained in their fixed position as domestic servants or housewives. They only stepped outside of the domestic sphere (in their own homes) when acting as widowed or unmarried heads of their own households, which in itself was somewhat uncommon.21
The Annual Selectman’s Reports from this period also indicate some socioeconomic change for Wethersfield’s Irish population. By the turn of the century, the entries made in reports indicate a general decrease in Irish immigrants working on the highways and Town Farm.22 The Town Farm was slowly shrinking as Wethersfield became less driven by agricultural production, and highway construction similarly slowed. However, very few of those still employed on these projects were Irish immigrants. They were being replaced by newer immigrant groups like Italians, Russians, and Swedes, as well as US-born laborers, only some of whom had immediate Irish ancestry.23
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants entered Wethersfield as a necessary workforce, not true members of the community as neighbors and equals. Initially in the 1860s, the Irish in Wethersfield were majority male and took on the unskilled labor and domestic positions needed to allow a farm or affluent home to function. As the initial generations of Irish immigrants put down roots and their progeny would enter the workforce, the vocations of new male immigrants diversified and became increasingly more skilled, while female immigrants stayed domestic servants or housewives. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, female immigrants outnumbered men, and records show a slight measured increase in Irish-born socioeconomic standing as earlier settlers had been able to generate lives for themselves. Newer settlers were also less likely to be farm laborers, taking on industrial or semi-skilled roles.
Select Irish immigrants and their descendants in town would even come to be pillars of the community and celebrated Wethersfieldarians. A prime example was John Mehegan and his descendants. John Mehegan was an Irish immigrant in Wethersfield, working as a mechanic and then a blacksmith in town. By 1870, Mehegan, age 47, was a successful blacksmith, owning real estate valued at about $1500 and a personal estate valued at $1000 according to the 1870 Census.24 Upon Mehegan’s death in 1892, he left behind at least eight heirs and a valuable blacksmith business that he had been able to pass down to his first son Frank.25 Frank would die only two years later in 1894, and pass the family business on to his only brother, John J. Mehegan. John J. would come to be one of Wethersfield’s blacksmiths for half a decade and a celebrated pillar of the community until he died in 1940.26 The Mehegan family’s story illustrates the realization of the irresistible ‘American Dream’ that brought people to the United States, and that some Irish immigrants had been able to find in Wethersfield. While it seems plausible for scholars to assume that the Irish were not always treated as fellow townspeople, over the decades the community acclimated to them. As a result, the average Irish immigrant increasingly found enough economic stability to make a life for himself and leave a legacy for his descendants in Wethersfield.
 Duffy, Joe, and Linda Bayer. Sacred Heart Church 100 Years of Worship 1897- 1997. (Wethersfield: Sacred Heart Church, 1997): pp. 6.
2 “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch
5 “Diary of George Harris”, 1863, Wethersfield Historical Society.
7 McCain, Diana Ross. “Fighting Sons of Erin: Connecticut’s Irish Regiment in the Civil War – Connecticut History: A CT Humanities Project.” Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network and Connecticut Historical Society, March 15, 2021. https://connecticuthistory.org/fighting-sons-of-erin-connecticuts-irish-regiment-in-the-civil-war/.
9 “United States Census, 1870”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MN7Z-G6B : 2021). ; “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MFCV-C9Y : 2022).
10 Ibid. ; Ibid.
11 “Irish Emigration to America – the Journey,” National Museum of Ireland, 2022, https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/ Collections-Research/ Folklife-Collections/Folklife-Collections-List-(1)/Other/Emigration/Irish-Emigration-to-America-The-Journey.
12 Annual Selectman’s Report of 1888. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1888).
13 J.C. Late & Co., The Wethersfield Farmer. August 2, 1888, Vol. 2, No. 35.
14 J.C. Late & Co., The Wethersfield Farmer. Nov 8, 1888, Vol. 2, No. 49; Nov 15, 1888, Vol. 2, No. 50.
15 Duffy, Bayer. Sacred Heart Church 100 Years of Worship 1897- 1997: pp. 7.
16 Ibid, pp. 7.
17 Ibid, pp. 7.
18 J.C. Late & Co., The Wethersfield Farmer. Issues 1887-1889.
19 “United States Census, 1900”, database with images, FamilySearch,(https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M9QT-NTJ : 2022).
22 Annual Selectman’s Report of 1898. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1898). ; Annual Selectman’s Report of 1899. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1899). ; Annual Selectman’s Report of 1900. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1900).
23 Ibid. ; Ibid. ; Ibid.
24 “United States Census, 1870”, database with images, FamilySearch.
25 “Probate Documents for Estate of John Mehegan”, 1894. Probate Court of Hartford, Accessed through Connecticut State Library. ; “Will of Frank Mehegan,” (Hartford: Hartford Courant: 1894), http://www.newspapers.com/image/369019258.
26 “Will of Frank Mehegan,” (Hartford: Hartford Courant: 1894). ; “Wethersfield Loses Veteran Blacksmith,” The Hartford Times, 1940, accessed through Wethersfield Historical Society. ; Lorraine Cook White, ed., The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records: Wethersfield 1634-1868, vol. 52 (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co., 2002).
References Primary Sources
Annual Selectman’s Report of 1888. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1888). Annual Selectman’s Report of 1898. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1898). Annual Selectman’s Report of 1899. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1899). Annual Selectman’s Report of 1900. Wethersfield Historical Society, (Wethersfield: 1900). “Diary of George Harris.” Wethersfield Historical Society. (Wethersfield, 1863).
J.C. Late & Co., The Wethersfield Farmer. Vol. 1-2, 1887-1889. (Wethersfield).
“Probate Documents for Estate of John Mehegan”, Probate Court of Hartford, (Hartford: 1894).
Accessed through Connecticut State Library.
“United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch
(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MHR8-JKQ: 18 February 2021).
“United States Census, 1870”, database with images, FamilySearch
(https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MN7Z-G6B : 28 May 2021).
“United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MFCV-C9Y : 13 January 2022); citing enumeration district, sheet, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm.
“United States Census, 1900”, database with images, FamilySearch
(https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M9QT-NTJ : 11 March 2022).
“Wethersfield Loses Veteran Blacksmith.” The Hartford Times. 1940. Accessed through the Wethersfield Historical Society.
“Will of Frank Mehegan.” Hartford Courant. 1894. http://www.newspapers.com/image/369019258.
Duffy, Joe, and Linda Bayer. 1997. Sacred Heart Church 100 Years of Worship 1897- 1997.
Sacred Heart Church.
“Irish Emigration to America – the Journey.” National Museum of Ireland, 2022.
McCain, Diana Ross. “Fighting Sons of Erin: Connecticut’s Irish Regiment in the Civil War – Connecticut History: A CT Humanities Project.” Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network and Connecticut Historical Society, March 15, 2021. https://connecticuthistory.org/fighting-sons-of-erin-connecticuts-irish-regiment-in-the-civ il-war/.
Wilmes, Debra F. The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records: Wethersfield 1634-1868. Edited by Lorraine Cook White. 52. Vol. 52. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co., 2002.