Friday, August 8, 2014

My Family's History Across North America

As historian of the Orr Reunion Association of Mount Vernon, Missouri, each year I do a short talk on some aspect of our family's 180-year history on this continent. There is a lot of grist for the mill, so to speak, and last year I talked about the many families that had operated grain mills.

This year I looked at our immigration patterns, which were quite varied. The first two families came from Aghadowey Parish in Londonderry (in Northern Ireland, or Ulster if you live there) in the very early 1830s, and came as complete family groups. These were the two oldest sons, and they had enough money to pay for their passage, though not much when they arrived. However, relatively inexpensive land was being offered for sale in several new states, and hard work let them save money for farms (William and Jenny Orr in Missouri and James and Jane Orr in Indiana).

Both of these families landed "at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River," so their first, brief, taste of North America was in Canada. People often ask me if they came through Ellis Island, but it wasn't established until 1892 and America didn't limit immigration when most of our families came. As far as I know, the only records of our ancestors’ arrivals are ship passenger lists. I have not found all of them.

Other families came decades later – from the 1860s to the early 1890s. Without exception, they went where earlier families had settled. The third family (George and Elizabeth Orr) came in 1860, just six months before the Civil War started. They were said to have arrived at the Port of New Orleans and traveled to Missouri. They arrived in Mount Vernon with modest personal wealth and quickly bought land. George had taught school for 30 years, and had tired of working in Ireland's schools. To be fair to the school system there, he was considered very hard to get along with. In any event, his family quickly scattered, with three adult sons going to Colorado. Only two daughters, who married into Mount Vernon families, stayed near the other Orr families.

These first three families came for opportunity and religious freedom. Presbyterians in Northern Ireland were sometimes locked out of their churches for years and forced to worship in the Church of Ireland (Anglican).  

Campbell Blacksmith Shop, Ballylaggan
The fourth family (Isabella Orr Campbell and husband Ephraim) likely came for opportunity and religious freedom as well. Ephraim, who died en route and was buried at sea, was a blacksmith. The Campbells brought a bag of money with them, but it was apparently stolen when they were on the ship.

Mother and children were impoverished on arrival at Castle Gardens in New York City in 1863, and went to the home of her brother George in Mount Vernon. Isabelle died within weeks. This group of six immigrant children were lucky to have made it to an area with relatives before they were orphaned. They took good care of each other, and 1870 Census data showed two sons were blacksmiths in Mount Vernon.

The next two families came in very small groups, and they sent teenage children before the parents came. Immigration was an economic necessity for them.

The family of Ann Orr Shirley and husband Valentine Shirley arrived over a thirty-five year period.  They had worked in the linen industry, and steam-powered looms made home looms obsolete. For a time Ann and her daughters supported the family with needlework, but Valentine and his sons needed other jobs, and rural Ireland had few.

Daughter Isabella Shirley must have been a very brave woman, for in 1857 (at age 17) she became the first of the Shirley family to sail to the U.S. She went to the Philadelphia area, where she had Shirley cousins, and worked as a servant. Her sister Jane came in 1859 at age twenty-eight. Valentine and Ann did not come until 1870, and their daughter Sarah Shirley Forsythe and husband John did not come until 1895. While the children of Sarah’s siblings were all born in the U.S., all of Sarah’s were born in Ireland, and several of them came before their parents. The Shirley family stayed on the east coast, largely in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Early on, many men worked in coal mines and steel mills.
Lizzie Knox in America

Martha was a sister of William, James, George, Ann, and Isabelle, but she never came. Instead, two of her grandchildren (Sam and Lizzie Knox) wrote to Uncle George to ask for financial assistance to come. Sam and Lizzie were born long after William and James left Ireland (in fact, soon after George and family left), and the Knox family had fallen on very hard times. The Knox siblings came in 1883 and worked hard, Sam in the fields and at the Adams Mill in Jasper County, which was owned by Campbell descendants. Lizzie worked as a servant for a farm family in Lawrence County. Eventually they were able to pay back great Uncle George and send for siblings and their widowed mother, who came in 1887. This is especially impressive when you think that that Sam and Lizzie left Ireland at about age seventeen.

It is interesting that George had a reputation for being ill-tempered, yet he lent money to a number of the Knox children and sent money monthly to a cousin in Aghadowey. That’s where Sam and Lizzie got his address.

Education levels varied widely among the Orr families. The two brothers who came in the 1830s raised their children in a newly settled Indiana or Missouri, and there were not well developed schools. Much is made of the fact that William sent one son for higher education—and only one. George taught school, so his children were schooled in Ireland.

The Campbell family came when most of their children were young, but by that time there were well established schools in Lawrence and Jasper Counties. Many members of succeeding generations (even women in the 1930s!) went to college. William’s college-educated son (John Adams Orr) was very close to his Campbell cousins.

Did the Orr family work hard when they got to America?  They did.  But they also had some luck. They were able to come without question, and a young country welcomed them. I often wonder what would happen if we tried to come today. The welcome mat would likely be smaller, and even our small numbers of the nineteenth century would far exceed the immigration quotas of the 21st century. Would we try to sneak in, or be content with the lack of jobs in Ireland today?
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To see more about this branch of the Orr family, go to or
You can also visit the Orr Reunion of Mount Vernon Facebook page. Finally we have done and print and electronic books about this large family, and links are on these pages. No one needs to buy information, however. Feel free to contact Elaine at
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