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Friday, May 22, 2020

Western New York and Aid to Ireland During the Great Hunger

by Harvey Strum, Sage Colleges
Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved by the author.



Whig Congressman Washington Hunt from Lockport, in Niagara County, proposed in 1847 that Congress vote $500,000 for the relief of the starving Irish and Scots. A similar proposal introduced by a Whig Senator from Kentucky won bipartisan support and passed the Senate. However, Democratic President James K. Polk indicated he would veto the measure if it also passed the House since he believed that foreign aid was an unconstitutional use of public funds. Congressman Hunt’s efforts to aid the starving in Europe failed, because Democrats in the House tabled the proposal to avoid a presidential veto. Instead, members of Congress and the Supreme Court participated in a meeting in Washington, D.C in early February 1847, chaired by Vice-President George Dallas, that encouraged the American people to create voluntary relief committees in each village, town, and city in the United States. Congressman Hunt served on the Resolutions Committee that urged every American to donate to help the Irish and Scots.

From Maine to the frontier of Wisconsin and Oklahoma Americans joined in a campaign of voluntary international philanthropy that turned the United States into the leader in international aid to the famishing people of Ireland and Scotland. Americans joined in a non-partisan and ecumenical effort of voluntary philanthropy as Americans contributed money, food, and clothing shipped through the nation’s major ports, like Boston and New York City, to Europe. New York City emerged as the leading port in the United States forwarding aid to Ireland and Scotland. American aid became a people to people movement with the people of New York state playing a major role in providing the required aid. [1]

The American press did not devote much attention to the conditions in Ireland until news arrived in November 1846 of the worsening famine and mass starvation. Newspapers reprinted stories from English and Irish newspapers. Some editors added their own commentary describing the impact of the famine and the need to help. People living in western New York learned about horrible conditions in the British Isles from their local newspapers. One Rochester newspaper told its readers “the accounts of the state of the country continue to be most distressing.” Reports indicated widespread “cries of…famishing children.” [2] Similar accounts appeared in the other Rochester newspapers of the bleak conditions in Ireland.[3] Readers of small-town newspapers saw similar stories. For example, in Ovid, in Seneca County, the Bee published part of a letter from Dungarvon: “The condition of the people is truly heart-rending. They are Starving.”[4] In Batavia, one of the newspapers reported on hunger marches in Ireland: “We have come because we are famishing because we have no food of any kind” and fear for our wives and children. In Dundee in Yates County, a local paper reported: “The famishing condition of the people is very fearful.”[5] Anyone with access to a newspaper in western New York learned of the frightful conditions in Ireland in November 1846.

Knowledge did not lead to action in western New York. From November 1846 to January 1847 Quakers and Irish Americans led a campaign for Irish relief joined by local political leaders in coastal communities. Residents of New York City, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other major cities held meetings and raised money and food for Ireland. The arrival of the packet Hibernia in Boston in mid-January followed by Sarah Sands in New York City brought further reports of starvation, disease, and death. Again, newspapers in western New York printed grim reports from Ireland. As the Batavia Advocate noted: “By the last steamer, the fears which had been previously entertained of a famine in Ireland have been rendered realities.” The Batavia newspaper added that “thousands are already in a state of starvation.”[6] A Buffalo newspaper observed that Hibernia brought news of terrible conditions in Ireland, and “never in the whole history of her suffering people, has such widespread misery prevailed.” [7] Another Buffalo newspaper confirmed that “the accounts of distress from Ireland are most appalling.” [8] A Rochester newspaper reported that “famine is doing the work of death in various parts of the country.”[9] The press raised public awareness, and awareness turned into action.

In the wake of the Washington meeting calling for action political leaders in Albany advocated for a state meeting for Irish relief. Albany mayor, Whig William Parmalee led a group of citizens who proposed a meeting. Democratic leaders John Van Buren, son of former President Martin Van Buren from Kinderhook, and Amasa Parker, a former Democratic assemblyman and congressman joined the call for a public meeting. Whig Governor John Young chaired the meeting and John Van Buren delivered the major speech advocating a statewide campaign for Irish relief. As a result of the meeting citizens created a New York State Committee for Irish and Scottish Relief based in Albany. Simultaneously, public meetings in New York City established a New York City committee for Irish and Scottish relief that collected more funds and shipped more food to Ireland and Scotland than any other relief committee in the United States. These committees issued appeals for every village, town, and city in New York to create their won temporary voluntary relief committees to solicit funds, food, and clothing for the Irish and Scots. Almost every village and town in western New York organized their own relief committees between February and April 1847.[10]

Echoing the appeals from Washington and Albany a newspaper in Batavia told its readers: “Let measures of relief be adopted in every town throughout the country. By a timely relief from each one who has the means to give, we may SAVE a Starving Nation. Oh, let us do it.” [11]

This appeal from Batavia suggested that communities across western New York joined in this nationwide campaign of voluntary philanthropy. Editors played an instrumental role in pushing their communities to act. A similar request to act came from Canandaigua, in Ontario County, where an editor urged his readers to contribute: “Let us enable the famishing and sorrow-stricken of the Emerald Isle, to say to their transatlantic brethren, with the fullness of an Irish heart, freely have you given, freely have we received.”[12]  In Elmira a local newspaper expressed relief that other towns in the state and in the country had adopted measures “to relieve the distressed and save from death the poor and needy. “ Furthermore, “we hope the citizens of Elmira will also lend a helping hand in work so deserving.”[13] Throughout western New York newspaper editors embraced the cause of Irish relief, identified with the plight of the Irish, and did everything they could to spur residents of their communities to save lives by donating to Irish relief. An Elmira newspaper epitomized the public service role of newspapers in western New York. Newspaper editors served as the voice of conscience encouraging residents to hold public meetings, establish relief committees and donate food, clothing, and money for the Irish.

Newspaper editors endorsed public meetings in their communities to assist the Irish. In announcing a meeting of the citizens of Geneseo a local paper reminded residents that the “appalling intelligence of distress and famine which prevails in Ireland…calls loudly for the sympathy and aid of every friend of humanity, and especially upon Americans.” The editor then predicted “our citizens will not be backward in rendering such assistance.”[14] Just before a public meeting in Geneva a local newspaper argued: “How appropriate Ireland calls louder upon America that ever the Greeks did, and we hope her call will not be disregarded.” Then the editor asked the question: “What say you fellow-citizens! Is our motion seconded?"[15] In calling for an immediate public meeting a newspaper editor in Batavia reported on the cries for bread in Ireland and reminded its readers of the good work for Irish relief done in Albany, Utica, Rochester, New York “and many other places.” He asked “Shall not such a cry meet with a ready response in old Genesee---one of the granaries of the world?” The editor asked residents to send contributions to his office, and he will forward them to the New York City Irish Relief Committee for shipment to Ireland. Editors prodded and shamed their communities to act and pushed people to attend the relief committees and subscribe to famine relief.[16] The editor of the Batavia newspaper emphasized a theme heard in almost every public meeting in the United States, whether in the Genesee Valley, Hudson Valley or Ohio Valley---Americans lived a land of abundant crops and had a moral obligation as a people of plenty to help the starving of Europe. 

When the people of Rochester held their first meeting for Irish relief on 8 February 1847, Rev. F. W. Holland, one of the speakers, argued: “It was the duty of us of the west, we of the Genesee country, who were surrounded by an inexhaustible supply of nature’s bounty to relieve the distress of the famishing Irish.”[17] Clergymen, editors, politicians, and civic leaders repeatedly stressed this theme that God and nature blessed America as a land of agricultural abundance. Furthermore, Americans, especially the farmers of western New York, benefited from the food shortages in Europe because they boosted the price of wheat and other food crops.

The Monroe County Committee, a subsidiary of the Rochester Irish Relief Committee, appealed to the “the farmers and other citizens of Monroe County” pointing out that the potato blight in Europe “has been a source of great profits to the wheat-growers of the fertile Valley of Genesee, is also the means of death to thousands.”[18] Americans, doubly blessed, must help the starving and respond to the cries of the famishing people of Ireland. 

Accounts of the Rochester meetings also emphasized it “was one of the largest we have ever seen, embracing all classes of citizens.” The press stressed that donations came from Irish day laborers to wealthy merchants and political leaders. One newspaper editor anticipated “with so liberal a disposition on the part of the people the contributions in this section cannot fail to be large.”[19] Editors believed that the American people, and specifically the residents of Rochester were liberal and philanthropic. Seeing the magnitude of the crisis the people would need little urging to respond in a generous manner. Later in the year, the chair of the Irish Relief Committee, Levi Ward, informed the Quakers in Dublin that contributions from Rochester “have been from all classes of our citizens. rich and poor, in money, grain, and other articles. They have been most cheerfully made.”[20] Ward’s letter reinforced the themes that people of all social classes in Rochester donated to Irish relief and the generosity of the people of the city and county. Ward’s remarks suggested the diversity of the donors and the willingness of the people of Rochester and western New York to join this campaign of national philanthropy. However, the newspaper editors and Ward failed to mention that one-third of the people of Rochester were recent immigrants and many were Irish despite the fact that several Irish members of the community served on the executive committee. 

“It is a delightful employment to feed the hungry, and to succor the perishing.” Ward wrote to the Dublin Quakers. He added “we believe the tie that should unite men of every nation in one common brotherhood of love has been as between Ireland and America, strengthened fourfold by the sympathy and active charity that the affliction of your beautiful country has called forth.”[21] This message was articulated by the local Rochester press and in the meetings and appeals to the farmers of Monroe County. Bonds of humanity required the people of Rochester to unite with the people of Ireland and demanded that the people of Monroe County join in this noble act of charity and brotherhood. In 1847, the Irish were not the “other,” but brethren who needed the charity, compassion, and understanding of Americans in their time of need. Speaker Washington Gibbons, at a meeting for Irish relief, on 15 February 1847, delivered the first address. He told the citizens of Rochester it is “our bounden duty as members of the great human family, to extend the hand of charity to the relief of a suffering people, without distinction of clime or country.”[22]

The involvement of the clergy emerged as another major element in Irish and Scottish relief. On behalf of the first meeting for Irish relief, Rev. Holland, asked every clergyman in Rochester to deliver sermons for Irish relief and solicit donations from their parishioners. This was not unique to Rochester as public meetings throughout New York state called upon the clergy to actively solicit contributions. William H. Delancey, the Episcopalian Bishop of western New York, based in Geneva, issued an appeal to all Episcopalian clergy in his diocese to set aside 7 March for a special collection of donations for Irish and Scottish relief. Since “our land abounds in plenty” Delancey recommended to all Episcopalians help their suffering brethren, fellow Christians with prompt assistance.[23] In fact, they did. According to the treasurer of the Episcopalian diocese, Delancey’s pastoral letter brought in $2,000.[24] Delancey was recognized as the most outspoken and active clergyman for Irish and Scottish relief in western New York. However, ministers and the laity of all Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church donated to the Irish and Scots. Famine relief was an ecumenical movement and in New York City several synagogues donated and the Jewish community held a special meeting for Irish relief. Famine relief, whether in Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, or New York was a non-partisan and ecumenical movement of the American people. 

Members of the executive committee and individuals who spoke or led meetings for Irish relief represented a cross-section of Rochester’s leadership. Silas Cornell, the first chair of the committee belonged to the Society of Friends and became an anti-slavery activist. Cornell aligned himself with the anti-slavery Liberty Party. Levi Ward, who succeeded Cornell founded the Monroe Mutual Insurance Company in 1836 and was a moderate reformer. He was a Presbyterian, temperance advocate, and won election as mayor in 1849. Jacob Gould was a successful shoe manufacturer, second Mayor of the city of Rochester, Democratic activist, and the first Democratic mayor. William Pitkin, the current mayor of Rochester in 1847, chaired one of the famine relief meetings and served as the Irish Committee’s Treasurer. Pitkin, shared the anti-slavery sentiments of Cornell’s but became an active member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Pitkin was a leading member of the Whig Party and president of Rochester Savings Bank. Lewis Selye and Frederick Whittlesey were Whig leaders and Isaac Butts was a prominent Democrat. A number of prominent Irish Americans associated with the Irish Repeal movement played an active role on the executive committee or sub-committees. Some of the Irish men involved included Patrick Barry, secretary of the Repeal Association, Garret Barry, James O’Donoughue, Patrick Doyle, John Rigney, and John Allen. Rigney organized a ball for Irish relief on St. Patrick’s Day. In 1844 Allen served as mayor, was a Whig, and was one of the first Irish born politicians to lead a major American city. As historian Christine Kinealy observed: “The involvement of these men on the Irish Relief Committee demonstrated how this cause attracted the attention and involvement of some of the most influential leaders of society, regardless of political or religious affiliations.”[25] Rochester was somewhat unique because so many members of the Irish community played leadership roles on the Irish Relief Committee.

However, the Rochester leadership showed the non-partisan and ecumenical nature of Irish and Scottish relief during the Great Hunger. 

The organizational structure of the relief effort in Rochester paralleled relief committees in Buffalo and other communities in western New York and actually all of New York, whether Albany or Utica or New York City. Citizens attending public meetings endorsed the creation of ward level subcommittees consisting of three men who solicited contributions in their wards. The school superintendent agreed to allow members of the committee to go to each school in Rochester to solicit subscriptions. Committee members raised money from teachers, pupils, and administrators. Members of the executive committee reached out to rural communities in Monroe County asking each town to establish its own Irish relief committee. As an example, “a large meeting of the citizens of Henrietta, on behalf of the famishing Irish,” met at the Congregational Church “in that town,” and established school district committees that raised several hundred dollars for the Irish. One of the newspaper editors expressed his hope and that of the Rochester committee that Henrietta’s “example will not be lost upon the wealthy farmers of Western New York.”[26] It was not. Every town in Monroe County either established their own committee or asked members of the executive committee to hold local meetings for Irish relief. In the end, the people of Monroe County donated over $4,000 in food, clothing, and money for the Irish and a smaller amount for the Scots. Donations for the Scots went through the New York City committee to Greenock, Scotland. Cargoes of flour, cornmeal, corn, wheat, pork, beans, and clothing were sent either via the State Committee in Albany or directly via the New York Committee to the Dublin Quakers. Most American relief committees preferred to send their donations to the Quakers because they trusted the impartiality and skill of the Quakers to distribute the aid to those in need. [27]

“Our Rochester neighbors have earnestly taken the matter in hand, and held a large meeting on Monday” electing a general committee and appointing sixty-one persons “to solicit contributions.” Admiring the actions of citizens of Rochester, the Buffalo editor noted that committee members included “the names of many of the first citizens of Rochester.” The editor liked the idea of using contributions to purchase provisions locally and shipping them to Ireland.[28] He expected Buffalo would follow Rochester’s example. A committee quickly formed and held an organizational meeting on 12 February 1847 “calling for a general mass meeting of the citizens of Buffalo in relation to the present distress in Ireland.”[29] Members of the temporary committee asked the clergy of the city to announce the meeting and encourage their parishioners to attend. 

“The Court House was filled to overflowing last evening for the purpose of providing aid for the suffering poor of Ireland, and we never have witnessed a more active spirit of benevolence that seemed to pervade the whole assemblage,” reported the editor of Buffalo’s Morning Express.[30] Another Buffalo newspaper also commended the citizens of Buffalo for their prompt action.

According to the editor of the Courier: “The crowded assemblage convened at the Court House last evening, nobly responded to the call for sympathy and succor.” Both editors agreed that “there was but one feeling, one sentiment, manifested, that of deep commiseration for the distress of our fellow men” and the desire to help the Irish people.[31] A third Buffalo newspaper, Daily Republic, endorsed the campaign for Irish relief, and the editor Stephen Albro participated in the St. Patrick’s Day activities to show the need to assist the Irish. As suggested in Rochester, the people of Buffalo identified with the starving in Ireland. During the Great Hunger the people of Buffalo viewed the Irish as fellow members of humanity in a great crisis, not “the other” of the 1850s anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Know-Nothing movement. 

As in Rochester, a number of leading citizens of Buffalo spoke at the “Great Meeting for Ireland.” or agreed to become members of the Executive Committee. Gaius Rich, President of Attica Bank became chairman of the meeting and the Executive Committee. He gave liberally to the Irish relief fund and won the praise of the Irish community for his generosity. Dr. Edward Theller, President of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was the most prominent Irish American on the Executive Committee. Participants included James Brayman, editor of the Courier, and A.M. Clapp, editor of the Express, both elected secretaries of the meeting. Editor A.M. Clapp volunteered to work on the corresponding committee to maintain contact with Irish relief committees in the county. Newspaper editors throughout New York, whether in Buffalo, Rochester, Ovid, Albany, or New York City not only advocated for public meetings for Irish relief but took an active role in support of local committees, part of the public service role of journalists in the 19th Century and during the Great Hunger. One of the speakers attended the meeting to listen, but the audience demanded he walk to the podium and discuss the issues. The speaker stressed the plight of the Irish and “was convinced that there was but one feeling among those present his evening, that of deep and heartfelt sympathy” for the Irish nation.[32] In two years the speaker won election as vice-president and upon the death of Whig President Zachary Taylor, the speaker became President Millard Fillmore. The comments of Fillmore suggested the widespread support for Irish relief in Buffalo and reinforced the editorials and news reports of the Courier and Express. Fillmore served on the Executive Committee and donated $50, the same amount as Democratic President Polk. Other speakers emphasized the magnitude of the crisis in Ireland, the common humanity of the Irish people, the obligation of the people of Buffalo to help, and the need for urgent action to alleviate the suffering. 

City officials blessed the movement for Irish relief. Mayor Stevens of Buffalo participated in activities of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, served as a member of the Executive Committee, and became a member of the corresponding committee. Alderman Patrick Smith, an alderman from the First Ward and member of the relief committee assigned to collecting donations in the First Ward proposed that Buffalo’s city council appropriate $100 for Irish relief, but the proposal failed to pass [33]. Alderman Everard Peck made a similar proposal in Rochester, but the city council voted it down. Following the lead of Congress and the state legislature in Albany city councils in western New York refused to vote public funds to aid the Irish and/or Scots. Only one public body in the United States appropriated funds for food for the Irish----City Council of New York City appropriated $5,000 to buy over 1,000 barrels of flour. A majority of public officials from city council aldermen in Buffalo and Rochester to President Polk adhered to the public policy that foreign aid even purchasing food for the starving represented an unconstitutional use of public funds. Public officials in western New York endorsed aid to the Irish and Scots, but all aid came from individuals, churches, businesses, and voluntary associations, like the Odd Fellows, Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and St. Andrews. 

Buffalo is an ideal example of how Whigs and Democrats, Irish and Germans, Catholics, Unitarians, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians all worked together for the common American cause of Irish relief. Middle-class citizens’ groups, like the Young Men’s Association, raised funds as did the Irish Sons of St. Patrick. As one newspaper editor proudly noted: “our Irish population, who are contributing most liberally from their scanty means, for this pressing charity” served as an example for the rest of the community to follow.[34] Ministers actively appealed to congregations to donate, and as one of the committee members toasted at the St. Patrick’s Day dinner, “The clergy of Buffalo of all denominations; their liberality and zeal in the relief of Ireland entitles them to the praise and gratitude of Irishmen.”[35]  Farmers in the country towns of “old Erie,” like Clarence sent in grain, livestock, and donations. The city’s editors and publishers played a major role in advocating and participating in the relief movement. Even after the Buffalo mass meeting, editors pushed for action. As one editor argued: “It is a duty, which we owe to humanity, to provide from our abundance, to allay the famine that exists. A more urgent and pressing demand was never made upon the benevolence of the American people.”[36]

A. M. Clapp of the Express, wanted the abundant American granaries to provide the food to aid the starving men, women, and children of Ireland and Scotland. Immigrants of English, Scottish and Irish origin in the St. George, St. Andrew, and Sons of St. Patrick societies, respectively, joined together to support Scottish and Irish relief. Women created their own charity committee arranging a special concert for the Irish donating to Irish and Scottish relief. The level of cooperation in Buffalo proves that famine relief emerged as a respectable, ecumenical movement----and an unusual model of cooperation of the American people in voluntary international philanthropy.[37]

“In every city, village, and town around us meetings have been called, societies formed, and measures being taken” for Irish relief, reported the editor of the Ovid Bee and using the example of the actions in neighboring communities, the editor asked the citizens of Varick, Ovid, Romulus, Lodi, and Covert “in highly-favored Seneca.,” to organize for Irish relief because the people of Seneca County should “give liberally of their abundance.” Even in small towns in western New York editors emphasized the theme of Americans as a people of plenty who had an obligation to help” the suffering people of Ireland.”[38] According to the editor Americans profited from the food shortages abroad producing “ a golden harvest of wealth…pouring into our country”[39] Starvation in Ireland and Europe boosted prices on grain for American farmers, including farmers in Seneca County. Residents of the country between the Finger Lakes produced an abundance of grain and were rich and generous. Christianity demanded that the people of Seneca County help their fellow Christians in Ireland dying of disease and starvation, a common theme mentioned in editorials and public meetings. Residents of Ovid and Seneca County formed part of a national response to starvation in Europe. As an example, to the community of philanthropy, the editor cited John Ferguson, a local merchant, who offered to collect donations of grain in his warehouse for forwarding to Ireland. Ferguson donated liberally to Irish relief and volunteered to also collect cash donations. Citing the generosity of John Ferguson, the Ovid editor told members of his community: “Let everyone give liberally, not grudgingly, and give too without further hesitation.”[40]

Over the next several weeks Ovid Bee suggested that farmers in Seneca County call relief meetings in every school district for collecting subscriptions in food and money. As a model for Ovid to follow the newspaper reported on a meeting in Mt. Morris that collected over $600 for the Irish. Pushing the people of Ovid to act, the editor commented that “the palm of liberty must be awarded to this spirited village.”[41] News appeared that James Wadsworth of Geneseo in Livingston County donated 1,000 bushels of corn to spur the village to act. In case its readers did not get the message, Ovid Bee covered in some detail a relief meeting in Geneva and mentioned the good work done by the people of East Bloomfield for Irish relief. This encouragement worked because in mid-March fifty friends of humanity in Ovid met and requested that residents congregate at the courthouse “to take measures for the relief of the suffering Poor, of Ireland and Scotland."[42] Just before the public meeting some members of the community met at the McNeil Church in the southeastern part of the town donating liberally to the Irish and Scots. In the village of Lodi people met at the Dutch Reformed Church and adopted prompt and “energetic measures…for the speedy relief of the suffering poor in Ireland and Scotland.”[43] Citizens of Ovid met on 24 March 1847, resolved to collect contributions of provisions and cash, established a central committee, and subcommittees organized by school districts in Ovid, Romulus, Scotts Corners, Coshun, Woodworth, Comb, and Balytown. Prodding by the editor of Ovid Bee worked, as the residents of Ovid and the southern part of Seneca County joined the national cause of voluntary philanthropy.

“We are all confident that the people of Steuben will not fall behind others in so noble a charity,” asked the citizens of Bath in their appeal to the rest of the county to join them in donating food, clothing, and money for Irish. At a meeting held on 20 February 1847 at the courthouse in Bath the assembled residents established a central county committee and requested that each town in the county create its own relief committee to collect subscriptions for Irish relief. Claims of partisanship marred the initial central committee as the original members all belonged to the Democratic Party. In response three Whigs joined the committee. People at the meeting approved a resolution requesting every clergyman in Steuben County to solicit donations. These paralleled appeals in other parts of western New York that actively sought the cooperation of clergymen of all denominations to assist in Irish and Scottish relief.[44]

In the appeal to the rest of the county, the central committee called on every man, woman, and child to help alleviate the distress of the perishing people of Ireland and Scotland. To set an example, members of the central committee and speakers at the meeting publicly donated. John Magee, who headed the subcommittee on subscriptions, gave $100, General William Kernan of Tyrone who presided over the meeting gave $20, and Reuben Robie, another member of the central committee offered $25. Other members of the committee donated between $10 and $20 hoping their donations would motivate the residents of Steuben County to open their hearts and their purses for the starving people across the ocean. Citizens of Steuben County must help, residents of Steuben County would help! 

Following the lead of Bath people in other towns in the county held public meetings and collected money, clothing, and provisions for Irish and Scottish relief. A relief committee in Painted Post raised about three hundred bushels of wheat and solicited advice from the county committee. E. Howell Jr, the county committee’s secretary, recommended sending the money and provisions to the county committee for forwarding to the state committee in Albany.[45]

Citizens of Prattsburgh convened at the Presbyterian Church on 16 March 1847 “for the purpose of aiding the destitute population of Ireland and Scotland,’ and elected Rev. James Hotchkin to chair the meeting. One of the speakers, Rev. F. S. Gaylord, spoke of the horrors faced by the famine-stricken population of Ireland and Scotland and urged members of the audience “to extend the hand of relief to the famishing.”[46] Members of the committee had already canvassed half the town raising $250, and pledged to continue asking everyone in Prattsburgh to contribute. Donations from Prattsburgh continued to flow to Bath until the end of May including flour, wheat, corn, peas, beans, rye, and buckwheat. Several other towns, like Cameron, held meetings, solicited donations in grain and cash, some forwarding donations to the county committee, and others directly to the state committee. When the Steuben County committee disbanded in June it recommended that additional donations go to Thomas James, a member of the New York State Irish and Scottish Relief Committee in Albany. Before it disbanded the Steuben County committee achieved its objective of persuading the people of Bath and the county towns to join in this American movement for voluntary foreign aid.[47]

“Our farmers, who have their well-filled granaries should not be bashful in disgorging to the needy,” John Phelps, an editor in Chautauqua County, argued in February 1847 as he encouraged local residents to join the cause of Irish relief. As a positive example, he reported on a meeting of the county Bible Society, in Busti, near the Pennsylvania line, planned to collect $100 for the Irish.[48] Once again, John Phelps, an editor of a small-town newspaper in Mayville demonstrated the public service function of journalism during the Great Hunger in Ireland. To further encourage the people of Mayville to organize a relief committee, Phelps ran a story about an Irish relief meeting in Jamestown, the largest town in the county.

Citizens of Jamestown held a public meeting addressed by clergymen and political leaders, organized an Irish relief committee, and collected $250. Phelps listed all the members of the committee set up to collect additional donations in food and provisions and blessed their desire to alleviate the” suffering of unhappy Ireland.” Jamestown’s example was “worthy of imitation by her sister villages.”[49] Mayville established a committee “to receive and forward all donations in grain or clothing to the destitute and famishing poor in Ireland.” John Phelps served on the executive committee that asked the residents of Mayville to show their humanity and benevolence by helping the Irish which the people of Mayville and other towns in Chautauqua County did in 1847. Some towns in the county, like Ashville and Charlotte, sent their collections to the New York City Irish relief committee. People in Chautauqua County as in Steuben County split on the method used to forward their donations of food, clothing, and cash. Some went through the county committees, other towns sent their donations to the State Committee in Albany and some local committees preferred to send everything via the New York City committee since it was the largest relief committee in the country.[50]

“The late papers teem with accounts at the perusal of which the heart sickens and turns away in horror,” noted the editor of the Geneva Courier. Then the editor asked: “Can we not do something for Ireland?”[51] Newspaper editors in Geneva pushed and prodded citizens to take action. In an editorial in the Daily Gazette, the editor reported on actions taken around the state, especially in Buffalo and Rochester, for Irish relief and expressed “the hope that these accounts may have a salutary effect upon our citizens.”[52] The people of Geneva acted. Members of the community met on February 18 with Rev. Henry Dwight chairing the meeting for Irish relief. Resolutions adopted at the meeting pointed out the scale of the problem of starvation in Ireland The Geneva meeting emphasized that “Providence has blessed  this country with bountiful harvests” which Americans cannot enjoy “while millions of our fellow-creatures are perishing of want.” Residents of Geneva reached the same conclusion of other Americans, we were a people of plenty that had a moral obligation to help the distressed people of Europe. For the people of Geneva, the Irish were not the “other” but a population in severe distress that Americans must help.[53]

At the meeting citizens called upon the clergy to start collections. Episcopal Bishop Delancey could not attend the meeting, but he already recommended that all Episcopal congregations in the western New York diocese donate to Irish relief. A subcommittee wrote an appeal to the farmers of the town of Seneca and the vicinity reminding the farmers of the distress in Ireland and the scarcity of food in Europe. Authors of the appeal noted “our farmers are overflowing with abundant harvests” and benefited from the high prices for grain, “a golden harvest of wealth is pouring into our country.” Events in Europe made the Americans responsible to help because America was “the Granary of the world.”[54] The appeal urged the creation of school district committees to collect donations in produce and money. School District committees met and collected donations. In the town of Gorham, citizens met on February 23 and divided their town into school districts for subscriptions in food, clothing, and money. [55] By early March the Geneva committee raised over $700 with $150 coming from the local Episcopal Church.[56] Geneva newspapers published accounts of contributions coming in from the school districts, and later reported on a donation from Prussian immigrants, Lutherans, in the town of Wheatfield who arrived in western New York in 1843. Geneva’s relief committee sent the donations in corn, wheat, clothes, and money to the New York State Irish and Scottish Relief Committee in Albany. Collections from the Episcopal churches in western New York
went to the New York City Irish and Scottish Relief Committee to purchase 134 barrels of cornmeal shipped on April 28 on the Affghan to Liverpool for the Dublin Quakers. [57]

A newspaper in Canandaigua told its readers about all the major cities in the United States holding meetings for Irish relief, and Americans sympathized with the plight of the Irish adding: “This is as it should be.”[58] Citizens of Canandaigua agreed and held a meeting for famishing poor of Ireland on February 17. Resolutions adopted at the meeting stressed that common humanity demanded “as stewards of a bountiful Providence” Americans were obligated to aid the destitute “of our brethren of the human family in Ireland.”[59] The meeting called for each town in Ontario County to create relief committees. Towns followed the request, For example, Farmington held a meeting on February 23 and established sixteen school district committees in the town to collect food and money, [60]

Thirty-five women were elected to serve on the Committee of Ladies to collect clothing. Recruiting and publicly identifying women, married and single, on a relief committee was highly unusual in 1847 during the famine relief campaign. Generally, committees and the press identified women only as contributors to Irish and Scottish relief and rarely mentioned the names of women as committee members. Women played an active role in donating to Irish and Scottish relief from St. Lawrence County to Brooklyn in 1847. Only a few committees in New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois recorded the role of women collecting food, clothing, or money.[61] The combined collections of the various committees in Canandaigua and adjacent towns amounted to $1,221 forwarded to the State Committee in Albany for eventual distribution by the Society of Friends in Dublin.[62]

Citizens of Geneseo held “a large and respectable meeting” on February 25th “to adopt measures to receive donations for the famishing poor of Ireland.”[63] Speakers noted the conditions in Ireland and agreed to appeal to other towns in the county to join in the cause of Irish relief. One of the speakers suggested extending the mandate to include Scotland and northwestern Europe. Members of the committee appointed at the meeting eventually collected $185 for Ireland and $150 for Scotland. Separately, the Geneseo committee sent 128 barrels of cornmeal and other provisions valued at $600 to the New York City committee. Provisions from Geneseo went aboard Saone to Galway for distribution by the Society of Friends “among the most needy of the poor Irish, without regard to Religion or Politics.”[64] Americans in every community stressed the ecumenical and non-partisan nature of famine relief. The Dublin Quakers thanked the people of Geneseo for their kindness.

“Elmira and surrounding country can surely give its hundreds” to the starving in Ireland, asked the editor of the Elmira Gazette in February 1847. Every dollar given would save a life “and stop the cries of women and children for food, the editor pleaded and “certainly we will not be backward in affording all the relief in our power.”[65] Once again, the press served the public service role of journalism, acting as the conscience of the community to remind the residents of Elmira of their obligations. Residents met on February 25 to consider actions to help relieve the suffering in Ireland. People attending the meeting elected Simeon. Benjamin, founder of Elmira College, as chair and secretary of the Elmira relief committee. Benjamin gave the largest donation, $50. Samuel B. Strang delivered the major address and was elected treasurer, giving the second-highest amount, $25 Later, two residents, Ira Gould gave $50 and Samuel Partridge $30, neither members of the relief committee. Partridge, a veteran of War of 1812, won the election to the House of Representatives in 1840 as a Democrat serving in Congress from 1841-43. Over the next couple of weeks Elmira’s citizens donated $500 for Irish relief and forwarded their donations to the State Committee. Pleased with the behavior of the people of Elmira and of the United States in response to the famine, the editor of the Gazette noted the sympathy “deeply elicited in behalf of the famishing Irish.” The editor rejoiced at the generosity of the American people and thanked the Irish American community for their help during the American Revolution when “sons of the Emerald Isle were found battling manfully in the cause of freedom.”[66] This is another theme that appeared in some of the public meetings and editorials in 1847 that the Americans should help the Irish because of their aid in the American Revolution.

A meeting of the Ladies of Batavia held at the Eagle Tavern on February 9, 1847, became the first known meeting in Batavia to adopt measures to help the starving Irish. [67] Batavia’s women sponsored a supper that raised $170 for Irish relief. Rarely did women take the initiative in funding raising and scheduling their own events. The actions of women in Ontario and Genesee counties as well as in Binghamton, Utica, Baldwinsville, Kingston, and Brooklyn suggested in some communities women participated in the famine relief efforts. Women’s participation followed the pattern of the social space for charity work allowed women in mid-nineteenth-century America. Famine relief opened up a social space for some women to take a public role in the national movement of voluntary international philanthropy. [68]

Newspapers in Batavia embraced the cause of Irish relief and published reports of meetings in Albany and New York City to motivate the people of Batavia to organize. “Shall not such a cry meet with a ready response in old Genesee—one of the granaries of the world? and as the editor further asked: “An appeal like this is irresistible, and as no time is to be lost” the editor proposed sending contributions to the newspaper for forwarding to the New York City Irish and Scottish Relief Committee. [69] Residents of Batavia quickly responded and held a meeting for Irish relief on February 10th establishing an executive committee and a finance committee to collect donations from Batavia and other towns in Genesee County. To spur contributions the press reported on meetings in neighboring towns and villages. Le Roy collected $170 on February 15 and eventually raised enough money to purchase one hundred barrels of cornmeal sent to the New York City committee for forwarding aboard the warship Macedonian, on April 13 to Cork for distribution by the Dublin Quakers.[70] For the press in Batavia the village of Le Roy emerged as a perfect example of what people in Batavia and Genesee County should do to aid the Irish. The newspapers cited other towns as well, like Oakfield that donated over thirty barrels of corn. Stafford collected $165 as a result of a special musical entertainment “for the relief of suffering Ireland.” Citizens of the town of Alabama held a public meeting at the local Baptist church. established a central committee to solicit subscriptions, and divided the committee into school districts to facilitate collections. Batavia’s famine relief committee purchased forty-four barrels of superfine flour, and later received a donation of $40 from St. James Church, the local Episcopal church in early March. Through the next two months the Batavia committee continued to collect donations from townspeople and from surrounding towns in Genesee County. The committee sent the cash, flour, grain, and clothing to Albany for forwarding to the Dublin Quakers via the committee in New York City.[71]

In 1847 the United States emerged as the leader in international philanthropy. Because President Polk and a majority of Congress viewed foreign aid as unconstitutional American aid to Ireland became a people to people movement. Citizens of western New York joined with other Americans to ignore sectarian and partisan differences to unite to help the desperate Irish and Scots. Protestants of all denominations put aside anti-Catholicism and sectarian concerns because of shared values of Christian benevolence and common humanity that defined the Irish as a people in need, not as the “other.” Ministers of all denominations took part in the campaign as suggested by the prominent role of the Episcopalian Bishop of Western New York, William Delancey. In Rochester and Buffalo, Irish Catholics served as prominent members of the relief committees. Members of all religious denominations shared in this national mission of international aid. 

Famine relief developed into an expression of American republicanism and volunteerism as the
people of plenty shared their abundance. Repeatedly, public meetings and newspaper editorials stressed that the farmers of western New York lived in a land of abundance, the granary of the world, who had a moral obligation to assist the starving in Europe. For Democrats, Whigs, and Liberty Party supporters' international philanthropy was an obligation of a republican society.

The events of 1847 “underscored America’s commitment and global volunteerism.”[72] The creation of the many school district, village, town, and city committees in western New York appeared as a logical extension of the widespread spirit of volunteerism prevalent in America in the 1840s. How New Yorkers organized for famine relief paralleled how Americans joined together for moral improvement, public safety, civic, and social betterment. As a society based on voluntary associations, Americans created a civic culture that allowed Americans to respond to the crisis in Ireland and led to the United States becoming the leader in international volunteerism in crises abroad, whether in Ireland, India, Crete, or Russia.


About the author: Harvey Strum is a professor of history and political science at Russell Sage College in Troy and Albany. His most recent publications include: America’s Mission of Mercy to Ireland, 1880, New York History, 2018; Schenectady’s Jews, Zionism, New York History Review, 2019.






End Notes
1      Washington National Intelligencer, 12 February 1847; New York Freeman’s Journal, 20 February 1847; For the original draft of the resolutions at the Washington meeting, see 9 February 1847, Daniel Webster Papers at Dartmouth College. I used the microfilm. Reel 20. 027623-36 at the Firestone Library, Princeton University. For the original copies of the bills, Original Senate Bills and Resolutions, 29 Cong. 2nd Session (S184-Sen 29A-B4), Records of the Senate, Record Group 36, National Archives (NA). Also, see House bills. 
2      Rochester Democrat, 19 and 14 November 1846.
3      Also, see Rochester Republican and Rochester Daily Advertiser, 13-25 November 1846.
4      Ovid Bee, 25 November 1846.

5      Batavia The Republican Advocate, 17 November 1846. For Dundee, Dundee Record, 25 November 1846.
6      Ibid, 16 February 1847.
7      Buffalo The Daily Courier, 28 January 1847. Also, see 2, 11 February 1847 for other reports on conditions in Ireland. 
8      Buffalo Express, 12 February 1847.
9      Rochester Republican, 2 February 1847.
10   Albany Evening Journal, 11, 13 February 1847; “Relief to Ireland,” Broadside, 2086, 15 February 1847, Manuscripts Division, New York State Library (NYSL); The original manuscript records of the Albany or State Committee for 1847-48, Albany Institute for History and Art (AIHA) used by this author; General Irish Relief Committee, New York City, Aid to Ireland (New York City: The Committee, 1848). I used the microfilm copy at the New York State Library. This is the most extensive report by any of the Irish relief committees in 1847. Neither the NYSL nor the New York Public Library nor the New York Historical Society have the original manuscript copy. 
11   Batavia Advocate, 16 February 1847.
12   Canandaigua Ontario Repository, 23 February 1847.
13   Elmira Gazette, 18 February 1847.
14   Geneseo Livingston Republican 25 February 1847.
15   Geneva Daily Gazette, 13 February 1847.
16   Batavia Spirit of the Times, 9 February 1847.
17   Rochester Republican, 16 February 1847.
18   Rochester Democrat, 16 February 1847. For more details on the Rochester committee, see 
Harvey Strum, “To Feed the Hungry: Rochester and Irish Famine Relief,” Rochester History LXVIII:3 (Summer 2006), 1-22. Issue 3 contains this one article. Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, City Historian, edited the journal.  
19   Rochester Democrat, 10 February 1847.  

20   Levi Ward, Chairman of the Executive Committee, Irish Relief Committee, Rochester to Jonathan Pim, Central Committee, Society of Friends, Dublin, 10 December 1847 in Society of Friends, Transactions of the Society of Friends During the Famine in Ireland. Facsimile  Reprint of the First Edition, 1852 (Dublin: Edmund Burke, 1996), 251.    
21   Ibid. Also, see the comments made at the meetings for Irish relief, Rochester Republican, 16 February 1847; Rochester Democrat, 16 February 1847’ 
22   Rochester Republican, 16 February 1847.  
23   William H. Delancey, Bishop of the Diocese of Western New York, Geneva to the Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of Western New York, 15 February 1847, in Rochester Democrat, 12 February 1847.  
24   Geneva Courier, 30 March 1847 citing Canandaigua Ontario Repository.     
25   Christine Kinealy, Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers, (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 238. Also, see Strum, To Feed the Hungry, 9-10.    
26   Rochester Republican, 2 March 1847 for the Henrietta meeting. 
27   For details of the shipment of food to Ireland from Rochester, Transactions, 338,344, and Ward’s letter, 250.    
28   Buffalo Courier, 12 February 1847.   
29   Ibid, 13 February 1847; Buffalo Morning Express, 13 February 1847.    
30   Buffalo Morning Express, 16 February 1847.   
31   Buffalo Courier, 16 February 1847.   
32   Ibid, Buffalo Morning Express, 16 February 1847.   
33   Buffalo Courier, 6 March 1847. For Rochester, New York Freeman’s Journal, 6 March 1847. See letter from “P” (Patrick Barry), 23 February 1847.
34   Buffalo Morning Express, 19 February 1847; For the Young Men, also see, Buffalo Republic, 3 March 1847.
35   Buffalo Courier, 23 March 1847.
36   Buffalo Morning Express, 19 February 1847.  For Clarence, Buffalo Courier, 1 March 1847; Buffalo Republic, 27 February 1847.  
37   Buffalo Republic, 25 February 1847 for women’s activism. 20 February 1847 for the Scots. For Scottish-Irish cooperation, Buffalo, Morning Express, 24 March 1847.  
38   Ovid Bee, 24 February 1847. 
39   Ibid, 3 March 1847.
40   Ibid, 24 February 1847.
41   Ibid, 3 March 1847.    
42   Ibid 17 March 1847.  
43   Ibid 24 March 1847.    
44   Bath Steuben Courier, 24 February 1847.    
45   Ibid, Relief Committee of Painted Post to the Central Committee of Bath, 9 March 1847; E. Howell, Secretary, on behalf of the central committee of Steuben County to the Relief Committee of Painted Post, 10 March 1847. Published in 17 March 1847 issue.     
46   Ibid, 24 March 1847.  
47   Ibid, 2 June 1847.     
48   Mayville Sentinel, 25 February 1847. 
49   Ibid, 25 March 1847.  
50   Aid to Ireland, 56 for Ashville, 58 for Charlotte  
51   Geneva Courier, February 9, 1847. Also, see Geneva Daily Gazette, February 13, 1847.   
52   Geneva Daily Gazette, February 20, 1847.  
53   Ibid.      
54   Ibid, February 27, 1847.
55   Ibid. For Gorham. Page 2.  
56   Geneva Courier, March 9, 1847. 
57   Ibid, March 23, 1847; Geneva Daily Gazette, March 20, 1847 for the school districts, and Geneva Courier, May 25, 1847 for the Prussians. For the donations of the Episcopal Church in western New York. Society of Friends, Transactions of the Society of Friends During the Famine in Ireland (Dublin: Edmund Burke, 1996 reprint of 1852 edition), 345.
58   Canandaigua Ontario Repository, February 23. 1847.
59   Ibid.
60   Ibid, March 2, 1847 for the committees in Farmington and Gorham.
61   Ibid, February 23, 1847 for the women’s committee. 
62   Ibid, April 6, 1847 for totals raised. 
63   Geneseo Livingston Republican, March 4, 1847.
64   Ibid, July 29, 1847, 2.
65   Elmira Gazette, February 26. 1847.
66   Ibid.
67   Batavia The spirit of the times, February 9, 1847; Batavia Advocate, February 16, 1847.
68   Batavia The spirit of the times, February 9, 1847. Studies of women in philanthropy do no mention famine relief. For example, Lori Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), or Nancy Hewitt. Women’s Activism and Social Change, Rochester, New York, 1822-1872 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
69   Batavia The spirit of the times, February 9, 1847.
70   Ibid, February 22, 1847;  Friends, Transactions, 344.
71   Batavia The spirit of the times, March 9, 16, 30, April 27, 1847; Batavia Advocate, February 23, March 16, 1847.
72   Merle Curti, American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963), 98.
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