Spotlight on Irish Studies: Stories of the Missing

An "Information Wanted" column from The Boston Pilot in 1858.

An "Information Wanted" column from The Boston Pilot in 1858.

The Information Wanted Database contains information taken from missing persons advertisements posted between 1831 and 1921 in the Boston Pilot, a newspaper for many years geared toward Irish and Irish-American readers. The searchable online database contains detailed information taken from the individuals mentioned in the ‘Missing Friends’ column and enables it to be organized into fields such as name, point of origin, occupation, immigration date, locations lived in, and other categories to be used by academic and family history researchers. Staff members at the Burns Library engaged in adding records to the database occasionally come across fascinating stories of the lives of Irish immigrants and their families. Missing siblings and spouses tend to be the most sought after, but a recent find in the December 14th, 1867 column proved to be highly interesting.

The search for one missing sailor and one marine coincidently appeared on the same page of the ‘Missing Friends’ advertisements. Two individuals, James Curry and Garrett May, were aboard two different United States Navy ships when last heard from.  Each of these men was sought by a mother who had been widowed and left behind in Ireland. Curry and May had likely immigrated in search of a better life in America. Although the Great Irish Famine took place primarily in the 1840s, the effects were still present in the rural countryside and poor tenant farmers could not afford rent or even food for their families.  For those Irishmen that did immigrate to America, like Curry and May, the US military’s offer of free food, clothing, and training, was almost immediately accepted even at the risk of one’s life.  One can only imagine the extreme difficulties and hardships these men faced in Ireland that propelled them to leave their home and enlist in the navy. The ‘Missing Friends’ advertisements offer some limited insight to Curry and May’s background and can be seen to exemplify the service of Irishmen in the US military during the 1800s.

USS Tyler. Drawing by F. Muller, c. 1900. (Courtesy US Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.)

USS Tyler. Drawing by F. Muller, c. 1900. (Courtesy US Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.)

James Curry was a native of County Mayo who enlisted in the US Marines on May 18th, 1863 and served aboard the Union timberclad gun-boat Tyler out of Norfolk Station, VA. The USS Tyler saw action on the Mississippi River and its tributaries during the Civil War as a member of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, and played a decisive role in the Union success at the Battle of Shiloh along with the gunboat USS Lexington. The USS Tyler continued on campaign southward during the war, encountering Confederate forces in Tennessee and Arkansas.  The last major battle fought by the Tyler occurred on the 24th of June 1864, along the White River near Clarendon, Arkansas. The battle was a success for the North; the Tyler was able to engage the Confederate shore batteries and allow Union forces to seize control of the region. It is possible that Curry lost his life during this last battle of the USS Tyler. Curry’s last appearance in the Marine Corps muster rolls from March 1864 describe him as “in confinement” for unknown reasons, but, according to information provided for the newspaper by his widowed mother, Honora Curry, in Mayo, her son was last heard from in 1864 at the mouth of the White River. Unfortunately the exact fate of Curry remains as unknown to modern inquirers as it was for Curry’s mother, whose questions for information on her son in The Pilotwere likely never answered.

Curry, James. US Marine Corps Muster Rolls for March 1864 (Courtesy of the National Archives).

Curry, James. US Marine Corps Muster Rolls for March 1864 (Courtesy of the National Archives).

Garrett May of County Cork set sail from Boston for Asia in 1859 on board an American sloop-of-war, the Boston-built USS Hartford.  May stood 5’ 7 ½” tall and was about 27 years old when he shipped out for the Far East. One can only imagine how unsuited his blue eyes and light complexion were for the sun and heat of the long passage around the Cape of Good Hope to the South China Sea where the Hartford carried diplomats to negotiate American interests with Asian nations. According to the advertisement placed by his widowed mother Elizabeth, May reached Shanghai in 1860, but his future was left unrecorded after this point.  A history of the Hartford reveals that the ship was called back to the United States once the Civil War began in 1861. During the war the ship participated in the successful capture of the southern port of New Orleans and supported the Union victory at Vicksburg. It is possible that if May made no further contact with his mother or family since leaving Asia, then he may have died either at sea on the Hartford’s journey home from China or while fighting for the Union in the war. In his short life Garrett May saw more of the world aboard the USS Hartford than the typical Irishman of his age. It is unknown if his mother back home in County Cork ever learned more information of her son or his role in the American Navy.

Sloop-of-war USS Hartford. Painting by E. Arnold.

Sloop-of-war USS Hartford. Painting by E. Arnold.

James Curry and Garrett May, both Irishmen, both navymen, and both sons of widowed mothers, were listed on the same page of the ‘Missing Friends’ advertisements for the 14th of December 1867, a coincidence too fascinating for Burns Library staff to ignore. Both individuals chose to serve their adopted country like so many others of Irish birth who were involved in US military affairs throughout the 1800s. Their stories, though incomplete at present, exemplify the struggles, opportunities, and sacrifices of immigrants and their families who came to America looking for a fresh start.

  • Kathleen Horigan and Carolyn Twomey, Student Assistants to Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Librarian

Many thanks to Mr. Joseph Keefe of the National Archives, Waltham, MA for his assistance in locating U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls for James Curry and United States Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, 1855-1891 for Garret May

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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