Erie Canal to the Pacific – Frances O’Rourke

It is great to have Irish ancestors. An excuse to visit a beautiful and friendly country is always welcome. My side has the Irish and Peggy’s family includes the temporary Irish known in the US as the Scots-Irish. The numerous Scots-Irish in the family will tell their incredible stories. All will be dealt with in due time. However, we left off with Grandma Helen O’Rourke in Unity, Oregon and I want to trace her Irish husband’s roots back to the land of Green and Guinness. Note: I have been duly critiqued by followers that I seem to neglect the female side of the family. This is not intentional. It is the reality of historical records from a time when women frequently could not own property and rarely left wills. I can certainly guess about their lives and the struggles of Nancy McCaslin bearing George’s fifteen children on the Ohio frontier. Have patience, there are women to tell their amazing stories.

Frances was a New Yorker by birth or at least an upstate New Yorker. Newark appears to be his place of birth in 1853. Newark lies to the east of Rochester. It former name before incorporation in 1853 was Lockville.

The locks at Lockport

The locks at Lockport

Things are starting come together since my father always talked about the O’Rourkes working on the Erie Canal. I knew that the canal was completed in 1825 and that the first O’Rourkes come to the US in the 1840’s. However, the canal was not automated and what better job for an Irish immigrant than working on the Erie Canal ? Lockport had three of the locks on the original canal. A steady job and a new wife. Life was good.

Erie Canal 1840

Almira Swift was born in nearby Randolph to the south of Lockport. Her parents came from a long line of Puritan stock most recently of Vermont. Somehow she fell in love with this Irish canal worker and had two daughters before Frances or Frank, as he preferred, arrived in 1853. Almira’s family first emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630’s and had to be Puritan as no others were welcome. We will retrace a bunch of these Yankee ancestors later. It must have been love for her to commit to a Papist although this part of New York was experiencing the Great Awakening, a religious revival and that may have some part in this break from tradition.

By the 1860’s Frank moves with his family to southwest Michigan to its “fruit basket” Van Buren County. Frank will be too young to become involved the Civil War. During our 2011 “roots trip” we spent a fair amount of time digging up records and looking at old farms. The county seat is PawPaw. That says everything.  I can still remember an old Boy Scout song

Paw-Paw Patch

Where, oh where, oh where is Susie?
Where, oh where, oh where is Susie?
Where, oh where, of where is Susie?
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Chorus:
Picking up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Picking up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Picking up paw-paws;put ’em in a basket.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Come along, boys, and let’s go find her.
Come along, boys, and let’s go find her.
Come along, boys, and let’s go find her.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch

Sorry, I liked that song. Still no idea what a paw-paw is. OK, here it is

Thomas Jefferson liked them. Good enough for me

Thomas Jefferson liked them. Good enough for me

Back to Frank

Michael and Almira begin to farm near Decatur in Van Buren County. In 1849, the Michigan Central Railroad ran through the middle of Decatur and made a village into a town. By the time of the Civil War, Decatur boasted 2500 residents with 5 churches, seven dry goods stores, etc. but no places serving alcohol. At one time there was a distillery but this has “happily disappeared, leving only rank grass to mark the spott it once defiled.” Michael apprears to have been involved in real estate development as he advertises in the October 26, 1870 local Decatur paper for the sale of 40 village lots “in the pleasant part of town” with easy terms at 1% interest. Do no know how this turned out but the marriage with Almira ended in the mid 1870’s as in the 1880 census, Frank describes himself as the head of household with his mom living with him. Almira or Elmira will continue to live in Decatur until her death in 1901. Michael moves to nearby Keeler and is buried there in 1897. On his headstone he describes himself as Widowed while Almira uses the term Divorced. I wonder what their true feelings were?

Frank becomes involved with a young lady from a prominent local family. Fanny Rowe Foster is born in Decatur in 1864. Her father Newton Foster was a Civil War veteran who survived a head wound in Mississippi in 1862 and returned to raise a family in Decatur. Newton was part of Birge’s Sharpshooter’s of the 66th Illinois Infantry (Decatur is almost in Illinois). The Sharpshooter’s. of which Newton was a Sergeant in company D had perhaps the most unusual head wear in the Civil War. To signify their excellence with the rifle, they stitched three squirrel tails to their hats.

Maybe the best ever military hat

Maybe the best ever military hat

The sharpshooter’s were a personal project of General John C. Fremont, the Pathfinder of California lore. They were armed with American Deer and Target rifles unlike the muskets of the other 1861 volunteers. If Fremont had not been over ruled by General Halleck, the Sharpshooter’s would have worn complete hunter dress but had to settle for a bear skin bullet pouch. They saw action at the Battle of Mt. Zion in Missouri before being sent to join up with U.S. Grant to take Forts Henry and Donelson. Despite their non-conformity, General Smith found good work for them keeping the Donelson Confederate artillerists quiet. They fought at Shiloh but as a skirmishing force, their losses were few. Outside of Corinth, Newton is wounded, recovers and is discharged. He returns to Decatur and dies in 1879. Much more on the Fosters to come.Family History Trip Spring 2011 1638Fosters still grow things for the locals and tourists to Keeler.

Thirty one year old Frank will marry 21 years old Fanny in Nebraska in 1885. Why not Keeler where the Fosters are an institution in the local Methodist Church? There are no records to indicate why the departure but Oregon beckons. By 1900, the O’Rourke Grocery Store is operating in Sumpter. Their seven children, including my Grandmother Ruth Helen are growing up. They continue to live in the gold towns until they move to what is now the suburbs of Portland. Their census indicates the town of Mountain in Washington County which does not exist today. It’s new name is Lake Oswego which is the “toniest” address in the region. I guess their time in Oregon gold country mining the miners paid off. They will pass away in 1940 and 1941.

Besides Grandma, Frank and Fanny will also have Victor Hugo O’Rourke who enlists as a Doughboy and dies in France at 23 years old in May, 1918. My father receives his name.

One thought on “Erie Canal to the Pacific – Frances O’Rourke

  1. Isn’t interesting, Mark, that you were just taking after your ancestor Michael when you became involved in “real estate development”. Must be in the genes. As for the Erie Canal….brought back great memories of Jennifer and Kel reading Ayn Rand as we all traveled through the locks in ’86.

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