Many people from Clinton County, NY have ancestors from Ireland or Canada. In the 1850 census, in the Town of Ausable, one in four people were born in Canada or Ireland. In the Town of Clinton, every other person would have been born in Canada or Ireland. In the whole of Clinton County in 1850, only half could claim to be born in New York, as was the case for the Town of Black Brook.
And were immigrants welcomed and appreciated? Not the Irish. The anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States at the time gave birth to the Know-Nothing Party. They felt immigrants such as the Irish were clannish, unwilling to adopt American customs, and had not been schooled in democratic ideals, making them a threat to the American way of life.
The Irish have been a commanding presence in Northern New York since William Gilliland arrived from Armagh in Northern Ireland and settled there well before the American Revolution. After Gilliland, most Irish immigrants were Scots-Irish Protestants who came, like Gilliland, to find prosperity in a new land. By 1850, however, most Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic and came to escape high rents, low wages, heavy taxes and starvation.
These immigrants worked in mines and woods and farms. Because many arrived in Canada, they walked across the border finding homes in New York’s border towns of Clinton, Champlain and Mooers. Hundreds of Clinton County’s 5,000+ Civil War soldiers were either from Ireland or Canada or had parents from there. One of the Medal of Honor recipients from Clinton County was John Moffitt – his parents were from Ireland.
Over the years certainly the lives of many Clinton County residents were enriched by the knowledge and examples of their Irish ancestors’ courage and sacrifice. Diaries have been cherished and family stories retold.
The McFadden family was a part of the early wave of immigrants from Northern Ireland. George arrived in Beekmantown in 1802 and moved to Chazy in 1815 where he purchased a farm. His son Henry stayed in Beekmantown and in 1856 joined the newly formed Republican Party. Henry also served as a State legislator in 1860 and 1861. George’s other son George Jr. managed the Chazy farm and later sold it to his son Henry.
This is a story replicated in every town and village of the county. At the risk of not mentioning everyone who made significant impacts, the story of the Spellmans in Beekmantown is also fascinating.
They were an example of a family coming over, settling in, and welcoming the immigration of other family members. Irish immigrants welcomed and made room for any family who could join them. In Lawrence Spellman’s obituary it was remarked that he and his wife won “the love and respect of the entire community” and had many friends, both here and abroad.
Information for this story was excerpted from an article by Jane Rupp in the 1996 issue of the CCHA publication The Antiquarian entitled “From the Emerald Isle to Clinton County.”
Photos, from above: John H. McGaulley’s Bakery truck in front of Plattsburgh City Hall (Clinton County Historical Association collection); and a portrait of John Moffit.