The coats were anniversary presents, from their children, I believe. Sophia had come to Wisconsin with her sister, Elizabeth, and her brother-in-law, Daniel Withrow in 1860. She married Thomas the next year. Together, they would raise a family of twelve including my grandmother, Evangeline, known to all as "Vangie". This family was one of many to leave the Columbiana and Carroll County, Ohio area and pioneer the new state of Wisconsin, but more on that migration later.
These families left Ireland, just prior to the start of the Great Potato Famine, but conditions were deteriorating as they prepared to leave. The economy was crashing, the potato crops had failed the year before and Cholera epidemics periodically swept the country. In order to leave at this time, we can assume that our Drakes and Johnstons were financially able to make this choice at this time. They also had family in the New World to help them start fresh.
Even so, it could not have been an easy choice. The conditions for an ocean voyage were not good. The quarters were cramped, two families and often more were assigned a 6 foot square platform, for all activities, sleeping, eating, socializing, and just existing for the 50-60 days it would take to make the voyage. Disease was also common given so many bodies cramped together for so long. Add to all this the fact that Margaret was pregnant at the time, the trip had to be a frightening one In addition to caring for her six children, all six or under, she delivered Baby Jane Drake aboard the ship, somewhere in transit. Still, all made it to the other side, safe and found their way to Ohio to be with Robert and Elizabeth.
In putting the newsletter together, I spent a good deal of time researching the mid 1800's in Ireland. There were so many components to this tragic period. The English government, not only failed to improve conditions for the poor and hungry as was their responsibility, but seemed to go out of its way (out of ignorance and bigotry) to turn famine into genocide. The weather conspired to not only destroy the primary (in most cases, ONLY) food source, but spread cholera and typhus as well. A crashed European economy slammed most doors of escape leaving only the sea. Even then, ship owners saw the desperate people as a business formula. They were shipping lumber, sugar, tobacco, and coffee into England and Ireland, but they were sending empty vessels back out. This meant a financially empty voyage. So the Irish immigrant was converted from a person to a commodity. Of course, that commodity was more viable as a commercial venture if money was not squandered in food, medicine and accommodations. Thus, the ships carrying this desperate cargo were called "coffin ships" and, in thousands of cases, were the final stop for the poor and desperate.
By the Grace of God, Robert and Margaret's family were able to make the choice to leave while they were still hardy enough to make the voyage and they had family already established in Ohio to help them make a home for themselves and raise their babies.
So, on this wonderful shamrock clad and beautiful day. Spare a thought for the people who got us here. Lift a pint to Margaret and tiny baby Jane, and be grateful for William's ability to put a bit aside to get them all safe on the other side before the worst moment in Irish history could have claimed them all. Thank the angels that rode their shoulders all that long way and paved the roads from them to us.
Happy St. Patrick's Day to ye all!!