The Beauty and the Anguish

Leaving the Vale of Avoca

Posted by Hannah Hill Rudstam on Thu, 07/25/2013

For nearly 100 years, our ancestors lived, worked, married, had children and died in the Vale of Avoca area. What made them leave?

The majority-Catholic population in Ireland was heavily dependent on the potato for their subsistence. Potatoes were fairly nutritious and were one of the few crops that could be grown on the small areas of land the British Landlord system allotted to most Catholic families in Ireland at the time. By 1840, at least one-third of the Irish population was totally dependent on the potato for their nutrition. In the fall of 1845, the people of the Vale of Avoca first discovered that the potatoes they had just harvested for their winter food were mysteriously rotting. By 1846, nearly all potatoes grown or stored had succumbed to a fungus and widespread starvation set in. Within one year, the Vale of Avoca went from being a place of beauty to a place of anguish, rage and death. And our ancestors, though not destitute, were in the thick of it.

Over the next five years, more than one million people in Ireland died of starvation or related-diseases; one-quarter of whom were children. We can only imagine the horror this would’ve presented to Thomas Watson “The teacher” as village children succumbed one after another to starvation, while the British landlords and British government turned their backs. A young Samuel Livingston, shortly after arriving in Wisconsin from Ireland in 1848, describes the Vale of Avoca in a letter home to Ireland as “A land of hunger, thirst, wickedness, wars, envy and distress.”

Between 1845 and 1855, about two million Irish emigrated, mostly to America, Canada and Australia. Understandably, most of the Livingstons and Watsons were among them.

We can only imagine that the decision to leave Ireland was agonizing for many of our ancestors. Nearly all the Livingstons and Watsons who came to American had been born and, for the most part, lived their whole lives in the area of the Vale of Avoca. But why did they come to Wisconsin? Here are a few possible reasons:

  • Our ancestors arrived just when Wisconsin had become a state in 1848 and there were efforts in the newly formed state legislature to attract immigrants, specifically from Ireland and Germany.

  • Land was available and cheap. After the Blackhawk War in 1832, the native peoples of Wisconsin were forcibly removed from their ancestral land, leaving a large swathe of the southern and western Wisconsin prairie de-populated. A flyer for attracting Irish Immigrants to Wisconsin states that land in Wisconsin sold for about $1.50/acre.

  • The predominant industry in Wisconsin during the mid-1800s when our ancestors arrived was mining, an industry they already knew quite well.

  • With many Irish emigrating to the Midwest, our ancestors had probably heard many reports about southwestern Wisconsin.