Through New Orleans

The Emigration Story of Thomas Watson Jr. and Margaret Nelson Watson

New Orleans from St. Patrick's Church 1852; Source: Library of Congress Digital Image Collection

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

Like his father (Thomas Watson, Sr.), Thomas Watson Jr (3/4/1826--9/23/1895), may have attended Trinity College in Dublin (record is conflicting on this). Thomas and Margaret Nelson met and married in Dublin at St. Bridgets Church on 1/3/1847. He may have been attending college in Dublin. Margaret, the daughter of a Scottish farmer (William Nelson), was orphaned at an early age. Her mother (maiden name Stokes) died first followed a few years later by her father. For a time, she lived in Belfast, working at an inn and then went to Dublin where she lived with an uncle. When Thomas Watson Jr and Margaret Nelson were married, they were both living on Whitefriar St in Dublin (records conflict as to marriage date: either 1/3/1847 or 1/22/1846). They had one daughter, Elizabeth Charlotte Watson in Ireland (B: 2/20/1848) and then emigrated when Elizabeth was a small child.

After a seven-week journey, Thomas, Margaret and one-year-old Elizabeth landed in New Orleans on April 21, 1849. Margaret would have been pregnant while on this journey, giving birth to Mary Ann Watson (who later became Mary Ann Watson Hill) in December of 1849. Note: Our family record has conflicting information about this journey. Thomas and Margaret may have been travelling with Thomas’ brother Wingfield Watson. If so, their ship was supposed to go to New York, but was diverted to New Orleans because of storms.

What was New Orleans like when they arrived? Thomas and Margaret would have arrived in a city that was gripped by disaster, sickness, fear, crime and cruelty. They arrived riding the crest of one of the largest waves of immigrants in any port in US history. It was reported that in just one day in December, 1849, 1000 immigrants entered the city of New Orleans by ship from Liverpool. So Thomas and Margaret would’ve entered a city filled with thousands of dazed and confused immigrants, many of whom were destitute. Thomas and Margaret would’ve also arrived shortly before one of the largest disasters in the city’s history.

Flooding on Canal Street in New Orleans after Sauvé's Crevasse flood, 1849; painting by Elizabeth Lamoisse (Source: Wikipedia)

One month after they arrived, the Sauvé's Crevasse (levee breach) happened on May 15, 1849, flooding the city to levels that were reportedly even higher than the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Then, in the aftermath of the flood, the worst cholera epidemic the city had known set in, throwing the city further into fear and chaos. It was reported that whoever could leave the city did. Those who stayed lived in fear behind closed doors. Though we’ll never know why, Thomas and Margaret apparently did not leave the city during this time. Perhaps they could not afford to leave; perhaps they didn’t understand the danger of the situation or perhaps they were just too tired from the journey to travel farther. In any case, shortly after Margaret gave birth to her second child (Mary Ann Watson Hill, B: 12/21/1849), their daughter Elizabeth died from cholera in the early months of 1850.

Thomas and Margaret stayed in New Orleans for about five years, presumably to make money to for the trip up to Wisconsin. Don Hill’s research shows they finally decided to leave New Orleans because they could not tolerate the cruelties of slavery and slave auctions. During the time Thomas and Margaret were there, New Orleans was the largest slave market in the U.S. We can well imagine that seeing slaves being auctioned off, often with young children being sold separately from their parents, might have been a daily experience for Thomas and Margaret during the five years they stayed in New Orleans.