Where did we come from?

The Livingstons and Watsons Before the Vale of Avoca, Ireland

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

We know that the Livingston Watson ancestors came from the Vale of Avoca in Ireland to Wisconsin. But where were they before they came to Ireland? And why did they come to Ireland?

The Watson family before coming to Ireland

Our early Watson family members came from Low Park, Alston Moor, a town in the north of England, close to Scotland. Alston Moor today is seen as a place of immense natural beauty. During the time of our ancestors, though, it was considered a barren wilderness. Thomas Denton, who was hired by the King to report on England’s “outback” in 1687, described it as “bleak and stony, high up on the moors.” History records that the people of Alston Moor were largely small scale farmers and lead miners, occupations which our ancestors again encountered when they emigrated to southwestern Wisconsin some 150 years later.

Don Hill’s research shows that an early Watson ancestor who lived in Low Park, Alston Moor was Jacob Watson (1722 - 1797) who married Elizabeth Burn (1733 - ??) on Oct 22, 1752. Their son, Joseph Watson (1760 - 1847), was also born in Low Park, Alston Moor. Young Joseph Watson was well-educated and learned the skill of “dialing.” I have always wondered how Joseph got this education, considering that Alston Moor was described as a barren wilderness when he lived there during the mid-1700’s. The Watson family was not destitute, but neither were they among the “high born” who would have been the only people who were well-educated during this time. Some research, though, suggests an answer. During the 14th and 15th century, Alston Moor was becoming increasingly valued for its mineral extraction potential. One company who had an interest in the mines of Alston Moor was owned by a “dissenting” church: The Quakers. The Ryton Company (later called the London Lead Company) began purchasing mining leases at the end of the 1600’s and became a force in the area of Alston Moor. In the Quaker tradition, the company felt an obligation to improve the lives and conditions of their workers. The London Lead Company built miners’ accommodations, health centers and schools for miner’s children in Alston Moor. It is likely that young Joseph would have been educated in one of these schools and would have learned mining from an early age. So even though Joseph Watson lived in a “bleak and stoney” area of England in the 1700’s, he got a good education. It was, no doubt, this education that led him as a young man to take a position in the mines of the Vale of Avoca in Ireland around 1785.

As of the mid-1990’s, the house that Joseph Watson grew up in was still standing in the village of Low Park, Alston Moor. Don Hill visited this house during a trip to England at that time and described it as a very lovely, homey cottage.

To read more about Alston Moor, go to


The Livingston family before coming to Ireland

The Livingston Family also came from the northern British Isles, probably from an area that is now part of Scotland. Not surprisingly, it’s called Livingston. Today, the town of Livingston, Scotland is a new industrial town. Yet, some of the “old” Livingston where our ancestors came from is preserved as “Livingston Village” in the center of the modern town of Livingston.

An old, faded document in Don Hill’s research gives us some insight into the ancient origins of Livingston:

“A Saxon Thane or landowner at this period (the 1200’s) and his name was Leving as is clearly proved by his donation of the church of his “vills” or manor to the Abbey of Holyrood, founded by King David I in 1128. This Saxon’s son was named Thurstan. The Abbey of Holyrood was apparently where Scottish clergy and nobility lived while Edinburgh Castle was being built. After his father’s death, he wrote that he has “…confirmed to God and to the Church of the Holy Cross of the Castle of the Maidens (Castle of Edinburgh) and of the canons serving God there, the Church of Leving’s Tun –”Tun” was the Saxon word for villa).*

An early ancestor, John Levingston (the spelling of the Livingston name changed somewhat over the years) emigrated from Scotland to Ireland. Don Hill’s research shows he was a “garner” in Scotland. (Though this term is in our family record, I can’t find its meaning.) Eventually, John Levingston leased land in the Vale of Avoca near the Avoca mine in the mid-1700’s.

Why did the Livingstons and Watsons come to Ireland?

To understand why John Levingston and Joseph Watson came to Ireland during the mid-1700s, we need to understand a little history. Our ancestors were part of a larger wave of skilled workers who came to Ireland from England and Scotland to form a Protestant minority, starting in the early 1700s and continuing until the mid-1800s. While England went through the Protestant Reformation during the 1600s, Ireland remained Catholic. Between the 1600s to the 1800s, England colonized Ireland through a harsh set of laws and policies brutally enforced by British military campaigns. During this time, the British upper class established plantations in Ireland, disenfranchising indigenous Irish Catholics who lost ownership of more and more land with each generation. In this way, the rift between the Catholics and Protestants was more about economics and power than about theology. British landlords maintained control of Irish lands and resources by importing Protestants from England and Scotland to take positions of leadership in local Irish business ventures, such as mining or farming. Our ancestors were among them. Joseph Watson came to the Vale of Avoca in Ireland in the mid-1700s to be a “captain” in the Vale of Avoca mine. John Levingston came to the area about the same time and leased land near this mine. At the time the Livingstons and Watsons came to the Vale of Avoca, Ireland was about 20% Protestant and about 80% Catholic. So our ancestors would have been part of a minority in Ireland, but a privileged minority.

Yet, the picture we get from looking at our family history suggests our ancestors did not always blindly accept the predominant Protestant/Catholic views of their time. Though they were part of the privileged Protestant class in Ireland, they sometimes acted of their own minds. Don Hill’s research shows that, shortly after John Levingston came to Ireland, he married Eleanor Brady, who was Catholic. In the context of his time, this marriage would have been a bold move. Later, an ancestor named John Livingston actively resisted the absentee power of the British landlords. In a local election, John Livingston refused to vote the way a prevailing British landlord told him to vote, an act which surely could have had dire consequences both to his prosperity and even to his life.