by Jeanne Gehret


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The Cliffs of Moher on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

The Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

On a recent trip to Ireland, I traced my ancestral roots and came to understand the presence of the Irish in Kansas.

The breathtaking west coast of Ireland, aptly nicknamed the Wild Atlantic Way, was the main draw for Jon, our son Dan, and me. But as our travel time drew closer, a crazy hope arose in us to find my Irish ancestors, if possible. And along the way, through our explorations at the Cobh Heritage Center, I began to formulate a question that my readers will be sure to pose when they reach Book Three in my series. Happily, we were able to accomplish all these goals in a trip so satisfying that we’re already planning our return.

Irish in Kansas?

Here’s a puzzle that relates to the Anthony story and to mine, as well. We know that most of 4.5 million Irish immigrants who came here between 1820 and 1930 first set foot along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Although some in the early waves of resettlement had money, most did not.

Even so, they spread fairly equally around our country, and the Midwest attracted almost as many as our northeast coast. After all, I get my Irish blood from my father, whose family was from Illinois. So why, and how, did so many move into the U.S. heartland?

thinkingWhat do you think?

If you guessed the U.S. landgrab, you’d be right. Remember the Louisiana Purchase of 1803? As former Native American territories became available for “development” (I am acutely aware of how the Natives were dispossessed), droves of white easterners moved west to claim the “new” lands.

To make matters even better for the whites, in 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, giving citizens and immigrants up to 160 acres of public land. For those who could meet certain conditions, it was a great deal. Daniel and Merritt Anthony, who emigrated to Kansas during the 1850s, claimed land for themselves plus their sisters Susan and Mary under this Act. This law encouraged many Irish to cross the Atlantic and keep moving inland.


Like many middle-class people of the late 19th century, Daniel and Annie Anthony had household help. Coming from the upper crust of Martha’s Vineyard, Annie would likely have been used to that. She and Daniel even designed their new home in Leavenworth with the kitchen in the basement (no doubt linked by dumbwaiter to the dining room). This smart move made it more convenient and cooler for household help to work during stifling Kansas summers.

When Susan first visited her brother’s new home after the Civil War, her diary noted the presence of an African-American woman and her two children living with the Anthonys. Referencing a character in the 19th-century bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Susan referred to the woman as “a real Aunt Chloe,” and I found the little family in residence on the next census. Those servants figure prominently in Book Two.

Click here to view a previous article I wrote about other people of color in Leavenworth

Daniel and Annie may have been among the first to hire refugees from Missouri plantations after the Emancipation Proclamation conferred freedom on African Americans.

However, by the time of the next census, the Black servants had apparently moved on. Two Irish women, one in her twenties and one still a teenager, had taken their place.

How did they get there, assuming they were poor?

Raising an Irish coffee with my Jon and Dan

Raising an Irish coffee with Jon and Dan

The Final Piece of My Puzzle

As we learned at the Cobh Heritage Center, most of the Irish immigrants were under thirty. Many single Irish women found work in the United States as household help and especially as nannies. Here’s why: Americans figured these young women were from large families and knew how to raise children. So it looks to me like once the Anthonys’ African American household got on their feet, Daniel and Annie looked for another group of people sorely in need of employment. They may have even sent to New York or Boston for young Irish maids.

Who knows…the Anthonys’ Irish servants may take on an important role in Book Three.

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