Tip o’ the hat to my Irish ancestors

First of three posts on my Dempsey ancestors in Civil War Baltimore.

In 1865 — while my Union Army ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull was on duty at Bermuda Hundred, Va. — my Irish ancestors William Patrick and Katherine Dempsey were establishing their family 170 miles to the north in the teeming city of Baltimore, Md.

By: Robert Couse-Baker
My Dempsey ancestors were part of the great Irish migration to the teeming city of Baltimore, Maryland, where they lived during the U.S. Civil War.  Photo: Robert Couse-Baker

This St. Patrick’s Day seems a good time to tip a hat to my paternal, Irish great, great grandparents and share what I know about their civilian life during the Civil War years.

The 1860 U.S. census for the 8th Ward of Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Maryland — enumerated on 23 July 1860 — gives a picture of the Dempsey family at that time.

William Dempsey, 35, was a blacksmith born in Ireland. The “value of personal estate owned” by him was $40 — about $1,170 today — and he was “unable to read & write.” Catherine [Katherine], 34, was also born in Ireland.

The census entry lists five sons. Patrick, 9, born in Canada was “in school within the year.” Thomas, 6, also born in Canada, was not at school yet. The three youngest, born in Maryland — John, 3; James, 2; and Andrew, 6 months — were too young for school.

The two Canada births suggest that the Dempsey family did not immigrate directly to Baltimore. In addition, on a pedigree chart prepared by a late female cousin of my dad’s, she wrote a note (alas, not sourced) that said William’s first wife died early and left him with three children — Nan, John and Patrick, who died young. If so, Katherine was his second wife.

Further research is needed to determine whether Katherine and William Patrick met and married in Canada or in Baltimore — and to sort out the information about the children. But it’s clear that by the start of the U.S. Civil War, my Irish great, great grandparents had settled in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Md., with their growing family.

And very soon my great grandmother Elizabeth C. Dempsey and her twin sister Margaret M. “Maggie” Dempsey would be added to the fold.

More on the Dempsey family in the next post.

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2 thoughts on “Tip o’ the hat to my Irish ancestors”

  1. Molly:

    This was wonderful and so evocative. It reminded me of this one family gravestone in the French cemetery in Burlington VT… the long list of names inscribed with the dates…all reflecting little lives lost within a month, a year–two years, or stillborn. The very difficult lives of women etched there for perpetuity–so tough. It’s great that you are capturing the family stories and sharing them with us all these years later.

    1. Appreciate these comments, Jane. My great, great grandmother Katherine Dempsey was quite something. She ended up as the matriarch of a huge extended family, as you will read in future posts. But this is the first time I have considered what her life was like earlier, at the time of the U.S. Civil War.

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