Like so many of their countrymen who had come to America before them, they stepped ashore seeking jobs, opportunity — and for many of them, husbands.
Most of the Irish immigrants who came to America in the 1870s and 1880s were women.
“It was sort of a peculiar aspect of immigration,” said Tom Logan of Fort Wayne, an attorney who is retired from the law firm Rothberg, Logan & Warsco.
Logan will share the story of Irish immigration to Fort Wayne and its impact during a free presentation at 2 p.m. Sunday at The History Center, 302 E. Berry St. The event is part of the center's George R. Mather Lecture Series.
Logan originally did extensive research on Irish history and immigration for a 1997 paper he presented to the local Quest Club. He also wrote the “Irish in Fort Wayne” chapter in the book “History of Fort Wayne & Allen County, 1700-2005, Volume 1.”
Logan, who is of Scottish and Irish ancestry, said the Irish came to America, and then to Fort Wayne, in three major waves.
The exodus produced a dramatic population decrease in the island nation: Between just 1841 and 1891, for example, about 3.5 million Irish left their homeland for the United States and other countries, the U.S. Library of Congress reports on its website, www.loc.gov.
During the early 1800s, Scots-Irish people of the Presbyterian faith made up the bulk of new arrivals, Logan said. They came mainly from what is now Northern Ireland to seek jobs and better economic opportunity in a land free from British rule.
Some of those men, as well as sons of early Scots-Irish immigrants who had settled previously in the East, came to Fort Wayne, became successful and helped shape the development of the city, Logan said.
Now honored by streets and parks bearing their names, they included entrepreneurs Thomas Sweeney and Samuel Hanna, future U.S. Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch, fur-trading empire founder Alexander Ewing and his sons, businessman Allen Hamilton, and the Colerick family, who opened a law office here.
The second wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s and 1850s consisted largely of people fleeing the devastating potato famine in Ireland, Logan said.
Blight destroyed the potato crop, the main source of food for small farmers and the poor in Ireland. Faced with the outbreak of disease and starvation, people who could raise the money left their homeland, most of them heading for America. Some wealthy Protestant landowners also paid immigration costs for poor Irish to save them from starving, Logan said.
About 500,000 Irish poured into America from 1845-1850, the Library of Congress website says.
Most immigrants in this wave came from what is now the Republic of Ireland, and they practiced the Catholic faith, Logan said.
The group included Logan's great-grandmother, who came to America at age 6 in 1853 with her widowed mother. Within a few years, his ancestors had settled in Fort Wayne.
Many men in this wave of Irish immigrants found work as unskilled laborers, Logan said. They helped build the Wabash and Erie Canal, which passed through Fort Wayne on its way from Lake Erie at Toledo to the Ohio River near Evansville in southwest Indiana.
As railroads began displacing the canal, the Irish worked on building rail lines and in local rail car construction and maintenance shops, he said.
By the 1870s and 1880s, Ireland had begun to recover from the potato famine, Logan said. But difficult economic and societal conditions led many people — this time, mostly women — to immigrate in search of a better future.
In the past, when the head of a household died, the family's land was subdivided equally among his sons, which created smaller and smaller land parcels, Logan said. Changes in the laws then said all land would go to only the oldest son, and any dowry would go to the oldest daughter.
The change led many men to marry later or not at all, Logan said.
Tradition also held that it would be a disgrace to the family if a younger daughter married before her older sister, Logan said. With many men unable or unwilling to marry, younger women chose to immigrate rather than wait for older sisters to find love.
The young immigrants — some not yet teenagers — found work in America in knitting mills, as household servants or in other service jobs, Logan said.
They included his grandmother, who left Ireland at age 12 with a teenage brother. Her travel expenses were paid by a Fort Wayne family, for whom she had contracted to work for seven years after arriving here.
Irish women who found work usually sent money back to relatives still in Ireland or used it to pay for their mothers and siblings to immigrate here, Logan said.
The reunited families then worked hard to build new lives in a new land.