The Irish Tale

The Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. has conducted an intensive archaeological survey of The New Rest Haven historic cemetery site at the Deer Island House of Correction, Boston, Massachusetts. The cemetery site is located on the hillside east of the Hill Prison building.

Passengers Entering Boston by Sea, 1841-1861

PLACE OF ORIGIN        1841-1845              1846                    1851                    1856               1861 
Ireland                10,157        65,556        63,831        22,681        6,973


The initial years of the Quarantine Hospital and Almshouse at Deer Island was the period of the major influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine and disease in Ireland. Between 1847, when the institutions were established, and the end of 1849, some 4,816 persons had been admitted. Ninety—seven percent of these (4,661) were foreigners. Of this total number, 4,069 were ill upon their arrival at Deer Island and 759 died on the island. Some 721 individuals were buried on Deer Island during the years 1847-1849. These interments appear to have been made in the old Rest Haven Cemetery, located on the southern portion of the island, later owned by the U.S. government. The discrepancy between the number of deaths and the number of burials most likely indicates that some bodies were claimed by family or friends for burial elsewhere, while only the unclaimed or indigent were buried at city expense on the island.

This Is Their Story...

Between one half and one third of the Irish potato crop was lost in 1845. The spring of 1846 saw the beginning of the Irish emigration. Some farmers whose meager resources were depleted by crop failure decided to leave while they could afford passage. Failure of the 1846 crop, virtually an overnight devastation, changed the fields to "one wide waste of putrifying vegetation”. Crops in Ireland, were badly affected by the 1846 potato blight which augered the beginnings of the true famine and virtually destroyed the Irish agrarian economy.

Through the autumn and winter of 1846 farmers in Ireland were hit by the crop failure of the preceding year, exhausted their stored resources and supplies and slaughtered their animals. Undernourishment, together with the highly mobile nature of the hungry population searching for food, encouraged the spread of “famine fever,” a form of typhus. Food supplies, sent by the United States and other countries unaffected by the crop failures began to arrive in the fall and winter of 1846. Distribution of these emergency supplies was severely delayed by poor transportation facilities within Ireland.

Emigration fever spread through Ireland in 1847 among rumors that the United States would close its doors and the fear that there was a shortage of ships. This was the first year of the major emigration from Ireland. The choice came down to “quit Ireland or perish”. The already depleted resources of the starving poor were exhausted totally in the attempt to buy passage on any boat available. Brokers for the ship owners raised the rates from three to seven pounds, further increasing the strain on potential emigrants. Many went only as far as England where they provided the unskilled labor force for the growing northern factory cities. Between 1846 and 1851 over a million Irish men, women and children left their homes for the U.S. and Canada.

The voyage to North America lasted from six to eight weeks during which the pestilence which they were fleeing broke out again with a lethal fury that shocked even those who had witnessed the scenes of the preceding winter. Physicians called it “ship fever,” though it was probably a modified form of the “famine fever” or hunger typhus

Nearly six percent of the Irish who left on the ships bound for North America died at sea. Statistics maintained in 1847 for those Irish leaving Ireland for Canada indicate that total mortality, including both shipboard deaths and those who were ill upon docking and died shortly thereafter, reached approximately sixteen percent.

More than 25,000 alien passengers, many of them Irish immigrants, arrived in Boston during 1847. The numbers of ill and dying arriving in Boston was so great that during the summer of 1847 a receiving room was constructed at Long Wharf in which these invalids could wait for transportation to hospitals. That year a quarantine hospital was established on Deer Island for the express purpose of receiving alien passengers and “as a precautionary measure to ward off a pestilence that would have been ruinous to the public health and business of the city”.

Many of the immigrants of 1847 not only suffered severely from the effects of the famine at home, and their bad preparation for the voyage, but from their miserable condition on shipboard. Some of the foreign and transient passenger ships were wholly unfit to accommodate the numbers they took on board. The passengers of both sexes and all ages, were crowded together between decks, among disorder, filth and ship fever. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that multitudes found an ocean grave, that others arrived in a sad state of sickness, and others still, having contracted disease, sickened within a few days or weeks after arrival.

Large numbers of these immigrants who were sent to Deer Island never recovered. Of 4,816 persons admitted between the opening of the hospital in June, 1847 and January 1, 1850, 4,069 were sick when admitted and 759 (15.8 per cent) died on the island.

In 1849, the City of Boston confirmed their earlier decision to use Deer Island as “the place of quarantine for the Port of Boston”.

Inasmuch as it is deemed to be a settled matter that the City must support a Physician at Deer Island, and that that is the suitable and proper place to attend to all the nuisance and sickness accompanying navigation, the Committee recommended that the Port Physician have his residence there, and that all the duties in attending to such nuisance and sickness, be imposed upon him.

All ships entering Boston Harbor containing passengers or cargo considered to be “foul and infected with any malignant or contagious disease” were required to anchor at Deer Island until such time as the Port Physician gave permission to leave following removal of passengers and cleaning and purification of the vessel.