John McHugh (1820-1889)

John McHugh signature

John McHugh signature

Susan Rock, USA

During the period from 1815-1845, one and a half million Irish emigrated to America, Canada, and England. Many those emigrants were destined for Boston, Massachusetts – one of the least welcoming of all American cities. The descendants of the English Puritans and the Pilgrims who settled Boston were referred to as “Boston Brahmins.” The “Brahmins” believed that they were set apart from the lower classes because it had been their ancestors who were instrumental in founding America. As a result Boston’s so called “upper class” looked down upon the unskilled Irish who had begun, in their eyes, to invade their city. As far as Bostonians were concerned, the Irish were a “servant class.” As a result, jobs for the unskilled Irish who came off the ships unwashed and dressed in ragged clothing were few. Most Irish men took jobs cleaning yards or stables, pushing carts, or unloading ships. Some were fortunate enough to get a job working in a factory. Irish women became servants or cooks.

I was raised in proud Massachusetts family that, on my father’s side, traces back to the Puritans and a Pilgrim who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Growing up I knew little about my mother’s side of our family other than what I was told. Family lore had it that my mother’s family was descended from the “Mayhews,” a supposedly old and distinguished New England family. As I began my search for my mother’s ancestors, I discovered that on her marriage certificate my great, great grandmother had listed her parents as John and Rosetta (Rogers) Mahugh; her death certificate identified her parents as John and Rosetta Mayhew; and her maiden name was recorded as “Mayhew.” She also had provided the U. S. census takers with the information that her parents had been born in the state of Maine. I searched for years for any records in either Maine or Massachusetts relating to John and “Rosetta.” I found nothing. Finally, I was able to locate them by tracing one of my great, great grandmother’s siblings. As it turned out, John’s surname wasn’t Mayhew; it was McHugh, and “Rosetta” was actually Rosanna. They were both born in Ireland.

John McHugh signature
Eastport Maine–best

Patrick and Ellen McHugh’s son, John, entered this world on 24 Jan 1820 in County Leitrim. When John McHugh left Ireland is not clear, but according to his American naturalization record, he entered the United States on 7 Jun 1840 at Eastport, Maine. (I have to think that it was no coincidence that my great, great grandmother listed Maine as his birthplace.) Eastport, Maine is known as the “eastern most city in the United States.” However, Eastport is and was more like a large town than a city, so it is unlikely that a ship from Ireland or England sailed directly to Eastport. It is more probable that John McHugh initially landed in Canada, made his way to Eastport, and then continued down the New England coast to the Boston area.

No records of John McHugh have been found that cover the time from 1840 until 1853 when he petitioned for American citizenship. On his petition he stated that since entering the country he had continued to live in “Somerville [Massachusetts] and elsewhere in the United States.” By requesting citizenship, he agreed that he “never borne any hereditary title, or been of any orders of nobility; that he is ready to renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to every foreign Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereignty whatever, and particularly Victoria, Queen, as aforesaid whose subject he has heretofore been; that he is attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States of America, and well disposed towards the good order and happiness of the same.” In his petition, McHugh described his occupation as that of a laborer. Malachy Egan and Henry Colgan, both Irish and living in Cambridge (a neighboring town to Somerville), signed the petition thereby testifying that they had known John McHugh for five years. McHugh and Egan each signed his name; Colgan made his mark.

Despite stating on his petition that he had been living in Somerville, a Boston suburb, for five years, John McHugh does not appear in the U.S. Federal Census for 1850, nor have I discovered a marriage record for John and Rosanna. He and Rosanna do appear in the 1855 Massachusetts State Census. They are living in Somerville and have four children: Ellen born in 1843, Patrick in 1845, Bridget in 1849, and John in 1851. To date, no birth records for the children have been found. The “Bridget” in this census is of the correct age to be my great, great grandmother. However, the name she used on legal documents beginning when she was 16 was “Anna Beatrice.” Of course, the census taker could have made a mistake, but Anna Beatrice sounds nothing like Bridget. More than likely, her name was changed. Because while the Irish often named their children after their most favored saints, Patrick and Bridget, Bostonians in the mid-1800s frequently referred to their female servants as the “bridgets” or “biddies.” (Males were “paddys.”)

1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery

1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery—

John and Rosanna McHugh do not appear in the U. S. Census of 1860. However, on 3 Mar 1862, John McHugh enlisted as a recruit in the United States Army to fight on the side of the Union in the American Civil War. Although the Irish were still considered as the lowest rung on the social ladder, they became “useful” during the War as they helped the Union Army outnumber and defeat the Confederates. McHugh is described on the “Company Muster and Descriptive Roll” as being 5’9” tall and having grey eyes, with brown hair, and a florid complexion. His occupation is listed as “fireman,” and his age at enlistment is 33. Later documents, however, give his correct age, which would have been 44. It’s possible that McHugh subtracted 11 years from his age in order to be eligible to enlist because men of 45 were considered too old to fight. He was assigned to Company M, 1st Regiment, Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and given the rank of private.

During his service, he spent time in a Union hospital for an unexplained illness and was “absent with leave for ten (10) days from April 7, 63,” no doubt because his wife Rosanna Rogers McHugh had died on 25 Mar 1863. On 9 Mar 1864, McHugh was, having served his time, “mustered out” of the United States Army. However, on the very next day, 10 Mar 1864, he reenlisted as a veteran volunteer. John McHugh’s military record shows that he was captured by the Confederate Army on 30 Jul 1864 and held at Richmond, Virginia and then transferred on 9 Oct 1864 to Salisbury Confederate Prison in North Carolina. Conditions at Salisbury Prison during the time he was held captive are described by the Salisbury Confederate Prison Association on its website:

The real misery for the prisoners at the Salisbury Confederate Prison began in the fall of 1864. The Prison compound designed for 2,500 men was forced to handle four times that many. Due to the Union Naval blockade there was a shortage of medicine and medical supplies which resulted in terrible suffering of the prisoners and needless deaths. Throughout the South there was a shortage of food and the Prison was no exception. Eventually, all the buildings were taken over for hospital use, and the men were forced to seek shelter that cold, wet winter under the buildings, in overcrowded tents, and in burrows dug into the hard red soil. The death rate that had been only 2% before October 1864 skyrocketed to 28%.i

The Civil War ended on 9 May 1865 and Private John McHugh was “mustered out” for the second time on 16 Aug 1865.

The Massachusetts Census of 1865 shows John McHugh and his children Anna B. and Henry, born in 1856, living with a Thompson family in Somerville. He is listed as a widow. Ellen, Patrick, and John are not accounted for in this census. The older two children would have been of an age to marry or just be on their own. However, John, born in 1851, would have been 14 years old and should have been listed with his family. Since no further records for Ellen, Patrick, or John have been found, it is quite possible that not all of the McHugh children lived to adulthood. Statistics show that disease, particularly cholera, was at that time rampant in the overcrowded Irish Communities: “The unsanitary conditions were breeding grounds for disease, particularly cholera. Sixty percent of Irish children born in Boston during this period didn’t live to see their sixth birthday. Adult Irish lived on average just six years after stepping off the boat onto American soil.” ii

The year 1865 also brought happiness into the life of John McHugh. On 22 Oct of that year he married a Rebecca McClain or McLee (records differ) who was also born in Ireland. The 1870 U.S. Census shows John and Rebecca McHugh living in Somerville with John’s son, Henry, who is now 14, and their children James, age 3, and Jane Rebecca who is 3/12 months. In 1880, John and Rebecca McHugh are still living in Somerville. James is now age 13 and Jane Rebecca is 10.

John McHugh signature
Somerville Civil War Monument

John McHugh fit none of the common stereotypes the “native Bostonians” had of the Irish. Instead, he was quite the opposite–literate, courageous, industrious, and patriotic. Although the Irish played a major role in the Union’s defeat of the Confederates during the Civil War, for many their position in Boston society remained exactly as it was before the War began. In the 1870’s and 1880’s most Irish were still living in the slums. John McHugh was an exception. According to the 1880 U.S. Census, he owned his home valued at $800.00, and his personal worth was estimated at $100.00. He was one of few in Somerville who could make that claim. John McHugh died on 31 May 1889, and his widow, Rebecca, filed for his Civil War pension on 6 Sep 1890. The search for John McHugh has been long and is by no means complete. While his daughter, Bridget/Anna Beatrice may have wanted to hide her Irish roots, it is my hope that future generations will take pride in their heritage and their ancestor John McHugh–an Irishman from County Leitrim who became a true American patriot.

i     Salisbury Confederate Prison Association. 2002-2015. Their website

ii     “Gone to America.” The History Place.” 2000. Their website
3 Somerville Public Library, 79 Highland Ave., Milk Row Cenetery, MA. (A statue of a Union Soldier followed by an angel carrying and American Flag. Honors all military personnel who fought in the war.)


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