Notes on collections and events at the RIHS
Irish immigrants to Rhode Island have forged an enduring legacy. Famous individuals such as Rev. James McSparran (1680-1757) and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) made their marks on early Rhode Island intellectual life. But where are of the Irish women recorded? Sometimes in very quiet places.
While most Irish immigration happened in the 19th Century, the R.I.H.S. is fortunate to hold a collection of letters received by a mysterious Irish woman written between 1937 and 1949. Helen K. Gorman was apparently born in Ireland, and does not seem to have married by 1949. Her collection makes up Series 11 of the Bacon Family Papers, MSS 483 SG54, which are part of the larger Hazard Family Collection, MSS 483. She was apparently a servant in Leonard and Martha Bacon’s household whose papers were left behind.
There is no confirmed census record or immigration record of a Helen K. Gorman. But her collection shows that she saved the letters she received and some pieces of her homeland such as this football program:
In her letters, she was variously referred to as “Ellie” or “Nellie” or “E.K.”; sometime she gave her surname as O’Gorman. She was born circa 1915, as her age was given as 29 on undated WWII ration book. Her correspondence is mostly from Irish-American friends and family, with some letters from overseas. Letters from Eugene Donnelly of Narragansett Pier are particularly frequent. The following chronology of her residences was culled from envelopes and postcards:
Leonard Bacon (1887-1954) was the son of Nathaniel T. and Helen (Hazard) Bacon. A renowned poet, he lived in Peace Dale and in California. In 1912, he married Martha S. Stringham (1891-1967). They had three daughters: Martha, Helen and Alice.
Like with many collections, there are only the letters she received as the letters she sent were scattered to the people to whom she sent them. But she was obviously a good correspondent. One of the most touching items is a note from her niece in Ireland, Bernadette:Ms. Gorman’s last known address was with Helen Bacon in 1949 which probably attests to why her materials were found with the Bacon family papers. She travelled with the Bacon family and in March-May 1948, and April 1949 she went with family on vacation to Mission Hill, Cal. where Leonard had inherited an estate from his aunt, Caroline Hazard.
In the 19th century, the Irish were the first large wave of immigrants to Rhode Island beginning in the 1830s. By 1850 they constituted 69% of the foreign-born inhabitants to the state with approximately 23,000 people. In part because of this influx, nativist sentiment in Rhode Island reached a fevered pitch in the 1840s and 1850s contributing to the Dorr War and the 1843 state constitution that established a real estate requirement for foreign-born voters.
The number of foreign born Irish population peaked in 1890 with 38,920—the highest total for any immigrant group in the state’s history as of 1970.
One of the most interesting Irish immigrant resources at the R.I.H.S. for this time period are the signature books in Series 8 of the Providence Institution for Savings Records, more commonly known as the Old Stone Bank Records. Many of the depositors were Irish immigrants, particularly women. These seem to be records of single women or private accounts of married women—apparently some 19th century “mad money”.
Although the signature books of depositors start in 1844, they really get interesting in 1882 when the birthplace of the signers was added to the information recorded. And starting in 1890 parents’ names are included. There were so many Irish account holders that their birthplaces are listed only by Irish county without even needing to name the country.
Staff at the R.I.H.S. have been building a name index for these Signature Books funded by a private donation. So far volumes 17 (1890) to volume 21 (1893) have been done. There is also an index to Depositor Ledgers A, B, C & D in Series 7. Both of these are available at the Robinson Research Center.
~ Phoebe Bean, Librarian
Conley, Patrick T. The Irish in Rhode Island: A Historical Appreciation. (Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 1986).