America’s Remarkable First Humanitarian Mission: Widespread Aid to Ireland During the Great Famine

By Stephen Puleo

Stephen Puleo, author of Voyage of Mercy, discusses the remarkable story of the mission that inspired a nation to donate massive relief to Ireland during the potato famine and began America’s tradition of providing humanitarian aid around the world.

An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store by Daniel MacDonald, c. 1847.
This image is in the Public Domain via WikiCommons {{PD-US}}

I describe my book, Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission as a story about hope, generosity, and soaring goodwill against a backdrop of nearly unfathomable despair. And like any story with such powerful themes, its lessons run deep and its ramifications are measured in decades rather than days.

Voyage of Mercy recounts for the first time the remarkable and unprecedented relief effort by the government and citizens of the United States to assist Ireland during the terrible famine year of 1847, the first time the United States—or any nation, for that matter—extended its hand to a foreign neighbor in such a broad and all-encompassing way for purely humanitarian reasons.

Prior to 1847, the bulk of interaction between nation-states consisted mainly of warfare and other hostilities, mixed with occasional trade; the entire concept of international charity existed neither in the moral consciousness nor as part of the political strategy of monarchs or elected leaders. If anything, such a gesture toward a foreign nation would likely have been viewed as a sign of weakness.

The most visible and most celebrated component of America’s first full-blown charitable mission was the voyage of the USS Jamestown, a retrofitted warship embarking on a mission of peace that most visibly symbolized the widespread willingness of the American people to assist victims of the Irish famine.  More than 5,000 ships left Ireland during the great potato famine in the late 1840s, transporting the starving and the destitute away from their stricken homeland. The Jamestown was the first vessel to sail in the other direction when it left Boston in March 1847 loaded with precious food for Ireland.

The voyage itself and the subsequent outpouring of charitable relief captured hearts and minds on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, the events of 1847 have served as the blueprint and inspiration for hundreds of American charitable relief efforts since, philanthropic endeavors that have established the United States as the leader in international aid in total dollars and enabled it to assist millions of people around the world victimized by famine, war, and catastrophic natural disasters.

The two main characters in the book, Jamestown Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and Irish priest Rev. Theobald Mathew, are compelling figures in their efforts to assist the people of Ireland. Yet, what truly inspired me about this story were the actions of what thousands of other real-life characters, who together make up a single collective character of sorts: the American people.

I had known something about the Jamestown voyage before researching this book, but I was completely unaware of the enormous scope of U.S. relief effort to Ireland in 1847–48, the widespread generosity of Americans from all walks of life during a time when the very act of survival and supporting one’s own family presented a grueling daily challenge and was far from guaranteed.

That Americans from across the United States contributed to Irish relief was extraordinary enough, but it was the nature of most of their donations that was most impressive. This was not a matter of entering credit card information or dropping off a bag of canned goods, though these are certainly generous acts in their own right. While many people sent small amounts of money in 1847, most donated food that otherwise would have been used to sustain their loved ones. Farmers furrowed the ground, laid the seed, nurtured the plants, and harvested the crops—beans, corn, barley, wheat and much more. Then they took a portion of those goods, packaged them in burlap sacks or wooden kegs, and delivered them by horse-drawn wagon to river ports, where rafts and small boats carried them to larger ships that navigated broader rivers and the Erie Canal. From there, the food made its way to major Atlantic ports like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where dockworkers loaded it upon ocean-sailing vessels bound for England and Ireland.

Farmers and planters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, western New York, and western Massachusetts, in the mid-Atlantic states, across the South and along the Mississippi—all of them literally took food out of the mouths of their own family members, or food they would normally sell at market to buy goods for their cabins and farms, and shipped it to strangers thousands of miles away.

It was as though Americans looked at their own children and felt the pain of Irish parents who were watching their own youngsters starve. Or perhaps Americans appreciated the poetic, if mournful, symmetry of sharing the abundant bounty produced by their fertile fields with people whose land was blackened by blight and whose major crop rotted with disease.

Whatever the exact reason, such sacrifice and generosity were breathtaking to me, and I’ve thought about this often, especially when I walk into a supermarket and, almost without giving it a second thought, reach for virtually any food item I choose to buy. How much food would we give to strangers today if our survival, our families’ survival, depended on planting, growing, cultivating, and harvesting everything we needed?

And maybe because Americans knew they were part of something much larger than themselves in 1847, the widespread desire to provide relief to Ireland also unified the United States—for a short time at least—in a way it hadn’t been since the adoption of the Constitution sixty years earlier, and probably not again until the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly a century later drew the United States into World War II. Charitable contributions of any kind at any time are worthy and noble; the American humanitarian mission to Ireland during the 1847 potato famine was something special altogether. Not only did the Jamestown voyage and the widespread U.S. relief effort define the country’s generosity and establish its emergence on the world stage, not only did it cement bonds between Ireland and the United States that remain strong to this day, it also signaled a sea change in the affairs of nations, advancing the notion that gestures of philanthropy and brotherhood, rather than signs of a nation’s weakness, were displays of quiet strength and moral certitude.


Credit: Kate Puleo

Stephen Puleo is a historian, teacher, public speaker, and the author of seven books, including Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919; American Treasures: The Secret Effort to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address; and The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War.  A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, the Boston Globe, and other publications, he holds a master’s degree in history and has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Suffolk University.  He and his wife Kate reside in the Boston area.

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