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The Boston Pilot in the 1840’s

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Another significant era of local newspapers, representing the Boston Catholic community and its interests, has been digitized and made available freely online. The Boston Pilot, or Pilot as it came to be known, was the premier communication channel for Boston Irish for much of the nineteenth and 20th centuries. The 1840s, due to the huge influx of Catholic immigrants into Boston and the political activity in Britain and Ireland in this period, document a particularly dynamic time for these immigrants.   

As a primary resource for scholarship, the Boston Pilot holds interest for those studying Theology, Irish, European and American history and literature, as well as culture, politics, immigration, and genealogy. The long history of the newspaper is intertwined with the history of Boston College, the Boston Irish Community, the Archdiocese of Boston, the Catholic Community as a whole, and the Jesuit Order in particular.

The paper was founded in 1829 by Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick, the second bishop of Boston and a Jesuit priest.  Bishop Fenwick’s congregation consisted mainly of French and Irish Catholics. During his tenure, the number of Irish immigrants grew.  Between 1821 and 1830 the average number was 5,000[1].  Though the paper reached out to immigrants of all nationalities, it had a particularly Irish focus, especially when   Bishop Fenwick sold the publication  to H.J. Devereaux and Patrick Donahoe in 1834[2].

Early issues of the Pilot offer invaluable insights into the tumultuous years of a city, a state, and a nation as it grappled with the establishment of a government, a political system, changing demographics and finding a tolerance for new religious and ethnic groups.

In the 1840’s Irish immigrant numbers reached 78,000 per year, and the Pilot was a major resource for the Boston Irish immigrant community[3]. The Pilot presented knowledge on religious and political matters and provided opportunity to debate those matters. It also became the vehicle for finding missing loved ones through its “Information Wanted” advertisements.

Even with a  focus on information from Ireland that included  poetry, stories, and news articles geared to those newly arrived, religious matters are prevalent throughout.

The issue of May 2 1846, featured a report reprinted from the New York Tribune on Bishop John Hughes’ visit to Europe. The Bishop shared information about his trip at his home cathedral, that is, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC. The news reporter captured what he could from the Bishop’s remarks. One main reason for the trip was to visit the ailing President of St. John’s College.  Other “collateral objects” of his visit included the establishment of a hospital in New York that would be under the charge of the Sisters of Charity.  This, reported the Bishop, was ‘in a fair way of being accomplished soon.’  The Bishop acknowledged the local policy that disallowed any religious instruction to be incorporated in Common Public Education, and, on his trip, he wanted to investigate how to deal with this and still ensure that young people had the opportunity to advance in practical education that would lead to gainful employment, and be morally upstanding citizens.  The Bishop also shared a few impressions of England, France, and Ireland. The first thing to strike the traveller to Europe, according to Bishop Hughes was the physical condition of the people: “the division of classes; the possession of hereditary wealth with its vast power of self-increase; the general poverty and feebleness of the laboring classes, and their inability to contend against the more favored classes.”  The most depressed country in his view was Ireland.

On May 1, 1847, one of the many short pieces relating to the Catholic Church related how the Sultan of the Island of Bauka insisted on the rites of baptism for himself and all his family from the Catholic priest at Singapore. The Sultan offered to build a church at his own expense in the principle town of Bauka.

The paper’s name changed over the years, reflecting its mission and target audience. The masthead followed suit. In the 1840’s it changed twice, but each graphic poignantly reflected its Irish immigrant readership.

 In Volume ix, No, 1 January 3, 1846 Under the editorship of Patrick Donahoe, the paper’s masthead  featured an eagle representing the United States with a chain in its mouth from which hangs a harp, with a winged maiden as the forepillar and a chain of shamrocks around and about the harp. The symbols of the harp and the shamrocks represent Ireland. The text on the masthead reveals its patriotic nature.

“Be Just, and Fear Not- Let All the Ends Thou Aim’st At Be Thy God’s, Thy Country’s and Truth’s”

Be Just, and Fear Not- Let All the Ends Thou Aim’st At Be Thy God’s, Thy Country’s and Truth’s

In the issue of January 1, 1848, the paper, still edited by Patrick Donahoe, featured a different masthead.

“Be Just, and Fear Not- Let All the Ends Thou Aim’st At Be Thy God’s, Thy Country’s and Truth’s”

Three women make up the center of the graphic, one on the left wearing a sash across her dress that says, America, one on the right carrying a sash with Ireland written across it, and one that rises above in the middle that looks to be representing Lady Liberty. A large is eagle on the left side, a harp on right side.  The female figure representing America is reaching out a hand to touch the shoulder of a dejected young woman who carries the sash with Ireland written upon it. The masthead features the same motto.  Each graphic links Ireland and America, but the role of the United States as supporter and consoler is quite evident the image from 1848. The importance of liberty for both nations is emphasized.

Reports on progress of acquisition of the Oregon Territory, including in the issue of January 3, 1846, a speech of William Smith O’Brien, minister to British Parliament from County Limerick, Ireland.  O’Brien laid out reasons why England should not go to war with the United States over the territory. He listed the number of wars or invasions in which England had engaged over the past decade, and mentioned how the colonies already under British rule, some tropical, were much better suited to attracting emigrants from England than the barren Oregon territory.  He went on to say however, that the at least half million Irish who had already immigrated to the United States in the last twenty years just might seek opportunity there and be under institutions and government that they had chosen for themselves.

Issues from the weekly paper in 1847 included reports on the Mexican War, Daniel O’Connell’s efforts to repeal the Act of Union, the act that created the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and did away with the Irish Parliament in Dublin, and, of course, reports on the horrific potato famine in Ireland.  Appeals from Pope Pius IX, Daniel O’Connell and many others encouraged aid to Ireland.

In the Boston Pilot issue of April 3, 1847 there is a letter from Captain R.B. Forbes thanking President John Denny, Laborers Aid Society. Denny offered members of his society to load, free of charge grain onto the Jamestown, the ship slated to carry relief to Ireland.

Members of both the U.S. House and Senate advocated for a bill that would send relief to Ireland. No such legislation passed, however, Congress did pass legislation that allowed the use of two navy ships for the purpose of delivering relief to Ireland. After a  very successful journey of only fifteen days  the Jamestown delivered over 800 tons of foodstuffs from Boston.

In the issue of May 1, 1847 a column records the expression of gratitude of many Irish, including those in Cork for the foodstuffs received and for the knowledge that the American people cared to send aid.

The Information Wanted column that began with one ad in 1831appeared weekly for the next eighty-five years:

As stated in The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot, Volume I:1831-1850, between 1831 to 1845, 1,108 people were sought. Between 1846 and 1850, 4,547 people were sought, indicating the increase in number of immigrants during and after the famine years.

Lastly, literature, whether reprints of articles, or newly published poems, short stories, and serialized stories appeared with each issue.  Also prevalent were advertisements for newly published works, such as an ad in the issue of January 3, 1846 for a splendid edition of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh by a Philadelphia publisher.

Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh

This brief article barely scratches the surface of the news that the Boston Pilot reported in the eighteen forties.  Readers are encouraged to read other issues on newspapers.bc.edu, and be on the lookout for other issues to become available digitally.

William Cardinal O’Connell, an 1881 graduate of Boston College, the second archbishop of Boston and the first native cardinal of Boston, purchased the Pilot in 1908 to serve as the official voice of the Archdiocese. It is still in publication.


[1] Riley, Arthur. “Early History of the Pilot.” (March 8, 1930).

[2] Tracy, Donis. “The Pilot Enters 175th. Year.”  Pilot.com, posted 9/3/2004, accessed 2/1/2108

[3] ibid.