Love in the Time of Fever, Famine, Fire

Mary Gardiner & Patrick Barrett Come of Age: Ireland 1847 – Missouri 1852

If history is a river, then most people would prefer to live on high ground, safely away from the flood plain. I knew the warning: don’t go near the water. But the rains come and the creeks rise and history suddenly licks at your doorstep. Life demands action.

As I lurched and detoured, accelerated and stalled on my road to maturity, it might have helped if I’d known more about my ancestors and their struggles to find life’s sweet-spot. It wasn’t till my fifties that I began to piece together the story of my great-great grandparents, Mary Gardiner and Patrick Barrett, and their coming of age as newlyweds in a new land.

Famine: Ireland

At the height of Ireland’s Great Hunger, millions were dying. And millions more were fleeing for their lives. There were seven Barretts—Pat’s parents, two brothers, two sisters, and himself—who fled the devastation in County Mayo. 

In the Gardiner family nearby, Pat’s future wife Mary and her brother were also finding their way out.

When the Irish left home during those tough times, their going-away parties were designed like wakes. At dawn, after a night of drinking and crying and blessings, the emigrants were escorted to the stagecoach for the long ride to the port of Queenstown [1]the threshold between family, childhood, and hunger on one side and the hopeful unknown on the other.

I imagine the scene. Throngs of starving people pushed and shoved their way to a vision of safety and full bellies, ready to leave forever the land they loved. The band on the dock played the up-tempo reel “St. Patrick’s Day” as everyone waved goodbye. As soon as the ship pulled away, the tempo of the tune changed to a funeral dirge. [1] Can it be any sadder than that?

In early March of 1847, 253 starving people—including the seven Barretts—piled aboard the Mertoun. The ship had come from Liverpool, England, where it had probably dropped off cotton. Now it needed ballast for its return to New Orleans. Someone had done the math: X number of human beings equals Y bales of cotton [2]. The ship battled the wintry north Atlantic for nine weeks before arriving in New Orleans. They were lucky. Only nine people died during the passage [3].

 Fever: New Orleans

The Barrett family arrived at the busy Mississippi River port of New Orleans on May 10, 1847. Mary Gardiner and her brother arrived about the same time.

The hungry Irish found themselves at the bottom of the economic food chain. Procurers haunted the docks, enticing single women into prostitution [4]. The men were expendable, less valuable than African slaves. Who cared if they died of malaria or cholera or yellow fever? Another shipload of laborers would soon arrive. So they were hired for the worst jobs: roadwork and ditch-digging and ditch-digging in mosquito-infested swamps to create canals and shipping channels in the Mississippi delta.

The Barretts and Gardiners arrived at the height of a nasty yellow fever epidemic, which would take 2,306 lives in New Orleans that year, in addition to the everyday deaths from malaria and cholera [5]. Mary’s brother was one of its victims, leaving the 27-year-old woman to fend for herself [6].

The best way out was north. But it cost money to make the steamboat passage from New Orleans to St. Louis—or you had to be strong enough to walk. The poorest and the weakest were forced to stay. Anyone with means or imagination found a way out. Historical records show that Mary Gardiner, Martin Barrett and his second son Patrick worked their way up the Mississippi to St. Louis. What happened to the rest of the Barretts? I don’t know. Their history has so far been silent.

Fire: St. Louis

St. Louis was an excellent destination—a boomtown full of work. But in 1849, shortly after the Barretts and Miss Gardiner arrived, the city suffered a tidal wave of cholera. It killed more than 7,000 people—a tenth of the city’s population.

And if cholera wasn’t enough, fire broke out on the waterfront. On May 17, 1849, the steamer White Cloud caught fire, broke loose from its moorings and, as it drifted downstream, sparked fire to the rest of the steamers. Fire spread into the city. Over the course of two days it destroyed 430 houses, twenty-three steamers, nine barges, three newspaper presses, the post-office, and three banks. Already decimated by cholera, the city was paralyzed for months to come.

In the chaos of downtown St. Louis that autumn, surrounded by grief and devastation, Patrick and Mary got married and started their family.

Farm: Catawissa

Family lore had it that, yes, the fevers were bad in the city but apparently the temptations of drinking, gambling, and womanizing were worse and Patrick was no saint. Mary Gardiner would have none of that, not after all she’d gone through, so she put her foot down. We’re outta here! So Patrick and Mary took to the road again, finding their way out of the city to the Irish enclave of Armagh near the rural village of Catawissa, Missouri—the frontier.

There in the rolling uplands of the Missouri River they found their home. They had nine more children and applied early for land through the Homestead Act of 1862. For fifty years, the Barretts farmed. The Missouri Census of 1876 records that Patrick owned 4 horses, 3 mules, 12 head of cattle, 40 sheep and 24 hogs. His 25-year-old son John owned an additional horse and 34 hogs. Their farm produced 500 bushels of wheat, 300 bushels of corn, 12 pounds of wool and 3 tons of hay. By the turn of the century, they had 324 acres of land.

Love in the Time of Fever

For Mary Gardiner and Patrick Barrett, the passage from childhood in Ireland to adulthood in America was five years of hell. They lost their homes and their families. In Ireland, on their ship, in New Orleans, and in St. Louis, everywhere they looked, someone was dying. At any moment, they themselves might run out of food again or succumb to the latest fever or give in to despair.

How do people endure? What gives some people the power not only to get by, but also to fall in love and press on to find safety, stability, and a new community?

Was it dumb luck that the Barretts survived year after year of pestilence? Or did they have a certain kind of grit? A certain kind of savvy that pushed them to the head of the soup line? A certain kind of energy that made them walk a little farther to the clean drinking water?

The one thing they didn’t do was stand still, musing about the terrible times they lived in and the imminent end of the world, hesitating… dangling. No, they lived in the moment, concentrating on getting one foot in front of the other, the next destination in mind. Don’t weep, don’t self-pity, just get going! Mayo to Queenstown, across the Atlantic, up the Mississippi, enough of cities, out to Catawissa.

Plant a potato and start a new life.

Adapted from Tribe of the Breakaway Beads: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts, Chapter 26, by Susan Barrett Price.


These notes need to be expanded and updated.

[1] Emigrant process: from Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America by Kerby A. Miller, Oxford University Press, 1985.

[2] Immigrant experience in New Orleans: From New Orleans Online,

[3] Statistics from ship “Mertoun”: From ship records at

[4] Irish women in New Orleans: from Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century, by Hasia R. Diner, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

[5] New Orleans Yellow Fever Deaths: From

[6] Mary Gardiner history: from “John T. Barrett” entry in The History of Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Crawford and Gasconade Counties, Goodspeed, 1888.

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