The streets weren’t paved with gold

Waltham Watch Factory; unrestricted image from Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts Collections Online

The 2019 season of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are features an episode on the ancestors of TV personality Sharon Osbourne. Her Victorian Irish ancestors fled the potato famine, sailing to Massachusetts in hopes of securing jobs in a textile mill that would provide happy, prosperous lives in the United States. Unfortunately the reality they found was long work hours, low wages, and health conditions that led to the death of several of their small children.

I have found a similar story of crushing poverty and disastrously bad luck in my family tree. My 2nd great-grandparents were Francis McNamee and Catherine Corbett McNamee, both born in Ireland. Their daughter was my great-grandmother Catherine Agnes (Katie) McNamee Brewster. There are more details on their lives than just those given in standard census, birth, and death records, due to a large pension file created following Francis’s ill-fated service in the Civil War.

Francis and Catherine appear in New York City in 1857, when they married in St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Greenwich Village. In 1860, the couple was living in Waltham, Massachusetts, where Francis worked as a “factory operator”, like many of the immigrants in that city. In addition to a large textile mill in Waltham, a major employer of unskilled workers was the watch factory. It’s very possible that the McNamees moved to Waltham for the employment opportunities there. In Waltham, two children were born in quick succession – James in 1860, and Katie in 1861. Baby James only lived for a day, and died of “weakness”. When the Civil War began in 1861, the watch industry in Waltham was hit hard, and factories were forced to cut back on their work force. Perhaps that is what drove the McNamees back to New York City, where another son John was born in 1863.

When Frances volunteered to fight for the Union army in April of 1864, the family’s fortunes were continuing to go downhill. He signed up with the 63rd Regiment of NY Volunteers, one of the units of NY’s all-Irish “Irish Brigade”. The immigrant soldiers made a name for themselves as brave and tough fighters at major battles like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. Francis unfortunately only served for a month, as he was shot and killed in May 1864, on the first day of a conflict in Virginia known as the Battle of the Wilderness. The battle was the first meeting of generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant. The three days of fighting led to about 30,000 casualties for both sides, with Grant’s Union forces ultimately victorious. Poor Francis was killed on “picket duty”, a dangerous assignment that required small groups to scout ahead of their unit to look out for enemy movements.

The next year, 1865, the widow Catherine McNamee lost her two-year-old son John. Catherine and her daughter Katie remained in Manhattan, drawing on their small civil war pension, until the two moved to Chicago in 1875. Katie lost her pension coverage at age 16, as she was no longer considered a minor. Catherine died in 1879, a week before Christmas. Her cause of death was tuberculosis, and details provided for the pension file by daughter Katie paint a bleak picture of miserable poverty. Katie sold Catherine’s few possessions – a bed and an old stove, for $5, to pay the attending doctor. An accounting was submitted to the pension authorities for reimbursement of the minimal funeral expenses ($27.50 for a coffin, horse and carriage).

Although all the members of Katie’s immediate family had died, and she was left alone by 1879, her life didn’t turn out too badly. She married a railroad man from Dutchess County, NY, about 1881, and moved back east with him. They raised six children, but Katie sadly died young, at age 41, of the same all too common disease that her mother succumbed to.


  1. BBC One, Who Do You Think You Are, 2019
  2., Brief History: American Waltham Watch Company 1850-1957, 2018
  3., The Irish Brigade, 2019
  4. Irish in the American Civil War, 2019
  5. The Battlefield Trust, The Wilderness, May 5-6 1864, 2019
  6. Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, Picketing, Skirmishing, and Sharpshooting by Fred Ray, 2019

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