Missing Friends

Imagine the situation. You arrive in America from Ireland intending to join a relative, but they have gone away, probably unaware of your impending arrival. What to do? Phone them, I hear you say, or send an email. Did I mention that the year is 1831? Communication is slow and uncertain and an international postal system is still in its infancy. Success in communication by letter is further hampered by the fact that people are less literate. The solution for many at that time was to place an advert in the ‘Boston Pilot’ newspaper asking readers for information about the missing person and also asking all readers to spread the word that they were being sought. The Boston Pilot began taking these advertisements in 1831 and continued to do so until 1921. The paper cornered the market on this form of communication for Irish Americans on the East coast and perusal of their advertisements became a regular part of the routine of many Irish Americans. In total over 41,000 notices appeared and most are rich in detail. The notices are generally of the same format, e.g. ‘Of Richard Power (mason) a native of the city of Kilkenny, who emigrated to this country about 18 years ago and is supposed to reside in Baltimore. Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by his brother-in-law Samuel Hopkins. Please address him care of the Editor, Boston Pilot’ (22 Jan 1848). The notices contain a wealth of information on immigrants. Almost all include their place of origin and some relationship (brother, sister etc.) and a last known location.

missing friends

Some will also include a physical description and/or an occupation. The initial task of indexing and publishing these notices was conducted as a joint venture between the New England Historic Genealogical Society and NorthEastern University. They were published in 8 volumes by NEHGS from 1989 until 1993. They are now available as a searchable online database on a website operated by Boston College’s Irish Studies Programme – see The information available in these notices provides very important information on the Irish origin of a named immigrant. Some even list the townland of origin which is invaluable in locating this person within the Irish records. It can also identify relatives, the immigrant’s age, and possibly a port of departure and entry, year of arrival or occupation. Note also that the location of the persons listed is not restricted to Massachusetts or even New England but refer to all parts of the Eastern US. Whereas most adverts seek brothers or sisters of children or parents, there are also incidences of spouses seeking their errant ‘other halves’, or the robbed seeking the robber. All human life is here.

Source: The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in The Boston Pilot. Vol. 3 Ed. Ruth-Ann Harris, Donald M. Jacobs and B. Emer O’Keeffe. New England Hist. Gen. Soc. (Boston) 1991.

Other articles in our series on Irish Family Sources:

This piece, written by Dr. James G Ryan, originally appeared in the Independent Genealogist