We don’t know a lot about Murtough McDowell, and we know even less about his wife, Elinor.
In fact, the only way we know her name is through a deed where on September 26, 1730, Murtough and Elinor McDowell of Baltimore County, Maryland sold to Richard Gist 100 acres on the north side of the Patapsco River. Murtough signed with an X and Elinor didn’t sign at all. It would be highly unusual for a literate female to be married to a male who could not write. So we will suppose here that Elinor could neither read or write.
If Elinor was Murtough’s only wife, she was probably born before 1700 since he was in Baltimore County before May of 1722.
Thirty years later, in 1752, Murtough’s son, Michael, sold his share in Murtough’s land. At that time, Michael would have been at least 21 years of age.
Michael also had a son, Michael Jr. that was born about 1747. We could safely say that Michael Sr. was at least 25 before Michael Jr. was born, so Michael Sr. was probably born no later than 1722. Michael Sr. could have been born shortly after arriving in the colonies, on the ship in route, or in Ireland. Marriage records in Baltimore County don’t exist prior to 1777.
Therefore, it’s likely that Elinor who was married to Murtough in 1730 was the mother of Michael – but it’s not certain by any means.
Because Michael was living in Virginia in 1752, a state where Catholics were not tolerated, we can be fairly certain that Michael was Protestant and attended the Anglican church, as mandated by Virginia law. This suggests that Michael’s parents were not likely to be Catholic either, and indeed, Murtough’s Y DNA match in Ireland lived in a solidly Protestant area – then as now.
Given that, it’s very likely that Elinor was Protestant as well, and if she was married to Murtough before he left Ireland, her family was probably from Kingsmoss, or nearby. You have to be able to court to marry – and courting probably occurred with neighbors or fellow churchgoers. Who else would he see regularly?
Let’s presume, for purposes of discussion, that Michael’s birth year was 1722. We don’t know if Michael was his mother’s first child, or her last child – or someplace in-between. Therefore, Elinor could have been anyplace from about 21 to about 43 in 1722, so a birth range for her of 1679 to 1701. I would be surprised if Elinor was born in 1701, because that would not have given Murtough much time to earn enough to pay passage to Maryland for both he and a wife.
Not only is there nothing to suggest that Michael and Elinor were indentured servants – they couldn’t have been, because indentured servants could not be married, nor could they patent land, a process which Murtough began in May of 1722.
Therefore, it’s most likely that they were over 30 when they arrived, allowing them time to amass enough pay for their passage and any of their children, so Elinor was probably born sometime before 1690.
Maryland in 1720
What was Maryland like in 1720? What did Elinor find awaiting her as she stepped off the ship that would have sailed nearly to the end of the murky Chesapeake Bay? If she arrived in late summer, the Chesapeake was body of water full of stinging jellyfish? However, the bay was also an important food source.
Did the family subsist on the plentiful seafood such as oysters and crab until they could find land and plant crops for the following year’s harvest? Where did they stay their first few days and weeks? Did they know someone who had already sailed earlier?
In 1720, according to the map above, no plantations were shown on the Patapsco River and only 4 or 5 on the north side of the inlet. Most plantations were along the water’s edge in order to build private docks for ships to moor and load tobacco for transport back to England. Tobacco was the mainstay of Maryland, and Marylanders welcomed the merchant ships that were always filled with cloth and other goods not available in the colonies.
Imported goods from the UK are listed below in the order of monetary value:
- Linen and sailcloth
- Leather wrought and for saddles
- Brass and copper wrought
- Iron wrought and nails
- Leads and shot
Goods from other foreign ports:
- East India Goods
- Wrought silks
- Iron and Hemp
In a letter to “the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” dated September 8, 1721, we find the following discussion of population:
From whence it appears, that the Inhabitants of this province have increased to above double the number in 15 years, and altho’ some part of this increase may have been occasioned by the transportation of the rebels from Preston, by the purchase of slaves, as well as by the arrival of several convict persons, and of many poor families, who have transported themselves from Ireland; yet it must be allowed, that Maryland is one of the most flourishing provinces upon the Continent of America.
Elinor and Murtough were most likely part of those poor families who transported themselves from Ireland. The colonies lured immigrants with the possibility of achieving a dream that could never be realized in Ireland – land ownership – and with that, financial independence.
Maryland was a tobacco economy, with few towns and large plantations. Small farmers did their own backbreaking work without the aid of slaves, widely used on the larger plantations as shown in this 1670 painting from neighboring Virginia.
Raising tobacco was an unforgiving mistress to which a man or a couple was in essence enslaved night and day, year-round. The tobacco crop was vulnerable to all sorts of pests and calamities – including weather and the economy.
Tobacco, shown above, depleted the soil of nutrients within just three years, so crop rotation had to be employed and a farmer had to have nine times as much land as was planted at any one time with tobacco. A single worker could tend to between 4 and 6 acres, so a farmer would have to have 54 acres of tillable farmland (plus land for a house and outbuildings) to keep 6 acres planted in tobacco. The rest was sewn in wheat or other grains to feed both humans and livestock. Of course, the goal of any “planter” was to have help, be it a son, daughter, wife, indentured servant or slave.
Women cooked, cleaned, bore and raised children, carded flax for linen and spun wool from which they wove fabrics that were then dyed and made into clothing by hand. The woman in the photo below is using a traditional Irish spinning wheel.
Cloth that was manufactured overseas and imported was beyond the reach of most farmers.
Many women also worked alongside men in the field.
Small farmers were poor by colony standards – even if they were rich by Irish standards where land was never owned by the people who farmed the land – only by rich English gentry.
In 1720, Native Americans still lived in Maryland. In fact, it wasn’t until 1744 that the chiefs of the Six Nations relinquished by treaty all claims to land in the colony, with the assembly purchasing the last Indian land in June of 1744. Murtough and Elinor probably knew and may have lived alongside Native families. Perhaps Native women shared their knowledge of herbal medicines with Elinor.
The Robert Long House located in present day Baltimore and believed to be the oldest home, shown below, dates from 1765.
Elinor may well have seen this building as she came and went, if she lived long enough – but this home would have looked nothing like where Elinor eventually lived. Most homes of small farmers were one room and had only a dirt floor. Some had a fireplace indoors which provided heat as well as a cooking area. Cooking probably occurred outside, especially in summer. The family may have had one bed, with children sleeping on straw or pallets. If they were very poor, everyone would have slept on straw, along with insects and possibly some livestock.
Estate records exist in both Baltimore and Prince George’s County during this timeframe, yet we know nothing more of Murtough and Elinor. I thoroughly searched Baltimore County records, although an extensive search has yet to be completed in Prince George’s County where Murthough’s final land grant suggests that he lived in 1732. It would be unusual for Murtough to own three parcels of land, two at his death, yet leave no estate at all to be administered.
We know that Elinor was alive in 1730, but we don’t know any more. We don’t know when or where she died, although it was likely at Pleasant Green, located on the North Run of Jones Falls – the land owned by Murtough and Elinor from 1722 when it was surveyed until Michael sold his share in 1752.
If this is the case, then both Elinor and Murtough are likely buried someplace on the 100 acres named Pleasant Green on the North Branch of Jones Falls, in the area shown below.
Unfortunately, because we don’t know of any female children born to Elinor, her mitochondrial DNA is not available to us today. Mitochondrial DNA is given by mothers to both genders of their children, but only females pass it on. Our only prayer would be if additional children are discovered, one of which is a female with descendants to the current generation through all females. In the current generation, of course, males would also carry their mother’s mitochondrial DNA.
However, there seems to be a genetic hint buried in the confusion.
I joined my kits at Family Tree DNA to the NIFHS Ballymena DNA project that represents Northern Ireland. The project administrator contacted me indicating that I match two people, both of whom are Irish, living in Northern Ireland, from the Ballymena area, about 17 miles from Kingsmoss.
Are these two matches simply chance? We don’t know.
Are these matches through Murtough, Elinor or another ancestor? We don’t know that either. It’s only a hint, not an answer.
We do know that the DNA inherited from this couple has to have originated from either Murtough or his wife. Without identifying people from either side prior to Murtough and Elinor, we have no way to sort the McDowell DNA into “sides,” meaning Murtough’s and Elinor’s DNA.
However, the final chapter of what DNA will one day reveal is not yet written.
We know that Elinor was either brave, reluctant or fool-hearty, or maybe some of each. There were no guarantees, only opportunities, but opportunities fraught with danger – beginning with a 6 week or longer ocean voyage in a small ship on a very large and sometimes angry sea. The devil you know versus the devil you don’t.
Women during that time had little say in decisions like whether to uproot the family, leave everything familiar and embark on a new life in a new land, from whence there was no return. Did Elinor have a brood of a dozen stairstep children as she boarded the ship, or was she expecting her first?
We’ll never know whether Elinor was excited about this new adventure and the future that awaited – whether she was lukewarm and set forth begrudgingly, or whether she was dragged kicking and screaming all the way to the boat. None of that mattered after they arrived in America, because there truly was no going back. She simply made the best of her life in the colony of Maryland. Was she happy? Was she homesick for the green fields and bogs of Ireland? Did she leave aging parents behind, along with siblings?
Perchance Elinor felt better about their immigration to the colonies when she and Murtough sold their land in1730. Perhaps making something of a profit made the journey worthwhile. Did she purchase a treat, perhaps an ell or two of calico to make herself a nice dress?
We are left with so many questions.
- Who was Elinor?
- Was she married to Murtough in Ireland?
- How many children did she have in her lifetime?
- How many did she bury?
- How many lived to adulthood?
- Who were they?
- Did she lose children on the ship during their journey, wrapping them lovingly as she said prayers and buried them as sea?
- Was the family confined to steerage for weeks on end?
- Did she give birth on the ship? Before birth control, women spent their entire reproductive lives either pregnant or nursing.
- Did Elinor leave small graves behind in the Presbyterian churchyard near Kingsmoss in Ireland?
- Did she bury children and perhaps Murtough in Baltimore County at Pleasant Green?
- Did she and Murtough pull up stakes a second time, moving on to Prince George’s county, as the 1732 land survey and grant suggests?
- Did Elinor wave goodbye to son Michael as he set forth on the journey of the next generation to Halifax County, Virginia – just as she had bid her relatives goodbye years earlier? The goodbye to Michael was probably final, because 260 miles to Halifax County would have taken about 26 days by wagon or about two weeks by horse.
- Did Elinor ever see her grandchild, Michael Jr.? Was he born before Michael Sr. left Maryland?
- Did Elinor have other grandchildren?
So very many questions, and no answers. Perhaps one day, the DNA of Elinor’s descendants along with currently unknown records will somehow answer at least a few of these questions.
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