Endurance: Irish Immigrant Phebe Monaghan Irvine (1832-1908)

“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” ~ W. B. Yeats

It being near to St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d look for some Irish in my tree. But, it appears there are no Irish born ancestors in my pedigree. The closest relation I’ve come across is the wife of my 2nd great grand uncle, Tellsford Irvine (1827-1859). Her name was Phebe Monaghan, and her life wasn’t filled with much luck. The Irish, as we know, are about as unlucky as a race can be, and Phebe’s life fit the pattern.

Phoebe was born in 1832, in Ireland. Her father was Charles Monaghan. He 40 years old at the time of her birth. Phoebe was the third of four children. Her older siblings, twins Jane and John, were 2 years old when she was born. Her brother, Charles, was born the year after Phebe. I don’t know what part of Ireland the Monaghans came from, but Charles identified himself as a farmer, so perhaps they came from a rural area.

Passenger list - ship Metoka - 1842

Passenger list – ship Metoka – 1842 (CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

Charles Monaghan immigrated to the United States the summer of 1842 with his four children. Presumably, the children’s mother had died. Like many Irish Catholics of that time, it was probably to escape persecution and poverty that Charles made the voyage across the ocean with his young children. They sailed aboard the ship Metoka, their belongings held in just 3 boxes. The Monaghan family, along with 771 other passengers, arrived in New York harbor on Thursday, August 11, 1842.

Where the family located immediately upon arrival is uncertain. Being rural folk, they may decided to leave the big city and travel west via the Erie Canal. 7 years after their arrival in New York, Phebe is found in the 1849 Rochester City Directory living at 14 North Saint Paul Avenue working as a domestic. She was 17 years old. While there are 6 other Monaghans listed in the 1849 directory, her father and siblings are not among them. But it’s likely that these other Monaghans were related to Phebe in some way; I cannot imagine Phebe being alone in a city at that age.

Upper Falls in 1865

Photo Credit: “From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab” (CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

On November 14, 1849, Phebe escaped the servant’s life and married 22 year old Tellsford Irvine. Tellsford was a Canadian Catholic of Scots-French descent. He was a blacksmith by trade and found work with with the Rochester & Southern Railroad. Tellsford and Phebe made their home in the city’s 2nd ward, west of the Genesee River and east of the Erie Canal, not far from the Upper Falls.



The year after their marriage, Phebe gave birth to a son, William, named for Tellsford’s father. Sadly, little William did not survive; he died October 21, 1850, and was buried at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery. In 1852, the couple welcomed another son, Charles.

Susan_B_Anthony_c1855Tellsford and Phebe lived during an interesting time in the history of Rochester. The population was near 40,000 people, making it the 21st largest city in the nation. Industry in the city was growing and the University of Rochester was founded. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Rochester became a hub for the abolitionist movement with leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony making important speeches. Rochester was a significant stopping point in the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves heading to Canada for freedom.

Before the War broke out, Phebe lost her husband. Tellsford died April 12, 1859. He was just 31 years old. How he died is not yet known; perhaps a railroad accident? Phebe was made a widow at age 27 and left with not only a 7 year old son to support, but the couple had taken in Phebe’s 5 year old niece and namesake, Phebe Smith. Presumably, the daughter of her sister, Jane. What happened to Jane and her husband that their daughter (and, as will be seen later, a son as well) was left an orphan?

It appears that Phebe’s younger brother, Charles, came to the young widow’s aid. The 1860 U. S. Census shows Phebe working as a seamstress and Charles as a machinist. I’ve seen many men listed on the 1860 Census working as machinists who were employed with the railroads, so though Charles’ employer is not  named, it’s a safe bet that he, too, worked with the railroad. They were big employers at that time. Of note on the census is that Phebe owned the home they lived in. Sadly, it was of little value ($1200) compared to the homes of neighbors on either side of her ($6000 and $8000).

1860 Census
The location of her home in 1860 may be at the same address where Phebe is found listed in the 1863 Rochester City Directory: 49 Jay Street. If so, Phebe was to live on Jay Street for the next 49 years.

On November 11, 1864, tragedy again struck Phebe’s life — her 12 year old son Charles, died. The loss of her mother … he firstborn … her sister … her husband … and then her only surviving child. How did she endure? In the months to come, the rest of the nation would also mourn, as President Lincoln was assassinated in April, 1865. About the same time there was devastating flood in Rochester, bringing even more disaster close to home for Phebe.

1865 Flood on State St.

Photo Credit: “From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab”

Phebe may have received some comfort when her father, Charles, came to live with her. The 1865 NY Census lists the 74 year old Charles living with Phebe. This 1865 Census is the only record I’ve found for Charles Monaghan beyond his name on the 1842 Metoka passenger list. Curiously, 11 year old Phebe Smith is not with them on the 1865 Census. The enumerator may simply have missed the child, as on every census record afterward, Phebe Smith is listed living with her Aunt Phebe.

Phebe’s neighbors on Jay Street included many immigrant families, and that didn’t change over the years. By the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, Charles Monaghan may have died, for Phebe and her niece are living alone on Jay Street. The value of her home had dropped to $200, a mere 10% the value of her neighbor’s homes. Though Phebe (age 40) is listed as “keeping house,” city directories and later census records continue to show her working as a seamstress or tailoress. At the time of the 1870 Census, Phebe’s brother-in-law, Arthur Irvine, was also living in Rochester, along with his wife Belle and infant son Charles. It’s good to think that with the loss of so many loved ones, Phebe had some family living in Rochester … at least for a while. (Arthur later moved to McKean County, PA)

1904 map of Rochester

1904 map of Rochester – Location of Phebe’s home on Jay Street marked in red.

Phebe never remarried. She was a widow for almost 50 years. Her niece, Phebe Smith, remained living with her and she never married. Both women worked as seamstresses. Though many seamstresses listed their services in the city directory, Phebe did not. Yet, somehow, eventually she was able to purchase a home of greater value, also on Jay Street (see the 1900 U. S. Census). It was a two-family home and she rented out one side. In 1894, she had the deed for the property re-written to include her niece.

Phebe watched the world change around her as a result of the industrial revolution. In her lifetime, she saw Rochester grow from a frontier town to thriving city. The modern world intruded nearly to her doorstep when the city installed a street car line right down the middle of Jay Street, stopping just at the end of her block. The 1890 photo below shows employees of the Rochester Railway Company posing with street car #123. A sign indicates the car ran along the New York Central Station, Allen, Jay and St. Joseph Street line. Did the 68 year old Phebe ride the street car? Probably so!

1890 Street Car

Photo Credit: Rochester Public Library Local History Division

Another archival photo provides a view of Jay Street as it looked in 1900. The street car track ran down the center of the street, but it stopped just a block short of Phebe’s home.

Street Car Track on Jay Street

Photo Credit: “From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab”

Phebe died at age 75 on October 6, 1908. She was laid to rest with her husband and two sons at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery. Phebe Smith remained living in the house on Jay Street, eventually joined by her brother Thomas. She lived there until her death in 1932.

The Entrance to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Rochester, N.Y.

Photo Credit: “From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab”

Reflecting on Phebe’s life, a word which comes to mind is endurance. She went through so much: the loss of her mother, her homeland, her sister, her husband, her children. My hope is that she found peace in life, despite so much sorrow, through her Catholic faith. Perhaps the famed Irish poet, Thomas Moore, expressed the faith Phebe held in this poem.

Is it not sweet to think hereafter


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