Letter from Ireland, 1870

In my collection of documents is a copy of this wonderful letter, written to my great-great-grandfather, John (or William John) Miller, by his father, Peter. Peter and his wife, Margaret, were still living in Broughdone, near Cullybackey, in Northern Ireland at the time, and John and his family had settled in Scott County, Iowa.

Broughdone, Cullybackey
Co. Antrim, Ireland
18th July, 1870

Dear Son,
We received your letter on the 12th July and to tell you the truth we were agreeably surprised. We had well nigh given up all hopes of receiving any more letters from you, and were about to set you down as one of those ungrateful children, who have as their motto “out of sight — out of mind”. But we are glad to find that you have not altogether forgotten us, and now when you have begun we hope your letters will not be like angels’ visits: few and far between, but that you will write often. We are happy to inform you that, we are, thank God, in our usual health. Your mother and I however, are fast declining and it is surprising how much we have failed during the last few years. A few years more, and the places which know us now will know us no more for ever.
We were exceedingly glad to hear from you, your wife and family, and there was a great demand on the part of your own friends, and those of your wife’s to hear your letter. Your letter was very satisfactory in all points; however I would like you to mention in your next letter what you have to pay yearly for your farm in the shape of rent and taxes. You also neglected to inform us whether your two younger children were boys or girls; and what is their names. Your mother was very glad to see little James’ likeness, and she maintains it very much resembles yourself. She also thanks you for your kind remembrance of her, and hopes you will not neglect to write soon and often. The rest of your brothers and sisters with their families are well and in much the same position as when I last wrote. Mathew has 5 children alive, Jenny 7, Peter 5, Margaret 3. Nancy Ann’s friends are all in their usual good health. William was in our house yesterday and had a letter from Australia from James. He was in good health, and Samuel, Thomas’ son was living with his Mother as yet. John Megaw and family are also well. In fact both your friends, and your wife’s are much in the same condition as when you left. Brother James is still in Teeshan School and succeeded very well at teaching a Science Class, for which he will be well paid.  As regards the crops this year they look very well. Some parties have tried their new potatoes, and they are generally well spoken of — the only drawback being the wetness of the weather, for some times past, which may injure the otherwise abundant harvest.  Trade has been pretty fair for some time, food cheap, and pretty fair wages for working men, compared with what formerly prevailed. There is a prospect of a great depression in trade, and a rise in the price of provisions, owing to a frightful war which is commencing between France and Prussia, and in which all the nations of Europe may eventually be engaged. We were glad to hear that Old Samuel is in good health, and hope he may long continue so. All your old neighbours and friends are in good health. Mathew Calderwood and family are well, but William John Calderwood has long been in a delicate state of health, and is but little better. Robert Lavender and family are well. Alexander and William John with their families are still living at Broughshane, and are doing prosperously. Hugh Crilly and family are well, and all your other neighbours having friends in America.   In conclusion we have only to request that you will answer this as soon as it reaches you and that you will not again be guilty of being so long of writing, so that no apologies will be required, and may God bless you, your wife and family is the earnest prayer and desire of
Your father
Peter Millar
Mr. Peter Millar
Co Antrim

P.S. We would wish that in your next letter you would send us your own address that we may send your letters direct. J.M.

There are several questions that arise from the letter, some of which can be answered, and some that will probably be unknown forever. To begin with, we can answer Peter’s questions with the 1870 U.S. Census record from Davenport, Scott County, Iowa.

Image from 1870 U.S. Federal Census, Scott County, Iowa, from Ancestry.com.

In this record, John and Nancy were listed with six children and Nancy’s father, Samuel Megaw, or “Old Samuel,” as Peter refers to him in the letter. “Jinny” would be Jemima, and “Harriet” would refer to Henrietta. The other names are clear in the record. John apparently neglected to mention the names of Henrietta and Mary in his letter, and enclosed a nice picture of James, which would be nice to see. The census also partially answers Peter’s question about rents and taxes. According to this, John owned land worth $8000, though I don’t know what his taxes would have been at that time. An online inflation calculator would value that at over $160,000 in todays dollars.

Of the family Peter mentions in Ireland, the facts are not so clear. We know that John had an older brother named Mathew, born around 1827. He was still living in Broughdone at the time of the 1901 Census, married to Jannie Simpson, with four children:

1901 Census Record, Broughdone, from the National Archives of Ireland

Unfortunately, the ages of his children do not match up with Peter’s account in his letter, though all would have been alive in 1870. So either Peter is a bit mistaken, the census record is wrong, or he’s reporting on a different Mathew. Since the family names are frequently repeated – and this is an understatement – the latter is certainly a possibility.

Nancy Ann Megaw, John’s wife, had several brothers, including William, James, Thomas and John. According to a descendant, William was a schoolteacher. James had moved to Australia by 1865, and had at least one son, David, who wrote back to Ireland. I’m unsure who “Brother James” refers to, but Teeshan is a nearby town.

Interestingly enough, a second look at the 1870 Census record for Iowa will bring up James Calderwood, who is listed with his family next door to John. No doubt there is a connection to the Calderwoods mentioned in the letter.

And what about Peter and Margaret? From Griffiths Valuation of Property in Ireland, 1862, we have the following from Broughdone:

Because of the common nature of the name, we can’t be 100% certain that this is our Peter Millar, but on line 16A and B under Broughdone, there is a Peter Millar listed. We can also find Robert Lavender mentioned in the letter. The first column of numbers indicates the size of the land parcel in acres, roods and perches, the latter two being smaller units. So Peter would have owned a little over 13 acres of land. The third column of numbers is the amount of tax collected from the buildings on the tenement, i.e. a house or office. In Peter’s case, 1 pound is a small amount of tax, indicating a small cottage with 2-3 rooms. The photo at the top of the page was taken in 1927 of the “birthplace of John Miller,” and at least by appearances, bears out the tax report.

Peter wrote this letter the day before Napoleon III of France declared war on Prussia. The Franco-Prussian War lasted for a little less than a year, concluding with the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871. Without going into too much detail, Peter is inadvertently correct in his prediction. Prussia’s success in the conflict is generally credited with consolidating German power in Europe and contributing, eventually, to two World Wars.

From Civil registration records, it appears Peter died in March of 1879, though again, the name is very common, so this needs to be confirmed. At this time, I have not yet found a death record for Peter’s wife, Margaret.

Can You Help?

The letter I have in my archives is a copy of the original. I received the copy from my great-aunt, Allen Huxman, many years ago, but I have no idea where the original is and if there are more letters. And I’d love to see the picture of James that is referred to. If you know of these documents or have any other information relating to the Miller or Megaw families, please contact me. Descendants charts and more information for these families can be reached through the buttons below.

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