The Allisons From Ireland to Illinois

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The Allisons and McDonalds Unite

When Charles McDonald married Sarah Jane Allison on 3 February 1887 in Menard County, Illinois, two families with separate traditions were united, but both families had formed strong connections to their new adopted country. The McDonalds probably came from Scotland (though this is not yet confirmed with primary documents) and Sarah Jane’s father, James, had left Ireland to find a better life for himself and his family.

Two couples are discussed here:

James Allison (ABT 1815-?) and Nancy Sawyers (ABT 1815-?)

Sarah Jane Allison’s grandfather, James Allison Sr., was born about 1815 in County Donegal, Ireland. It is not known who his parents were. He married Nancy Sawyers before 1835 in County Donegal. Nancy Sawyers had also been born about 1815 in the same area, and her parentage is also unknown.

County Donegal (Contae Dhún na nGall) is in the northwest of Ireland. It is one of only three counties in Ulster province that did not become part of Northern Ireland. On the map, it is the light green-colored section. 2 The name comes from the Irish, meaning "the fort of the foreigners" 3. At the beginning, it was sometimes referred to as County Tyrconnel (Tír Chonaill), after the Tyrconnel earldom that was originally there.

To the north are the Derryveagh Mountains, and to the south are the Bluestack Mountains. An indented coastline forms many natural loughs. Mount Errigal at 751 metres is the highest peak. The Gulf Stream dominates the climate, creating cool damp summers and mild wet winters. Two permanently inhabited islands lie off the coast, along with a large number of islands with only transient inhabitants. Ireland's second longest river, the Erne, enters Donegal Bay near the town of Ballyshannon.

A variant of the Irish language — Donegal Irish — is still spoken; it shares traits with Scottish Gaelic. Donegal is known worldwide for its fiddles and songs; both have a distinctive sound.

It is believed that James and Nancy had four daughters and one son. They are:

James, their son, immigrated to the United States in 1859 after he married his wife in 1858, but James and Nancy remained in Ireland and, apparently, so did their daughters and their families. It’s doubtful that they saw their son, James, after he left Ireland, and James died the same year that his son left for America.

James Allison (1835-1916) and Ann Montgomery (1835-1906)

James Allison — the son of James Allison and Nancy Sawyers — was born on 18 November 1835 in Donegal County, Ireland. James was Sarah Jane Allison’s father. 4

According to Past and Present of Menard County, Illinois, James left Ireland when he was 15 and travelled to America. He returned, apparently, in a fairly short time and subsequent to his marriage “he came to believe that he would have business opportunities in the new world. In this hope he was not mistaken, for he found the opportunities he sought and by diligence and persistent energy has worked his way steadily upward from a humble financial position to one of affluence.”

James married Ann Montgomery on 11 November 1858 when they were both 23 years old (although James's birthday was seven days away). Ann Montgomery, like her husband, was born in County Donegal, Ireland; she was seven months older than him, having been born on 4 April 1835.

They came to the United States early the following year on the ship Dreadnought, arriving in New York on 21 January 1859. They located first in Delaware, where they resided for some time. In the 1860 Census, he identifies himself as a cooper 5 and a young man named William Montgomery is living with him as an apprentice. (Perhaps this was a younger brother to Ann.) There is also an Ann Allison, age 50, and a Matilda Allison, age 14, but it is not known what their relationship was to James and Ann (perhaps a sister-in-law and niece).

It is not surprising that James chose to return to the United States after his marriage. What is surprising is that he was wealthy enough to have visited America once, at the age of 15, and return to his homeland to marry and then take the arduous journey a second time. Few could afford the trip twice.

Ireland had been suffering from potato blight since both James and Ann had been born there in 1835; although Donegal County was not located in the worst of the famine areas, it still must have felt the effects. By the late summer of 1846, less than one fifth of the harvest survived. In 1847, the harvest was only ten per cent of the 1844 level. Somewhat encouraged, mass planting took place once more, but the blight returned in 1848, with the countryside "from sea to sea one mass of unvaried rottenness and decay." It was at about this time that James took his first trip to America. Blight continued to destroy the crop for the next six years, and it was not until 1855 that the total harvest reached more than half of what it had been in 1844.

As one might expect, the effect of the Great Famine on emigration was immediate. Between 1845 and 1855, almost 1.5 million people embarked for the United States. It is not surprising that Ann and James were a part of these huge migrations of the 1850s, but it was a terrible journey. Death rates were as high as 30% or more on the trip across the ocean.

For about four years, James was employed as a cooper at the DuPont Powder Company plant in Delaware. During the civil war he enlisted in a Delaware regiment, which was detailed to guard the powder plant.

After the war, in approximately 1869 (after their daughter Janie was born), the family went to Petersburg, Illinois, and took up life in the Irish Grove vicinity of Menard County. James was a farmer for most of the time they lived there, and that is how he identifies himself in the 1870 Census.

In 1838, Menard County (Map courtesy of *Wikipedia.) was separated from Sangamon County, and named in honor of Col. Pierre Menard, a Frenchman, who settled in the area in 1790. Menard was a fur trader and a member of the Indiana territorial legislature from 1803-1809. When Menard arrived in the area, Illinois was still a frontier. When Illinois became a state in 1818, it was divided between French-speaking and English-speaking citizens. Menard balanced the ticket and became the state’s first lieutenant-governor. He served from 1818 to 1822 and then returned to private life. He died in 1844.

James and Ann had seven children, three girls and four boys:

The photograph at the right, taken about 1890, shows the family of James and Ann Allison. From left to right, back row: Sarah Jane (Janie), William, James Jr., Lizzie, and John. Left to right, front row: Ann, Alex, and James Sr.

The oldest daughter, Martha, did not survive to adulthood and Sarah Jane died at the age of 24 of tuberculosis. After their daughter Sarah Jane died, James and Ann spent several years raising their granddaughter, (Nellie)[(george-and-nellie.html), who was only five when her mother died.

In 1902, James and Ann moved to Logan County, Illinois, perhaps because of failing health. Certainly both, at age 67, may have found it difficult to continue to work the farm. Ann died on 18 October 1906. The following is her obituary which appeared in the Middletown Ledger, Menard County, Illinois, on Thursday, October 25, 1906:

Miss Ann Montgomery was born in County Donegal, Ireland, April 4, 1835, and died October 18, 1906, aged 71 years, 5 months and 14 days. She was married to James Allison on the 11th of November, 1858 at BaraMore Church, Ireland.

She came to this country with her husband in 1859, settling first in Brandywine, New Castle County, Delaware. They came to Illinois about the year 1868, near Petersburg, and later moved into the neighbourhood of Irish Grove. She was the mother of 7 children, two of which have passed on before. There remains to mourn their great loss, her husband, James Allison, Sr., and five children, four sons and one daughters, namely, James, Alex, William, John, and Mrs. Lizzie Donaldson. Besides several grandchildren, she also leaves to mourn her, a sister living in Philadelphia and a brother living in Kansas.

She joined the Episcopalian Church in Ireland. While living in Delaware, in the year 1860, she united with the Presbyterian Church. On removing to Menard County, Illinois, she with her husband joined the Presbyterian Church at Petersburg, and soon after the Presbyterian Church was organized in Middletown, she with her husband, joined that church.

She was a good wife and mother, a kind neighbour and consistent Christian. The bereaved ones may well treasure her memory and emulate her good example.

The funeral services were held at Irish Grove Church at 3:30 p.m. Friday, October 19. Conducted by Rev. A.R. Allison, assisted by Rev. W.M. Conoley, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Middletown. A very large audience was in attendance.

The bereaved ones have the sincere sympathy of all the community. It is a great consolation to the stricken husband and children that she was well prepared to go. Well may they say, "she cannot come to us, but we can go to her."

James Allison survived another ten years after the death of his wife, Ann. In the 1910 Census, he is living with his son, Alex, Alex’s wife, and five grandchildren, on the very land he himself had farmed.

He died 6 April 1916 in Middleton, Illinois. His obituary from the Middeltown Ledger reads:

Another of the few remaining veterans of the Civil War of this vicinity received his final discharge when James Allison departed this life Thursday evening, April 6, 1916 at the age of 80 years and 5 months. He had been ill since last July with creeping paralysis that gradually encroached upon the seat of life to its extinction. The funeral was held at the Irish Grove Church Sunday afternoon, April 9, at 2:30 o'clock with Rev. J.H. Norris officiating. The interment was made in the Irish Grove cemetery. The pallbearers were Thos. Croft, John Becker, John Chandler, Wm. Sturgis, John Hall and C.P. Gaines, all long time friends of the deceased.

Mr. Allison was born in Ireland in November, 1835. He remained in his native country until 1858 when he was married to Miss Ann Montgomery and immediately afterward they emigrated to America. For about four years after coming to this country he was employed as a cooper at the DuPont Powder Co. plant in Delaware. During the civil war he enlisted in a Delaware regiment, which was detailed to guard the powder plant.

After the war the family came to Illinois and took up life in the Irish Grove vicinity. He was an industrious farmer and became the owner of a farm where he lived for many years and where he died. His wife passed away in 1906 and since that time he has made his home with his son Alexander at the homestead. Seven children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Allison, of whom five survive. They are, James of Commerce, Oklahoma, John, William, Alexander, and Mrs. Lizzie Donaldson of this vicinity. A daughter, Martha, died in early youth and another daughter, Mrs. Janie McDonald, died over a score of years ago. There are 23 grandchild and three great grandchildren living. The deceased was a member of the Irish Grove Church.

[This page researched and written by Susan Overturf Ingraham, a descendant of the Allisons. Last updated June 15, 2019.]

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. Map courtesy of Wikipedia

  3. A reference to the Vikings. 

  4. See map and information about Donegal County up above. 

  5. Barrel Maker 

  6. For more about Sarah Jane's life, see Charles Henry McDonald (1865-1930) and Sarah Jane Allison (1869-1893)