The Steels From Ireland to Pennsylvania

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The Steels united with the Mahoneys when Michael Mahoney married Josephine Amanda Porter in 1893.

Dennis Mahoney and Mary o’Connor, who left Ireland in the mid-1850’s to escape the potato famines, raised a family and lived out their lives in America. Their eight children and numerous grandchildren grew up and married into families that had a much older history in America than the Mahoneys — or sometimes at least a more colourful one — but many of them were also from Ireland.

Their grandson, Michael Mahoney, married Josephine Porter. Josephine was the daughter of William Cassisus Porter and Mary Amanda Turpin. Thus, the Mahoneys linked with the Turpins and the Porters. As well, through the Porter line, Josephine was related to James Steel, a Revolutionary War soldier. On this page, we take a look at Josephine Amanda Porter’s ancestors from the Steel family.

Two couples are discussed on this page:

James Steel (1741-1823) and Elizabeth Donaldson (1745 - ?)

James Steel was Josephine Amanda Porter’s great-great-grandfather. It is through James Steel that many descendants have claimed membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. A great deal of information about him comes from family research in order to prove lineage to him and his participation in the Revolutionary War. He came from Ireland.

It is believed that James Steel was born in approximately 1741 at Castleblaney (or Castleblayney or just plain Blayney), near Carrick Mauses in the province of Ulster, Ireland, and in the county of Monaghan (light green on the map), just south of what is known today as Northern Ireland.

Monaghan takes its name from the Irish word, Muineachan, which means “the place of little thicketed hills.” That name seems to fit, as much of the area is rough woodland which spreads over boggy hills; the shores are often too sodden to stand on. Long before James’s time, early Christians traveled inland to Monaghan, hoping to avoid both Viking and Norman invaders who primarily headed for richer lands in the east and west. 2

There are only three counties in Ulster, but County Cavan and County Monaghan form an unofficial "region" within the Province of Ulster called South Ulster. The town lies above the western shore of Lough Muckno, the largest lake in the county. The River Fane flows east from the lake to the Irish Sea. The Gaelic name of the lake is 'the place where pigs swim' — and the area is thus associated with the 'Black Pig's Dyke' which is an ancient Iron Age boundary of Ulster. A few miles to the north-east is the highest elevation in the county — 'Mullyash' — which rises 317 metres.

Castleblayney originated after the Tudor conquest of Gaelic Ulster, following the Nine Years’ War from 1583 to 1601. In 1611, lands previously owned by the MacMahon chieftains were granted to Sir Edward Blayney. Since the 17th century, the town has held many folk festivals, markets and fair days. During this time, the Planters from Scotland took the best land to grow flax and to raise sheep. 3 The cities in this area all seem alike — a wide main street, a church spire, a courthouse and market place, a pub and a castle, an abandoned abbey and, of course, a Norman ruin.

James Steel was married to Elizabeth McMasters in Ireland, probably in about 1761. Within ten years, he had emigrated to the United States. He most likely took with him his wife and son, Joseph. Their daughter, Jane, was born in 1781 after they settled in Pennsylvania. Like many of his time, he probably felt he had no choice but to leave his country. Unfortunately, a long history of disaster and oppression preceded him.

In the eighteenth century, the country was severely divided among religious denominations, and there were laws to protect particular groups. At that time, more than a quarter of the population was Protestant — the Anglo-Irish Anglicans made up only a minority of that group — but it was the Ulster settlers and their descendants, overwhelmingly Presbyterian, who were in the majority.

The Penal Laws were specifically designed to protect the privileges of members of the Church of Ireland, and they attempted to disenfranchise Presbyterians as well as Catholics. To those who had originally fled Scotland to escape religious persecution, these laws were intolerable. Most Ulster Presbyterians were small landholders, artisans, weavers and labourers. They were vulnerable to any natural disasters that struck Ireland while also suffering the whims of unscrupulous landlords who raised the rent whenever they pleased. The Penal Laws merely served to further disenfranchise them.

As opposition grew, there was a mass emigration from Ulster to America (of which James Steel was eventually a part). Before 1720, emigration was slow but steady, but a peak occurred in the late 1720s, and a decline in the 1730s. The famine of 1740-41 (when James Steel was born), renewed emigration, which rose steadily through the 1760s. The migration reached a climax in the years 1770-74 (when James Steel and his family joined them); at least 30,000 people left. This opposition eventually peaked during the rebellion of 1798, but James was already in America.

Aside from the obvious problems in the country, we do not know for sure why James left, but we know he was among many and we know he left when many others also left. The unrest in James’s time was often expressed by “secret societies.” One group was known as the Oakboys — so named because they wore a sprig of oak in their hats. They appeared briefly in about 1763, protesting against landlords who pressed men for road-building. Protests disappeared when their grievances were met.

Was James a part of the another “secret society”, the Steelboys? It’s possible. He may have participated, or he may have known of those who did. The Steelboy Insurrection began in 1770 when Lord Donegall, head of the Chichester family, demanded a large bonus payment from his tenants. For those who could not afford it, it meant eviction from their property. For nearly three years, the Steelboys slaughtered cattle and destroyed the property of new tenants.

These groups — the Steelboys and the Oakboys among them — represented the basic principles of Presbyterian egalitarianism and loyalty. They resented land being given to those who could pay higher rents; they were against tithes and high rents; they asked for regulation of potato and meal prices. Essentially, the Steelboys in particular were reacting to the agricultural crises of the early 1770s: crop deficiencies, low cattle prices, and high food prices.

Since James Steel left Ireland in 1771, he left before the three years of the Steelboys Insurrection were over. He was one of many Scotch Presbyterians from Ulster who left Ireland to escape religious bigotry and economic oppression (and perhaps even arrest and prosecution) — but, by 1773, one-half of Scotch Presbyterians had gone to America. A small proportion went to New England and others went to Virginia, but the greatest number took up life on the Pennsylvania frontier.

Like many of his countrymen, James Steel settled first in Cumberland County, now Franklin County, Pennsylvania, which became the centre of the Scots-Irish settlement. It is not known what James Steel’s financial situation was, but many at that time became indentured labourers, contracting to work in return for their passage. Between 1730 and 1790, many Scots-Irish who emigrated first to Cumberland County, began to move further west into Pennsylvania, then south into the Valley of Virginia, and then into the Carolina and Georgia back-country. By the 1790’s more than half the settlers along the Appalachian frontier were of Ulster lineage.

James, however, did not quite follow this pattern. After only a year in Cumberland County, he migrated west to Sewickley Manor in Westmoreland County in 1772 where he settled on the Steel Homestead — land which had been bought from the Penns. Westmoreland County is on the western side of the state, just south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with Greensburg being the county seat. Charles II of England had given the Pennsylvania region to William Penn in 1681; Pennsylvania means Penn’s Woods. Penn, a Quaker, had established the colony as a place where his fellow Quakers could have religious freedom and self-government. James would remain in Westmoreland County until his death. 4

According to several sources, many immigrants like James Steel brought with them a Protestant evangelism, a fierce self-sufficiency and a kind of political radicalism which were powerfully influential in the American Revolution. There are some who say that the Scots-Irish played a role in the war out of all proportion to their numbers. As an officer on the British side put it, “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.” It is believed that they comprised 38% of the American armies during the Revolution.

James Steel, like many of his countrymen, was a member of the Mt. Pleasant Association (Mt. Pleasant is located just south of Greenburg) and he saw service in the western country, with the Army in the Jerseys, and elsewhere as a volunteer soldier. For three years, in his middle 30’s, he was a soldier in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). His future brothers-in-law, Robert and Andrew Donaldson, were killed in battle.

James Steel’s first wife, Elizabeth McMasters, died, probably about 1783. They had at least two children: Jane, born in 1781 (died in 1823); and Joseph (born about 1781, perhaps a twin to Jane; died in 1836). Unfortunately, we do not know much about either of James’s wives, both named Elizabeth.

James married Elizabeth Donaldson (said to have been his cousin) in 1784. He would have been approximately 43 years old. Elizabeth had been born in 1745 at Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth was usually called Lizzie and she was born in 1745. James and his second wife had at least three children:

James died on 10 Sep 1823 at Mt. Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. He was 82 years old. He is buried at the Middle Presbyterian Church, Mount Pleasant township, Westmoreland County, Pennyslvania. The date and place of Elizabeth’s death is unknown. But both wives and James are buried together. Here is the Steel family headstone:

Alexander Wilson Hamilton (1768-1839) and Elizabeth Steel (1785-1834)

Elizabeth Steel was the great-grandmother of Josephine Amanda Porter who married Michael Mahoney. She was the daughter of James Steel and his second wife, Elizabeth Donaldson (See James Steel and Elizabeth Donaldson above.). She was born on 25 Sept 1785, in Mount Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

Elizabeth married Alexander Wilson Hamilton sometime after 1798, more likely in the early 1800s. Even if they were married in 1800, Elizabeth would have been only 15 (not an uncommon age to be married at that time) while Alexander would have been more than twice her age at 32. A record of their marriage can be found on in A Record of U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900.

According to the family history, Alexander was born in Ireland and emigrated to America shortly after the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

On May 28, 1798, the rebellion began in several places at once: Meath, Carlow, Kildare, Wicklow, Dublin and Wexford in the east, Antrim and Down in Ulster. They were also assisted by the French who invaded. The rebellion was crushed by the British within six months, and it became the most concentrated episode of violence in Irish history. Mass atrocities were unfortunately perpetrated amidst much chaos and confusion. By the end of the summer, the death toll on both sides was estimated at 30,000.

It’s possible, through not proven, that Alexander was a part of this rebellion. But it’s equally possible that he preferred not to remain in such dangerous conditions. He is said to have been a teacher who “understood many languages.” Whatever his situation, he had to have known of the conditions. Perhaps four of every five emigrants in the 18th century were Protestants, mostly disaffected Scots Presbyterians from Ulster. They were seen as dissenters by their Anglican landlords; they were banned from public office and had restrictions on their religious freedoms. As land rents rose, and the linen trade slackened, their own church pastors urged them to leave. After the Rebellion of 1798, things got worse when the Act of Union dissolved the 500-year-old Irish parliament. Even those who chose to leave would have continued to hear of the disasters befalling their homeland.

Alexander apparently went to Westmoreland County as soon as he arrived in America and it was there that he met Elizabeth Steel (who had, of course, been born in Pennsylvania). Since Elizabeth was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian, there is a good likelihood that Hamilton was as well.

After their marriage, Alexander and Elizabeth owned a 300-acre farm on the Clay Pike near what was called Irishtown in Ruffsdale, Pennsylvania. This area appears to be very close to where Elizabeth’s father had settled in Westmoreland County and near Mt. Pleasant where Elizabeth’s father had served with the Mt. Pleasant Association in the Revolutionary War.

Alexander and Elizabeth may have had ten children (although there are two Sarahs listed and it is unclear why):

The tombstone at Elizabeth Steel Hamilton's gravesite.

Elizabeth died before her husband, at the age of 49, on 14 Nov 1834. She is buried at the Middle Presbyterian Church graveyard, Mt. Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

Alexander Hamilton and several of his children moved west after Elizabeth’s death, in about 1838; his daughter, Eleanor, who was 20 years old at the time, remained in Pennsylvania. Alexander settled in Illinois but died shortly after arriving on 24 Oct 1839 in Geneseo, Henderson County, Illinois. He was 71 years old.

Sources used for the information in this document:

[This page researched and written by Susan Overturf Ingraham, a descendant of the Steels through Josephine Porter who married Michael Mahoney. This page updated on May 28, 2019.]

Return to Table of Contents for Exploring Ancestral Roots: Overturfs, Hansens, McDonalds and Mahoneys

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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. As a result, in Monaghan’s villages, the Scots Ulster tongue, with its Scottish pronunciations, survives to this day. 

  4. Map courtesy of Wikipedia