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William Orr

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William Orr was born in northern Ireland in 1825. He emigrated to the United States in 1837.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please contact Immigration History Research Center staff for permissions not covered by this Creative Commons license.

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William Orr Transcription

“Family: The Gift that Lasts Forever”

In October of 2015, my father passed away a day before his 65th birthday. Shattered, I was forced to live on without him. In his lifetime of belongings, I came upon a couple of texts that retold our family’s history of immigrating to the United States and some stories of those first generation Americans. In these texts, I was able to find a common thread. Love of family no matter the circumstances and a love of laughter.
When my great, great, great grandfather William Orr left Northern Ireland for America in 1837 he was but 12 years of age. He remembered, “The home leaving was a sorrowful one, and the journey on foot, too, for our good neighbors accompanied us for miles, turning back as they grew tired, crying and saying ‘the Lord have mercy on you and guard your soul, we will never see you again,’ which proved true, as none of us ever returned to our childhood home where tho’ poor and humble, we spent the happiest days of our life.”
He ended up in Watkins, N.Y. where his love of home and family always came first. He recalled one such prank. “I was young for the work which my master required of me-hoeing potatoes- and in the afternoon of the first day, tired and warm and feet hurting, I planned a way of escape. I took off my shoes and purposely left them in the potato patch, then after supper, told the man I had to go out and get them. I grabbed them and ran as hard as I could home and never went back.”
Eventually he became “bound out” to a Reverend Rolette, a minister and farmer. He was able to negotiate schooling every winter, which aided him in later years becoming a teacher. He even taught eventual Speaker of the House of Representatives David B. Benderson. But what he remembered most was, “how the Reverend got a day behind in his calculations because of a holiday, and one Sunday A. M. he ordered us out to work, and we went, thinking it a great joke. Soon church bells began to ring, the people drove by looking and wondering at the person working on the Sabbath. Finally we told him why the bells were ringing (for church) and he was so humiliated he never preached again. My family and I laughed about it every Sunday thereafter.”
Although he came from very little, he truly embodied the American spirit and made his a story of success, focused on family. And he began a family that still exists today. My favorite memory of his was how his siblings and he would question his mother about the Bible, which she read to them along with Irish folk-lore, fairy tales, and superstitions. “I recall, how in answer to our questioning, she told us heaven could be seen from the tops of the sycamore trees (in our yard). We nearly broke our necks climbing to the topmost limb and then were disappointed.” I love the image of my ancestor, full of hope only a child can possess, rushing from their humble abode to climb and see heaven. I think that resolve to learn, to see, to discover aided him in forging a life in America, and his legacy lives on today in family.