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  • James Wheeling

Missing Friends – An early form of "Find My Phone"

I will likely never know what it is like to go somewhere without an understanding of what I am going to do once I arrive. Technology helps me locate a ride, book a hotel and find my evening meal without too much trouble. And then there is the calamity of losing my phone.

But, in 1849, ships were arriving in Boston Harbor with family members on board who only had the clothes on their back and the relative’s name who had sent them the money for passage. If they were fortunate, they had enough money to find food and a place to sleep until they located the relative. What happened next?

Enter the state-of-the-art solution for finding the relative working somewhere in America: The Boston Pilot’s“Missing Friends” column. Having published its first issue in 1829, The Boston Pilot, known as The Pilot in 2019, is the longest continuous publication and claims the title of “America’s Oldest Catholic Newspaper.” Starting in 1831, it was at The Boston Pilot where a newly arrived Irish relative could go to place an advertisement for the relative that had arrived earlier. Here’s an example of how it worked.

When the first Irish Catholic left Ireland for America due to the potato famine, it was early in 1847. Imagine a father leaving his wife and young children to find work, promising to send money for them to join him. By the time he saves enough, it is 1849 and the height of the starving time in Ireland. If his wife and children have survived, if they actually got his money and if they have the strength to make the trip and don’t die on the ship, then they are faced with this one last test of finding their husband and father.

The wife had her husband’s name, where he was from in Ireland or where he had boarded his American bound ship. Additionally, if she was lucky, she would know where her husband had migrated to in America. So many Irish men became laborers for the multitude of infrastructure projects happening in the mid-19th century like building canals and macadamizing roads, that they were long gone from a city like Boston.

Because of the newspaper’s Catholic Church circulation, I am guessing it would be distributed and read by priests and congregants across the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. The advertisement would announce the woman’s arrival, ask for anyone who recognized the name or locality of her husband and request to inform him. Then she had to wait for some kind of reply – sometimes for weeks on end. What did she do for shelter and food while waiting? The simple answer is, probably anything. When so many desperate souls were arriving in Boston – 1,000 a week at some points – everyone was looking for work.

For the fortunate, someone would recognize the husband’s name, or know his whereabouts, and tell him about the advertisement. He would either come for the family or would reach out, through an intermediary, and send for the family to be brought to him. A happy ending to a monumental trial.

But, for those unfortunates, no word ever came. So many, many catastrophes happened without any way to communicate, all of which fractured families and forced difficult decisions. There were fewer and fewer social safety nets as more and more immigrants taxed the church’s system and Boston population’s tolerance.

At least in our modern world, when families splinter due to national or ethnic unrest, our modern technology usually gives us a better chance of finding people. On a lighter note, when our phones slip between the car’s seat and console, there’s always “Find My Phone.”

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