12 Things about James Donahue

In many traditions, twelve is the number of what is completed, which forms a whole, a perfect and harmonious unit. Here I share 12 things about my great-grandfather James Donahue’s life. I expound on them using his obituary and a brief biography written about him in the History of the St. Croix Valley, Volume II.* The book was published in 1909; his obituary was published in 1923. 

My great-grandfather, James Donahue
James Donahue was the son of Thomas and Mary (Ryan) Donahue, born in Clinton County, New York, October 15, 1856. The parents came to that county from Ireland in 1853 and followed farming all their lives. The father died in 1856. 

James was born in the town of Plattsburgh in Clinton County on October 15, 1855. I consider the date of his birth recorded in the family Bible more accurate than the author’s accounting in the book. It’s likely Thomas and Mary, along with their infant daughter, Maggie, traveled from Ireland to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Why they left Ireland is unknown.

They had been married in Emly, Tipperary, Ireland on February 1, 1850. Even though the famine was over by 1853, it left dreadful residual effects. Many Irish tenant farmers lived in poverty, often unable to put food on the table because of the high rents on their small plots of land. Perhaps the couple found themselves in that position and, with a newborn infant, decided to leave for her protection, as well as their own. After arriving in Canada, the Donahue family went to New York, probably crossing Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh, where their son, James, was born.

Plattsburgh, the county seat of Clinton County, was founded in 1715. The location gained historical significance when the Battle of Plattsburgh was fought there on September 11, 1814, during the War of 1812. An American naval force decisively defeated a British fleet on Lake Champlain that day. The victory was credited with helping to conclude peace negotiations between Britain and the United States in Ghent, Belgium, on Christmas Eve that same year.**

There is nothing known about the death of Thomas Donahue, James’ father, except the year of his death—1856. It’s doubtful James had any memories of his father, except those planted by his mother. A number of Donahue family historians, including myself, continue trying to unravel this mystery about the circumstances of his death. 

The mother brought her family to Hudson, Wisconsin, in 1859, and passed away in 1894. 

James would have been four when he went west from New York to Hudson. For me, the burning question here is why Mary waited for three years after her husband died to make the trip. I doubt her newborn son would have held her back. After all, she traveled from Ireland with an infant; a trip from New York to Wisconsin would have been much easier.

There could have been many reasons for delaying the trip after her husband’s death. Her native tongue was Irish, so perhaps she didn’t feel comfortable enough with her English to make the trip. Maybe she had to save money. Or she could have been waiting to make the trip with other immigrants. All of this is speculation on my part.

When the family finally left New York, it was probably by train. The ironic thing about that, if it’s true, is that the rails Mary and her children rolled into Wisconsin on were probably built by others from their homeland, who immigrated to America before them.

In 1860, the Donahue family was living with Mary’s 33-year old brother, James Ryan, in Hudson, Wisconsin, where he is a laborer with an estate worth $65.00. Mary is 40 at the time. Young James and his sister, Maggie, ages five and seven, are both at school. That census reports both children as American-born.

When Mary died in 1894, she was 74. As with her husband, Thomas, I am unable to find a cause of death or the circumstances surrounding her death. 

James received a good education in the common schools of Erin Township, St. Croix County, Wisconsin. 

Banner School, 1912

At some time, James’ uncle, James Ryan, bought a farm in Erin Township, where young James, Maggie and Mary went to live with him. Ryan fought in the Civil War and he may have acquired it after he returned home. I can’t locate an 1870 census for him and the Donahues, but they appear in the 1875 Wisconsin agricultural census, all living together in Erin.

Common schools, where James received a good education first appeared in the United States during the 19th century. They were the first community-funded public education, available to all students living in and around the community that supported them. There were six common schools in Erin. James Donahue probably attended Banner School, which was right across the road and a bit west of his uncle’s farm. The curriculum in schools like Banner was primarily reading, writing and arithmetic, but often included history and geography, as well as moral instruction.

In Erin, a school’s term usually ran from November 1 to April 1. The book, Remembering Rural Schools of St. Croix County, noted that was “because the children were needed at home the rest of the time.” Older boys may not have even come to school the entire term. Their attendance was dependent on when spring crops were planted and fall crops were harvested, which all depended on the timing of the spring thaw and the fall freeze. It could have taken some boys until the age of 22 to pass their eighth-grade exams because of their extended absences.

Although children had rigorous schedules, both at home and at school, the importance of play wasn’t forgotten. School also included recess where children may have competed in three-legged races. Runners raced in pairs, with one runner’s right leg tied to the other runner’s left leg, creating a third, and often unsteady, leg. Shinny was also popular. The game was a precursor to modern hockey where players use a tin can as a puck and tree boughs for their sticks. Like today’s hockey, it could get rough and tumble and sometimes even bloody. 

After leaving school [James Donahue] took up farming on the farm of his uncle James Ryan, which he inherited from that gentleman. 

James Ryan, never married. Since James Donahue, his sister, Maggie, and their mother, Mary, were Ryan’s only family, it was natural that his nephew inherited the farm when Ryan died in 1886. However, an elder in the Donahue family recently told me there was no inheritance. He said that James Ryan sold his farm to James Donahue for one dollar as a wedding gift. What wasn’t mentioned in the brief biography of James Donahue, and was unknown to the elder, is that he only inherited half of the farm. James Ryan—apparently a feminist before his time—left an equal share of the farm to his niece, Maggie, which her  husband inherited when she died in 1928. 

Later Mr. Donahue added acres adjoining. In 1906 he purchased the farm of W. H. Riley, in the eastern part of the Township. Upon these large farms, both in Erin Township, he carried on general diversified farming. 


Pleasantview Farm

The farm James Donahue inherited from his uncle was 140 acres. He increased the size to 160 acres by purchasing 20 adjoining acres from E. Stephens. James bought the W. H. Riley in 1906, and named it Pleasantview. That purchase doubled his property in Erin to 320 acres, making him one of Erin’s largest landowners at the time.

Being a practitioner of general diversified farming meant James didn’t “put all of his eggs in one basket.” This type of farm had several sources of income, but none that equaled as much as 50% of total income. This was a less risky way for farmers to farm than specialized farming. The farmer and farmhands could work year-round in different activities to generate income on a more regular basis.

A diversity of crops and animals that held potential for a good livelihood, but also helped feed the farmers and their families, were the key to success and comfort. Early records for Erin show crops grown in that area included corn, oats, barley, rye, flaxseed, potatoes, and cultivated hay. Erin farmers owned cattle—beef and dairy—horses, swine and sheep. Poultry, like chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys, also populated farmyards.*** 


My great-grandmother Nell Clennan Donahue

Mr. Donahue was married June 22, 1886, to Nellie Clennon, daughter of David and Mary (Martin) Clennon, prominent farmers of Erin Township. 

The Clennan (this is eventually how the name came to be spelled) farm was directly across the road from the James Ryan farm, where James Donahue grew up. Nell Clennan, his wife-to-be, was literally the girl-next-door. However, since there was an eight-year age gap, it’s unlikely they were childhood friends.

Nell and James were married on June 29, 1886 by Fr. Daniel Reddin at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Erin. Nell was 23 and James was 31. **** 

This union was blessed with seven children. They were John, Mary, Frank, William, Agnes, Ervin and Walter. 


Front: Mary, Walter, Agnes, Ervin  Back: William, John, Frank

James Ryan died in August 1886, two months after James’ and Nell’s marriage, so he never met any of his grand-nieces or nephews. However, Ryan’s sister—James Donahue’s mother—Mary, lived to meet her first five grandchildren. 

Mr. Donahue was a staunch Democrat, and served on the side board two terms. 

It’s not surprising that, as a famer, James Donahue was a staunch Democrat. Although the Democrats had been the party of racism during the Civil War, by the end of the 19th century it strongly identified with rural agrarianism and conservative values. Its changing constituency and beliefs attracted soaring numbers of immigrants to the party. Lincoln’s party—the Republicans—who had once been more aligned with social justice, were now firmly established as the party of big business. They were also more pro-United States and anti-immigrant.

General research of that era shows local government in Wisconsin was usually made up of a county board, a town board, a side board and a school board. There are numerous references to many citizens in St. Croix County communities who served on side boards, but there is no reference to the function and activity of a side board or how long a term lasted. It may have operated much like modern-day planning commissions. 


[Mr. Donahue] was also clerk and treasurer of School District No 6, for twenty-five years. 

I am unable to pinpoint the exact dates of his quarter-century of service to School District No. 6 in Erin, which was Banner, the school he attended. It’s also likely the school his two oldest children—John and Mary—began and completed their studies. 

Remembering Rural Schools in St. Croix County noted the school was located in Section 32 in Erin, located on Casey Lake Road. At first, Erin had only two schools, but in the 1880s a law passed that stated no one should have to walk more than two miles to school.


By 1897 there were seven schools in Erin. One of those schools was Dry Run, which was located across the road from Pleasantview Farm, where the Donahues had moved in 1906. Frank, Willie, Agnes and Ervin, who probably attended Banner before that move would finish their education at Dry Run. It’s presumed the youngest Donahue—Walter—spent all his school years there since he was only seven when he arrived at Pleasantview.


Many schools had ball teams and played neighboring schools on Friday afternoon. Many arguments broke out at these games, but it didn’t affect the fun. Dry Run was noted for its good ball teams.

Banner, where James served as clerk and treasurer, was first known as Casey School. It was a simple, white frame building. When the name changed to  Banner, the original white structure was replaced with a red brick edifice.  

In his service to School District #6, James ensured the public funds for Banner School were handled with fiduciary responsibility. The fact that he performed those duties for 25 years is testimony to his trustworthiness, as well as to the value he held for education and the importance of good public schools to deliver it. 

He was a member of the Catholic Order of Foresters and a communicant of the Catholic Church. 

Like James’ family of origin, impoverished immigrants streamed into the United States seeking a better life during the mid- to late-1800s. When a family lost their breadwinner, friends and neighbors typically collected money to assist survivors financially. Perhaps that was his family’s experience in New York when Thomas, their breadwinner, died.

Those collecting money eventually formed associations, many based on religious or ethnic backgrounds. The Catholic Order of Foresters (COF) was one of those. In 1879, members of St. Vincent de Paul Society in Boston, Massachusetts, most of them Irish immigrants, organized the first COF. As a Catholic fraternal insurance society, which eventually spread across the nation, it provided death benefits to its members and often became focal points for community.

It was a good fit for James, who was Catholic and the son of Irish immigrant parents. In addition, COF’s service and social components aligned nicely with the man and who he was in his community. 

James Donahue was also a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. 

In Ireland, as early as the 1500s, secret societies grew from a need to protect the welfare of fellow Irish Catholics—especially the clergy trying to keep the Catholic faith alive, who risked immediate death in occupied Ireland, after the Penal Laws of 1691. Various societies were formed across the country to aid and comfort their people by whatever means were available. 

When the Irish arrived in America, they saw the need for the same kind of society. The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which my great-grandfather James belonged to, was founded at New York’s St. James Church in 1836 to protect the clergy and churches from the violent American Nativists, who attacked Irish-Catholic immigrants and church property. During the 1840s, the vast numbers of Irish Immigrants fleeing the Great Hunger prompted the formation of many Irish societies. AOH became the largest one.

As it grew in numbers, it grew in purpose. The Order aided newly-arrived Irish to this country, both socially and economically. AOH was among the first to welcome new Irish immigrants, and worked to foster and preserve the Irish culture. The newcomers were introduced to their own in the social atmosphere of the Irish-American community. Those who joined AOH perpetuated that mission, which also included being at the forefront of political issues concerning the Irish.  

He was honest, hard-working and upright, a good citizen in every respect. 

This is the culmination of who James Donahue was in his lifetime, and is to his descendants, told in twelve parts. Twelve—the number of what is completed, which forms a whole, a perfect and harmonious unit.


*Easton, Augustus B. History of the St. Croix Valley, Volume II. Chicago, IL: Cooper, 1909, (pgs. 763-64) 
***Easton, Augustus B. History of the St. Croix Valley, Volume II. Chicago, IL: Cooper, 1909.
****Although Augustus Easton reported their marriage date as June 22, Ancestry.com. Wisconsin, Marriage Index, 1820-1907 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2000 shows the date as June 29.


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