Arboretum: The McLaughlins and Dorseys of Aroostook County


I remember the day this picture was taken. I was dressed by one of my older sisters, and left to play  till I was called into the den where the picture was to be taken. The photographer told me to lay my hand on my father’s knee, and I remember my father taking my hand in his, my smiling over at him as he smiled at me.  But when I look at this picture now, what I remember most about that day is that I did not have a care in the whole wide world.

Thirty years later, I walked the oak-shaded sidewalk in front of this house holding my four-year-old son’s hand.  We would head out from my mother’s house for the fifteen minute walk to Main Street, where we could get  a  bowl of Conrad’s home-made ice cream.  The sidewalks which we followed to town were cracked and buckled,  not so much from age as from the huge roots of those oak trees.    My son would ask  for the same stories each visit.  About my best childhood friend who lived in the house across the street whose parents still live there. About the people next door who knew my family before I was born, and still  live there.  About climbing trees that were big when I was little whose very  roots were now ripping up the sidewalk.  He would sigh and dream aloud to me about what it would be like to grow up in such a place, where nobody moved, where Gram lived around the corner, where Aunt Reeny’s ear was a bike ride away, where cousins lived in the next town. And he would promise me and himself aloud, that when he grew up, he would raise his family in  a place just  like this.  A place with strong and deep roots.

That was when I’d start to worry. A mother wants to give her children everything they wish for, especially aunts and uncles and cousins who love you unconditionally. But my life quite simply demanded that I be elsewhere, as it does for many  nuclear  families. At that point those oak trees seemed to come alive, like that scene in The Wizard of Oz,  telling me  in a deep oak-tree voice that I was making one big mistake.  Nature simply did not intend for children to be raised like that.

It was soon after that walk ten years ago with my son that I began researching my family at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  I was  equipped  with a binder that held blank pieces of paper, ready to write it all down, very neatly, so my son could read, once he learned how to read, our family tree.  Some family trees are all neat and tidy.  I once knew a woman who had  a formal picture of both her and her husband’s parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents.  Each picture was a 5 x 7, framed in the same style frame, and  hung in chronological order on the walls of the alcove leading to her dining room.

I  discovered that my family’s history is not a series of 5 x 7 pictures hung in chronological order, nor does it lend itself to one of those geneological maps which depict a family as one tree with one set of roots. My binder of blank paper grew into a collection of stories about journeys, both external journeys and internal. For example, my father made an external journey to Ireland in 1965 to unearth his roots.  Years before that, he had made an internal journey at a Paulist Noviatiate, which  he entered in 1929 with the intent of becoming a  priest.  I was with my father in 1965, and  I have vivid memories  of  Dad on his search for Irish roots. I was not with him at the Paulist Novitiate, but I have a collection of letters he received while he was there from his family and friends, letters which my father  kept  until he died, and which somehow found their way to me. These stories, and others, are what eventually found their way into my binder.

We have all made similar external and  internal journeys.  The stories of those who journeyed before me have enabled me to come to understand my ancestors as more than a name  listed on the census in the National Archives and my parents as much more than Mom and Dad. And their stories have enabled me to understand  my own journey.   And in the end I realized that I have nothing to fear from those deep-rooted oak trees.

 The Maine McLaughlins

On their own soil, the Irish had learned to survive without much wood. The Saxons had raped the countryside of its woods and groves centuries earlier. The people came to rely on the surrounding  peat bogs for  the fuel they needed, and they built their cottages using mud and stone for the walls.  However, a family had to have at least one wooden beam of support over their heads.   So rare were these beams that when families were being evicted from their homes in the early 1800’s, even the most miserly of landlords would allow the destitute family to carry this one beam of wood away with them. This was, for some. For others, there was another  source of hope.   By 1830 every seaport village in the south and west of Ireland harbored vessels which set sail in the spring for the St. Lawrence Seaway. There was an abundance of wood along the banks of the St. Lawrence, and the merchants who owned these vessels prospered from this trade route.  But a trade route works best if there is a two-way trade, and sending empty ships to the St. Lawrence to pick up timber did not make good business sense. So the merchants offered passage to  the maritime provinces  for  fifteen shillings, which was far cheaper than the four or five pounds charged  for passage  to New York. Furthermore, the merchants offered immediate employment upon their arrival, as the immigrants would be paid to help load the ship with her new cargo.   The merchants won through this arrangement; they now had cheap ballast for their empty ships and a guaranteed labor force on the other side. The Irish immigrants won in that they had cheap passage to a new world that offered more hope than the bleak horizon in Ireland.

But this employment lasted only through the summer. Then the young Irishman who had come to this new world to make a life for himself had a decision to make.  He could go into the Canadian woods, clear some land, and begin to farm it. This was lonely and rough; rough he could handle, but the social instincts of the Irish do not lend themselves to  such a solitary life.   His other choice was to become a lumberman at one of the many lumber camps also back in the woods, where the workers would spend the winter harvesting the forests for the next spring’s shipment of timber. Here there was plenty of work for the men and plenty of companionship among the company houses  supplied by their employer for their now young families.

Helen Hamlin, in her book  Nine Mile Bridge, describes life in  a lumber camp. Employed as a  school teacher in the lumber camp called  Churchill,  she  recalls   such   settlements  as anything but  a romantic  log cabin colony under the shadows of great spruces.  The shores of the ghostly lake in Churchill were lined with dri-ki, which were the bleached dead stumps of drowned trees. The houses in the settlement were identical –  one and a half story company houses that had once, a long time ago,  been painted white.  There were few log cabins in the camp, a couple of  woodsheds, outhouses, and pigsties.  The boarding house for the bachelors was a long barracks-like building.

On a Sunday afternoon late in the fall, Hamlin relates that one of these settlements would be quiet.  Doors would be let open to let in the late fall sunshine. Children would be playing outside – hopskotch and skipping rope.  Boys would be in the mud pond on log rafts, falling in and climbing back up again.  Men would stand around in small groups talking some in suits and some in their lumberjack attire. Women would stand in the open doorways with their arms crossed under their aprons. On weekdays   Churchill was a droning beehive – sleds being loaded for the faraway camps, the sawmill in full-buzzing swing, the air fragrant with freshly-sawed pine and spruce.  Hammers pounded all day as the blacksmith repaired logging chains and made new sleds in preparation for the winter which was to come.

The long-timers in these camps in the maritime provinces were French Canadian. They spoke French. And if you didn’t speak French, you did not want to stay on too long as a lumberjack in the Maritime Provinces.  Stories came back to the camps of others who had left for the States, where  people spoke English, there was plenty of work , and the wages were high. So  the young Irishman would work  as a lumberjack  until enough money had been saved to start the journey south.  No ships were sailing south. There was only one way to get there, and that would be to walk.

Bernard Mclaughlin was one of these young men who had left Ireland during the potato famine.  He left the ship he had come over on, and went to St. John, in Canada, where he met Mary Dulaharty, also an immigrant, but from Spain.  They were married in St. John on August 16, 1825.   Thousands of immigrants, mostly Irish,  followed the coast of New Brunswick to Maine and continued along the trails and roads into New England. The McLaughlins followed the St. John River, and then up the Aroostook River, until they stopped at a logging camp in Aroostook County, Maine.  Land this far north had only become part of the United States in 1838.

In 1840, Barney was 42 years old, and his wife, Mary, was 41years old.  They now had six children, one daughter and five sons, since their marriage fifteen years ago in St. John, Canada.     One can only imagine walking those riverside trails with your children in tow,  looking for a good place to settle down.  The McLaughlins would have heard stories about homesteaders in the West, who were given land to farm. Appealing to some immigrants, but not so much to the Irish, according to Marcus Hansen in his book on immigrants  during this time period.  The Irishman’s love of land was only equaled by his love of company. Tales of the prairies with distances without end, villages without a social life, and no churches of his faith compelled them to settle in New England.

So, somewhere between 1830 and1840 ,  Barney McLaughlin and his family stopped walking and  made a home out of a company house in Plymouth Grant, a logging community in Aroostook County, Maine.   John Dorsey, another Irishman, was a local who was living near a place called Fort Fairfield, which was in the same vicinity as the logging community. John and his wife, Mary, were   about the same age as Barney and Mary, and they also had a large family – three sons and two daughters.  In 1840, the census-taker came into Plymouth Grant. The  locals from the Fort Fairfield area as well as the lumberjacks formed a line to sign on with the census.. Only five men stood in line between John Dorsey, a local landowner,  and Barney McLaughlin, a lumberjack.

Barney McLaughlin stayed at the lumber camp until  1843, when the area north of the Fort Fairfield area,  which would come to be called Limestone, was opened for settlement.  Barney was able to buy lots at $1.25 per acre, 50 cents of which was to paid in money, and the remainder by road labor.  Barney took land at what would later come to be known “Four Corners”. Thier only neighbor, Andrew Phair, was about two miles away on the land he had purchased.

A survey of Limestone done by Rowe and Colby of Philadelphia in  1877 shows a great amount of  activity in the area over the course of those  thirty years.  “Four Corners” is shown as the intersection of Caribou Road and Fort Fairfield Road.  If you were to walk down the Fort Fairfield Road from the Caribou Road, you would have passed  four farmhouses  each of which held one of the now deceased Barney’s son’s families.   James McLaughlin might have been sitting on his front porch, and he would have explained that he lived in his own house here behind him, with his wife Bridget, and their  five children, all under the age of 10.  He could have pointed out his brother John’s house, two doors down, where his brother  lived with his wife Katherine. Across the street were two more brothers, George, who was 25, and Barney, who was 26. Between those two brothers there were four more young children, all under the age of 10.  Then, he most likely would have pointed out a large parcel of land, and told you that it belongs to his sister, Catherine: this is the only lot on the survey map which is owned by a woman in 1877.

The census of 1880 shows these  four families still  living on the same road,  the four brothers now in their forties and late thirties, and their children  coming of age.  Catherine’s lot of land is now where she lives with her brother George; the census suggests that his wife Margaret has died, leaving him 8 children to raise with his sister’s help. Next door is his brother Barney and his sister-in-law Susan, who are raising their 7 children.  James is still across the street, with his wife Bridget, and their four children. Their oldest daughter, Ellen, is now living across the road with Barney and Susan to help with their family.  Next door to James is John McLaughlin and his wife Katherine; they still  have no children.

If you were to walk down the Fort Fairfield Road from the Caribou Road twenty years later in 1900,  the first house on your right would still be George McLaughlin’s place.  Catherine, known by the children as Aunt Kit, has since left the farm; apparently she  died on her way to California with a parson’s family.  She would have been in her late thirties. Most of  George’s children are gone, but for  his sons, George who is 24 , Michael 21,  and a daughter,  Catherine 22.  George Jr. might explain to you that next door lives his Uncle Barney, who is now 65.  George might also explain to you that his Uncle Barney was named after his father, George’s grandfather, who was one of the first settlers of Limestone. George might go on to tell you that he works his father’s potato farm with his brother Mike. He would most likely tell you that the McLaughlin family has always farmed potatoes in Limestone.

In the fall of 1905,   George McLaughlin Jr. – now 29 – saw an attractive young woman sitting on the front porch of the house across the road from his. Limestone was a small town, and George knew that the new school teacher who was from Fort Fairfield was boarding at his neighbor’s place.  George walked across the road and introduced himself to this attractive young schoolteacher, Susie Dorsey. The next spring, Barney’s grandson, George,  married John Dorsey’s great-granddaughter, Susie.

In 1900, Susie Dorsey had been a sixteen year-old girl living  in Fort Fairfield, Maine.   Her grandparents, Edward and Hannah, had raised seven children in Fort Fairfield.  Susie had four uncles and two aunts in the small town. Uncle Edward was the town’s stable keeper, while her other uncles were farmers like her own father. All except for Uncle Miles, who listed his occupation as “capitalist” in the 1900 census: he was the only capitalist in  a community whose members listed themselves as farmer, farm laborer, day laborer, servant, livery stable keeper, and town physician.  Susie Dorsey had 22 cousins in the small town of Fort Fairfield, who were between the ages of 6 and 20.  She could hardly walk through town without bumping into one of them. And the Dorseys held their heads just a little higher on the muddy main street of Fort Fairfield, or so the story goes, because of yet another story.

Susie’s great grandfather, John Dorsey, had come to this part of Maine around 1825.  The story  is that he emigrated from Ireland to England  to work as a groom on the estate of  some English lord. The lord’s lady, Lady Anne, fell deeply in love with this handsome sweet-talking groom, and they ran away together to the new world.   Edward Dorsey, a descendant of this family line, wrote  in 1977:

“John and Lady Ann Richardson Dorsey were of the first generation and settled at the mouth of Johnston’s Brook around 1820. By the way, John was  a stablehand and groom, and from the information furnished by my late Dad, was quite a Ladie’s man. He was born in Westmeath County, Ireland and went to England where he was employed as a Groom for a family of nobility by the name of Richardson. He left hastily and secretly with the wife of Lord Richardson and came to Canada by boat and  then settled in Fort Fairfield in 1820.

John did emigrate to England from Ireland, where he was born sometime between 1790 and 1795.  After serving as a private in the British Service until he was in his thirties,  he received  a military land grant, which was lot 107 near Andover, Maine.   He did well there, for in 1840 he received another land grant closer to Fort Fairfield, which then became known as the Dorsey Road area. This was the same year he registered with the census at the logging community known as Plymouth Grant. Another document states that his wife, Mary Ann Richardson, was born in Condyle City (sp) in 1795 .

She was married before she met John Dorsey, and she had a son by her first marriage. This boy’s name was Robert, and Mary Anne Richardson brought Robert with her when she left England with John Dorsey.  Robert was raised as John’s son, and eventually Robert married into another Fort Fairfield family.  If Robert was the oldest son of an English Lord, he could have returned to England to claim his inheritance. But he did not.

This all leaves considerable doubt about the Lady Ann Richardson story – charming as it is.  Why such stories exist gives an insight to our country  in the last quarter of the  twentieth century At that time there were happy diplomatic relations between the U.S. and England – so happy that the U.S. looked abroad for its standards, and England  stood out as the best role model.  This was most conspicuous in the cities where the daily press made a feature of English society news. However,  this preoccupation with things from England reached far into our countryside.  Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian novelist, was a self-proclaimed judge of artistic and cultural matters in the small Wisconsin village where he lived.  However, he understood that his opinion counted for naught if an Englishman were present.   The English newcomer established usages of tone  through out society in the second half of that century.  Perhaps Mary Ann, having been born in England, served such a function in the small community of Fort Fairfield, thus dubbing her Lady Ann.  Susie Dorsey, her great-granddaughter, left Fort Fairfield  when she was 21 to teach  in a one-room schoolhouse in Limestone where half of her students spoke English and  half of her students spoke French.

The census of 1910 shows George and Susie McLaughlin  living in Limestone with one servant, Iva Seger, and one day laborer, Henry Fischer.  George’s Uncle William and Uncle Barney are still living on their  children. By 1920, George and Susie have two young daughters, Eva and Bessie.  In 1929 Bessie joined  her older sister Eva in New York City, where the two young women  attended The College of Mount Saint Vincent.

One day during her sophomore year Bessie was walking towards Seton Hall, her dorm, when she saw two of her classmates, Anne and Helen O’Dea.  Twin sisters, they were standing  near the doorway talking with a young  man.  I am not sure who asked for the introduction: I do know  that Bessie  was introduced to the twin’s brother, Arthur.  They dated, fell in love, married and had seven children in this order: Anna, Elizabeth, Arthur, Thomas, Maureen, Joseph, and me, whom my mother named Susan Dorsey…which would be me.

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  1. Hey Susan,
    I feel bad about not yet answering your email from a couple of months ago. I fully intend to — but by the time I do, you’ll probably be at your Irish-language school — it’s for the month of March, right?
    I do want to tell you, though, that I’ve read every one of your WordPress stories, and I particularly enjoy the ones about your family (especially your father!). This one with the family history, is really good. I was going to suggest, months ago, that you compile the posts into a book, a memoir. You know I wrote a memoir of growing up in pre-Civil Rights Virginia (age 5–16) for my MFA narrative nonfiction manuscript. I graduated in 1998, the first Nonfiction grad in the “new” MFA writing program at ODU. For 20 years I’ve been meaning to rewrite that manuscript and actually try to get it published. Life happened, though, and I’m finally just now getting ready to sit down and do that. It’s going to have to be pretty much edited to bits, added to, and rewritten in whole chapters. I’ve been very unhappy with it for 20 years, thinking I could have done a much better job if I’d had more time to work on it in grad school.
    Anyway, I’ve reading everything I can find on memoir-writing, and I was going to tell you, your stories that you post on WordPress can certainly become a memoir. Because, what I’ve been finding out is, every life has about 7 memoirs in it! The object of a really intriguing one is to just cover a portion of your life, not the entire thing! You’re not writing an autobiography, just memories of particular times. Yours could be from about 6 or 8 years old to when your father died, since you were still young, and it was such a pivotal time in your life. That’s one memoir. Another one could just be about trips to Ireland with him then later with Booky. Another one could be just about your military moves (I enjoyed the one you did for grad school, called, “Under the Banyan Tree.” See how impressed I was? I still remember the title!
    OK, well, I’m visiting my cousin in Bethesda this week, trying to help her sort through things, as her husband died about a year ago, and she’s planning to see their enormous house, 5 BRs, 5 levels, 4 baths, about a half acre of land. I thought we’d get it done this week, but it’s a really overwhelming task, so I’m sure I’ll be back soon to help her again. I’m checking email on my little laptop, but I won’t try to answer your lovely, long email to me today. I just wanted to tell you that I read this post and that I will eventually answer you. I really have so much to say, it will be a very long email! (I don’t know if I told you I was in Kerry mid-Oct. to mid-Nov., farm-sitting for a friend who went to do volunteer work in Kenya. I’ve asked God for 30 years, “Where do I belong?” and the only answer I ever hear is, “Ireland.” I feel that I never fit in anywhere, only there, specifically County Kerry, where I still have so many friends and always attend a great church. I just cannot seem to sort out a way to go back to live there alone. I reckon I’ll need to find me a lovely Irish lad of about 75 and talk him into marrying me, so I can move back HOME.)
    Talk later,

  2. Hi Susan,
    I’m trying to reach you about giving a book review at WC. Please contact me when you can
    Suzanne Ganschinietz

  3. Dear Susan,

    I hope you and your family are doing well amid the COVID 19. I couldn’t be more excited to let you know that I graduated from an Associate Degree in Business Administration with a 4.0 GPA. And I have been admitted to Columbia University to further my studies in the fall of 2020. I will have a new chapter and pursuit of my goal in the most divine institution soon. I have sent an email to your TCC email address to let you know this exciting news, but I am not sure if you could access your TCC email address. Thus, I reached you here.
    Keep in touch.

    Jackey Tam

    1. Jackey
      I am delighted to hear your exciting news, but to be honest, I am not surprised at all. You were one of my most motivated hard-working students in my thirty years of teaching ESL to a student body which is known to be driven to succeed. I know you will rise to the challenge awaiting you at Columbia, and will avail yourself of every opportunity put before you. Please stay in touch as I would love to know about your studies in New York City.
      With my deepest admiration

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