Homage to Providence City Archives and its Director, Paul Campbell

“Thanks for bringing John Sheridan alive to me and to so many others.”
 -from an email to Ray McKenna, from Natalie McKenna, 
great grand niece of John Sheridan
Providence City Hall with the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, listing the
name of John Sheridan. From an early 20th century postcard.
There is such pleasure in bringing to life stories of the Famine Irish generation in Rhode Island. In the case of my essay on John Sheridan (“Fallen Hero”), a young Irish immigrant who died while fighting in a Rhode Island unit during the Civil War, his story has brought very surprising results.

It began in June when Providence City Archives asked if they could post my essay about John on their Facebook page.

With Paul Campbell in charge, the cities archives are in good hands.

Of course, I was delighted for the compliment and for the exposure. After all, if I am going to collect stories of the Irish in nineteenth-century Providence, then I have got to find people with those stories, or find a way for them to find me. Facebook is a great venue for that.

From the Providence City 
Archives’ Facebook page.


And then this week, Paul Campbell, Providence’s affable archivist, told me of an exhibition being held at City Hall, in which twenty veterans, Rhode Island heroes of America’s wars since colonial times, are profiled.

Scholars at the Providence City Archives. Students from area schools such as
Brown University
know this room well. Likewise, independent scholars
such as myself are made to feel very much at home here.

Among those honored are Nathaniel Greene, famed general from the American Revolution; Esek Hopkins, the only Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy during the American Revolution; General Ambrose Burnside, Rhode Island Governor, United States Senator and Civil War General; Dennis J. Roberts, Mayor of Providence and Lieutenant commander in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII; and Harry Kizirian, war hero and the youngest Postmaster General in U.S. Postal Service’s history.

And there, among these famous men is a young man of the most humble background, one of hundreds of thousands whose stories are lost or nearly so.

The Story of John Sheridan, on view at Providence City Hall.

An Irish immigrant from the rural community that straddles the border between counties Monaghan and Tyrone, John came to America, destitute and hungry in a coffin ship, and grew up in Providence’s North End.

As a young boy, John worked as a bleacher in local factories.  In 1861, at about age 21, John enlisted in the First Regiment of the Rhode Island Cavalry. Less than three years later, at age 23, he was dead of a gunshot.

A poor Irish lad from a poor Irish family, John lived in cramped quarters surrounded by factories that employed children as young as nine and where their parents toiled away at fourteen-hour-a-day jobs. John’s story would have been lost except for a little girl who, in the 1930’s, was brought by her father to the Soldiers and Sailor Monument in downtown Providence. Natalie’s dad would raise young Natalie and her brother up to touch the letters on John’ name. He knew that John’s legacy could only live on in the memories of his children.

There are other stories out there to be found. I only hope that I can find them while the memories are still alive.

In doing my research, no one has been more helpful to me than Paul Campbell. And there is nowhere in Providence where I feel more at home than at the City Archives. My earliest memory of Providence is from when I was perhaps seven years old. My grandfather, Elmer Smalley, took me to City Hall. He was an engineer for city. I remember him taking out maps that he had made of the city. And I remember looking out of the very large Second Empire windows of that beautiful building and seeing a dynamic street scene. That day I fell in love with the city and have been in love with Providence every day since.

(Natalie, like many of the people that I have found with Providence Irish stories, is not related, although, if she were, she would be a favorite aunt. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the name McKenna, the most common surname in north Monaghan and south Tyrone, and on Federal Hill, is the name of an extended family, or clan, with a thirteen-hundred year history in north County Monaghan and south County Tyrone).

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