The cold Atlantic Ocean must have seemed a minor obstacle to Cullen Thomas Conly, who dreamed of a promised new life on the shores of Georgia in 1836. The 16-year-old Irish lad was escaping to a new land of opportunity – one where he would carve a life for himself free from economic and religious oppression, overcrowding and famine.
Born in 1820, near Mount Conly in County Antrim, Ireland, the courageous and adventuresome lad managed to stow away on a freighter anchored in nearby Glenarm Harbor. He remained undetected by the ship's officers until they reached the harbor of Savannah, Georgia. The ship's captain refused to let him go ashore at Savannah and planned to return the lad to Ireland; however, the night before the ship was scheduled to return to Ireland, Cullen jumped overboard and swam ashore.
What made the Irish lad, who would become my great-great-grandfather, sever all ties with his past and never return to his homeland? What made him hide on a ship and journey 3,000 miles across a treacherous ocean to an unknown land? Did he know that the land, climate, people, houses, food and clothing were different from those of his native Ireland? Did he leave because of daring and love of adventure, or was he obsessed with the desire to better his economic condition? Perhaps this young Irish Protestant was fleeing the religious conflict between the Catholics and Protestants that has divided the Emerald Isle for generations.
It is not known what the first eight years in America held for this determined immigrant, but he must have possessed unusual courage and will power to cope with the problems he faced on arriving in Georgia – finding work to pay for his food, clothing and shelter while at the same time adjusting to a strange new country filled with vast forests and miles of unoccupied lands – a quite different place from the land of his birth.
The next record of Cullen Thomas was in 1844, in Houston County, Georgia – 200 miles away from Savannah – where he married Dicy Talton. He was 24 and she was 19. Shortly after their marriage, Cullen and Dicy joined the westward movement toward Texas – the land of abundant opportunity and wide-open spaces. Journeying overland in wagons, on horseback and on foot, people from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi began to migrate west to the land of promise.
Louisiana was the eastern gateway to Texas, and the hill section of north Louisiana was being settled in the 1830s and 1840s. The rolling upland of the northern half of Louisiana reminded the immigrants of the hills of Georgia, Alabama and Carolina. The hills were interspersed with beautiful streams fed by many sparkling springs. The rivers and bayous offered an economical transportation and travel network, but most of all, a way to move the products of forest and field to market at New Orleans, where the produce intermingled with world trade. The forests abounded in wild game such as deer, bear, turkey, ducks, geese, squirrels, quail, and numerous fur-bearing animals: raccoon, opossum, mink, otter, weasel and rabbits. The streams were stocked with many species of fish, and alligators were abundant. The fertile soil, combined with these other factors, led the immigrants to decide that this was the paradise they were seeking. They did not go on to Texas, but settled instead in northern Louisiana.
Cullen Thomas, his bride, and a few of her relatives settled on the east bank of Lake Bistineau in Bienville Parish, near the present town of Ringgold, Louisiana, where the first of their 10 children was born. They built a cabin, cleared the land for farming, and raised six sons and four daughters. A religious man with a closely knit family, Cullen was fortunate that his 10 children all remained nearby, acquiring land and farming it.
In 1859, the Ireland-born immigrant became a naturalized citizen of the United States, 16 years after landing on its shores.
Unlike many Irish immigrants, who came to America and worked as street sweepers, ditch diggers or other common laborers, Cullen Thomas was a farmer. By 1861, he had acquired around 580 acres of land and owned and operated a cotton gin and a gristmill.
He was 41 years old when the Civil War began. A number of men that age joined the Confederate forces, although some southerners were exempt from military service if they operated a gin and their number of children was sufficient reason for not joining the army. There is no evidence that Cullen Thomas requested exemption, although it was alleged that he did not believe in slavery and owned no slaves. After the war was over, he registered to vote in 1867.
Although he adapted to a new way of life in America, Cullen Thomas retained some Irish ideals and customs. He meticulously looked after his possessions and kept the most detailed records of his income and expenditures. He was frugal and the master of his household, and, true to his Irish heritage, he occasionally enjoyed a drink of good whiskey. He was reared to provide with his own hands as many creature comforts as possible, which served him well on the semi-frontier.
Thus he spent 27 years of his life in Louisiana. Those were momentous years in the history of our nation as well as the crowning years of a short, but good, life. In 1872, at the age of 52, Cullen Thomas Conly died in Bienville Parish, leaving behind 10 children and 83 grandchildren – 42 grandsons and 41 granddaughters. In 1976, there were more than 1,700 descendants of the Conly lad who stowed away on a ship and came to America for a better life.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.