James and Ellen McNeary were not the only Irish immigrants to settle in St. Louis in the early 1840s. The city saw a huge influx of both Irish and German immigrants during this period and their arrival changed the demographics and culture of the city. Their story was a fairly common one in St. Louis at this time and through them we can catch a glimpse of what life was like for Irish immigrants in the city during this time.
For several years after arriving in St. Louis, James was working as a laborer.iii Many Irish immigrants in St. Louis in the 1840s were involved in manual labor, either working on the riverfront or in construction and while we don't know specifically what James was doing in the 1840s, in the 1854 city directory, his occupation was listed as plasterer.iv It's entirely possible that James McNeary started off as a common laborer and, through hard work and skill, was able to move up in the St. Louis construction business to point where he had a very specific and marketable skill set.
If James McNeary's life in St. Louis conformed to what we would expect of an Irish immigrant during the 1840s, so did his wife's. While James was working and helping to physically build the growing city of St. Louis, Ellen McNeary, like many Irish immigrant women during the era, kept the home and had children. From 1842 to 1859, the McNeary's had five children that we know of – all boys. Thomas was the oldest, followed by John, who was born in 1846; James, born in 1850; William, born in 1853; and Francis (who was commonly known as Frank), born in 1859.v Given the high rate of infant mortality during the 19th century, it is likely that the McNeary's had children that did not live to adulthood, but that is speculative. What we know for a fact is that Ellen McNeary had her hands full with five young boys to care for.
One of the more interesting things about the young McNeary family is that they appear to have had a reasonably stable home life. All the records indicate that James not only always had gainful employment throughout his life but that he was also improving his and his family's economic situation as time went on. James McNeary appears to have been a rather hard-working man who took opportunities to improve his lot in life and that of his family. He made the decision to leave Ireland and immigrate to the United States. He got married, had children, and took the jobs that were available to him until he could get the jobs he wanted, as we'll see. He did well for himself in his new homeland and because of that, he and his wife were able to good home for their children.
This is really evident when you look at where the McNeary's lived in St. Louis. They didn't live in the tenements of the Kerry Patch, the main Irish neighborhood that was located in North St. Louis. From at least 1845 until 1871, the McNeary's lived on Spruce, between 12th and 13th Street, which is about a block south and east of the present day Scottrade Center.vi Various city directories have them living on Spruce, between 12th and 13th, at the corner of 13th and Spruce, at 1232 Spruce, or at 1234 Spruce. It appears, based on this evidence, that the McNeary family lived on the same block for at least sixteen years and it's arguable that they may have been living in the same building. This was a very stable home life. The McNeary's weren't moving from tenement to tenement, which was common among the lower classes of St. Louis during this era, but were rooted in one location, allowing their sons to grow up near the heart of the city's commercial district.
James McNeary was not a laborer all of his life. The fact that he was specifically noted to have been a plasterer in 1854 may indicate that he was more of an artisan than a common laborer and that he was moving up in the world. More specific evidence of this is found in the 1857 St. Louis City Directory where James McNeary is listed as running a grocery store.vii Sometime between 1854 and 1857, McNeary opened a grocery store on Spruce, in the same building in which his family lived. It also appears that he continued running the store for the rest of his life. If we assume that he was around the same age as his wife, McNeary had immigrated to the United States, started as a common laborer, and worked his way up to becoming the owner of small business by the time he was forty years old. His was the classic 19th century American success story. James McNeary was the immigrant who made good and did all of that while starting a family and helping to establish a stable home life for his children.
Sadly, James McNeary did not life to a ripe old age and he did not get to see the success that his sons would become. In the 1864 St. Louis City Directory, Ellen McNeary is listed as a widow and, therefore, we know that James McNeary died sometime between 1859 and 1864.viii Given the time frame, it is easy to speculate that McNeary may have been killed during the Civil War but there is no evidence of that. There is no evidence that McNeary served in the military during the war and it is likely that he died of natural causes.
However, there is an interesting piece of evidence that tells us something about what was happening with the McNeary family during the war years. Among the names of those held at the Gratiot Street Prison in 1862, we find Thomas McNeary.ix Why he was being held at the Gratiot Street Prison on October 2, 1862, is unknown but the place was a military prison, run by the Union army, and was used to hold “spies, guerillas, civilians suspected of disloyalty, and even Federal soldiers accused of crimes or misbehavior.”x During the Civil War, while St. Louis was under martial law, numerous citizens of St. Louis were arrested for suspicion of disloyalty to the Union and locked up at Gratiot Street Prison and it is possible that Thomas McNeary was one of those. If this were true, he would not be the only figure in St. Louis baseball history to have been locked up at the prison for disloyalty, as both Henry Clay Sexton, of the Empire Club, and Ed Bredell, Sr., father of the co-founder of the Cyclone Club, both served time there.
It is important not to read too much into this. First, it is possible that the Thomas McNeary of Gratiot Street Prison was not the Thomas McNeary of the Red Stockings, although I see no evidence that suggests that. But it is a possibility. Second, if this is McNeary of the Reds, we still don't know why he was there. Yes, most of the St. Louis civilians were there because they had Confederate sympathies and were considered disloyal to the Union. But it is possible that McNeary just ran afoul of the Provost Marshall for a minor reason. We don't know. Finally, if we accept that this is McNeary of the Reds and that he was imprisoned for disloyalty, it still doesn't tell us anything about his family or their political leanings. Is it possible that the entire McNeary family had Confederate sympathies? In a city like St. Louis, during the Civil War, it is entirely possible and it is true that there is no record of any of the McNeary brothers serving during the war.
However, what is most interesting about this is the possibility that James McNeary's death somehow played a role in his son ending up at the Gratiot Street Prison. If the father had Confederate sympathies that were shared by the son or the family, it is easy to imagine that a young Thomas McNeary, struggling to cope with the death of his father, may have said or done something that brought him to the attention of the Union troops stationed in St. Louis and landed him in prison.
The McNeary family was very close knit and the Civil War years appear to have been a difficult time for them, with the loss of the head of the family and the oldest son serving time in a military prison. It is natural to want to link these two events in some way but there is no evidence suggesting that the two have anything to do with each other. Certainly, it is possible that, left without his father, Thomas McNeary was somewhat rudderless and that played a role in his imprisonment. However, it must be noted that it is entirely possible that James McNeary was still alive when his son was in Gratiot Street Prison. While it is interesting to speculate, there just is not enough evidence to reach any conclusions.
i Information taken from 1880 census.
ii Green's St. Louis City Directory, 1845; p117.
iii Ibid; 1851 Green's directory, p 229; 1852 Morrison's directory, p 164.
iv 1854 St. Louis City Directory, p 122.
v 1880 census.
vi Information based on St. Louis city directories from 1845 to 1871.
vii 1857 St. Louis City Directory, p 149.
viii 1864 St. Louis City Directory, p 375.
ix Union Provost Marshals' File of Papers Relating to Two or More Civilians; Prisoners: St. Louis, Mo. (Gratiot Street Prison), January 1862-October 1863.
x Gratiot Street Prison; civilwarstlouis.com; http://www.civilwarstlouis.com/Gratiot/gratiot.htm.