Irish Travellers in America: Carroll, Riley & Co.

The original caption for this image: Strange Southern Landlords Live as Gypsy Tribe

The original caption for this image: Strange Southern Landlords Live as Gypsy Tribe

The Repository, a newspaper from Canton, OH, took a dazzled and somewhat credulous look at a group of migrant horse traders on August 24, 1913, describing them as Irish Gypsies. Here is how the group is introduced:

Wandering homeless through the south, yet doing an annual cash business of hundreds of thousands of dollars; living in tents like gypsy nomads yet the owners of many city lots and valuable town property, some of it worth a thousand dollars a front foot; such is the strange life of the Irish clan of “Carroll, Riley & Co.,” composed of the Carrolls, Rileys, Sherlocks and Gormons, all from County Roscommon, Ireland.

The story claims that this clan holds vacant lots in many of the largest cities in the south, kept empty so the clan may camp there when in town, which might amount to as little as two or three weeks per year. In Atlanta, the article insists, they hold whole city blocks downtown, surrounded by high-rise buildings, empty but for water pipes and shower heads to be used when the owners arrive.

The article tells us that the clan numbers 500, scattered throughout the south but governed by one named Thomas Carroll, head of the Atlanta Division. And more than empty lots, the newspaper article informs us that they also own buildings, used as “business houses, mills, factories and residences,” from which they collect sizable rent.

Carroll, Riley & Co. do not identify themselves as Gypsies, tinkers, or Travellers in the story, but everything else about it indicates that they are Irish-American Travellers.
The article tells us that the clan moved to America some 20 years previously, and their primary undertaking is horse trading. “In the warm weather they have little to do but collect their rents, for summer is their rest time,” the article explains. “… But when the blood thickens with the first cool weather forecasting winter, even before the snow flies in the States further north, they fold their tents and discard their idle ways and move South with the birds, plying their honest trade in beasts of burden as they go.”

The article describes the group as extremely clannish, forbidding marriage to outsiders while scrupulously obeying the Catholic Church’s laws regarding intermarriage between relatives: no relatives closer than third cousins, according to clan leader Thomas Carroll. He also boasted that they do not drink nor fight — “but,” he tells the reporter, “we let our youngsters have their fill of it, if they want to fight, while they’re young. It’s their nature and it’s good for them. It teaches them not to be afraid of trouble if it comes looking for them.”

Carroll, Riley & Co. do not identify themselves as Gypsies, tinkers, or Travellers in the story, but everything else about it indicates that they are Irish-American Travellers. For instance, the American Roma (Gypsy ), Travellers, & “Others” website has a page for Irish Travellers in America, and lists common surnames. Among these: Carroll, Riley, Sherlock, Gormon. In fact, Thomas Carroll shares his name with the first Irish Traveller known to arrive in America: 27-year-old Thomas Carroll, who identifies himself as a “tinker” on his immigration records.

Thomas Carroll is not mentioned again until April 27, 1932, in the Macon Telegraph. He had died the previous year, and the various nomadic families had developed a custom of coming together twice per year for funerals. Those who can first meet in Atlanta on April 24, and then later those who can meet in Nashville on May 1. The article identifies the groups as “Irish horse traders,” which is useful to know — it offers another search term to find stories about Irish Travellers. This story claims there were then 5,000 in the clan, and describes their lives in this way:

They live simply, going from one town to the other, selling and buying livestock. For generations they have gone out over the countryside in wagons to trade horses and mules, which they led behind them.

Now the automobile has been put to use in their business. They travel in the automobiles and ship their livestock by train. Their knowledge of horses and mules led the United States government to call on many of them to buy horses during the World War.

In fact, a search for “Irish horse traders” brings several additional stories that are obviously about the same group. An April 2, 1908 story from the Macon Telegraph describes the same biannual funeral practice described above. The article is short, so I will reproduce most of it below:

Hundreds of traveling Irish horse traders, often confounded with gypsies, are here for the purpose of attending the funeral of their former leader, which takes place Friday morning. Every available hack and carriage has been hired for the procession, and the visitors have organized a big camp at the corner of Bellwood and Asby avenues.

The traders bury their dead April 1 of each year, and always in Nashville or Atlanta.

A number of stories also appear about a clan called O’Hara, but I will address them separately in their own post. Many of the stories are about this burial custom, which, because it was an annual event, seemed to enjoy annual coverage in the news, and those articles probably also deserve their own post as well, because bit by bit each add a small amount of additional detail to the story of these itinerant horse traders.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.

2 Comments

  1. I’m working on a genealogy of my family and I have one line that I’m beginning to think is something like this. It’s a large family or group of people that seemed to have moved from town to town to town for at least 100 years. It’s driving me nuts because the don’t appear regularly in the census’ and when they do appear somewhere the same names are near, next door or marrying into them. It’s hard to even know where to LOOK!
    Some of the names Gibson, Goddard, Willis, Tidwell, Black, Walker, Small, Brown, King, Caid….
    Once I started seeing these same names, moving together, I realized that coupled with no documentation, no work, no histories…they seem to be TRYING to hide their identities-often marrying into families with “Cherokee” or other Native American connections-and then just calling themselves Indian. But my DNA shows very little Native and a lot of really odd little bits…
    And even stories about them are hard to come by. Some people swear there were no Travellers/Gypsies/Roma in the US til the 1800’s but I am positive that any sort of unwanted folks were being shipped out of England/Ireland/Scotland LONG before the 1800’s.
    I just wish I knew even where to start to find more information on these families! But yeah, they knew they needed to hide their identity here just like they did in Europe.

  2. I have been trying to find the connection of the Irish Traveler/Traders to their “communication center”, Andrew Brice Linen Co, in Cincinnati, OH. Several newspapers refer to the Brice Company as the place were deaths/marriages, etc. information was sent. Why this company??? This company belonged to my ancestors. I would like to know the connection.

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