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Kinney, Thomas P. / Irish settlers of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, 1840-1860

Introduction,   p. 7 PDF (379.7 KB)

Page 7

n estimated two million Irish immigrants came to the
United States in the mid-nineteenth century seeking to
better their lives economically Nearly fifty thousand of
them sought out the farmland and cities of southern Wiscon-
sin, many of them having been deprived of their livelihoods by
an impoverishing potato famine that struck Ireland from 1845
to 1855. And of those fifty thousand, seventy-six Irish families
had settled in the Town of Fitchburg by 1860.1
The Irish of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, constituted one of the
largest rural ethnic settlements in southern Dane County. In a
time when a cluster of five homesteads of the same heritage
was often called a settlement, an area such as Fitchburg with
seventy-six Irish families was a very significant community. The
Irish were leaders in founding churches, organizing schools,
and serving in both state and local government. Today, most
people remember the Irish as having lived in working-class
neighborhoods of big cities. But three-quarters of all Wisconsin
Irish lived in agricultural communities and small villages in
1860, and only later did a majority of the Irish move to cities
in response to growing employment opportunities.2
The rural Irish settlement in Fitchburg was formed in
the 1840's near the northern end of the convergence of two
of the most important roads in south-central Wisconsin: the
Madison-to-Janesville mail road and a Milwaukee-to-Mineral
Point road associated with the lead trade. The merging of these
roads began south of the intersection of Fish Hatchery and
Adams roads, extended south to Swan Pond, and then went
through Oregon township and into Rutland. In Oregon, a
road branched off and went to Beloit. In Rutland, the Old
Janesville/lead teamsters' road divided, with one road going
to Janesville and the teamsters' road going east to Milwaukee
(see Map on page 19).
Travel on the territorial roads was essential to the Irish.
For example, the railroad did not reach Madison until 1854, so
farmers hauled their wheat cash crop on a ten-day journey by
ox team and wagon to Milwaukee. Local roads were used to
take farm produce such as potatoes to sell in Madison. Also,
most Irish Catholic families made the two-hour trip to Madison
each Sunday to St. Raphael's Church, a small wood-frame struc-
ture built in 1850.
The majority of Irish who settled in the thirty-six square
miles of Fitchburg township arrived between 1840 and 1860.
They shared their new-found homeland with people of other
cultural backgrounds, including German immigrants and Win-
nebago Indians, as well as families of varying ethnicities who
moved from the northeastern states. As time went on, some of
the Irish moved to northwestern Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota,
and the Dakotas. Fitchburg became an important family anchor
point for Irish homesteaders throughout the region. Today,
Fitchburg has the municipal status of a city, but it is still home
to a large rural Irish-American community with many families
continuing to live on the homesteads of their ancestors. The
Irish-American residents of the 1990's are proud of their past
and concerned about the future of their community.

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