Kinney, Thomas P. / Irish settlers of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, 1840-1860
Immigration of Irish to Dane County, pp. 8-13 PDF (415.2 KB)
Immigration of Irish to Dane County na crisp November day in 1842, two Irish immigrant Obrothers in their twenties drove a horse and buggy through oak woods along an Indian trail that ran from Janesville to Madison. As they entered the township that was to become known as Fitchburg, the young men pulled up their buggy at a small log hotel on the banks of a pond, where it is said that the skies overhead would blacken from time to time with immense flocks of migratory birds. The brothers were on a mission to look for land on which to build homesteads. A man named Harvey Bush, who had recently established one of the first farms in the township, offered to guide them to prime, unclaimed land two miles to the east. They rode out to view the property, which turned out to be gently rolling prairie land interspersed with oak groves. After canvassing the promising territory, Harvey Bush turned to the brothers and uttered his now legendary line: "[It's] fine land, but in such an out-of-the- way place."3 The brothers, George and Dr. William Fox, felt that the land would suit their needs and left for the Milwaukee land office where they purchased tracts from the government on November 18, 1842.4 They returned to live in Fitchburg in June, 1843. With the arrival of additional pioneers, the devel- opment of the Irish agricultural settlement of Fitchburg was underway As for the skeptical guide, Harvey Bush, he left the town- ship within a few years after the conversation on the prairie. Fitchburg may have been out-of-the-way at the time, but it easily survived the criticism and today is one of the fastest- growing cities in Wisconsin. To understand how Fitchburg and its Irish have come so far over the past 150 years, the early decades in the development of Wisconsin and Dane County need to be considered. The Irish formed one of many ethnic groups that moved to the Wisconsin frontier during the years 1840 to 1860, when individuals purchased much of the available land in southern Wisconsin from the federal government. The majority of Irish and other immigrants came to Dane County either directly from Europe, or after having lived for a while in Canada or on the East Coast. The Irish reached Canadian or U.S. seaports often follow- ing six to eight weeks on a sickness-ridden vessel. Large num- bers sought jobs and housing in such coastal cities as Boston and New York. Many of the Irish worked long hours for low pay in industrial sweatshops. Stereotypically, urban Irish were known for working as policemen and saloonkeepers, but in fact most were employed as laborers or factory workers. Many of the Irish who moved inland from the East Coast were lured by the prospects of employment on railroad and canal construction projects. Later, some of those laborers chose to use their savings to buy farms either near the coast or on the frontier. They were joined by Irish who had enough cash in hand from the sale of property in Ireland to purchase an Ameri- can farm. The federal government advertised that land was available in Wisconsin, and many Irish seized the opportunity. Wisconsin Territory was organized out of the preceding Michigan Territory in 1836. Dane County was also formed that year, named for Nathaniel Dane, who helped draft the North- west Ordinance which established government in the region where Wisconsin is today The wilderness from which Madison grew was designated as the new capital of Wisconsin Territory in November, 1836. Madison, also the county seat, was named for a popular past president, James Madison, who had died earlier that year. Wisconsin became a state in 1848 after years of increasing settlement. From 1840 to 1860, pioneers purchased land from the government and speculators, and they began farming on much of the arable land in Dane County. The population of Dane County underwent tremendous growth in these years.
Copyright 1993, 1998 Thomas P. Kinney