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

Immigration of Irish to Dane County,   pp. 8-13 PDF (415.2 KB)

Page 9

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
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.

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