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

Irish arrive in Fitchburg,   pp. 28-41 PDF (6.3 MB)

Page 29

Irish Arrive in Fitchburg
Upon their initial arrival in the Town of Fitchburg, Irish
immigrants entered a land of oak forests and open
prairies inhabited by numerous deer, other game, and
even prairie wolves. Lorin Miller, who surveyed the land in
1833, recorded in his notebook seeing hickory and aspen trees,
scrub oak, hazel brush, red root, rosin weed, indigo, and green
brier. Miller's description of the land as "gently rolling" and
"holding out many inducements to the farmer" offers evidence
why the Irish-having escaped famine and depression in their
homeland-found Fitchburg so attractive."'
In the years after the Fox brothers' visit to Fitchburg in
1842, the Irish settlement rapidly grew to eight families in 1846
and seventy-six households by 1860. While the Irish were
approximately one-third of the township's population, Yankees
who operated many farms and a few village businesses made
up over half of the inhabitants. The remainder was comprised
of a small assortment of non-Irish farmers who were also immi-
grants. These proportions were unusual since the average Wis-
consin township was only six percent Irish. But Fitchburg was
similar to many of the state's townships in that Yankee farmers
made up the majority of the heads of households in 1860, and
immigrants of various backgrounds formed the minority of the
population.2 (See Appendix A.)
Immigrants and Yankees continued to enter Fitchburg in
large numbers until most of the land was bought from the gov-
ernment and, around 1860, the population began to stabilize.
Life during the settlement years stood in stark contrast to the
decades after 1860. The frontier days were marked by log
cabins overlooking freshly cleared forest gardens where wheat
was being raised; goods were taken to market by wagons pulled
by ox teams; the mail came by way of stagecoach. But by the
late nineteenth century, Fitchburg had a completely different
look, including neat white houses flanked by well-tended apple
orchards. Expansive fields with grazing beef cattle and dairy
cows checkered the old forest. Horses replaced oxen, and stage-
coaches were superseded by trains as Fitchburg prepared for
the twentieth century.
Long before this modernization occurred, the early pio-
neers laid physical, economic, and social foundations in their
wilderness settlements. The Yankees more than foreign immi-
grants were significantly less likely to settle in clusters of
people from the same region or state of birth. Former New
Yorkers comprised 28 percent of Fitchburg's 213 heads of
households in 1860; those who did not live at the small Oak
Hall village lived on farms dispersed throughout the township.
New Englanders from states such as Maine and Vermont made
up 15 percent of the township's families and also did not tend
to form clusters when they built their homesteads. An excep-
tion to the Yankee tendency to live at scattered locations was
the Pennsylvanian Lake View community, which constituted 6
percent of Fitchburg's population.3 Yankees for the most part
came in search of the best farmland and did not need to
become culturally acclimated by living in ethnic settlements
as did the immigrants.
While English, Scottish, and Canadian immigrants made
up only a tiny fraction of the population and therefore did not
have the numbers to form substantial settlements, the Germans
and Irish had larger contingents and formed recognizable clus-
ters. Four percent of the population was German, and some of
these families settled north of the intersection of Seminole
Highway and McKee Road in the 1850's. This community,
which, according to the 1860 census, began with the Dinkels,
Fergens, Kerfuls, and Wiesels, did not grow substantially in
the following decades, and little trace of that settlement is
left today
The other major immigrant group with observable settle-
ment patterns was the vast and ever-growing Irish community
that comprised about one-third of Fitchburg's population. The

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