McGee, Thomas D'Arcy. A
History of the Irish Settlers in North America, From the Earliest Period to the
Census of 1850.
Boston, Mass.; Patrick Donahue, 1852.
New States of the North-West-Senators Cass and Fitzgerald, of Michigan, Allen,
of Ohio and Hannegan of Indiana-Hon. Mr. Ryan of Illinois-Hugh O'Neil of
Indiana-The Dowlings-Lieutentant-Governor Byrne, of Wisconsin-Irish Pioneers in
states carved out of the north-western Indian territories since the beginning of
the century, have been the favorite goals of all recent emigration. The
facilities of transit offered by the canals and railroads leading from the old
Atlantic States westward, and the adaptability of the west for agriculture,
attracted and made easy the the progress of the Celtic multitude. If, in our own
age, this young nation has been able to export its superfluous breadstuffs to
the other side of the Atlantic, one of the chief causes is to be found in the
constant supply of cheap Irish labor, which, for fifty years, has been poured
along all the avenues of the west. If, moreover, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois,
Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa, have done much to increase the wealth and glory of
the Union, a large share of the historical honor is due to Irish fugitives from
British oppression, and their more fortunate sons, born as freemen.
A glance at the growth of the general population, since
the reclamation of the North-west, will enable us to estimate, in one way, its
importance to the Union. In 1800, the "Union" counted 5,305,625 souls;
in 1810, 7,239,814; in 1820, 9,654,956; in 1830, 12,868,020; in 1840,
17,069,453; in 1850, about 23,250,000. Not only has the increase been mainly
made in the North-west, but the abundant produce of that fertile region has fed
and distended even the older states. For every emigrant who goes up the lakes in
spring, an increase of produce, or its price, comes down in harvest. The army of
labor makes an annual campaign, and give a good account of itself in every
engagement with the wilderness, and the desolation of ancient barrenness. The
host that unfurled its standard at Bunker Hill, and took the British colors down
at Yorkstown, is scarcely more entitled to be called the army of liberation,
than this emigrant multitude, who, armed with the implements of labor, smite the
forest from the morning until the evening, and plant, in advance of the ages to
come, the starry banner of the nation against the frontier skies.
Who constitute this host? In every case it has been
nearly half Irish. Until 1819, there was, unfortunately, no customs record of
emigrant arrivals; until the Atlantic States, within ten years back, appointed
the local Commissioners of Emigration, we had no exact returns of the classes
and origin of those who did arrive. But the names of men and places, the number
of Catholic churches erected in, and the Irish feelings represented by, the
public men of the west, enable us to estimate the share of that people in the
population of six new states of that quarter. *
In the United States
Senate, Michigan has been represented by Generals Cass and Fitzgerald, both of
Irish origin; Ohio was long represented by Mr. Allen, still in the vigor of his
public life, a man of real ability, and not only by blood, but by sympathy,
allied to the fatherland of Burke and O'Connell. Indiana has sent to the same
assembly Edward A. Hannegan, some time minister to Berlin; and Illinois is now
represented by James Shields. The popular branch of Congress has also been
largely recruited by men, of Irish parentage or birth, from the same region. In
the thirty-third Congress there were forty such representatives.
Of the six states, Illinois has been distinguished for
its number of Irish servants. Not only in the national councils, but in the not
less important duties of organizing the finances and establishing the credit of
Illinois., some of our emigrants have performed important services to their
adopted state. Of these, one, for his industry and abilities, deserves
particular mention. In 1842, the late Mr. Ryan, then a very young man, was
elected to the State Senate, for the district including La Salle, Grundy, and
Kendall counties. The services he rendered are related by an Illinois journal:-
"The election of Mr. Ryan, at this time, as
subsequent events have shown, was a fortunate one for our state. At that dark
period of her history the state was bankrupt in means and credit. Involved in
debt to the amount of about sixteen millions of dollars, there was no hope that
she could ever pay any part of that sum unless further means could be
obtained to bring the canal, the most available part of her property, into use.
"Mr. Ryan, then, although but twenty-five years of
age, was probably as well informed, in regard to the present and prospective
resources of the state, as any man in it. Conceiving that it was necessary to
complete the canal in order to save the state and that the money for its
completion must be obtained from eastern or foreign capitalists, he justly
deemed that it was necessary , in advance of any legislation, to convince those
parties that a further advance of money to the state of Illinois was a proper, a
prudent measure, on their part. With this view, he, immediately after his
election in August, 1842, proceeded to New York, and so well did he succeed in
effecting his object, that, aided by the advice and assistance of Mr. Arthur
Bronson, now deceased, Mr. Justin Butterfield, now Commissioner of the General
Land Office, and others, he matured the plan of the canal law of 1843, for
raising the sum of sixteen hundred thousand dollars for completing the canal. On
his entrance into the Senate, in December, 1842, he introduced the bill, which
was, during that session, passed into a law. Strange as it may now seem, the
bill was violently assailed, and it required all the information, talents and
zeal of Mr. Ryan to secure its passage.
"Upon its becoming a law, Mr. Ryan, who had been
this instrumental in devising the plan upon which it was founded, and in
carrying it thus far into execution ,was deemed, by common consent, the most
proper person to procure the loan proposed to be raised by the law. Accordingly
he was appointed to this honorable and responsible agency, by the late Governor
Ford, in the spring of 1843, with Mr. Charles Oakley, who was appointed his
colleague. He proceeded immediately to England, where, after overcoming many
serious obstacles, they were at length successful in effecting the loan of
$1,6000,000, which secured the completion of the canal.
"The mass of information with which Mr. Ryan had
stored his mind, in relation to the resources of Illinois, together with his
powers of argument, contributed largely to their success. After having secured
the attention of the foreign capitalists to his facts and arguments, he was
desired to submit to them a written statement of the facts which had been the
subject of their discussion, and was assured, if Mr. Ryan and Mr. Oakley could
verify those facts to such agents as these parties might send to Illinois, the
amount asked for should be furnished.
"In compliance with this arrangement, Governor
John Davis, of Mass., and Captain Swift, one of the present Canal Trustees, came
to Illinois, and, after six weeks' patient investigation, found themselves able
to endorse, substantially, all the representations made by Mr. Ryan and Mr.
"Soon afterwards, in the latter part of the year
1845, Mr. Ryan, having thus devoted himself for three years to the service of
the state, with a zeal and vigor that could not be surpassed, and a judgment and
discretion that resulted in complete success, felt that some attention to his
own business was necessary.
"The supposed mineral riches of the shores of Lake
Superior at that time attracted much attention; Mr. Ryan devoted himself to
mining, and was engaged in that pursuit, in Pennsylvania, at the time of his
"He had just succeeded in his pursuits to such an
extent as to be able to turn his eyes towards the prairies of his own beautiful
state, with the hopes of soon again making them his home, when the inexorable
fate which awaits us all interposed her fiat, and terminated his career.
"Thus had Illinois lost, in the prime and vigor of his
manhood, one of her most gifted and devoted sons,-rich in every endowment that
gives value and dignity to humanity. In intellect, among the first; in goodness
of heart, surpassed by none. Elegant and accomplished in his manners, wherever
he has been, and in whatever position he has been placed, he has always
commanded the respect and admiration of those who knew him. There was a charm in
his manners that seemed to possess a mysterious influence over all who
approached him. But by those to whom he was best known was he the best beloved.
Those only who knew him well could know the full worth of his character."
In Indiana, the families of Gorman, or O'Gorman, the
Browns, two of those cadets are now in Congress,-were among the pioneers. The
family of O'Neils, originally settled in Carolina, and still represented there
by the Hon. Belton O'Neil, a jurist and scholar of high attainments, early
branched off into Indiana. Hugh O'Neil, of this stock, was educated in the
University of that State, at Bloomington, and studied law at Indianapolis. He is
now (1852), in his fortieth year, United States District Attorney for Indiana.
Thomas and John Dowling, of the same state, have long
been known, in its local politics, as editors and legislators. Thomas is now one
of the three trustees of the state debt; John holds an important office in the
Department for Indian Affairs at Washington, in which bureau he was preceded by
his countryman, James Shields, now general and senator.**
Wisconsin, admitted in 1848, has, at this present
writing, a numerous and influential Irish population. Many of its new towns are
almost exclusively occupied and governed by that class of citizens. The town of
Benton is of this number, being founded, in 1844, by Mr. Dennis Murphy, a native
of Wexford, who afterwards represented that county in the State Senate. In
Milwaukie, the Irish citizens are very numerous and several of them, as Dr.
James Johnson, are large proprietors of city property.
One of the most honorable reputations made in
Wisconsin, is that of the Hon. Timothy Byrne ,a native of Dublin, born in 1819.
His parents settled in New York, in 1820, from which Mr. Byrne removed, in 1836,
to Wisconsin Territory. From 1846 to 1849, he was a member of the Legislature;
in 1849 and in 1850, he was one of the commissioners for the improvement of the
Fox and Wisconsin rivers; and in 1851, though his party was defeated, he was
elected lieutenant-governor by a majority of five thousand. Thus, at the age of
thirty-three years, he fills the second office of his adopted state, without any
of the factitious aids of party support.
Iowa, the most recent of the states (except
California), excels them all in her Irish predilections. In 1851, she gave the
names of Mathew O'Brien, Mitchel, and Emmett to four of her newly surveyed
counties. Her State Legislature has always had Irish members, and her Irish
citizens exercise a controlling influence. The venerable pioneer, Patrick
Quigley, Judge Corkery (a native of Cork), and others of the first brigade of
emigrants, were mainly instrumental in producing this gratifying state of
feeling in Iowa.
Two win respect for a fallen race-to straighten the way
of the stranger, and prepare a favorable public opinion to receive him-to watch
over the growing passions of a young state-to direct wisely less experienced
emigrants who follow-to found churches, towns and reputations-these are the
great opportunities of early settlers. Need we add that, to effect all or any of
these ends of American life, great judgment, forebearance and energy are
required. No "free and easy" philosophy will serve in this
undertaking; no living from hand to mouth; no pot-house celebrity, will suffice.
For a thousand years-until the population of the South Seas-there will not be
such opportunities in the world again as are now open to the Irish in America.
In another generation we will be too late,-we will be forestalled and shut out.
The continent is being administered,-the dividend of a new world is about to be
declared; but those only who are wise, patient and united, can obtain any
considerable per centage.
In the older states, many obstacles exist to the
successful establishment in life of emigrants. The best farms and trades are all
taken up by native inhabitants, whose capital and connexions give them some
facilities denied to the foreigner. But there are not half a dozen states in the
whole Union of which this is generally true. Let no indolence plead such an
excuse. There are characters, homes and fortunes still to be made by honest
labor in America. In what varieties of struggling were not the men engaged whose
history we have sketched! What difficulties had not they, in their time, to
overcome! Some were sold for a term of years to pay their passage money; others
lived in perpetual apprehension of Indian invasion; almost all were friendless
and moneyless, on their first landing on these shores. Do you read this book to
gratify vanity, or to furnish food for stump speeches? Alas! if so, friend, you
do the book, the writer, and yourself a great wrong. It was written with a far
other and far higher object: to make us sensible that we had predecessors in
America whose example was instructive, to induce us to compare what they did and
were with what we are and ought to do. If it serves not this purpose in a
degree, better it was never written or read.
This torrent of emigration from Ireland to America
must, in a few years, abate its force; it cannot go on as it has gone. Whatever
we can do for ourselves, as a people, in North America, must be done before the
close of this century, or the epitaph of our race will be written in the west
with the single sentence-
*Certainly one half of the recent arrivals from Ireland has been added to the
population of the Western States. How large a proportion of these bear to all
other settlers, may be conjectured by the following summary of the arrivals at
New York alone, which we take from the Annual Reports of the Commissioners of
Emigration for that State, for 1848, '49 and '50.
Passengers arriving in New York in the years ending
31st of December, 1848, 1849, and 1850, for whom commutation and hospital money
was paid. (Americans not included.)
** An obliging friend, long
a resident of Indiana, in answer to our inquiries, writes:-"The truth is,
Indiana is full of the descendants of Irishmen. I scarcely ever was in a crowd
of the old residents, four fifths of whom did not proudly boast of their Celtic
origin. The first Constitution of the State was formed by a convention, in which
were several natives of the 'old sod.'"