We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.Dakota Tribe (from Xavier University’s Quote Archive
As I started work on the Irish in Minnesota project this month, I had some trouble settling in with the research and getting organized. I’ve come to the conclusion that while I am familiar with a wide range of Minnesota history topics, I need to do some reading to get up to speed on the larger picture of nineteenth century Minnesota. That being said, I would like to get the ball rolling with a bit of background information and an introduction to a Minnesota “First.”
Irish immigration had a tremendous impact on the development of nineteenth century America. Migrating to nearly every region of the country, the Irish carved out lives in eastern cities and states, as well as established new communities throughout the West. The Irish came to America because of famine, oppression, and the lack of opportunity at home. Some were forced to emigrate, but others acted with agency and chose to come to America. Ann Regan writes in Irish in Minnesota that the experience of Irish immigrants in Minnesota “defies generalization….they have created stereotypes and broken them, held to traditions and made new ones.” This is a good point to keep in mind as we sift through the history of the Irish in Minnesota.
Irish immigrants began coming to the Minnesota region in the 1820s as soldiers at Fort Snelling and lumberjacks from Canada. Because of its location on the east bank of the Mississippi River, St. Paul grew quickly through the 1840s and 1850s. The future capital city of Minnesota, St. Paul was a town where anything seemed possible and it attracted ambitious Americans and immigrants alike. St. Paul served as a launching point for westward migration, first via steamboat and later the railroad. (More on the Irish in St. Paul to come.)
Why did the Irish come to Minnesota? The simple answer is land. The United States government signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with the Dakota in 1851, which opened the territory west of the Mississippi River. This included the Minnesota River Valley, a timber-rich region accessed with relative ease from St. Paul by steamboat. With the Treaty of Mendota later in 1851, a total of 24 million acres of land became available for new settlement. (Wikipedia)
For Americans and immigrants feeling the effects of “Western Fever” the treaties came at the right time and represented opportunities for new lives. It is important to keep in mind, however, that for the Dakota, “these treaties marked another step in a process that increasingly marginalized them and dismissed them from the land that had been—and remained—their home.” (Eric W. Weber, MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society)
The U.S. government furthered its agenda of expansion with the treaties. (Did you know that the term Manifest Destiny was coined by Irish American editor John O’Sullivan in 1845?) According to the Wikipedia entry on the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, the U.S. government agreed to pay annuities to the Dakota equal to about 7.5 cents per acre. New settlers would pay about $1.25 per acre. Not a bad deal for the government, especially considering the Dakota were never fully compensated. (Wikipedia)
Patricia Johnston mentions in Minnesota’s Irish that many of the Irish in Minnesota were “two boat” migrants: One boat brought them across the Atlantic from Ireland, and a second to Minnesota. The second leg of the journey would often involve several modes of transportation, but the steamboat was important for the early arrivals in Minnesota. It wouldn’t be until later in the nineteenth century that more Irish would come directly to Minnesota from Ireland, typically joining family already established in the area. (p. 23)
The stages of Irish migration can be clearly seen in census data from the1850s-1890s. Patterns emerge with parents who were born in Ireland, they arrived in the U.S. and married in eastern states such as New York, Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania where their oldest children were born. Migration west resulted in middle children born in Ohio, Illinois, or Wisconsin, with the youngest born in Minnesota. Extended families, in-laws, and friends moved across the country together and in phases. As the railroad extended from Minnesota to Montana, Washington, and California, the younger generation of Irish and Irish American migrants often followed.
Claims to the “First” anything are typically controversial, especially when those claims are made at a time when events were happening quickly and record-keeping was hit-or-miss. The township of Jessenland, on the Minnesota River in present-day Sibley County, is widely accepted as the “First Irish Settlement in Minnesota.” The story goes that the Doheny Brothers (Thomas, Walter, and Dennis) took the steamboat “Black Oaks” up the Minnesota River from St. Paul and spotting a beautiful site fifty miles into the richly wooded region (part of the “Big Woods”), stopped the steamboat and made their claims. This spot would be known as Doheny’s Landing and marks the first permanent Irish farming community in Minnesota. Doheny’s Landing grew into Jessenland.
Jessenland’s “origin story” is described by John Gerald Berger in the 1965 book, A History of St. Brendan’s Parish, The Village of Green Isle, and Minnesota’s First Irish Settlement:
We might imagine that it was a beautiful spring morning when the three brothers got off the boat, and that the lush green valley with its wooded bluffs and glens reminded them of their homeland. They had left the Emerald Isle, some years before, like so many others, because of the potato famine…All they carried with them, besides the clothes on their backs, were shovels, axes, and grub-hoes. That first summer they managed to clear enough land to plant a few potatoes, but they were frozen by an early frost.(Berger, p.2)
A few pages later, Berger proposes that the “traditional” story of the Doheny Brothers may not be absolutely accurate but he asserts that, although there were concurrent arrivals to the area, a Doheny brother made the earliest claim by an Irishman, establishing the first Irish community. Edward Neill, writing in 1882, offers some clarification:
Thomas Doheny, the Irishman who came up on the Black Oak in July, 1852, and located his own and other claims, returned in the spring of 1853, bringing with him several others, who formed the nucleus of the Irish settlement. Doheny planted a few potatoes and then returned to St. Paul while Michael Grimes, Sr., remained and built himself a house, and became the first Irish settler.(Neill, History of the Minnesota Valley, 1882 – excerpt on GenealogyTrails.com)
I was curious about Michael Grimes, Sr. since he was not mentioned by name in Berger’s account. If he was the first Irishman to build a house and spend the winter at the site, he deserves further attention. I will have access to a reprint of Neill’s book soon and will check on the Grimes story. A quick search provided that the Doheny and Grimes families both lived in Middletown in Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania prior to coming to Minnesota (more next time). Over the next few years, the Irish would fill Jessenland and spill over to Washington Lake, Faxon, and Green Isle townships: Boland, Bray, Carlin, Dunne, Egan, Mullen, Mulligan, Shaughnessy, Wilson, and Young are some of the families who joined Doheny and Grimes.
Next time I want to take a closer look at some of the individuals who established Jessenland and see how the Irish community grew from its humble beginnings at Doheny’s Landing to include four townships. If anyone out there is a descendant of (or has a connection to) the early Irish in Sibley County, please leave a comment!
Notes and More Information:
- This article provides a nice overview of the history of Irish immigrants in Boston/New England by Dr. Catherine B. Shannon: https://www.nantucketatheneum.org/wp-content/uploads/Irish-Immigration-to-America.pdf.
- Brian Miller, Musician and Library Director at Celtic Junction Arts Center’s Eoin McKiernan Library has done great work on the music of Irish lumberjacks in Minnesota. Check this out: Lumberjacks & irishmen.
- I want to learn more about how migrants came to Minnesota…what paths they took, how long it may have taken, etc. If anyone knows of a good resource for 19th century transportation history, let me know!