The Irish in America


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Jumping In: Irish in Minnesota

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)

McMahon Family of Tara Township, Swift County, Minnesota — Ireland, New York, Wisconsin, Civil War, love, loss…a “typical” 19th century Irish American family. (photo from private family collection)

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!

Township map of Sibley County. Irish established Jessenland, Fazon, Washington Lake, and Green Isle in the northeast corner of Sibley County along the Minnesota River.

Notes and More Information:


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Skerries is a Great Old Town

By now you must all know how much I love letters, so let’s take another look at the Stephen Owens Collection. Discovered at the Old Skerries Historical Society in County Dublin in the late 1970s by well-known Irish Emigration historian Kerby Miller, this is a small collection of letters sent from Stephen Owens of Clontarf, Minnesota in the USA to his niece Celia Grimes in his native Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland. The letters are from the first few years of the twentieth century.

I began to look at the letters of Stephen Owens in an earlier post (click here to get caught up.) I will pick up the action with a letter dated July 20, 1900.

Mr. Owens starts right out with the weather (typical Irishman and Minnesotan!) It is the hottest and driest summer in over twenty-five years in Minnesota. No rain and scorching heat have left the farmers with little in the way of grains to cut come harvest time:

Corn and potatoes are Pretty good but the American likes to live on flowers instead of potatoes.

Mr. Owens writes of his younger cousin, a daughter of his Uncle John, who works for a family in Lynn, Massachusetts. He had a letter from her in which she describes her employer and their summer holidays in New Hampshire. She wants very much to come out West to visit her cousin which leads Mr. Owens to write, “I would like to see all my friends before I Die, God bless us all.”

The next letter to Celia is dated April 1, 1902. Mr. Owens tells her of the new priest in Clontarf and how the beloved Father McDonald died of consumption. He goes on to tell Celia that she may miss her brother who recently left home for America, “but it is 49 years last February since I seen your Mother, my sister Eliza.” All those years later, Mr. Owens still misses his sister and family. He even misses Celia, and she was not even born when he was last in Skerries!

Main Street Skerries, ca 1900 (courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland)

In a previous letter Celia must have told her uncle that there is something of an Irish language revival in Skerries because he writes:

Skerries is a great old Town. It is getting very patriotic. I am glad to hear the young People are learning their Country’s language. It is a good sign…

The last letter from Mr. Owens in the collection is dated November 10, 1903. The tone of this letter is less than up-beat. He has been ill for five weeks and sometimes is unable to stand for the pain in his back and legs.

Mr. Owens is pleased to hear that Celia was reunited with her brother who came back from America, and he comments on the latest wave of migrants from Ireland:

…you sent 11 people out from Skerries lately. Them is the kind that is wanting, Old People is only in the way here in America they don’t want them. I suppose it’s that way in every country…

Mr. Owens is clearly facing the fact that he has reached the twilight of his years and he has apparently given up the notion of returning to Ireland to see all of his old friends and family – “I think when we meet next it will be in heaven.” It was another two years before Mr. Owens passed away in December 1905.

I contacted the Skerries Historical Society to see if they had the originals of these letters – I only have copied transcripts. Maree Baker, the librarian at the Society got right back to me and said that they did not have the original letters. She sent along a couple of items from the Grimes family that are part of their collection – a photo from the late 1920s and two memorial cards. Celia’s brother James is on the left in the photo and Maree said Celia could be one of the women to the right.

Grimes Family of Skerries (courtesy of the Skerries Historical Society)


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The Next Best Thing

I know I am not the only family historian with dreams of discovering a cache of old letters, hidden away in a dusty attic. These letters would answer all my questions and lead me to finally solve the mysteries I have pondered about my ancestors’ lives.

Well, this has not happened. In fact, my research seems to lead to all sorts of letters from and to everyone but my family! Reading these letters is fascinating, and they provide a ton of contextual information, but can they really be as good as the real thing?

For example, I came across several letters from Stephen Owens , a nineteenth-century Irish immigrant to Clontarf, Minnesota, to a niece back home in Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland.  The letters are in a file at the Swift County Historical Society. The letters were shared by Kerby Miller, professor of History at the University of Missouri and the preeminent authority on Irish emigration (see his book Emigrants and Exiles.)

The first letter in the collection is dated December 4, 1899. Mr. Owens is about seventy-years-old, has been in the United States for over fifty years and is very happy to have received a letter from his niece back home in Skerries. He writes, “I Thought I would never hear from my friends in Skerries again…”

Mr. Owens goes on to describe his family and his community. Here’s an excerpt:

I am pretty smart on the foot yet thanks be to God. Your Aunt don’t hear so well as I do, She is Pretty Old Looking. She is Able yet to do our Cooking and washing. We had to give up farming we were to old to work the farm any Longer So I sold it and moved to the Little Town of Clontarf near the Church…

Main Street of Clontarf, Minnesota - 1920

More than fifty years have passed since Mr. Owens left Ireland, but he still asks about old school friends, neighbors, and family:

When you write again Let me know iff your Uncle Michael Owens wife is living in Skerries or Daughter. Remember me to John Baulf and to James Russel the Shoemaker and his Brother Mathew and their sister Margret iff Living. All my Old School Mates I suppose are nearly all Dead, iff I landed in Skerries now i would hardly no one Person in the Town the would all be new People to me  my Generation are all Passed away Well Dear Niece Ceila I wont forget you night & morning in my Poor Prayers and I hope you wont forget your Old Uncle…

On March 19, 1900 Mr. Owens writes to his niece and thanks her for the shamrock she sent him. He goes on to describe the large St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Clontarf, and wagers that, “yous did not celebrate like this in Skerries.”

Mr. Owens has this to say about the Boer War taking place in South Africa:

We are all Irish to the Back bone out here and all Boer sympathizers out here. We are sorrow to hear of so many of our countrymen being slain in the war…the English will give them the Post of honor on the Battle field, but won’t give Home Rule.

In the letters Mr. Owens shares much with his niece about his American hometown of Clontarf, Minnesota. He talks about Church activities, the priest, and building projects in the town. When Mr. Owens says “We are all Irish to the Back bone out here and all Boer sympathizers…” I realize he is speaking of my ancestors – his neighbors in Clontarf and all fellow Irishmen who helped establish the community twenty-five years earlier.

So maybe my great-great-grandfathers Patrick Foley, John Regan, and Francis McMahon were Boer supporters, too? Clontarf was a small town, I imagine they all ran in the same circle – St. Malachy Catholic Church, the Hibernian Hall, McDermott General Store…actually there probably was just the one circle!

So, these letters were not found in a relative’s dusty old attic, nor do they even directly reference my ancestors. But they are the next best thing to finding my own family’s letters. It is often the small discoveries that keep family historians and genealogists going.

I will feature a few more excerpts from the Owens Letters in a future post. There are plenty more insights to the Irish experience in America that this nineteenth century Irish immigrant has to share!