Irish in southern Wisconsin

While some immigrants from Ireland trickled into what is now Wisconsin as early as the 1600s to take part in the fur trade, the biggest influx of Irish settlers in the state took place in the first half of the 19th century. Though Irish families are documented in town histories and census reports throughout Wisconsin, the largest numbers of Irish immigrants settled in southern Wisconsin, especially in Milwaukee and its surrounding area and in the areas west of Madison.

Irish Fest, billed as “the world’s largest celebration of Celtic music and culture” rightfully takes place in Milwaukee, a city that saw a substantial number of immigrants hailing from the Emerald Isle. In 1850, the Irish made up 15% of Milwaukee’s population, with many living in the city’s Third Ward. The early years of the 20th century saw Irish immigration slow. According to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, by 1930, only 1.4% of the Milwaukee metropolitan population reported to the census that their fathers were born in Ireland.

Opening ceremonies for Milwaukee’s second annual Irish Fest, March 1982.
Milwaukee Public Library.
East Water Street in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, ca. 1885.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The local newspapers certainly had Irish cuisine covered, such as this recipe for colcannon from the Shamrock Club of Wisconsin, published in the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1979.
Milwaukee Public Library.

Population map of Wisconsin in 1850, drawn by Mary Stuart Foster in 1922.
Wisconsin Historical Society.
Irish ancestry by county, 2010. Statistical Atlas.

Milwaukee had the most Irish residents by number, but southwest Wisconsin had some of the highest proportions of Irish immigrants in the state. The 2010 Census showed the greatest percentages of people reporting Irish heritage are still found in southwest Wisconsin.

Mineral Point was one of many southwest Wisconsin towns that attracted Irish immigrants, along with settlers from Wales and Cornwall. Many found work in local mines or industries that supported mining, such railroad work, smelting and lumbering. The Mineral Point Library Archives has a fantastic collection of images documenting the early residences of the town, some of which no longer exist. These images and their descriptions offer a hint of the Irish immigrant experience in rural Wisconsin.

John Hutchison was born in Ireland and after immigrating to the United States, worked as miner. He built his home in Mineral Point 1855. It housed himself, his wife Jane, his three children (all born in Wisconsin) and his mother-in-law. Mineral Point Library Archives.
James Hutchison (no indication if he is a relation to John) owned a lumberyard in Mineral Point. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, he arrived in 1840 at the age of 21. He mined in Mineral Point for six years, then went to the Lake Superior area when copper was discovered. It was while working up north that he lost his right arm and right eye in a mining accident. He returned to Mineral Point, served as Clerk of Circuit Court, worked as farmer, grain dealer, and lumber tradesman, and was elected Mayor of the city in 1869 and in 1875. Mineral Point Library Archives.
James Kinney came from Ireland, probably in the mid-1840s, and lived in a house built in 1847 on Jail Alley along with his wife and two young sons. Several boarders, also from Ireland, lived in the home as well. Mineral Point Library Archives.

Irish immigrants made an indelible mark on the history and heritage of Wisconsin. You can learn about more Wisconsin communities with a history of Irish immigration in the following resources: