Naming Erin Hills: 19th Century Irish Emigrants & the 2017 U.S. Open

Today the eyes of the golfing world are turned to Erin Hills golfcourse in Erin, Washington County, Wisconsin, as the 2017 US Open draws to a conclusion. Though none of the Irish-born golfers remain in contention for the title, there is nonetheless a strong Irish interest in the location of the tournament. As the name implies, Erin is a town with strong links to Ireland, stretching back to some of the first settlers in the county. Given the day that’s in it, I was interested to take a brief look at some of the history behind how Erin got its name.

Logo of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, Wisconsin (Wikipedia)

Logo of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, Wisconsin (Wikipedia)

Erin, Wisconsin is so called because of the Irish emigrants who first made their homes there in the 1840s. The 1912 History of Washington County provides some detail:

…the first settlers of this township were Irish– they were Catholics from the Emerald Isle. Michael Lynch on November 27, 1841, was the first one to take up Government land. In the following two years the valleys fairly resounded with the efforts of the Ryans, Quinns, Daleys, Fitzgeralds, Welches, Donohues, Murphys, McCormicks, Gallaghers, McLaughlins and others of distinctly Gaelic lineage to create a home in that most hilly portion of the county. German names among the first settlers are rare exceptions. By 1846 the last patch of arable land was taken. The town was well settled before the first tree was fell in the town of Hartford. Town Erin was incorporated on Jan 16, 1846. On April 6, 1846, the first town meeting was held in the home of Patrick Toland… (1)

True to its Irish links, the town was overwhelmingly Democratic in its early years– so much so that an amusing story was told about the town’s solitary vote for Abraham Lincoln in 1860:

…Town Erin was from the very beginning of its existence the stronghold of the Democratic party in Washington county. Until 1859 nobody who was not a Democrat could poll a vote. Lincoln in 1860 was the first one to effect a breach in that solid phalanx. He got one vote. But the election officers thought that it certainly must have been a mistake, and– threw it out. Since then the Republican party slowly gained ground. In the next few elections that solitary Republican vote regularly reappeared. There is the following story to it: An Irishman after landing in New York was taken violently sick, and was taken up and nursed in the home of a compatriot. When he had recovered, he wanted to pay for the shelter and good care he had received, but his benefactor would not take any money, instead, he made his ward promise to vote at the polls no other ticket save the Republican. This Irishman settled in the town, and he kept his promise faithfully. (2)

Holy Hill Basilica, visible from the Erin Hills course, is an important Catholic shrine in the region that was frequented by the 19th century Irish community in the area (Shoelace414 via Wikipedia)

Holy Hill Basilica, visible from the Erin Hills course, is an important Catholic shrine in the region that was frequented by the 19th century Irish community in the area (Shoelace414 via Wikipedia)

Why had these Irish communities moved to Wisconsin? The 1840s and 1850s saw large numbers of Irish settlers move west, often seeking to form distinctly Catholic and Irish communities while taking advantage of the significant amounts of land on offer. The eastern Irish press regularly featured descriptions of the opportunities available for farmland in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and New York was even home to a “Wisconsin Emigration Agency” that sought to promote relocation. Readers of newspapers such as the New York Irish-American Weekly were told to “come out west”, with promises there were “fertile fields to greet your brawny arms with cereal plenty, a quiet home, and happy contentment.” Wisconsin was not only being promoted to Irish emigrants in the east, but in Ireland itself. In 1849 the Cork Examiner re-printed the following correspondence, which had originally appeared in the Boston Pilot:

WISCONSIN, UNITED STATES

Sir, I propose Wisconsin as a settlement to all Irish emigrants, with or without a capital. I worked there myself during the last year, and up to the first of December, and although fifty-six years of age and not in the habit of doing much labor in the old country, I independently went through all kinds of common labour up to that time practised in that State, together with sawing, ploughing and harrowing, raising and saving all kinds of crops, and found no difficulty in their mode or habit of working any more than if I went from one parish in the old country into the next one. Hire of labourers varies from one dollar and fifty cents to seventy-five cents per day, and found. No labourer will be at a stand for a moment to get work there. Women, girls, and boys, will be employed even before the men. If a person can afford to carry his children there, they will, after the age of seven years, be able to make a living for themselves, together with the advantage of being educated without any interference whatever with their religion. If a labourer commences there without one cent in his possession, he will of his own individual earning, in two years, be able to purchase one hundred and sixty acres of land, free from all other charges except a mere trifle to maintain the army, and the dignity of the State. He could additionally purchase a yoke of oxen, a waggon and different other framing utensils, and build a log-house sufficient for any middling man to live in for years, and which would answer for an out-house when it would be found convenient to build a better one. The laboring man will find another way to go ahead, and become immediately happy if he only have sufficient help and pays attention to industry. The farmer will give him a part of his farm to work, for what they call their “shares,” that is, the farmer gives his labourer or a neighbouring labourer twenty, thirty, fifty acres, more or less, of his tillage land to cultivate, providing him with horses or oxen to plough the ground, together with seed and all kinds of implements of husbandry, and a house to reside in…The emigrant will find there [Wisconsin] cows, horses, and hogs, of as good breed, quality and appearance as ever he had or saw in his country. He will find plenty of sheep there but not of that superior quality, that he would find in Ireland when I knew it…The goose, the turkey, the duck, and the hen, will be found there, and the same species of those formerly so well known in Ireland. The settler will recollect that on the moment he makes his purchase he is the undisturbed lord of the soil, henceforth, and for ever, that he need not fear rent, rate, or taxes, bailiffs, drovers or rectors, agents, bribe men, or canters….I have had through life the better chance of knowing the unavoidable necessity, and the incalculable utility of the mechanic, in an agricultural territory,– therefore I invite the smith, the carpenter, the joiner, the boot and shoemaker, the tailors, the mason, the bricklayer, the plasterer, the slater, the painter and glazier…Irish emigrants of every class, I again call upon you to go, as they say in the height of their distress in the old country, “by hook or by crook, or by creeping or crawling,” to Wisconsin, where if you are fortunate enough to go, and that you industriously work and not mispend your earnings for two years, you will have made a property for yourself and children, of which you and your posterity cannot be deprived, as long as the independence of the United States of America holds. (3)

Many of those who gave Erin its name would have been enticed to Wisconsin by such promises of a better life. The naming of the town itself is credited to John Whelan, one of the early settlers who was apparently from the Aran Islands. A review of the 1850 census demonstrates just how Irish this settlement was, with almost 50% of the population Irish-born in 1850; when their American-born children are included it is clear the vast bulk of Erin was Irish-American. (4)

John Whelan and his family in Erin on the 1850 Census (NARA)

John Whelan and his family in Erin on the 1850 Census. John is credited with coming up with the name Erin. Like many Irish settlers in the west, the birthplaces of his children demonstrate that he and his wife had first settled in the east (in their case Massachusetts) before moving into the interior of the country (NARA)

The town and surrounding area has maintained a strong Irish and Catholic identity into the 20th and 21st centuries. From a Catholic perspective, many of the pictures from the Erin Hills course feature the dominant visage of the Holy Hill National Shrine in the background, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and has been an important site since the 19th century. The town named many of its streets for places in Ireland, and this together with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has seen the Wisconsin settlement make its way into the news in Ireland, for example in the Irish Press in March 1961, when the paper featured some of Erin’s street signs. That the connection with Ireland was well-remembered into the 20th century can be demonstrated by a poem written by Estelle Maher (née Fitzgerald) in 1923. A native of Erin, Estelle was the daughter of one of the area’s first settlers. She penned a poem, entitled “Toast to Town Erin Settlers”, which is reproduced below. The hosting of the 2017 U.S. Open in the town has provided an opportunity for those in Ireland to explore something of the locality’s fascinating history, and longstanding connection stretching across the Atlantic.

TOAST TO TOWN ERIN SETTLERS

A poor but honest people

From far across the sea,

Heard tidings of a new land,

And a world that was to be;

So some of them took passage

On a shop that left their shore,

And the friends they left behind them,

They never saw them more.

 

There’s one small unseen person

On every ship afloat,

And this proved no exception,

Cupid was on the boat.

Some of them had been married

Ere they left the County Cork,

Others were joined in wedlock

In the city of New York.

 

On sailboat, stage and ferry,

They traveled with a will,

Walked many miles through forest

Till they came to Kuhn’s mill.

Here they lived and worked together

Till each a patch had cleared,

And in that tiny clearing,

A log cabin had been reared.

 

Though not of costly splendor,

Though not a palace grand,

‘Twas the faith and hope within them,

Made this seem a magic land.

 

No lord with liveried servants,

No king upon his throne,

Ever felt the deep contentment

Of the settler in his home.

 

When they came to name the township,

They all were of one mind.

Resolved to call it Erin

For the land they left behind.

To one cabin in the forest

Following in the paths they trod,

Came a priest, and here they gathered

For to know and worship God.

 

Here the women brought their children,

As Mary did of old,

To be baptized by Christ’s deciple

And received into the fold.

Soon they felt a church was needed,

For religion they did thirst;

Of the honored saints of Ireland

St. Patrick’s name came first.

 

Here they lived and worked and prospered,

Loyal to home and church and state,

Till rebels fired upon Fort Sumpter–

It’s a well remembered date.

Their country called, they answered,

For they knew that in God’s sight

The could of the black man,

Was just as dear as the white.

 

In the churchyard, across the roadway

Where you see the small flags wave,

Lie the bodies of our heroes,

Who gave their lives, that flag to save.

Some died of a dread sickness,

Ere they heard the cannon’s roar,

In unknown graves they’re sleeping,

Upon the southern shore.

 

Some returned, and took their places,

With wives and children dear,

And lived to tell the story

For many and many a year.

The pioneers have gone to their Redeemer,

Their voices here are stilled;

They lived to see prosperity,

Ambitions attained, and hoped fulfilled.

Street signs of Erin, Wisconsin, shown in the Irish Press of 22nd March 1961 (Irish Press)

Street signs of Erin, Wisconsin, shown in the Irish Press of 22nd March 1961 (Irish Press)

(1) Quickert 1912: 27; (2) Ibid.; (3) New York Irish American, Cork Examiner; (4) 1850 Census; (5) Hartford Times;

References

1850 United States Federal Census, Erin, Washington, Wisconsin.

Hartford Times 31st August 1923. Toast to Town Erin Settlers. Preserved by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

New York Irish American Weekly 11th April 1857. Emigration to the West. 

Cork Examiner 19th November 1849. Wisconsin, United States. 

Quickert, Carl 1912. Washington County Wisconsin Past and Present. Volume 1.

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Categories: Wisconsin

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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One Comment on “Naming Erin Hills: 19th Century Irish Emigrants & the 2017 U.S. Open”

  1. mogue1ohara
    June 18, 2017 at 7:43 pm #

    Well, Damian, you are consistent in bringing knowledge and understanding of our emigration story, so well done and keep it up. The story of Erin is moving and enlightening, and I see familiar names among those Irish that settled in that community and named it, not least people from Donegal: Gallaghers (my maternal grandmother’s name), and from Inishowen – my native place – Toland, and McLaughlin. Fad saol agat = long life to you. Aidan O’Hara

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