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Keweenaw Ethnic Groups
~The Irish~

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The Irish established a significant ethnic presence in the early development of Michigan’s Copper Country. Like the Cornish, many Irish immigrants came from established mining areas in Europe, bringing skills and experience valued by mining companies in the region. Hancock served as the center of the Irish community along the Keweenaw Peninsula with many fraternal, benevolent and social organizations serving their needs. Over time, Michigan’s Irish community lost its prominence in the region. Although some migrated from Michigan to the copper mining district around Butte, Montana, the Copper Country failed to attract new immigrants from Ireland and the group became outnumbered by later immigrant groups.


Miners in a Man Car, Quincy Mining Co.
Image #: MTU Neg 00246

The Irish were present in the Lake Superior copper district from its inception (Irish 1), and by 1870 the Irish were the largest single foreign-born group, accounting for nearly a third (31.4%) of the total foreign-born population, followed by natives of England and Wales (22.2%), Canada (18.8%), and Germany (17.5%). Not only did the Irish numerically dominate the range during its early years, they also produced its greatest number of miners (Irish 2). In 1870, only the Irish and the Cornish produced more miners than laborers in the Lake Superior copper district as both ethnic groups had arrived with copper mining skills from the British Isles. Nineteenth-century Ireland had developed three large copper-mining districts: Avoca, County Wiclow, Knockmahon, County Waterford and on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork. While Irish copper miners withstood their all too often deadly work and the Great Famine, they could not withstand the parallel forces of British imperialism and global capitalism. As early as the 1820s, British smelting interests endeavored to replace Russia as the principal supplier of copper to Europe, yet their suppliers, the mines of Cornwall and Ireland, could not even supply the British domestic demand (Irish 3). In 1842 the British Government attempted to alleviate the supply problem by reducing the tariff on foreign copper by half. British capital responded by investing heavily in the development of copper mines in the New World. Thus, a combination of state action and the subsequent capital flight resulted in the decline of Cornish and Irish copper mines and the rise of copper mining in the New World (Irish 4).

During the 1850's and 1860's Irish mines closed and many unemployed miners migrated to America in search of work. Joining these unemployed copper miners in their migration, of course, were millions other of other Irish emigrants who could no longer sustain themselves on the land. In the years after the Great Famine, Irish agriculture underwent a shift from tillage farming to pasture farming, or grazing cattle, which was considerable less labor intensive. As such, hundreds of thousands of agricultural laborers were without work and were forced to emigrate. While many of these unskilled Irish laborers made their way to Michigan’s Copper Country, the majority of the Irish on the Keweenaw Range migrated from Irish mining districts. There existed a well-defined chain migration from the copper mines of Knockmahon in County Waterford and a particularly strong chain migration from the mines on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork.

In the Copper Country, the Irish and Cornish experienced a contentious relationship, which may have originated in the Irish copper districts (Irish 5). Indeed, most histories of hard-rock mining refer to Irish miners only within the context of their relationship with Cornish miners. Willis Dunbar's Michigan: a History of the Wolverine State, the standard text of a generation ago, mentioned Irish copper miners only twice. In the first instance, Dunbar noted, "Antagonism between the Cornishmen, or 'Cousin Jacks,' and the Irish in mining towns became traditional (Irish 6)." In the second, Dunbar quipped, "The Irish, nicknamed 'Micks,' were about as numerous in the Copper Country as the Cousin Jacks. And there was a traditional rivalry between the two (Irish 7)." Most histories have explained this "traditional rivalry" in terms of ethnic bigotry (Irish 8). A more historically accurate explanation of this rivalry, however, was labor-market competition, and a competition that was ethnicized, as both ethnic groups competed for the skilled position of miner.

Given that ethnicity is a relationship, the percent of an ethnic group, not simple numbers, often determines a community’s ethnic dimension and a specific ethnic group’s position within it. In 1870 the Irish accounted for 17.8% of Houghton County's total population (Irish 9), making Houghton County, by percent of population born in Ireland, the sixth most Irish county in the United States (Irish 10). The Lake Superior copper district was in many ways a predecessor for Butte, Montana, which historians of Irish America often term the most Irish city in America, even though it contained, of course, far fewer Irish than New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago. After 1870 in Houghton County, the foreign born Irish declined in both actual numbers and in their percentage of the total foreign born. By 1880 Cornish and French Canadians surpassed the Irish. During the 1880s the Finns, Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes also exceeded the Irish. At the close of the century, among the foreign-born of Houghton County, the Irish ranked only seventh. While the number of first-generation Irish dropped dramatically from 1870-1900, as did their percentage of the foreign-born population, many second-generation Irish Americans presumably followed their initial numerical strength on the Keweenaw range. Some of these Irish Americans, however, clearly did not remain on the Keweenaw range, as according to the U.S. Census, Michigan was the most frequent state of birth among Butte's second-generation Irish (Irish 11). Most likely, the majority of these Michigan-born second-generation Irish in Butte had migrated from the Keweenaw Peninsula with their Irish-born parents.


St. Joseph and St. Patrick (Catholic) Church 1st block of Quincy Street, Hancock.
Image #: MTU Neg 00216
Mirroring the Irish in other America urban centers, the Copper Country Irish sustained themselves by constructing a new community that was centered on the Catholic Church, the Democratic Party and a variety of fraternal, social, cultural and Irish nationalist organizations. From the early 1860s on, the Copper Country Irish held public St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and supported the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, or the Fenians, with volunteers (soldiers) and financial contributions. The St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society, established in 1864 in Hancock, was the earliest Irish-American organization on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Like other mutual benefit societies formed in the Copper Country, St. Patrick’s collected dues that served as a insurance pool to be extended to members in times of financial stress, such as an illness, an injury or death. The Copper Country Irish also established two chapters of the Son’s of St. Patrick, in Hancock and Calumet, each building their own hall. From their initial migration to Michigan’s Copper Country to 1920, Hancock remained the center of the Irish community on the Keweenaw, although Calumet also developed a sizeable Irish community (Irish 12).

In the Copper Country, as did in the throughout United States, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) emerged as the largest Irish-American fraternal organization. The AOH established divisions in Hancock, Calumet, Laurium, Dollar Bay, and Lake Linden (Irish 13). The Michigan Hibernian presented a glimpse of the 1907 St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the Copper Country. The members of the Calumet AOH division assembled in their hall at 8:00 am and marched to Laurium where they were meet by the Laurium division. Both divisions then attended a 9:00 am Mass at Sacred Heart Church. In the afternoon, a special train on the Copper Range Railroad brought the AOH divisions from Hancock, Dollar Bay, and Lake Linden to Calumet. These divisions had spent the morning at Mass and parading through their communities. When all five divisions arrived in Calumet, the seven hundred plus Hibernians marched en masse through Calumet’s principal streets, concluding at the town hall where they heard speeches from prominent Hibernians. In the evening, they attended a dinner, which was followed by a theatrical play (Irish 14).


5th Street, Calumet
Image #: Nara 42-150
As evidence to the Copper Country’s concentration of Michigan’s Irish, in 1907, only Wayne County (Detroit) with nine AOH divisions and 990 members exceeded Houghton County’s five divisions and 725 members. This number represented 20% of all the Hibernians in the state, while Houghton County contained but 3% of the state population. Indeed the ratio of Hibernians to total population is more telling; in Houghton County the ratio was 1:121, in Wayne County the ratio was 1:531. Nearby Marquette County ranked third in the state with 4 divisions and 450 members. All told, the Upper Peninsula had 1,424 Hibernians, or 40% of the state members, while the Upper Peninsula contained only 10% of the state’s population (Irish 15). By 1920, the AOH division at Dollar Bay had disappeared and the number of Hibernians in Houghton Country had decreased to 490, but the Houghton County AOH remained the second largest in the state and remained a stable 20% of all the Hibernians in the state, while Houghton County’s population had dropped to less than 2% of the state population (Irish 16). It appears that the AOH had a staying power in Houghton County that it did not enjoy in the remainder of the state. Fraternal organizations, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, played an important role in immigrant communities and from the staying power the AOH in Houghton County, it appears that also played and important role among second and even third generation Irish Americans. Through such organizations, immigrants and their children located housing, found work, organized into political blocks and met their perspective mates.

The 1909 Report of Immigration Commission offers a statistical portrait of an established and aging Irish immigrant community in the Copper Country. The most striking feature of the report was the high percent of Irish workers whose wives had died. The report highlighted the fact that “None of the South Italians or Poles and less than 1 per cent of the North Italians and Slovenians are widowed, but 22.5 percent of Irish males are that condition (Irish 17).” The high percentage of Irish widowers might be partially explained by the advanced age of the foreign-born Irish workers. Where as only 13% of the entire workforce was 45 years of age or older, 70% of the foreign-born Irish workers were 45 years of age or older, with a third being 55 years of age or older (Irish 18). Reflecting, perhaps, their early migration to the Copper Country, 78% of both the foreign-born Irish and German workers had lived in the United States for 20 years or more, compared to only 19% of the entire foreign-born workforce (Irish 19). By 1909, two-third of Irish surveyed were native born, the highest percent of any ethnic group. Indeed, only the Irish (66%), the Germans (62%) and the Scots (55%) had more second-generation ethnics than immigrants in their working communities. This is most striking when compared to other ethnic groups: French-Canadians (44%), Norwegians (43%), Cornish (24%), Swedes (1%) and Finns (>1%) (Irish 20). Given their time on the range, their relative position of privilege, and the proportion of second generation Irish, it is not entirely surprising that the Irish had the highest average family income in the Copper Country (Irish 21).

While their early arrival on the range contributed to the high percent of second-generation Irish within the larger Irish community, a greater factor was the dramatic decrease in Irish immigrants selecting the Copper Country after 1880. Clearly, most Irish copper miners preferred Butte. As mentioned previously, with the tremendous immigration of other ethnic groups, the Irish as a percent of the population and workforce precipitously declined. This is reflected in the employment records of the Quincy Mining Company. In the 1890s, the Irish (both immigrants and second generation) accounted for 9% of Quincy’s hires. During the decade from 1900 to 1909, even though one-third of the native born hired were Irish, their percent of hired dropped to 5% and from 1910 to 1919, to just 2% (Irish 22). By the time of the July 1913 Strike, the Irish accounted for about 4% of Calumet and Hecla’s underground workforce (Irish 23). C&H records also reveal that when it attempted to resume operations in September 1913, 24% Irish refused to return to work. Their support for the strike, if measured by their refusal to return to work, was well below the company average of 40%. Yet, their support for the strike, again if measured by refusal to return to work, was the greatest among the old immigrant groups: Cornish (11%), Germans (16%) and the Scandinavians (19%) (Irish 24).

As noted earlier, the Irish community numerically dominated the Copper Country in 1870. But fifty years later, the 1920 census enumerated only 431 Irish born in Houghton County, as compared to 2,475 in 1870. Fifty years is a lifetime and it is difficult to assert with any certainty what happened to the Copper Country Irish. Clearly, the Keweenaw Peninsula failed to attract the Irish in the numbers it did in its formative decades. As suggested earlier, it is tempting to link the decline of the Irish foreign-born population in Houghton County to the rise of the Butte Irish, as the decline of the Copper Country Irish and the rise the Butte Irish correspond by decade. While it is certain that some Irish left the Copper County for Butte, it is nearly impossible to measure the extent of that out migration. We must remember that foreign-born Irish and Irish Americans were enumerated as two different groups. It is reasonable to suspect that many second, and third-generation Irish Americans presumably followed their initial numerical strength on the Keweenaw range, as was evident by the AOH’s staying power in Houghton County. So what happened to the Copper Country Irish? The best guess is that the Irish community in the Copper Country remained numerically stable but given the tremendous in migration of other ethnic groups, their percent of the total population rapidly declined.


Further Reading
Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History, New York: Longman, 2000.

Timothy O’Neil, "Miners in Migration: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Irish and Irish American Copper Miners," in New Directions in Irish American History, Kevin Kenny, ed., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

David Emmons, The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875-1925, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

William H. Mulligan, “Irish Immigrants in Michigan’s Copper Country,” New Hibernia Review, 5:4 (Winter 2001), 109-122.

More photos of Irish in the Digital Archives:


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