Just recently we posted our "green" edition of this blog with our St. Patrick's Day entry. Given that, this is a good time to look at the Irish in Wyoming.
The Irish are a significant demographic, in terms of ancestry, in the United States in general, so a reader might be justifiably forgiven for thinking that the story of the Irish in Wyoming wouldn't be particularly unique, or perhaps even that such an entry must be contrived. This would be far from the case, however, as the Irish were not only an identifiable element in European American settlement of the state, but a distinct one with a unique history.
Bantry Bay, Ireland; where many of Wyoming's Irish came from. This photo was taken between 1890 and 1900.
It may not be definitely possible to tell when the first Irishman or Irish American entered the state, but a pretty good guess would be that the very first son of Erin entered what would become the state in the service of the U.S. Army. More particularly, it seems like that this would have been with the Corps of Discovery, that body of men commissioned by the Army to cross the continent from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Sgt. Patrick Gass was definitely of Irish descent, although he himself came from Pennsylvania. He's unique as he left the first literary work on the expedition. George Shannon was of Irish Protestant descent and therefore, perhaps, arguably "Scots Irish," although his name would suggest otherwise. The Corps, however, crossed the continent prior to the great migration caused by the Famine, and therefore its almost surprising that these men of Irish descent were on the expedition, as the Irish were a small demographic at the time. Also revealing, at this time many, probably most, whose ancestors had come over from Ireland were of "Scots Irish" descent, those being descendant from the Scots population that the English had settled in Ireland to form a religious and ethnic barrier between themselves and the native inhabitants of the conquered country.
The fact that the first Irish Americans to enter the region, however, came in the form of soldiers was telling, as by the 1840s this was becoming coming common. Up until that time the U. S. Army had been tiny and had very little presence on the Frontier at all. The Mexican War, however, changed all of that and, at the same time, brought a flood of Irishmen into the enlisted ranks. This was caused by the contemporaneous jump in immigration from Ireland at the time, which was coincident with a huge spike in German immigration as well. There was a political element to both immigration waves, with the Irish being discontent with the United Kingdom, which disadvantaged them at law with statutes aimed against Catholics and with some German immigrants coming during the troubled times on the continent that would lead to European wide revolutions in the 1840s. The Irish in particular, however, were also driven by extreme poverty and hunger as their disadvantaged state was further compounded by extreme crop failures in this period. Taking leave to the United States or British Canada, many simply chose to get out of Ireland. Upon arriving in the United States, still oppressed with poverty, and often just downright oppressed, many took a traditional employment route which was to enlist in military service. Like their ethnic cousins the Scots, the Irish were not in actuality a particularly martial people, but standing armies provided an economic refuge for them. In the United Kingdom this resulted in Irish and Scots regiments of the British Army. In the United States, starting during the Mexican War, it resulted in a huge percentage of the enlisted ranks being made up of Irish volunteers.
World War One vintage recruiting poster for "The Fighting 69th", a New York National Guard regiment legendary for being recruited, even as late as World War One, principally from Irish immigrants and and Irish Americans. At least one Canadian unit of the same period, the Irish Canadian Rangers, was specifically aimed at Montreal Irish.
The Irish, and the Germans, were at first resented in the service, even if their enlistments were accepted, and they were very much looked down upon by Southern born officers, who made up a disproportionate percentage of the Army's office class. This had, in part, sparked a high desertion rate during the Mexican War and had even contributed to the formation of a unit in the Mexican Army made up of Irish and German desertions, the San Patricio's. The Army, however, in what may be the first instance of a long U. S. Army tradition of adapting to social change ahead of the general population, made peace with the Irish enlisted men by war's end and they soon became an enduring feature of the Army. By the time of the Civil War things had changed so much that there were now Irish American and Irish born officers in the Regular Army, such as Irish American Philip Sheridan, after whom Sheridan Wyoming and Sheridan County Wyoming are named.
"Little Phil" Sheridan, far left. Sheridan was born to Irish immigrant parents, but his ties with Ireland were so strong that it is sometimes erroneously claimed he was born in Ireland. The Irish American Cavalryman was honored in Wyoming with a town and county being named after him. Oddly enough, in later years a 20th Century Catholic priest who was a relative of his would also serve in Wyoming.
This change started to take place almost as soon as the Mexican War was over, and was well established by the time the Civil War broke out. Already by that time many rank and file members of the Army were Irish born and there were Irish American officers of note. The controversial Patrick Connor provides one such example, with Connor having a major campaigning role in Wyoming during the Civil War period. After the war ended, the post Civil War U. S. Army was full of Irish and German volunteers. The list of the dead, for example, at Little Big Horn reads like an Irish town roster, so heavy was the concentration of the Irish born in its ranks. Indeed, the Irish in the 7th Cavalry, and other U.S. Army units, had a permanent impact on American military music during the period, contributing such martial tunes as Garryowen and The Girl I Left Behind Me to the American military music book.
The controversial Patrick E. Connor, who campaigned in Wyoming, not always widely, but very aggressively, during the Civil War.
Irish born and raised 7th Cavalry officer, and former Swiss Guard, Myles Keogh.
After Irish soldiers came the Irish railroad workers, who arrived with the construction crews of the Union Pacific. The role of Irishmen in the construction of the railway is well known. Along with other ethnic minorities, the Irish were strongly represented in the crews that made their way through the state in the late 1860s. As towns came up along the rail line, some of these men would inevitably leave the employment of the railroad and take up residence in other occupations. Cheyenne, Laramie, Medicine Bow, Rawlins, Green River, Rock Springs, and Evanston all share this Union Pacific source of origin.
Former railroad station in Medicine Bow, with the Virginian Hotel to the far left.
After the railways started to come in, cattle did as well. Rail lines were, in fact, a critical element of the conversion of the United States from a pork consuming to a beef consuming country, as rail was needed in order to ship cattle to packing houses in the Mid West. Rail expanded into Wyoming at exactly that point in time at which the greatly expanded herds in Texas started to be driving out of that state. Prior to that time, while beef was certainly consumed, it tended to be a local product and pig production provided the primary meat source in the United States, along with poultry, foul and wild game. Texas' cattle had been raised primarily for their hides not their beef. The Civil War, however, had seen an uncontrolled herd expansion which, with the war's end, became a nearly free resource, if a way of sending the cattle to central markets could be found. The expansion of the rail lines soon provided that, and the long trail drive era was born.. And with the cattle, came some Irish cowhands, and ultimately Irish ranchers.
Ireland itself was nearly completely dominated by agriculture in the 19th Century, and indeed it was for most of the 20th Century. Agriculture was the largest sector of the Irish economy as late as the 1990s. In the 19th Century, as with every century before that, most Irish were rural and agricultural. Looked at that way, employment in non agricultural activities really meant that most of the Irishmen taking them up were leaving their natural born employments for something else.
Moreover, while we today tend to think of Ireland exclusively in terms of potatoes, due to the horror of the famine, in reality the Irish have a very long association with horses and cattle. In pre Christian Ireland, stealing cattle was virtually a national sport, and the great Irish epic work, the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge) concerns that activity. In later years, during English occupation, potatoes became an Irish staple because Irish farmers tended to grow them for themselves, by necessity, while still often working production crops on English owned lands. Even as late as the famine Ireland exported wheat to the United Kingdom. Cattle raising never stopped, and indeed by World War One Ireland was a significant beef exporter to the Great Britain. The same is also true of sheep, which were raised all over Ireland for their wool and meat, and giving rise to the idea that all Irish are clad in tweed at all time, a concept that also applies to the sheep raising Scots.
The dramatic protagonist of the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Horses, for their part, were and remain an Irish national obsession. Unlike the English and Scots, whose routine farmers had little interest in riding stock, the Irish developed an early love of horse riding and everything associated with it. The Steeple Chase was and is an Irish national sport, followed intensively even now, and in earlier eras widely engaged in. A person has to wonder, therefore, if the heavy Irish representation in cavalry formations in the U.S. Army of the 19th Century reflected that fact. It certainly did in the English Army, which had at least one Irish cavalry regiment up until Irish independence.
All of this made the Irish a people that was particularly inclined to go into animal husbandry. Other agricultural Europeans, except perhaps the Scots, had less exposure to this sort of agriculture than the Irish did. It's no wonder therefore, that the Irish were well represented amongst 19th Century cowboys and, ultimately, amongst small scale 19th Century and 20th Century ranchers. Indeed, in more than one occasion, Irish immigrant ranchers were able to convert humble beginnings into enormous agricultural enterprises. One such example was that of Patrick J. Sullivan, an Irish immigrant who started ranching sheep near Rawlins. As his ranch grew, he moved to Casper and became a wealthy man from sheep ranching, which then translated into politics as he became Mayor of Casper, and ultimately a U.S. Senator upon the death of Francis Warren. Sullivan had come a long way from his humble beginnings in Bantry Bay. His Irish roots were reflected in the balcony of the large house he built in Casper, which featured a shamrock on the banister of the widow's walk, although that feature is now gone.
No story about the Irish in the United States would be complete without noting the role that Irish born clerics played, as the Irish were always closely identified with the Catholic Church, a fact which ultimately was pivitol in Ireland's independence following World War One. In Wyoming, the presence of the Irish guaranteed the presence of the Catholic Church, and in many areas, but not all, Irish born parishioners and Irish American parishioners were the largest segment of any one congregation (although, again, this is not true everywhere in Wyoming). Because the church was essentially a missionary church in Wyoming, the Church relied for decades on Irish priests. The first Bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne was the Irish born Maurice Burke, who served from 1887 until 1893, and who had to defend his Diocese from hostility from nativist elements, which were strong at the time. He was succeeded by Thomas Lenihan, who was also Irish born. Irish born priests continued to be very common well into the 20th Century and it only came to a slow close after World War Two, although at least one Irish born retired priest in residence remains at St. Patrick's in Casper.
In a state where they were fairly strongly represented, it's perhaps not surprising that the Irish were able to have some success in politics in the state even though there remained a strong anti Catholic prejudice in much of the United States prior to World War One. Indeed, at least according to one source, some early Irish businessmen and politicians in the State made efforts not to make their Catholicism generally well known and were muted about their faith, being aware of the prejudice that existed against ti. None the less, as the example of Patrick Sullivan provides, there were successful Irish born and Irish American politicians in the state fairly early. Sullivan may provide the best early example, but others are provided by mid 20th Century politicians Joseph O'Mahoney and Frank Barrett.
An identifiable Irish presence in the state remained through most of the 20th Century, but by the last decade of the 20th Century it began to fade, as Irish immigrants aged and began to pass on. Some still remain, but the era of Irish immigration to Wyoming is over. Like most of the United States, a residual Irish influence lingers on in subtle ways, and in the memories of Irish descendants, many of whom, perhaps most of whom, can also claim ancestry from other lands by now. But the impact of the Irish on the state, while not as open and apparent as it once was, continues on, and always will, given their significant role in the the 19th and 20th Century history of the state.