Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Letter from an Irishman to a Cousin in Wisconsin

In the 1840s, Irish immigrants to the Town of Porter in the Wisconsin Territory brought their skills, determination, and hopes for a better life to the new, fifty-some year-old America. Others from Ireland followed, along with various European immigrants and settlers from the American East Coast, attracted by the available, fertile, cheap land.
An Irish village

Irish new-comers settled on newly-purchased farmlands or began work as hired farm-workers or as merchants in the Village of Cooksville. The village was formally established in 1842 and then expanded in 1846 by the next-door village of “Waucoma” founded by the Porter family. (The township in which the villages are located is named after the Porter family.)

The new-comers—the Irish, Dutch, English, New Englanders, New Yorkers and, eventually, Norwegians— found prosperous lives for themselves, or, in a few cases, soon moved further west to Iowa or the Dakotas to seek their fortunes.
St. Michael's Church

Irish immigrants built the first church in the Cooksville area. Located on nearby Caledonia Road, it was named St. Michael’s Catholic Church, or more formally St. Michael the Holy Archangel Church. The church was a log structure erected about 1843, destroyed by fire in 1867, and replaced by a small clapboarded church. It was dismantled 1955 and sold for salvage for $800.  But St. Michael’s Cemetery with headstones engraved with Irish names—Sweeneys, O’Briens, Sullivans, Boyles, McBride, and many, many McCarthys—remains on the property. The nearby handsome McCarthy House on old Caledonia Road built about 1850 by skillful stone masons also remains.
McCarthy House

The McCarthy family recalled the early days when deer, bears and wolves roamed the area—at times, fire brands had to be lit in the house windows to drive away the howling wolves. And fishing was too easy to be a sport: just put a gunny-sack over a barrel hoop, place it into the Caledonia Springs Creek and beat the water with branches to net a sack-full of white bass. Eventually a stone bridge would be built nearby over Caledonia Springs Creek in 1857 in an attempt to lure a proposed railroad to the Cooksville area, but the railroad company went bankrupt and later decided to lay the new railroad along another route. 

 The produce local farmers that McCarthy produced was often transported by an ox team to Milwaukee, which took two days to get there and one-and-a-half to return—about twice the time it took for a man just to walk there, which occasionally happened if a man was in a hurry to get to the land office to claim his small part of the American dream in the early1840s, as Dennis J. McCarthy did in 1843.

The Irish immigrants to America wrote letters home proclaiming their happiness and success in their new-found land. And for many years, on into the 20th century, they sent money back home to relatives in a troubled Ireland.

One grateful person in Ireland sent a thank-you letter to his immigrant cousin for money he had sent from America, and that letter ended up in the Cooksville Archives. The letter is only identified as from a cousin “Dennis” in Queenstown, Ireland, to “His Dear Cousin” (unnamed) who was probably living near Cooksville. The one-page letter expresses envy and happiness for the success of his Catholic cousin and relates a bit of local news—and reveals very strong anti-British feelings and the on-going antagonism between Irish Catholics and Protestants.

Whether or not the writer meant it, the letter is also darkly humorous in parts. The brief, neatly typed letter reads as follows:

“Dear Cousin:

          “Your welcome letter received, and me and your Aunt Bridget thank you kindly for the money you sent. May God bless you. We had seven masses said for your grandfather and grandmother. God rest their souls.

          “You have gone high places in America, God bless you. I hope you’ll not be putting on airs and forgetting your native land.

          “Your cousin McSweeney was hung in market place last week for killing a policeman. May God rest his soul. And may God’s curse be on Jimmy Rogers, the informer, and may he burn in hell, God forgive me. 
          “Times are not as bad as they might be. The herring is back, and nearly everyone has a heart in making ends meet, and the price of fish is good, thanks be to God.

          “We had a grand time at Paul Muldoon’s wake. He was an old Blatherskite, and it looked good to see him stretched out with his big mouth shut. He is better off dead, and he’ll burn till the damned place freezes over. He had too many friends among the Orangemen, God curse the lot of them.

          “Bless your heart, I almost forgot to tell you about your Uncle Dinny. He took a pot shot at a turncoat from in back of a hedge, but he had too much to drink in him, and missed. God’s curse on the whiskey.

          “I hope this letter finds you in good health and may God keep reminding you to keep sending the money.

          “The Brennans are 100% strong around here since they stopped going to America. They have kids running all over the country.

          “Father O’Flatherty who baptized you, is now feeble minded, and sends you his blessing.

          "Mollie O’Brien, the brat you used to go to school with, married an Englishman. She’ll have no luck.

          “May God take care of the lot of you and keep you from sudden death.

                   Your devoted cousin,

“P.S. Things look bright again. Every police barracks and every Protestant church has been burned to the ground, and thanks be to God.

“P.P.S. Keep sending money.”

The strong feelings of Dennis' letter could have been written in the 1840s---in the "Potato Famine" time of troubles and the Catholic-Protestant conflicts---but the neatly-typed letter is dated "December
10, 1940." The letter expresses in a deeply-felt way the on-going struggles as Ireland attempted to gain its independence and to achieve religious tolerance. And the struggle continues today.

Wisconsin Historical Marker
And the letter could not have been typed in the 1840s because the typewriter was not invented until 1869, in Milwaukee.


[This letter is contained in materials about the Sweeny, McCarthy and Roherty Irish families donated  to the Cooksville Archives by descendent Roger Chapman of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, great-grandson of Miles Sweeney. The letter’s writer and its recipient may have been a McCarthy or a Sweeney.
The Cooksville Archives welcomes copies of letters and other documents that tell the story of the settlers in and near the historic Village of Cooksville (established in 1842) in southern  Wisconsin. Send items to: Historic Cooksville Trust, 12035 W. State Road 59, Evansville WI  53536.]