Today is St. Patrick’s Day, originally the religious observance of the feast day of the principal patron saint of Eire.1 In honor of the day, let’s take a look at a few aspects of Irish life in early southeast Wisconsin and the involvement of Mary (Turck) Clark’s father Peter Turck in a civic effort to relieve Irish suffering during the Great Famine.
Irish immigrants in early Wisconsin
The first white visitors to Wisconsin were seventeenth-century French-Canadian explorers, priests and fur trappers, at home along Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. They were followed by a smattering of British and French settlers in the mid- and later-eighteenth century. Cornish lead miners arrived in the southwest corner of the territory around the turn of the nineteenth-century. And in the mid-1830s, when the federal government officially “opened” the southeast corner of Wisconsin for settlement, there was a large influx of New Englanders and New Yorkers.
There were also a substantial number immigrants from across the sea among the Wisconsin pioneers of the 1830s and ’40s, including settlers from Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, the German-speaking lands, and Ireland. By the time of the 1850 federal decennial census, Irish men, women, and children comprised the second-largest group of foreign-born immigrants in the state, surpassed in number only by immigrants from the German-speaking lands.
Ireland’s catastrophic Great Famine (1845-1852) was more than an agricultural disaster. It was also the culmination of a long series of deliberate decisions by the British government, designed to maximize the profits of the island’s British and Anglo-Irish landowners at the expense of the Irish people. As a result of these policies, Irish families increasingly found themselves evicted from their lands and homes, out of work, and forced further into poverty.
With their farms either divided until they were too small to sustain the island’s food supply—or simply seized and given over to more-profitable sheep grazing by their British landlords—the Irish had become dependent on the sole crop that would grow on small plots of poor land and still provide some sustenance: the potato. When the potato blight spread from Europe to Ireland in the early 1840s, disaster became inevitable. The result was a horrific period of mass starvation and disease that lasted from about 1845 to 1855. People in the United States—Irish and non-Irish alike—quickly took notice, and relief efforts began in many cities and towns.
On Friday, December 11, 1846, the following announcement appeared on page 2 of the Milwaukee Sentinel:
Click to open larger image in new window.
TO IRISHMEN AND THE FRIENDS OF IRELAND.
A meeting will be held at the Court House of Milwaukee, on Monday evening next, at 7 o’clock, for the purpose of taking into consideration, the propriety of raising a subscription for the relief of the poor of Ireland, who are now suffering for the common necessaries of life, in consequence of the entire failure of the potatoe crop in that country. A full attendence is expected.
Milwaukee, Dec. 8th, 1846.
The announcement was endorsed with the names of sixty-seven Milwaukee-area residents and businesses, headed by city mayor (and founder) Solomon Juneau. The list includes quite a few Irish-sounding surnames, but also many that are not, including that of Jonathan M. Clark’s father-in-law, Peter Turck.
Peter Turck in Milwaukee
What was Peter Turck doing in Milwaukee in the winter of 1846-47? It’s hard to say, as we have very little documentation of Turck’s day-to-day life. Sources such as newspaper announcements, civic appointments and election results, and a few brief mentions in the History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties […] Illustrated, (1881), show that Turck was active in business, civic, and political affairs. Earlier in the decade he had enumerated Washington county as assistant marshal for the 1840 U.S. census, and—among other activities—had served as Washington county assessor, coroner, justice of the peace, and school committee member. He was active in party politics as a Whig and, later, a Democrat. In 1849 he would represent Mequon in the second Wisconsin legislature.
It’s easy to think that the pioneer farmers in the early days of Mequon’s settlement were always isolated in the distant countryside as they labored to clear the forest, build homes, and plant their first crops. This may have been typical for some settlers; they may have ventured to the growing town of Milwaukee only when necessary, perhaps to buy land or obtain U.S. citizenship.
At the same time, not all of the new settlers were so tightly bound to their land. Peter Turck, for example, was active as a farmer and sawmill owner-operator, with plenty of work to keep him busy in Mequon.2 Yet it appears he maintained a presence in Milwaukee business and political circles throughout the 1840s. And by the 1850s, Turck would sell his Mequon land and sawmill and move to the city, working as a lawyer and real estate broker.
What happened to Milwaukee’s Irish relief effort?
The December 23, 1846, Milwaukee Sentinel published a full report of the December 14th meeting. It was “quite numerously attended by our citizens generally, without distinction of party or nation.” Resolutions were proposed to collect a relief fund and forward it to Dublin. But as the discussion progressed, some in attendance were concerned as to whether such a donation might imply that the Irish people “were asking alms of their friends on this side of the Atlantic. Such an idea was distinctly and emphatically disavowed by all the friends of the meeting […]” The matter stood unresolved, and the meeting was adjourned until the following Tuesday.
The Sentinel published a long article, “Relief for Ireland” on page 3 of its February 25, 1847 edition. After surveying successful relief efforts in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, followed by various first-hand reports of the horrors of the situation in Ireland, the article asked:
Shall not we in Milwaukee contribute something to the same good work? Will not some of our Irish fellow-citizens bestir themselves, either to get up a meeting, or at least, to circulate a subscription paper. Surely none can read the glowing appeal, put forth by the Washington meeting, without a throb of sympathy for Ireland and a warm wish to minister to her relief. What ever is to be done should be done at once. “He gives twice, who gives quickly.” Who, then, will set the ball in motion?
On February 27th, the Sentinel published another, shorter, item:
RELIEF FOR IRELAND.—We hear that the spirited and liberal citizens of Southport3 have collected $250 in aid of suffering Ireland. A very little effort would raise a large sum here, for the same benevolent purpose. Shall not the effort be made? Are the friends of Ireland in Milwaukee to remain indifferent spectators of the dreadful calamity which now afflicts that unhappy country?
It seems the good citizens of Milwaukee were still slow to respond. A few days later (March 1, 1847), the Sentinel published another proposal:
RELIEF FOR IRELAND.—As many of our farmers are desirous of contributing something of their abundance for the relief of the starving population of Ireland, Messrs Holton & Goodall have authorized us to announce that they will receive in store and ship, free of charge all kinds of grain, flour and produce which may be left with them for this purpose. What a gratifying thing it would be to load a vessel from Milwaukee at the opening of navigation with flour, grain, meat, &c., the contributions of Milwauukee tradesmen and Wisconsin farmers.
Milwaukee steps up
Finally, almost three months after the initial public meeting for Irish relief, the Sentinel could report real results. From a long article in the March 8, 1847 edition (reprinted March 9):
IRISH RELIEF MEETING.
Notwithstanding the extreme inclemency of the weather on Saturday night, and the almost impassable condition of our streets, the public meeting at the Court-House, in aid of the suffering poor of Ireland, was numerous, spirited and productive of substantial results.
The meeting was organized with Judge Miller as chairman, assisted by Bishop Henni and the “Rev. Messrs Chapin, Akerly, Lord, Ryan, Raymond and Miter” as vice-presidents. Extracts from Irish newspapers were read and “eloquent and touching appeals” were made.
[Receivers were appointed and] the persons present were invited to make their contributions, and in a very few minutes, the sums thus subscribed amounted to SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTY DOLLARS. Many were unprepared to give that evening, and many more were kept away from the meeting by the state of the weather and of the streets. But for these circumstances, we have no doubt, from the spirit mainifested, that the contribution for the evening would have reached nearly one thousand dollars.
Additional committees were appointed to solicit funds from the people of the Territory, and from the various wards of the city. The article urged the committees to do their work “promptly and thoroughly,” and concluded with an appeal to civic pride (and regional competition):
Our neigbor city, CHICAGO, contributed on the first start, at their meeting last Thursday, Sixteen hundred and twenty-two dollars. All honor to Chicago for this munificent charity! Let us, in Milwaukee, emulate so noble an example. Surely never did a better cause enlist the sympathies, or claim the aid of the benevolent and the charitable. Let every man, then, give and give freely.
Additional articles in subsequent editions of the Sentinel included updates on the fundraising efforts. On March 10, the paper reported that an additional $200 had been raised by canvassing the 1st and 3rd wards of the city. Other articles list the names of new donors and the amounts given. Most donations were in cash, though Dousman & Co. donated two barrels of flour on two separate occasions, and McClure & Williams donated three barrels of flour. On June 21, one E. Potter of Prairieville4 donated 12 barrels of flour and two barrels of pork.
Help on the way, at last
A final meeting of the leaders of Milwaukee’s Irish Relief Committee was announced for Monday, April 26, 1847. On Wednesday, July 12, 1848, the Sentinel published reports of the committee’s completed work. The total amount of funds donated was $1,736.91. The report continues:
The contributions were all sent forward in the shape of Flour, the donations of pork, wheat, corn, &c., from the country having been sold and the proceeds converted into Flour, that being, at the time, relatively the cheapest and most convenient for transportation. Four hundred and twenty-five (425) barrels of Flour,5 in all, were forwarded by the committee, and as appears from the letters subjoined, there is not reason to doubt that it reached its destination and was faithfully applied to the relief of those for whom it was designed.
Fifty barrels each were shipped to Dublin, Belfast, Cork and “Valencia” (county Kerry).6 Seventy-five barrels went to Waterford and 100 to Galway. It was announced that the committee “are in hopes of getting 50 barrels more to send to Westport, county Mayo.”
After purchasing the 425 barrels of flour and paying for their shipment from Milwaukee to Ireland—via the Erie Canal and New York City—$358.97 in cash remained in the committee’s account. The cash was split between three charities, $100 to the St. John’s Infirmary, $100 to the Ladies’ Benevolent Society, and the balance to the Society of Friends at Dublin. The July 12, 1848, article concludes by reprinting a series of letters from some of the Irish relief recipients, letting the Milwaukee donors know that the aid had arrived and was greatly appreciated.
The Irish Famine caused the deaths of about one million Irish men, women, and children. From about 1845-1855 approximately 2.1 million Irish chose to leave the island of their birth. Most of these emigrants were poor, uneducated, and many did not speak English. They were almost all Roman Catholics, believers in a religion that was viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility, in large parts of Europe and North America. And yet,
[it] is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930. […] Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation. Interestingly, pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominately male, while in the famine years and their aftermath, entire families left the country. In later years, the majority of Irish immigrants were women.Library of Congress
The Irish were not always warmly welcomed to the U.S., but they still came in vast numbers. Today, it is impossible to think of “America” without the historic and continuing contributions of Irish immigrants and their descendants to the life and culture of the nation. Diversity is our strength.
- Of course, for many Americans St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into a more general salute to all things “Irish,” including green beer at the tavern, green milkshakes at the burger joint, and “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” buttons worn by people that you have no interest in kissing, whether they are Irish or not.
- Peter Turck also became a widower in the early 1840s. His wife Rachael (Gay) Turck died in 1842 or 1844 (we’re still trying to confirm the date). Peter and Rachael Turck had eight children, three boys and five girls. The youngest child, Benjamin Turck, was only 3 (or 5) years old when his mother died. All but one (or two) of the children were still living at home at the time of their mother’s death. Eldest child Mary Turck married Jonathan M. Clark in 1840. Daughter Adama/Adamy Turck married Alfred Whitehead of Chicago in 1843. Peter Turck remained a single father until he remarried in 1848.
- In 1850 Southport, Wisconsin, was renamed Kenosha.
- Nearby Praireville was renamed Waukesha in 1848.
- In case you are wondering, a traditional U.S. barrel contains 196 pounds of wheat or rye flour (or 200 pounds of cornmeal), and is equal to 3 bushels. So the 425 barrels of flour sent from Milwaukee to Ireland contained a total of 83,300 pounds of flour. If you go to your local grocery, you’ll need to buy 16,660 five-pound bags of flour to equal the 1847 Milwaukee donation.
(And for comparison, a five-pound bag of house-brand flour at a local big-box grocery currently costs $1.69 per bag. You’d need $28,155.40 in 2021 dollars to purchase the same amount of flour today that the Milwaukee Irish Relief Committee purchased for less than $1,400 in 1847.)
- Valencia is a variant spelling for Valentia Island, off the west coast of county Kerry. Fun fact: later in the century, Valentia would be the chosen as the location for the European end of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable; it served in that capacity for over a century, 1858-1966.