Many immigrants danced across the ocean

Copper Country's past and people

Society and technology are dynamic in that they are in constant change. And yet, the members of one society of one time period are very similar to those of another society in another time in many aspects.

For example, almost every Copper Country resident knows someone who, at one time or other, graduated from school and left the area. And though they loved their hometown, and hated the thought of leaving it, and family and friends. Yet, they were compelled to do so for gainful employment elsewhere, or perhaps other reasons inspired them to leave.

The residents of European regions who emigrated from their hometowns felt the same way. Yet, they were compelled to leave the areas their families had occupied for centuries. Many had never been beyond the village in which they were born. And yet, in the early 1800s, they had purchased tickets that would carry them more than 3,230 miles across the North Atlantic Ocean to New York. Some did not even speak English. It did not matter to them, really. What mattered was that they, particularly the Irish, were fleeing for their survival, and they had actually acquired the funds to get out before they died at the hands of the English.

And so, they danced.

“The scene of a party of emigrants,” reported the Illustrated London Times in July, 1850, “male and female, dancing between decks — to the music of the violin — played for amusement by some of their fellow passengers, is not a rare one. Sometimes a passenger is skillful upon the Irish Bagpipe, and his services are freely asked and freely given for the gratification of his countrymen and countrywomen.”

The ship captains readily reported to the newspaper that the music and dancing continued all the way across the Atlantic, from the Waterloo Dock, where the American packet ships moored at Liverpool bound for New York.

The emigrants were from Cornwall, Devon, Wales, North Umbria, Sussex,Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Bavaria, and the list goes on. Her Majesty’s Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners’ Report show a steady increase in the number of British subjects who abandoned the crown, hearth and home, from 1825 to January, 1850.

The report lists the number of people bound for the North American Colonies (Canada, Newfoundland, etc.) as well as for the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and other destinations.

In 1825, 10 years after the Great Emigration began, the report states, the number of British subjects bound for the U.S. at 5,551. Twenty years later, the number had risen more than ten-fold to 58,538. The total for the period between 1825 and 1849 reported a staggering 1,260,247 British subjects bound for America alone.

When the United States government opened the Lake Superior mining district in 1843, some of the Irish to arrive in the copper district came from the southwestern Wisconsin lead district, wrote William Mulligan in his “Irish Miners in Michigan.” More came directly from Ireland, from the mining districts of in Beara Peninsula of County Cork. Others, Mulligan wrote, came from the Knockmahon mines in County Waterford, and several small mining communities in County Tipperary.

The Irish, like the Cornish, brought greatly needed mining experience to the Lake Superior copper district, which offered higher wages — and fewer taxes and rents — than any they had dreamed of in the old country. They were able to set some money aside for contributions to the construction of a church at their mining locations.

So welcome was religion by the mining companies that in nearly every instance, the land on which a church was to be built was donated free of charge by the company to the congregation. A church said to the company that the workers and the residents at the location were willing to become stationary. They were building a church with their own money, indicating they were not leaving soon. To the company, that meant a stable workforce of mostly family men who would create a good, permanent community. The company considered it a very good investment to donate land for a church, and/or a school. Often times, they donated substantial monetary contributions to the project.

Again, the immigrants arriving on the shore of the Lake Superior copper district brought with them invaluable expertise, not only in mining, but also in mechanical engineering, expertise in building with stone, expertise in forging, blacksmithing, mechanical installation and repair, and many other skills too numerous to mention here.

In exchange for that expertise, the immigrants received something as valuable to them as their skills. They were no longer looked down on as possessions. They were no longer “subjects” of the crown. They were no longer subjects of the absentee landlords. They were no longer subjects of the Anglican Church. The majority of the Irish and Germans became naturalized American citizens, and so were no longer “subjects” to anyone.

In the copper district, they were not even subjects of the mining company. They were free in many, many ways. They were independent contractors. They could choose for themselves at which mine they would work, and for what contract price. They were free to rent a house from the company, or find a parcel on which to build their own homes. If single, they were free to live off site, or rent a room at a boarding house with a family. They were other considerations, too.

Married men with families, in most instances, rented a house from a company at a very nominal fee, compared to rents paid in the old country. The house also came with a yard, in which the family was absolutely welcome to garden, have a cow, or a goat, and if they could find one on the frontier, they could even raise a pig or two. Whatever they produced was theirs to keep. They did not have to give a portion of it to a king or nobleman, or an absentee landlord to sell somewhere else at their own profit.

During the cold months of winter, people were free to harvest wood from company lands to heat their homes, if needed. While the forests did, technically, belong to the mining companies, they were not considered “the King’s Preserve.” In times of food shortage, what game there was in the dense wilderness was free for the taking, including rabbits and fish. They were not reserved to the King and his hunting parties.

Truly, to these immigrants, who had been oppressed and starved, and taxed, and treated like sheep to be fleeced in the old country, the United States was indeed a new world. It was a brand new world.