Irish in Washington -- The Early Years (1840s to 1890)

  • By A. J. Burton
  • Posted 3/03/2003
  • Essay 5348

The first Irish to come to the Pacific Northwest found a shifting social order with no established élites, cheap land, and broad economic opportunity. They took advantage of these prospects to become farmers, bankers, entrepreneurs, merchants, publishers, civic leaders, philanthropists, politicians, and mine owners. Some Irish in Washington state became extremely wealthy; most solidly middle-class. Most simply do not fit into the conventional categories for understanding the Irish experience in the U.S. -- urban ghetto, church, and boss.


Unlike their counterparts in the Northeast who encountered "a community with entrenched and dominant anti-Irish traditions of social discrimination and religious prejudice," most Irish in Washington found excellent prospects (Scarbaugh).

They took advantage of these prospects to become farmers, bankers, entrepreneurs, merchants, publishers, civic leaders, philanthropists, politicians, and mine owners. Most Irish in Washington state became affluent or at least solidly middle class. For the vast majority of Irish in Washington, aspirations for achievement -- far more than "Irish" heritage whether national, ethnic or religious -- shaped their self-identity.

Earliest Presence (to 1848)

Irish have been present in what is now Washington state since the earliest European and American explorations. Irish and Scotch-Irish served as crew aboard Spanish, English, and U.S vessels that explored the Washington coast and Puget Sound during the second half of the eighteenth century. They participated in land-based explorations as well.

Patrick Gass is the best known Irish member of the Lewis and Clark 1804-1806 Corps of Exploration. Scotch-Irish and Irish trappers such as Ross Cox and John Reed had entered the Oregon Country with the Canadian Northwest Company and John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company by 1810.

The Irish presence increased in the region after 1824 when the Hudson's Bay Company dispatched Dr. John McLoughlin to Fort Vancouver to take charge of the Columbia District. His group included a minority of Irish from Canada in a Company corps dominated by Scots, French-Canadian, and Metis. These Irish were single men, and many married Indian wives, some Irish/Spanish wives.

Catholic Church records from Vancouver and Stellamaris Mission give evidence of the Irish presence from the 1830s: Francis Heron, an Irish employee of the Hudson's Bay Company; his son, George born at Fort Nisqually in 1834; and Marie McDermott, daughter of Andrew McDermot, wife of Richard Lane, a Hudson's Bay Company clerk, to name only three.

The same records show Irish entering the Oregon Country from California: John Howard and William McCarty both came north with the Ewing Young party in 1834. The records also list Irish directly from Ireland (some by way of Australia), such as Patrick James McGowan who entered the fishery business at Chinook, and the farmer William Ryan. During these early decades of European and Euro-American settlement, Irish came to the region that would become Washington state from the Canadian north, Californian south, and from the West as well as from the East.

The Hudson's Bay Company presence made secure immigration to the Oregon Country possible. Irish-Americans were among the steady stream of immigrants to cross the Oregon Trail during the "Great Migration" of 1843 (White and Solberg, 1989)

The Simmons Family

In 1844, a small group of immigrants chose to settle north of the Columbia River. Among them was a Kentuckian of Irish descent, Michael T. Simmons, his wife and seven children. Simmons' family settled near present day Olympia along with the family of George W. Bush, a black man barred from owning land in the Willamette Valley. The Bush and Simmons families fostered the U.S. settlement in what is now Washington state (White and Solberg).

Simmons served as commissioner of Newmarket (later Tumwater), performed marriages, and acted as judge. His wife was the first schoolteacher. Simmons sold his claim in 1850 to the Irishman Clanrick Crosby, a sea captain (and ancestor of Washington's best known Irishman, Bing Crosby), and established himself as an influential leader in Olympia.

He prospered as landlord of a building that served as the center of the city's life in its early days, providing space for residence and lodge rooms, the Columbian, a newspaper begun by McElroy and Wiley in 1852, and the court. Crosby was successful in Tumwater, distinguishing himself in economic and civic ventures. Eventually he was elected to serve in the State Legislature (Bosanko).

Irish women who came to Washington from the earliest settlement until after the 1890s were more likely to be married than single and to have non-Irish spouses. This led to greater property ownership by Irish in Washington and in the West generally (Burchell). Teresa Lappin Eldridge is illustrative. Teresa escaped the Irish Famine by seeking domestic work in the United States. In 1851 she accompanied the family that employed her to California.

On the voyage she met Captain Edward Eldridge, who served as second mate. They married in 1852 and in the spring of 1853, arrived at Bellingham Bay. Her husband helped build and operate a sawmill in Bellingham. He worked in various other trades and professions, and eventually became a delegate at large to the territorial constitutional convention in 1878, and a member of the state constitutional convention in 1889. Teresa, the first white woman to reside on Bellingham Bay became known as the "Mother of Whatcom" (Bosanko).

From U.S. Possession into the Second Wave of Immigration (1846-1890)

Irish and Irish-Americans were among the increasing European and European-American population of Washington during the years 1846-1890. Several factors contributed to this growth: sole possession of the Oregon Country going to the U.S. in 1846; the California Gold Rush in 1848; subsequent gold, silver, lead, and coal strikes in present day Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia between the 1850s and 1880s; the Oregon Donation Land Law of 1850; the Civil War; and the Homestead Act of 1862.

In 1849 there were 304 registered whites in what would be Washington. One hundred eighty nine were U.S. Citizens; the remaining 115 were aliens, principally from Canada, Scotland, England, and Ireland. In 1850, the population tripled to 1,049. This increase was due to the continued arrival of foreign born and latecomers from the Midwestern and Eastern United States who were being diverted from the Willamette Valley to the newly formed counties north of the Columbia River. In 1853 Washington Territory was established, partly as a result of the population increase in the Oregon Territory (from 8,000 in 1850 to nearly 30,000 in 1855).

Between 1853 and 1880, the Irish in Washington clustered in Clark, King, and Walla Walla Counties, sites of military posts and mining operations. By 1880, first-generation Irish were second only to Canadians as the largest European immigrant group with 2,243 Irish listed in the 1880 decennial census. In terms of overall population, however, the Irish lagged considerably behind the Chinese and Germans. By 1890 they would be outdone by the Scandinavians as well.

As was the case during the earliest period of settlement, from 1846 until the turn of the century, Irish were often the first and leading settlers in various regions of Washington state. Many of the sixty-niners, naturalized Irish who served as enlisted men in the United States Army Cavalry at the Vancouver Barracks and Fort Nisqually, remained after their terms ended. Among them was William O'Leary from Cork County, Ireland, who settled on the south shore of Grays Harbor in 1848. The family of Irishman William Medcalf and his English wife, Martha Ann, followed O'Leary a bachelor. They were the first white family to settle near the lower Chehalis River. While O'Leary and Medcalf farmed, others turned to mining or business related to mining, lumber, or transportation.

In 1853, the same year that Teresa and Edward Eldridge arrived at Bellingham Bay, Daniel Jefferson Harris also arrived. Harris born to Irish immigrant's parents in 1826 on Long Island, New York, took to the sea as a young teenager, and decided upon his arrival at Bellingham Bay to build a seaport. He spent 30 years as a subsistence farmer, fisherman, and smuggler, and earned a reputation as the town eccentric, "Dirty Dan Harris," before his dream of wealth became a reality in 1883. Harris platted the town of Fairhaven and built the Fairhaven Hotel. Though he achieved wealth, the personal tragedy of his wife's death prevented its enjoyment. Harris died in 1890 in Los Angeles.

In 1867 the Irishman Samuel Benn, part of the wave of post Civil War immigrants to Washington, bought 700 acres of government land along the north shore of the Chehalis River and both shores of the Wishkah, site of present day Aberdeen, Washington. A successful dairyman, Samuel and his wife Mary were at the center of the town's social life.

The farming community of Farghar Lake, north of Vancouver, was settled in the late 1860s by a group of Scots and Irish. Early homesteaders included James Langon and James Daly, with a Mr. S. S. Campbell as schoolteacher.

The Walla Walla Valley attracted many Irish after the Civil War, as did the Dublin district of Clark County. Nicholas and Catherine Whealen, both Irish-born, arrived in eastern Washington in 1867 from northern California. They prospered raising cattle to feed the miners in Idaho. During the late 1860s, the 1870s and 1880s some eastern Washington's most prominent and successful pioneers came from Ireland.

The 185 Irish in Spokane County in 1880 -- nearly one-half directly from Ireland and another one-fourth representing first-generation Irish with both parents coming from Ireland -- comprised only 4 percent of a total county population of 4,267. Most of them lived in rural areas and farmed. Among the homesteaders was John Blakely. Born in Ireland in 1832 he immigrated with his mother to the U.S. in 1847. Blakely homesteaded in Spokane County in 1877, having worked his way west employed in lumber mills and on railroads. He farmed for the remainder of his life with the support of his wife, Sarah Bell, also from Ireland, and his six children. His death in 1909 was reported in the Spokesman Review as "Death Calls Old Pioneer." Other successful homesteaders and farmers included Edward Sheehy and Jerry Sullivan.

Irish immigrants to Eastern Washington also filled traditional occupations of unskilled workers such as domestic service and mining, but many achieved rapid financial and civic success. Successful Irish in Spokane engaged in business and finance included Norte Dame graduate Thomas Conlan, who arrived in Spokane in 1883 and in 1888 established the Spokane Hardware Company, recognized within a year as "one of the city's pre-eminent business establishments." Peter Costello, the child of Irish parents living in Canada, arrived in Spokane in 1887 and organized a prosperous contracting business. The Costello brothers constructed the city's major streets and sewers. Peter Costello became one of the city's most generous philanthropists. Another businessman and millionaire Patrick "Patsy" Clark was a leading figure in Spokane's social and financial elite class. He was among the best known mine owners in the United States.

Besides farming, business, and finance, Washington's Irish between 1846 and 1880 engaged in many other occupations including government service, political office, printing, and publishing, and law. J.W. Murphy and E.T. Gun served respectfully as Auditor and Treasurer of the Washington Territory in 1870s. Henry McGill served as acting Governor of the territory in 18860. Irish names appear among federal officials in the territory: McFadden, Kearney, McMeeken, and Johnson to name four. In printing and publishing, J.M. of the Washington Standard; M.J. Mooney and Brothers of the Kalama Beacon; A.J. Cain of the Dayton News; E.T. Green of the Transcript; James Power of the Bellingham Bay Mail; and David Higgins of the Seattle Intelligencer all were Irish.

This sampling of Irish in Washington state illustrates how profoundly the mobility and opportunity of the frontier shaped the context of their lives and provided the chance for them to meet their hopes for economic improvement. Most Irish in Washington did not remain in the mines but moved among the occupations and across geographic space seeking economic opportunities.

The Washington Irish farmed and ranched successfully countering the general claim that the Irish in the U.S. left farming whenever possible. Economic and transportation connections between Butte, Montana, and Spokane and travel up and down the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Puget Sound allowed immigration from what were Irish population centers.

The mobility and opportunity of life on the frontier altered the way the Irish in Washington understood themselves. They shed their identification as Irish as they achieved prosperity in Washington. They "looked upon past traditions, wounds, and memories of the 'Old Sod' as irrelevant and, at best as "remote." Their mobility and transformation from Irish immigrants to Washingtonians also influenced their religious affiliation and identification. The frontier experience set these Irish apart from many of the Irish who would come after the railroads.


James Paul Allen & Eugene James Turner, We the People; An Atlas of America's Ethnic Diversity (New York: MacMillan, 1988);

AAS-Organizational Records, Bishops Correspondence, Achives of the Archbishop Seattle;

Marilyn S. McCleary Bosanko, "Among Colored Hats and Other Gewgaws: The Early Irish in Washington State"; David M. Buerge and Junius Rochester, Roots and Branches: The Religious Heritage of Washington State (Seattle: Church Council of Greater Seattle, 1988); Hasia R. Diner, Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in in the 19th Century (Baltimore: John's Hopkins University Press, 1983); Timothy J. Sarbaugh, "Celts with the Midas Touch: The Farmers, Entrepreneurs, and Millionaires of Spokane's City and County Pioneer Community" in Peoples of Washington: Perspectives on Cultural Diversity ed. by Sid White and S.E. Solberg (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989); Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History Revised Edition (1996), (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996); Ancient Order of Hibernians, History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians;

Thomas Francis McGrath, History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, (Cleveland: no pub., 1898).

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