The English, Irish and Scots
Reprinted from Our County Our Story by Malcolm Rosholt, 1959, pages 85-90.
Like the sun that never sets on the British Union Jack, it may be said that the sun never sets on the Yankee-English of Portage County, for their descendants may be found in nearly every township, village and city and their headstones in nearly every cemetery.
The vast majority were descendants of Englishmen, probably one, two or even three generations removed, who had lived in the New England and Middle Atlantic states, the Ohio Valley, and Canada, before making the final move to the Indian Land. They were the original pioneers of Portage County beginning in the late 1830s and continuing into the 1850s when they began to be superseded by immigrants from the United Kingdom and from Europe. They were the people who organized government on the county and township levels, built the first roads, saw mills, grist mills, established business firms and hotels, began logging off the white pine and running the rivers.
Most of the southern townships of the county - Belmont, Almond, Lanark, Buena Vista, Plover, the central sections of Amherst, the southwest of Stockton, the Mill Creek district of Linwood, the southern sections of Pine Grove - in addition to the northern sections of Dewey and Eau Pleine, were pioneered largely by these Yankees and their families. In the very beginning there was a dearth of women folks among them and not a few took on Indian women as wives or consorts.
While many went into farming, others speculated in land and timber. Some were shrewd traders and, with luck, made money; others lost out, for even when timber was cheap or free as part of the public domain before the government surveys were made, the cost of getting the lumber to market was dear and filled with hazards. The rapid turn-over in saw mill ownership and the frequent dissolution of saw mill partnerships both reflect the need for ever and ever more investment capital, apparently not available locally, which had to be provided by Eastern or out-of-state interests.
But those who would get rich quick and failed often found more modest means of making a living and stayed on in the county because the opportunities for advancement were still about them. And for many years political office on the state, county and township level was dominated by these pioneers from the Eastern states and Canada.
While a number of families of French-Canadian descent settled in the county, it would appear that an equal number of English-speaking Canadians came to the county, some, no doubt, descendants of the United Empire Loyalists whose fathers fled from the colonies and settled in Canada as political refugees from the American Revolution. It was natural that they would be attracted to the timber business in Wisconsin because they already had considerable experience in lumbering and river running and it was from these men as well as the "state-of-Mainers" that the technique of rafting lumber on the rivers was learned. Among the first English-speaking Canadians who applied for naturalization at Plover were Jermiah D. Rogers, 1849; George W. Kollock, 1849; William D. Spurr, 1851; Matthew Wadleigh, 1858; Hugh Black, 1859; Moses Puariea, 1864; John Sanders, 1870; and George A. Whitney, 1871.
The first Englishman to apply for naturalization at Plover was Robert Hutchins of England's Lincoln County - land of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest who entered the United States at New York in 1835, appeared at Plover on May 19, 1845 and signed an "X" in his application for naturalization. He did not remain long in the county. The second Englishman to apply was Isaac Coulthurst, who left Liverpool in October 1841 and landed at New York in November the same year - obviously a fast passage even if he sailed on Oct. 1, and landed in New York in the latter part of November. He applied for naturalization at Plover on Nov. 11, 1845 and was followed by Abraham Coulthurst, born in Manchester, England, in 1820, who came to New York in April 1849 and applied at Plover on Nov. 5, 1849. This pioneer family has many descendants in the county and elsewhere in the state.
Other early English emigrants to the county were James Morrison, who applied for naturalization at Plover on Nov. 6, 1849; William Weston, lumberman, who applied in 1850; Louis Shelburn, pioneer farmer of Buena Vista, 1854; Ellis Hicks, pioneer farmer of Almond township, 1855; Joseph Diver, pioneer farmer of New Hope, 1866; John W. Northfield, mentioned briefly in early Sharon road statements, who applied in 1859; William Reading, lumberman on the Plover, 1860; and Benjamin Radcliffe, pioneer lumberman of Pine Grove, 1860.
The first and apparently only man to give his birthplace as Wales was John C. Clarke who entered the United States at New York in June 1844 and applied for naturalization at Plover on Nov. 6, 1849.
In addition to American-born families, the county in the early 1850s attracted a number of immigrants from Ireland who came after the great potato famine of the late 1840s. At the first election of Hull in 1859 English names like Redfield and Wollingworth are balanced against Irish names like Finneran, Sweeny and Leary. Many of the Irish, finding the choice lands of the southern townships occupied, began to settle on the Stockton prairie and in the lower sections of Hull. But the emigration of the Irish to Portage County started long before the potato famine. Among the earliest were Hugh McGreer of County Antrim, Robert Campbell of County Tyrone, and Henry Clinton of County Armagh, who all applied for naturalization in 1845, followed by Patrick O'Riley in 1846, Angus (often misspelled "Agnes") McCauly in 1848, and Patrick Dunn in 1849.
Although Stockton was settled largely by Irishmen mixed with a few Yankee-English and Scandinavians looking for farm lands in the 1850s and '60s, there was only one Irish descendant on the male line still operating one of these farms in 1958; namely, Leonard O'Keefe who lives near Arnott. The deed on this land shows that his grandfather, Patrick O'Keeffe, acquired four government lots in Sec. 7 in 1863.
Off the south porch of the house built by the O'Keefes stands a big elm tree which is regarded with a certain amount of veneration. This, according to family tradition, is a "witness" tree, (also referred to as a bearing tree) presumably used by the government surveyors in 1851-52.
Aside from the town of Stockton and the Stevens Point North Side, a fairly homogeneous settlement of Irishmen developed along the Portage road (H-51) below Keene and south into Almond township around Lone Pine. As the majority moved to the county from Wilmington, Delaware, these people were known as the "Delaware Irish." George McMulkin may have been the first to settle here before the Civil War and in letters to friends in Wilmington, boasted about the "big peaches in Portage County." When his friends later settled in the district they never ceased joking about the "big peaches." McMulkin was appointed postmaster at Lone Pine in 1866.
John Fisher, 90, living in retirement on H-51 near Lone Pine, son of John Fisher, Sr., who also came from Wilmington and settled in Sec. 8, recalls most of the "Delaware Irish," namely, George ("G. P.") Nugent, Daniel O'Connell, D. McGuire, John Brady, Nathaniel Brown (whose wife served as the midwife to the community,) James and John Russell, Charles Sharkey, Nicholas Burns (all confirmed in 1876 plat) in addition to others who settled in the lower sections of Buena Vista; namely, James and Hugh Tracy, James McGinly, and James Turrish (also confirmed in 1876 plat).
These Irishmen were all Catholics except John Fisher, Sr., and the Russell brothers. All were allegedly Democrats except the two Protestant families in addition to James McGinly who voted the Republican ticket while his brother, John, in the words of Fisher, "was a rank Democrat."
A number of small homes built by these pioneer Irish families may be seen today along this stretch of H-51, the mark of age and neglect upon them, yet singularly beautiful in their historic association with a proud and courageous people. This community originated St. Martin's Catholic Church which, although located in the town of Almond, still uses a letterhead "St. Martin's Church Buena Vista" which suggests that in the early period it was considered part of the Buena Vista community.
A small Irish settlement also developed in the western sections of Lanark and eastern Buena Vista, later centered by the establishment of St. Patrick's Church where most of these pioneers are buried. In addition, an Irish colony developed in the old Fourth Ward of Stevens Point north of the slough, all within a few blocks of the Wisconsin River.
Many of the Irish who settled in the eastern part of the county, particularly in Lanark and Stockton, spoke Gaelic, their native tongue. Most spoke broken English, and because they were surrounded by Yankees and English-speaking people, the jump from Gaelic to English for them was not as great as it was for the Germans, Norwegians or Poles. But the second generation Irishman in the county usually spoke no Gaelic. The Irish were also inclined to Anglicize their names to conform to English usage, for example, the name O'Bouren which was changed to Burns. Some of the second-generation Irish also acquired a working vocabulary of Polish for it was about this time that the Poles began to settle in the township.
In Lanark township, some time before the turn of the century, the Irish, known as a people with vivid imaginations the world over and whose private worlds are often peopled with leprechauns, began moving an old cemetery located south of H-54 to the new cemetery at St. Patrick's church established in 1888. Among those buried in the former cemetery were several who were known or believed to have died of smallpox. The fear of smallpox was still so great that these graves were not moved lest the living be infected. According to legend, the dead who were left behind became disconsolate at this deliberate oversight and assumed the form of a fiery dog which roamed the neighborhood at night and threatened anyone who drew near the graveyard. One of the Phelps boys, whose family once operated the Phelps tavern-house a short distance up the road, was driving by the graveyard one night when one of the horse's hoofs struck a stone which sent off a spark. Thinking that the fiery dog had run directly under the wagon, young Phelps whipped his horses into a furious gallop and arrived home white in the face. But the fiery dog apparently has been consumed in its own flames as it has not been seen in many decades while the several neglected gravestones nearby, buried in the grass, are still there - mute reminders of bygone fears.
The Scots, some from the Eastern states, some from Scotland, began moving into the southern Wisconsin in the 1830s and by the early 1850s into central Wisconsin. One of these districts - it cannot be called a settlement - developed in Lanark where Scottish names are evident in the early tax rolls such as Swan, McGregor, Haskell, Erskin and Hutton. While the English and Irish names far outnumber the Scots in Lanark, the latter, although few in number, had their own way about naming the township.