Cornish Migration to the Upper Mississippi Valley
Cornwall is located in the beautiful, but somewhat remote, extreme southwest
tip of England. The mining of tin and copper had been a major activity in
Cornwall since prehistoric times. By the 1800s many of the economic woes that
struck other countries in Europe also hit England, and particularly the
Southwest, where living had always been hard.
Between the 1830s and the end of the 1800s, more than half of the population of Cornwall left to go to other places. It was reported that there were villages in Cornwall where the only residents were women, children and the elderly. The young men and quite a few young families scattered the world over - Africa, Australia, South America, and of course, North America. Many ended up in the lead region of the Upper Mississippi Valley where there were mining opportunities. It was said that wherever in the world there was a hole in the ground, a Cornishman could be found at the bottom of it. A good number also went to where they could buy land for farming, since young Cornishmen had limited opportunity to own land unless it was inherited. During this period, the fishing industry, which had been long a main stay in the economy of Cornwall, also fell on hard times. Cornish emigrants played a vital role in the settlement and development of the Upper Mississippi Valley region of the American states of Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. Cornish settlers made especially significant contributions to farming and mining in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette Counties in Wisconsin, Jo Davies and Stevenson Counties in Illinois and Dubuque County in Iowa.
The reasons for leaving were many. The potato famine that hit Ireland affected all of Britain and much of Europe. Added to that, the mines in Cornwall were coming on hard times. Ore from other countries became much cheaper and the world market collapsed. The mines in Cornwall were getting so deep that it was too expensive to bring the ore up. Mines were closing down and there was no work to be had. Poor living conditions and incredible poverty were endemic and social programs were non-existant. (continued on Page 4)
During the 1820s, lead was discovered around the Fever River (now the Galena River), in northwestern Illinois. By 1828, mining had spread north into southwestern Wisconsin, where more extensive lead deposits were found near Mineral Point.
By the mid-1830s, news of the “lead rush” in the Upper Mississippi Valley had reached all the way to Cornwall and a steady stream of skilled, hard-rock miners began to filter into Mineral Point. (The Mineral Point, Wisconsin land office was opened in 1834).
While, the earliest prospectors were mostly single men, the Cornish came in groups of families from their homelands. It was appealing to the immigrants that they could work for themselves and not have to pay the mine owner or landed gentry (or the Church) most of what they earned. The Cornish settled in the rural communities near Mineral Point and Dodgeville in southwestern Wisconsin, as well as in northwest Illinois around Galena.
The population of Wisconsin’s lead-mining region increased from a few hundred to several thousand in a few years. In 1850, about 7,000 of the 27,000 British immigrants in Wisconsin were Cornish. Records show that by 1850, some 6,000 Cornish immigrants were living in the counties of Grant, Iowa and Lafayette in Wisconsin. Lead mining in the area went into decline during the 1850s, and many of the Cornish moved on to the copper mines of Upper Michigan and the gold mines of California. It is recorded that during the period, some 700 people left for California from Mineral Point. On one particular day, 60 wagons left, all headed west.
The Cornish brought their local customs and introduced such culinary delights as pasties (a meat, potato and onion pastry), tea biscuits and saffron cake. And skilled Cornish stone masons constructed beautiful stone cottages and buildings, many of which such as Pendavis still survive today.
The Wisconsin mines are gone, but the rich legacy of Cornish culture, history and architecture remain prominent in picturesque Mineral Point and southwest Wisconsin.
At Pendarvis, which is owned and operated by the Wisconsin State Historical Society, costumed interpreters offer guided tours, recalling the days when Mineral Point was a rough and tumble lead mining camp. The interpreters explain what brought the Cornish, with their expert knowledge of mining and stone masonry, their Celtic superstitions, and their frugal food fare, to Wisconsin.
After more than 170 years, the Cornish influence is still very evident in the old lead region of Southwest Wisconsin. A stroll through Shullsburg, Platteville or Mineral Point with their stone buildings and winding streets will take you back generations. The phone books and cemeteries are filled with names still familiar in Cornwall. Those visiting Cornwall, marvel that it seems like they never left home. Cornish visitors are astonished at how familiar it feels here. The Pendarvis State Historic Site in Mineral Point gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the early miners and their families.