Irish-Catholic Immigrant Life in South Bend, Indiana Refined Earthenwares and the 19th-Century Social Worlds of the Midwest

By Rotman, Deborah L. | Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Irish-Catholic Immigrant Life in South Bend, Indiana Refined Earthenwares and the 19th-Century Social Worlds of the Midwest


Rotman, Deborah L., Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA


Abstract When Father Edward Sorin established the University of Notre Dame in the 1840s, he sought Catholic laborers to assist him in the enterprise. He purchased land south of campus and created a residential neighborhood for Catholic immigrants, many of whom were Irish displaced by an Gorta Mór or the Great Hunger. An archaeological field school in 2007 investigated the homelots that comprised this residential enclave. Analyses of the refined earthenwares from the Fogarty family were coupled with other historical and material evidence to elucidate the ways in which Irish-Catholic families negotiated the complex cultural landscapes of their new city.

The experiences of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to the United States were significantly shaped by the local communities and cultural contexts in which they setded. In South Bend, Indiana (Figure 1), an affiliation with Camolic entities gave Irish immigrants access to a variety of material resources, including employment and education, while dieir neighborhood provided them with cultural and spiritual community (Rotman 2010). Archaeological and historical data illustrated the ways in which Irish-Catholic families negotiated the complex cultural landscapes of their new city, strategically embracing some aspects of the local culture while eschewing others as they created new lives for their families in South Bend.

Father (Fr.) Edward Sorin, a French priest with the Congregation of the Holy Cross, was an instrumental figure in the early history of north-central Indiana. He purchased a 120-acre tract of land south of campus in 1855, which he named "Sorinsville." The parcels within the neighborhood were sold for a $25 down payment and with the balanced repaid through barter, trade or long-term credit agreement (Figure 2) (Schierem 1977:3, 25). Fr. Sorin specifically sought Catholic laborers, including those of Irish and German heritage, many of whom worked as bricklayers, carpenters, and in other capacities for the University of Notre Dame (Giffen 1996; McNeill 2008). Sorinsville was physically and visibly located between the Golden Dome of the University to the north and the spires of St. Joseph's Parish to the south. Residents were within walking distance of work, school, and worship, while other material needs were satisfied via local shops and businesses (Figure 3).

Importantly, the relationship between the University and these Catholic immigrants created substantial residential permanence for the Irish. Fr. Sorin may have been motivated to create Sorinsville in order to stabilize the workforce for the University as much as to help these immigrants acquire real estate in South Bend.

The Fogarty family was Irish, Catholic and resided in the Sorinsville neighborhood. Archaeological data recovered from their homelot illustrated the ways in which they selectively embraced some aspects of local culture, material resources, and social rituals while eschewing others in ways that reflected not only their household priorities but also their unique experiences as Irish-Americans in South Bend.

Brief Historical Background of the Irish in America and the Midwest

The history of Irish immigration to the United States has been well-researched and well-documented elsewhere (Adams 1967; Diner 1983; Donnelly 2001; Gallagher 1982; Kinealy 1995; Meagher 2001; Miller 1985; O'Connor 1995; O'Grady 1973). The specific histories of Irish immigrants who settled beyond the eastern seaboard, however, are less well understood. Notable exceptions include two studies of the Irish in North America: Emmons' (1989) study of Butte, Montana and Smith's (2004) analyses of Western Canada.

Between 1815 and the Civil War, five million people immigrated to the United States; 40% of these - nearly two million - were from Ireland (Bodnar 1996:2). Prior to 1845, experiences of Irish immigrants varied widely according to their place of origin, family circumstances, and other factors. …

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