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  • Ties that Bind: Ethnic and Religious Factors in the Marriage Choices of Irish-American Catholics on the Dakota Frontier
  • Michael F. Funchion

Research on the marriage patterns of the Irish in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century urban America points to a significant degree of group cohesiveness. Studies of the Irish in such cities as Worcester, New York, Butte, and San Francisco show that Irish immigrants had very high rates of in-group marriage, usually over 90 percent.1 Equally significant is that the propensity for in-group marriage continued among the American-born children of the immigrants, although, as might be expected, to a lesser extent than among the first generation. For example, in Worcester in 1880, 91.7 percent of second-generation Irish men and 81.2 percent of second-generation Irish women had first or second generation Irish spouses, while in 1900 the in-group rates were 79.7 percent for men and 76.3 percent for women.2 In New York City from 1908 through 1912 the second-generation Irish had an in-group marriage rate of 66.0 percent (70.2 percent for men and 61.7 for women).3 Similarly, in 1880 in San Francisco [End Page 121] more than four-fifths of the second-generation Irish men and over three-fifths of the women entered in-group marriages.4 In Butte in 1900 and again in 1910, 70 percent of second-generation Irish married other Irish.5

If the Irish in cities with significant Irish populations had high in-group marriage rates, then what about the substantial minority of their kinsmen who had settled in small towns and rural areas? Reginald Byron has argued—without any evidence—that the rural and small-town Irish melted into American society “within a generation” because “their numbers in most places would have been insufficient to form a pool of potential marriage partners and thus encourage cultural or even religious endogamy.”6

But is this true? The question is difficult to answer. We know relatively little about the marriage patterns of the Irish in rural America, although there are a few studies that provide some information. Merle Curti’s study on nineteenth-century Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, shows high rates of in-group marriage for the small number of Irish immigrants there in 1860 and again in 1880. However, we do not know how many of them were married before arriving there, and there is no information on the second generation.7 Another work, Richard Bernard’s book on ethnic intermarriage in Wisconsin shows in-group marriage rates of 73.9 and 62.7 percent respectively for first and second-generation Irish in Wisconsin in 1880, but very low ones of 26.1 and 18.6 percent in 1910.8 [End Page 122] As this study covers the whole state we have no way of knowing how much of the data on the Irish came from rural areas and small towns in contrast to the large city of Milwaukee.

An intensive examination of the marriages of the American-born and Catholic-reared sons and daughters of Irish immigrants, who lived in an area of nearly 2,000 square miles in eastern South Dakota in the last decades of the nineteenth century sheds further light on ethnic and religious intermarriage. The study area includes a total of fifty-seven rural townships and seventeen small towns and villages, covering three entire counties—McCook, Lake, and Moody—and the more Irish part of a fourth county, Brookings. Despite relatively small marriage pools of Irish Catholics, the children of Irish immigrants exhibited a fairly high rate of ethnic and an extremely high rate of religious endogamy.

Existing studies provide enough information to draw a general picture of the pattern of Irish rural and small-town settlement in the Upper Midwest. We know that while some pursued non-agricultural occupations, many went into farming. They generally migrated in fairly small groups of family members and friends. Few went to planned settlements such as those established by the Irish Catholic Colonization Society or the Catholic Colonization Bureau of St. Paul. Although most settled in groups large enough to support a Catholic parish, either on their...


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