Ethnic diversity is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the history of Vermont. It is, after all, the second whitest state in the union — and Maine edges us out by just a whisker. The Abenaki, of course, predate any European settlers. Aside from knowing that, we may have only a hazy vision of who came here in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Mostly Yankees, plus a lot of French-Canadians and then some Italian granite workers, right?
“Ethnic history in Vermont in general has not been studied,” notes historian Vincent Feeney. During three decades teaching at the University of Vermont, the number of Irish surnames among his local students piqued his curiosity. The Marshfield resident began to collect information, because the topic blended his two deepest historical interests: Vermont and Ireland. The result is Finnigans, Slaters and Stonepeggers: A History of the Irish in Vermont, a colorful and thorough look at how the green hills of Ireland provided substantial waves of immigrants to the Green Mountains, beginning in colonial times.
Research upended the “quintessentially Yankee” impression that Feeney initially had of Vermont. He spent lots of time wading through primary sources, particularly census documents. In towns such as Rutland and Burlington, he found concentrations of Irish names by the late 19th century that were “very, very surprising,” he recalls — upward of 30 percent.
Amassing the data was a vital starting point for telling the story. “I wanted the numbers, because I really had to show the reader how strong in numbers the Irish community was,” Feeney explains. “It was probably the most tedious work ... Sometimes, to come up with one number, it might take me five hours of research. I probably spent, on a part-time basis, maybe a full year just going through census records.”
Crunching the numbers allowed Feeney to see vivid connections between historical events in Ireland and spikes in immigration to Vermont. “Timing was everything,” he emphasizes. Settlement patterns within Vermont also became clear — which counties and towns proved the biggest draws.
The first wave came in the 1820s and 1830s, when the Irish agriculture and economy collapsed after the Napoleonic Wars ended. The Brits were trying to encourage immigration to colonial Canada, so they slapped tariffs on fares to their former colony, the United States. Enterprising Irish simply took ships to Québec City or Montréal, and then headed south. Many disembarked at the bustling port of Burlington, or took their first steps on American soil in Franklin County. Often, their final destination was Vermont.
Early Irish communities flourished in Burlington, Fairfield, Underhill, Moretown, Middlebury and Castleton. As individuals and families became established, they encouraged kin from the Old Country to join them, a phenomenon called “chain emigration” by historians. “Over and over again,” Feeney writes, “we see that family ties played an important part in bringing the Irish to Vermont.”
The Great Potato Famine caused the greatest influx of Irish immigrants. “Their decision to go to America was less a choice than an imperative,” writes Feeney. “They were more refugee than immigrant.” Timing made the Green Mountains an attractive option. The first year that the Irish were streaming out of their homeland, 1846, was the same year that the railroad came to Vermont.
“The Famine hit just when Vermont was experiencing what I call a mini-industrial revolution,” Feeney explains. Railroad construction made backbreaking, unskilled labor jobs immediately available. “Contractors hired thousands of Irishmen to dynamite rock, move dirt, lay ties, build bridges and trestles, align steel rails, and hammer spikes.”
More importantly, the ease and economy of shipping freight by rail made other industries possible. Western Vermont’s extensive marble and slate deposits could now be transported long distances. Certain regions of Ireland had similar resources, and Feeney noticed a fascinating pattern. Clusters of men from Tipperary, where slate was mined, migrated to the slate towns of Castleton, Fairhaven and Poultney. The same held true for Rutland County’s marble industry. Its Irish workers got the nickname “stonepeggers,” obscure in origin, which “suggested a rough and tough people,” Feeney notes.
By 1860, the Irish were Vermont’s largest ethnic group. But prejudice existed. Anti-Catholicism came to America on the May-flower, and Vermonters codified it in the 1777 constitution, which excluded Catholics from holding political office. The flood of destitute Famine Irish increased tensions; some boisterous rail workers drank heavily and got into violent scrapes. This behavior collided with a budding temperance movement. When mid-19th-century prohibition statutes passed, however, Feeney says that many Vermonters paid “lip service” to the law and looked to savvy immigrants — Irish, French-Canadians and Italians — to meet their moonshine and bootlegging needs.
Feeney describes the Civil War as “a defining experience” for the Vermont Irish, “marking a transformation from emigrant greenhorn to red-blooded American.” The war also shifted their neighbors’ perspective. “Too many Irishmen had fought and died in the Union cause for them to be considered outsiders.”
The last decades of the century saw the Irish “in the vanguard” of agitating for labor reform, and eventually rising to positions of political leadership. In the early 20th century, they dominated local politics in some towns. For example, between 1903 and 1933, Burlington elected Jim Burke mayor seven times — the last at age 84.
Feeney’s account is both meticulous and engaging; facts and stats only serve to make the compelling characters and circumstances come alive. Other immigrant communities have played important roles in shaping Vermont’s history, says Feeney. “I hope interest in this one ethnic group spawns interest in other ethnic groups in Vermont, and that other people will begin to come up with histories.”