There are many stories behind how various groups arrived in Oklahoma. And the tale of the arrival and success of the Irish in Oklahoma is woven throughout the state’s history. The timing of a devastating famine, the opening of the state to non-native inhabitants, and the forced relocation of Native tribes all played a role in bringing the Irish to the state.
In the early 1800’s, Irish trappers and traders were drawn to Indian Territory to ply their trade, and the Irish made up a sizable percentage of U.S. Army personnel who were stationed at the various forts in the territory. The 1870s brought Irish, among others of European extraction, for employment in the coal mines near McAlester – making the area very cosmopolitan at the time, according to the online Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Early railroads making their ways across the area also employed a large number of Irish tracklayers, some of whom stayed on after the railroads were built and later abandoned.
Unrest and poor economic prospects, many due to the devastating potato famine during the 19th century in Ireland and Great Britain, led many Irish to brave the Atlantic. Most didn’t settle in the Oklahoma area immediately – but come to America they did, and in large numbers. According to The British and Irish in Oklahoma by Patrick J. Blessing, the largest population of Irish born residents was recorded in the 1890 census, which was just before the opening of land in Oklahoma Territory to a non-native population. The number of people reportedly born in Ireland, but living in Oklahoma Territory, jumped from 329 in 1890 to 1,384 in 1900 according to U.S. census numbers, probably due to the Oklahoma Land Run opportunities that took place during that time.
Throughout their history in the United States, Irish immigrants were different from other immigrant groups in that “they rapidly blended into the population, with most marrying Americans” according to The Encyclopedia. And this included marrying into Native American tribes, so much so that many of the participants in forced relocation efforts into Indian Territory had an Irish parent or spouse.
The influence of Irish immigration on the beginnings of Oklahoma is deeply rooted. From politics to industry to labor and labor unions, the Irish played a significant role in the founding of our state.
A Sympathetic Gift
Help for the Irish Potato Famine came from an unexpected source. In 1847, the Choctaw tribe, after hearing about the plight of the Irish and experiencing their own hardships during forced relocation by the U.S. government to Indian Territory, raised $170 (more than $5,000 in today’s dollars) to send for relief.
In 1995, realizing the generosity of the gift, the Irish president at the time, Mary Robinson, visited the Choctaw Nation as a gesture of thanks. The connection between the Irish people and the Choctaws is now memorialized with a large statue in a park in Midleton, County Cork, south of Dublin – the recipients of the generous gift from more than 150 years before.