Though Evansville is primarily known for its strong German heritage, our Irish connections predate the city’s founding in 1812. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, take a look at how the Irish got their start in Southern Indiana.
Former University of Evansville professor Daniel Gahan is by all accounts an Irish immigration expert. Raised in Ireland, he moved to the United States in 1977 at the age of 22. He eventually landed in Evansville, where he taught in UE’s history department for 34 years before retiring in 2020.
As a professor, one of Gahan’s areas of study was the Irish immigration patterns in Southwestern Indiana. He says the first Irish immigrants arrived in the Evansville area fairly early: They began to migrate from southern states like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia to the Midwest in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Land was more available, and towns were not yet established, so Irish settlers traveled west down the Ohio on flatboats seeking prosperity. Then, when construction of the National Road began in 1811 and linked the Potomac River in Maryland to the Ohio River in Illinois, Irish settlers came to Southwestern Indiana in large numbers.
“In the 1820s and 1830s, Southern Indiana meant opportunity,” Gahan says. “It is in between the Ohio River and the National Road — perfectly situated on what were the two great highways for anyone heading west.”
The construction of the National Road wasn’t the only major infrastructure project happening in the Evansville area in the 1800s. When work began in 1832 on the Wabash & Erie Canal — a major shipping project that planned to link the Great Lakes to the Ohio River — this attracted many young Irishmen to the area. These men were mainly unskilled laborers and single men in their early twenties; many stayed when the canal was finished in 1853 and settled around Daviess and Pike counties.
The 1850 federal census showed 400 out of the 11,000 people in Vanderburgh County were Irish. 1850s Irishmen in Evansville were what Gahan calls “typical” residents of the time.
“They were doing all kinds of work, getting themselves into the trades, establishing businesses, and even some of them (were) acquiring farms because land was fairly cheap, and being quite successful,” Gahan says. “The Irish of Evansville were kind of on their way to making it in 1850.”
Many of them did make it in Evansville, and their impact can be seen today. For example, UE’s Shanklin Theatre is named for former Evansville Courier editor and politician John Gilbert Shanklin. Shanklin was born in Evansville in 1841 to John Shanklin, who himself was born in 1796 in County Donegal in the northwest corner of Ireland and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. John Gilbert Shanklin’s father found success in Evansville initially as the owner of a dry goods business and eventually established the Shanklin family as one of the wealthiest and most connected families of the area well into the 20th century.
The University to Southern Indiana’s Robert D. Orr Center, named for the former Indiana governor and Evansville resident, is another example of Ireland’s impact in the River City. Orr was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1917 and was descended from an Irish immigrant. The Orr family has roots in Ulster — a province of Northern Ireland, which itself falls within the United Kingdom instead of the Republic of Ireland — and found economic success in the U.S. by establishing an iron foundry headquartered in Evansville. Stories like these are testaments to the success of Irish descendants in the Evansville community, and Shanklin Theatre and the Orr Center are proof of their impact today.
If you are interested in celebrating the Irish roots of Southern Indiana, visit the Corning Irish Heritage Center, an Irish heritage organization based in Daviess County, Indiana, at http://corningheritagecenter.com/.
Photo courtesy of USI Digital Archives.