The Great Migration

Map showing CornwallCornwall, in the extreme southwest tip of Great Britain , is a place that has played a vital role in the settlement and development of the Upper Mississippi Valley Lead Region, especially Grant, Iowa and LaFayette Counties in Wisconsin, Jo Daviess and Stephenson Counties in Illinois and Dubuque County in Iowa. The mining of tin and copper had been a major activity in Cornwall since prehistoric times. By the 1800s many of the economic woes that struck other countries in Europe also hit England, and particularly the Southwest, where living had always been hard.

Between the 1830s and the end of the 1800s, more than half of the population of Cornwall left to go to other places. There were villages where the only residents were women, children and the elderly. The young men and quite a few young families scattered the world over - Africa, Australia, South America, and of course, North America. Many ended up in the lead region of the Upper Mississippi Valley where there were mining opportunities. It is said that wherever in the world there is a hole in the ground, a Cornishman can be found at the bottom of it. A good number also went to where they could buy land for farming. If you were not from a landed family, hopes of owning land were nil. The fishing industry, long a main stay in the economy of Cornwall, also fell on hard times.

The reasons for leaving were many. The potato famine that hit Ireland affected all of Britain and much of mainland Europe. Added to that, the mines in Cornwall were coming on hard times. Ore from other countries became much cheaper and the world market collapsed. The mines in Cornwall were getting so deep that it was too expensive to bring the ore up. Mines were closing down and there was no work to be had. Incredible poverty and poor living conditions were endemic. There were no social programs and neither Church nor Crown seemed to care about the plight of the people.

Zinc Works in Mineral Point, around 1890As the first Cornish came into Southwest Wisconsin, word of both mining and farming opportunities got back to Cornwall. (The Land Office opened in Mineral Point in 1834). It was appealing to the immigrants that they could work for themselves and not have to pay the mine owner or landed gentry (or the Church) most of what they earned. One side effect of the influx of Cornish into the lead and copper mining areas of the United States was that for every boatload of Cornish miners that went to work over here, it made a negative impact on the mining economy in Cornwall.

By 1850, the number of Cornish in the Upper Mississippi Valley lead region totaled between 7,000 and 10,000, with 6,000 of them living in Grant, Iowa and LaFayette Counties in Wisconsin. By then large numbers had already left the area for the California gold fields. It is recorded that 700 people left Mineral Point. On one particular day, 60 wagons left, headed west. Many Cornish from this area also went to the copper mines of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the iron range of Minnesota.

High Street, Mineral Point, WisconsinAfter more than 170 years, the Cornish influence is still very evident in the old lead region. A stroll through Shullsburg, Platteville or Mineral Point with their stone buildings and winding streets will take you back generations. The phone books and cemeteries are filled with names still familiar in Cornwall. Those visiting Cornwall marvel that it seems like they never left home. Cornish visitors are astonished at how familiar it feels here. Traditional Cornish foods such as pasty, saffron and tea biscuits are regular fare at restaurants, bake shops and in many homes of Southwest Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. If your ear is tuned to it, you might even hear an old saying that comes down through a family, the people themselves maybe not being aware of the origin. The Pendarvis State Historic Site in Mineral Point gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the early miners and their families.

There are many Cornish Societies throughout the world that keep Cornish descendants in touch with each other and with their heritage. The Southwest Wisconsin Cornish Society serves those of the old lead region. The list of members shows addresses from all over the United States, some in Canada and Cornwall. A newsletter is published quarterly and several meetings are held for the membership through the year.

For information about the Southwest Wisconsin Cornish Society, e-mail

Jim Jewell, founder of the Southwest Wisconsin Cornish Society also started the annual Cornish Festivals that take place in Mineral Point the last weekend of September.

Kernow bys vykken!

(Cornwall forever!)


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