Trash dump fascinates researchers
Research brings together McHugh descendants
By Scott Bellile
It turns out that one family’s trash was a research team’s treasure for the archaeologists who excavated the former McHugh farmstead in rural New London.
The Irish-American McHugh family probably thought nothing of the bottles, buttons and animal bones they tossed into a hole over a century ago.
But today, their scraps are helping University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee scientists piece together what 19th century life was like for settlers in Waupaca and Outagamie counties.
John Richards, senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Anthropology Department, and his student researchers attended a modern-day McHugh family reunion at the River Rail Bar & Grill in Shiocton Sunday, Oct. 15. They shared what they learned through several years of researching the McHugh ancestors’ junk.
The dozens of individuals who packed the River Rail banquet room Sunday believe they are related to the late Michael and Mary (McCoy) McHugh.
The McHugh couple came to Wisconsin in 1850 and built a homestead south of New London in the Waupaca County town of Caledonia, just across the street from the town of Dale in Outagamie County. Their home was located at the southwest corner of the intersection that today is State Highway 96 and U.S. Highway 45.
The DOT is scheduled to begin constructing a roundabout at this intersection in 2018. The McHugh site would be impacted because it is within the DOT’s right-of-way.
Millie McHugh of Shiocton, who believes Michael McHugh’s father and her great-great-grandfather were cousins, organized the reunion. She said she met Richards several years ago when she dropped in to the archaeological dig at the site, and she desired to let her relatives hear the story from the man himself.
About the McHughs
When he was 10 years old in 1825, Michael McHugh emigrated from County Donogal, Ireland, to the United States with his parents, James and Mary (Shoveland) McHugh, and several siblings. They settled in Ohio.
Richards learned the family was a nontraditional group of Irish immigrants for many reasons.
• They came to the U.S. decades before the Great Famine of 1845-’52, not during.
• Forty-year-old Mary McHugh and 52-year-old James McHugh were older and married compared to the typical under-35 Irish singles who immigrated to the U.S.
Michael McHugh married the presumably Irish-born Mary McCoy in 1838. James McHugh came to Wisconsin in 1847. Michael McHugh followed circa 1850 with his wife and children.
The McHughs were likely in search of land, which was much cheaper in the largely unsettled Wisconsin than in Ohio. Michael McHugh purchased the acreage for his Caledonia farmstead in 1850.
According to historical documents, Michael and Mary McHugh and seven children lived at the farmstead in 1850. Three more children were born the following years.
Michael McHugh died of unknown causes at around age 41 in 1856.
Mary McHugh never remarried and managed the farmstead until the late 1890s. She died circa 1900 but the estate stayed in the hands of children and eventually grandchildren.
In recent years the property was subdivided and zoned for modern housing developments.
Based on aerial photos, the site has been vacant of any home structures since as late as 1938.
Research turns up discoveries
The research all started in 2009 when archaeologists with the Wisconsin Historical Society surveyed the vacant site because the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was planning to make improvements to the Highways 45/96 intersection.
Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the historical society had a right to excavate beforehand and see if anything of historic value there could be impacted.
The historical society uncovered artifacts. So Richards and his team from UWM were brought in to the same site to take over in 2011. They determined the site could potentially be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
They recovered artifacts from the soil including medicine, beer and liquor bottles; dishes; utensils; toys; tools; coins dating 1875-1891; Civil War era military service buttons; Irish and Dutch smoking pipes and remnants from Catholic rosaries.
Why all the trash?
One question is why the McHughs left so much stuff underground.
The long answer is researchers, by discovering a cabin-sized stain on the soil, concluded the McHughs originally lived in a 355-square foot structure called a dugout. There were plenty of building fragments left over underground to prove it.
“These are basically very deep basins that are dug into the underground or into the side of a hill,” Richards said of dugouts. “Why they would have built a dugout on land that certainly was very heavily forested was unclear because these structures were more common west of the Mississippi River where timber was scarce.”
The McHughs may have lived in the dugout for over 15 years, Richards said, which is “a long time to live in a hole in the ground, particularly with a large family.”
After those 15 or so years of living in the dugout, Mary McHugh, then the head of the household, upgraded to a more traditional, non-dugout house built elsewhere on the site.
The dugout’s “hole in the ground” then became the family trash dump and that is where all the artifacts were found.
Some of the discoveries the UWM team displayed at the River Rail included a W. Hamm New London beer bottle, a musical jaw harp, a Catholic rosary and porcelain doll body parts.
“Basically the basin fill created an artifact inventory of over 30,000 items, and it’s almost a complete record of the material remains of 19th century life in rural Wisconsin,” Richards said.
What can be learned
Alex Anthony, UWM graduate student, said the reason the artifacts matter to people beyond the McHugh descendants is because the McHughs’ trash is representative of what everyone else in the neighborhood was using. The local dwellers all shared similar experiences including pioneer living, the Civil War and the financial troubles of the time.
The items found largely date from the 1870s and later. Jennifer Picard, another UWM student involved in the project, said this was when mass manufacturing and catalog-ordering began, meaning households were acquiring more disposable goods and retaining less than before.
By the 1870s, Mary McHugh’s second-generation immigrant children as well as their children were main contributors to the dump. These later generations grew up as Americans, Richards said, so their garbage represented rural Wisconsin culture.
“Now one of the interesting things here is to date we haven’t been able to connect the McHugh site’s inhabitants to anything that might say they were Irish,” Richards said. “So in other words, if we didn’t know that that was a homestead of an Irish family, we’d have no way of knowing that they were Irish, German, Polish, Scandinavian, whatever.”
This is different than the early Irish immigrants who lived in big cities and deep in the heart of discrimination, Richards said.
“There’s also some studies that suggest unlike the situation in urban areas like Chicago, Milwaukee and New York, where the Irish tended to form very strong enclaves and celebrate their Irish identity as a way to defend themselves from other ethnic groups, that that didn’t seem to be necessary in rural areas in many cases,” Ricahrds said. “Irish didn’t always form settlements and stick together the same way. They didn’t really need to.”
Richards added that by the time the McHughs moved to Wisconsin, they were already in the U.S. for a quarter-century. This could have been enough time to get acclimated to American culture.
“The whole McHugh story is less an Irish epic than an American one,” Richards said. “And I don’t mean to say that the Irish-born McHughs didn’t consider themselves Irish. Certainly they probably did. I don’t think they would have completely shunned the traditional music and folktales and customs in their home. … But they don’t seem to have needed or cherished their Irish heritage here in the Caledonia township by the mid-19th century in any way we see in their archaeological record. It turns out that this is not unusual and this is more the case than an exception for 19th century era farmsteads.”
Oshkosh resident Michael Cooney, whose great-grandmother was Hannah McHugh, relation to Michael and Mary McHugh unknown, took interest in the speculation that the McHughs probably did not band together with other Irish.
Cooney later stood up and commented as a McHugh how proud he is of his Irish heritage.
“We may not have [had] the enclave but we certainly have the pride,” Cooney said.
Richards told the crowd he continues to share his findings. He presented in Dublin, Ireland over the summer, will talk this week at the Midwest Archaeological Conference in Indianapolis, and may write a book.
“The fact that you guys are all here today certainly testifies to the great success of James and Mary Sheldon’s and Michael and Mary McCoy’s journey from Ireland to Ohio and on to Wisconsin,” Richards said. “And I’ll just leave you with this parting thought: Ya’ll could have been Buckeyes. It was that close.”