The Irish and the Edenic Myth of the American West – Corbin LeBaron

As a political necessity, the American West has, from the beginning of the nation’s history, been mythologized and idealized to lure the troublesome laborers from the East to the West. Along with this flood of emigrants seeking a new life were thousands of transient Irish Americans, escaping their oppressed pasts in their respective “Irelands”, Chicago, New York, and other localities to the West where, supposedly, new opportunities waited.[1] One such myth of the American West is what has come to be known as the “Edenic myth,” the idea that the American West was not only pure and untouched before westward expansion, but also that it served as a Jeffersonian utopia where the yeoman farmer could live a simple, rural lifestyle in the true individualist fashion.[2] This paper will first explain how it was that the Irish, more than any other minority group in the American West – save, of course, the Native American – found the Edenic myth to be false and how their interaction with their employers would start the myth’s unraveling well over one hundred years prior to any such move in the historiography of the American West.

Although a handful would find the idea of the American West standing as a paradise on Earth, the reestablished Garden of Eden, as it were, to be a reality, most would find semi-arid or arid landscapes unable to produce most crops without substantial irrigation.[3] Those unable to turn their homesteads into productive farms sold out and moved on to one of the many “anti-Wests” identified by David Emmons in his book Beyond the American Pale. These anti-Wests constituted most of the localities where one might have found large populations of Irish Americans, namely towns like Butte, Montana or Coeur d’Alene, Idaho where large mining corporations extracted hard-rock minerals using grossly underpaid labor, typically foreign immigrants seeking out the American utopia newspapers and other boosters had sold them.[4] Among these vulnerable, foreign immigrants were a vast array of Irish Americans fleeing English oppression, tenant poverty, or famine and disease. Emmons argues that the Irish immigrants arriving in the United States between 1845 and 1910 fared one of three ways. The first came from relative wealth in Ireland and had the capital to establish themselves effectively in one of the many cities on the east coast. The second did not fare as well as the first but, nonetheless, found a living in the East. The third came from poverty in Ireland and arrived in poverty in the United States, prompting the embarrassment of their wealthy countrymen in the East and were forced to move West, not onto their own homesteads, but rather into the mining camps of the “corporate West.”[5] It was these Irish Americans – those who moved West and found no Eden waiting for them – that began to speak and act out in the name of fair and equal labor, thereby bringing the Edenic myth into question long before we, as historians, founded an argument against it well over a century later.

Foreign immigration was the main source of transient labor utilized by the corporate West and, particularly, the mining industry of the American West. Foreign-born immigrants made up 38.5 percent of the population of the West in 1860, of which 33,147 were Irish, the second largest nationality behind that of the Chinese.[6] Due to their large populations among the miners of the American West, the Irish American controlled virtually all forms of labor relations and social organization, many of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the Butte Mine Workers’ Union, and other such organizations being of Irish descent. The IWW and WFM in particular were highly-militant organizations focused on securing fair treatment – if not complete and total enfranchisement and communal ownership of industry – for workers and brought increasing attention to the shortfalls of the American West as a paradise where “each man himself is a sovereign by indefeasible right, and has no idea that another is his better in any one respect,” eventually – albeit much, much later as we still combat the ideas today – bringing into question the environmental falsehood that the American West can be considered anything other than a semi-arid geographic region, rich in minerals and controlled by corporate America via large-scale agribusiness, mining, logging, and oil extraction.[7]

For the part they played, the Irish American immigrant – participants in the Irish diaspora – laid the cornerstone for current environmental historiography and championed the political, regulatory stances that have increasingly checked extractive industries in the American West. As such, the improved (although still not perfect) environmental impacts of commercial enterprises in the West can be, to some extent, credited to the Irish American and their participation in labor activism, despite – if not due to – their underprivileged status as a religious minority in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

-Corbin LeBaron



Dant, Sara. Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2017.

Emmons, David M. Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

———. The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875-1925. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Nugent, Walter. Into the West: The Story of its People. New York: Random House, 1999.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

[1] Sara Dant, “Losing ‘Eden,’” in Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 7-23; David M. Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 25-27.

[2] Emmons, Beyond the American Pale, 34-35.

[3] Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 38-39.

[4] Emmons, Beyond the American Pale, 36; Reisner, Cadillac Desert, 39-45.

[5] Emmons, Beyond the American Pale, 25.

[6] Walter Nugent, Into the West: The Story of its People (New York: Random House, 1999), 58.

[7] Emmons, Beyond the American Pale, 39 & 42.