The Forgotten Celts

The Cornish Flag. Courtesy: bbc.com
The Cornish Flag. Courtesy: bbc.com

So, pasties. A Butte staple. Delicious pie-pastry pockets stuffed with potatoes and meat. Sometimes topped with brown gravy. If you haven’t had one before, you should get one. Right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Pasties are sort of the Northern European version of a calzone and in Butte they are strongly associated with mining, and thus the Irish. You can even find recipes for “Butte Irish Pasties.” But, the rest of the world associates pasties with the Cornish, a Celtic people from the southwestern-most tip of England. A week ago, the UK officially recognized the Cornish people as a national minority, granting them the same status as other Celtic groups like the Scots, Irish and Welsh. I decided that it’s time to give the Cornish a little bit of recognition.

Cornwall, from whence come the Cornish. The southern tip of Cornwall is called "The Lizard," which is not relevant to this blog, but pretty interesting. Courtesy: wikipedia.com
Cornwall, from whence come the Cornish. The southern tip of Cornwall is called “The Lizard,” which is not relevant to this blog, but pretty interesting. Courtesy: wikipedia.com

The Cornish in SouthWest Montana have never gained quite the same status as the other British Celts, they often get lumped together with “the English.” Nonetheless, the Cornish were integral to Montana history. Since ancient times, Cornwall has been famous for its tin and copper mines. By the 19th Century, Cornishmen had gained so much fame that one historian called them “the world’s best miners.” In America, the Cornish were affectionately called “Cousin Jacks,” perhaps because of their tendency to write back to relatives in Cornwall whenever a mine needed workers. Their hard rock mining expertise proved invaluable in Butte. In 1879, C.F. Kellogg wrote that the city’s population “[was] nearly 50-50 Irish and Cousin Jacks.” Beyond Celtic roots and a propensity for mining, the Irish and Cornish had very little in common. Butte’s Irish almost universally identified as Catholics and Democrats, while the Cornish were staunch Republican Methodists. Brawls frequently broke out between the Cornish and the Irish, and some mines used this to their advantage. The Steward for example pitted Cornish and Irish shifts against each other; prominent tally sheets challenged each nationality to outdo the other. This rivalry even manifested itself in the legendary Daly-Clark feud. Clark hired so many Cornishmen that one of his mines earned the nickname “Saffron Bun” after a Cornish delicacy. Daly, on the other hand, “made Butte an Irish town,” with his equally blatant preference for hiring Irishmen.

Eventually however, the Irish emerged as Butte’s most prominent Celtic nation. So prominent that in 1889, according to historian Dave Emmons, “St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish numbered 7,000 members; Mountain View Methodists had the city’s second highest membership with 145.”

pasties_3
A cross-cut of a pasty. Courtesy: wikipedia.com

And the pasty? Well I’m not sure. The Cornish have laid their claim to the food around the world, going so far as to trademark the term in the E.U. I found various sources that credited the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Irish with the pie’s introduction to Butte. I found one website that claimed the pasty as Irish, and then backed up the claim with a quote from the Butte Heritage Cookbook: “the pastry-wrapped meal was an ideal way for the “Cousin Jeannie” to provide a hearty meal for the “Cousin Jack”” (that’s just lazy research, and I’m not going to dignify it with a link). All I know for sure is that the pasty has Celtic roots (Wikipedia tells me that there is a Scottish equivalent called a ‘bridie’) and Butte has made the food its own. Whatever the origins may be, the pasty is from Butte now.

Sources:

Emmons, Dave. “The Orange and Green in Montana: a Reconsideration of the Clark-Daly Feud.” Montana Legacy: Essays on People, History and Place, edited by Harry Fritz, Marry Murphy, Robert R. Swartrout, Jr., 79-102. Montana Historical Society, 2002.

Hand, Wayland D. “The Folklore, Customs, and Traditions of the Butte Miner (Concluded).” California Folklore Quarterly 5, 2 (Apr., 1946): 153-178.

Lottich, Kenneth V. “My Trip to Montana Territory, 1879.” The Magazine of Western History 15, 1 (Winter, 1965): 12-25.

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