Michiana’s Uncle Sam: The namesake of Ireland Road

Let’s get this out of the way. The name of Ireland Road has nothing to do with the Emerald Isle. It has nothing to do with the Fighting Irish and even less to do with the University of Notre Dame. In fact, it’s a name that predates the founding of the University by more than a decade and one that probably even predates the first Irishmen to arrive in South Bend.

Samuel Irvin Houston Ireland probably came from Irish roots, but by the time he was born in Kentucky in 1807, he was American if he was anything. Generations of grandparents had lived in Massachusetts and North Carolina and had seen America through Revolution. There’s as much English in Ireland’s lineage as there is Irish, and there’s more Native American than either.

Aaron Helman

Sam Ireland came from pioneer stock, born to a family of homesteaders that moved from rural Kentucky and into the nowhere parts of western Ohio. That’s where Sam married his cousin Sarah in 1828 before he set off on the world’s least romantic honeymoon. Just a few weeks after the wedding, Sam left his new wife behind to spend a few months surveying western lands with his good friend Thomas P. Bulla.

Bulla and Ireland must have liked what they’d seen in St. Joseph County. They went home, retrieved their families, and came back to build a new life in the rough and untamed parts of St. Joseph County. By the ends of their stories, they’d both have roads named in their honor. Bulla settled on land that would eventually become Flanner Hall on Notre Dame’s Campus. As for the Irelands, they’d clear a farm along Willow Creek, northeast of what would become Mishawaka, just four years ahead of that city’s founding. Today, Sam and Sarah Ireland are remembered as Mishawaka’s very first residents.

Sam Ireland might have been a homesteader, but he was not a loner. He kept a wide social network and was politically active from the moment he broke ground on his land. He was an early participant in the Log Cabin campaign of 1840, a successful political effort that put the Hoosier William Henry Harrison into the White House, at least for a few months.

Samuel Ireland’s first political act was to stump on behalf of William Henry Harrison.

As St. Joseph County matured, Sam Ireland ran for office and became the county’s first assessor. His first job was to catalog every single property in the county and correspond with every single property owner. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for a brief moment in history, Sam Ireland knew every family in St. Joseph County, and every family knew Sam Ireland.

By all accounts, the locals loved him. From Walkerton to Osceola and Lakeville to German Township, Sam Ireland became known as St. Joseph County’s very own “Uncle Sam.” The moniker dotted his correspondences and was his most common address whenever he had cause to be mentioned in the newspaper:

Clipping from the South Bend Tribune; May 20, 1884. Sounds about right.

For as much as pioneer-style homesteading had defined Uncle Sam’s early life, it turns out he was more cosmopolitan than his rugged roots would indicate. By 1851, he’d taken a job in sales with the St. Joseph Iron Works and built a downtown home for his family at 114 North West Street, his backyard abutted by the original Mishawaka High School. Sam and Sarah Ireland had five children – all girls – and raised three of them into adulthood.

Ireland maintained his civic commitment, serving several terms as a township assessor and working as the first sexton at the Mishawaka City Cemetery. The newspapers regularly followed the tragedy, the sorrow, and the mundane of Uncle Sam’s illustrious life. They noted that he owned “one of the oldest clocks in the county.” They mourned when he lost a daughter in 1872. They celebrated the Irelands’ 50th wedding anniversary, and they waited on pins and needles when Sam Ireland teetered on the edge of death in 1885. But no worries, he recovered from that scare and lived another six years, long enough for The Tribune to advocate that such a man as Uncle Sam Ireland should be “superannuated” from ever having to pay taxes again.

For as long as he had original pioneer friends, Sam Ireland kept close ties with them. When the county hosted larger and grander Fourth of July parties each year, Uncle Sam was more apt to retreat to spend time at the Old Settlers’ Meeting. They’d remember the place they’d arrived at, marvel at all of the ways it had changed, and sit contentedly knowing that they’d played a part in all of it.

When the old pioneer died in 1891 at the age of 83, the South Bend Tribune remembered that there was not “a man as conscientious, or honorable, or honest as Uncle Sam Ireland.”

In 1933, when the county set to rename its roads, Samuel Ireland’s name was an obvious choice. Ireland Road replaced Ice Road on the alphabetical grid and Ireland Trail replaced Ice Trail just the same. The only tragedy is that none of Samuel Ireland’s descendants would live to see the honor. Only one of his daughters married, and none of them had children. Sam Ireland’s line expired when his daughter Clarissa died in the family’s Mishawaka home in 1924, but he did leave behind a long and proud legacy of nieces and nephews.

After all, they didn’t call him Uncle Sam for nothing.

Aaron Helman is an author, historian, and adventurer from South Bend. He was a big Shawon Dunston fan in the early ’90s. His newest book, On the Southernmost Bend, is available for preorder right now.