The Irish in Arizona
State historian Marshall Trimble on the indelible mark the Irish made on the history of the West.
There’s an old saying, “He had the luck of the Irish,” referring to a person who struck it rich in the mining camps of the West. For a few Irish immigrants that was true. Others made it through pure hard work and honest determination. Take Nellie Cashman for example. She was a real-life dime novel heroine. A native of County Cork, Ireland, Nellie migrated to America with her sister Fannie and headed west to seek their fortunes.
Fannie married and had a large family, but Nellie, despite her beauty and many suitors, chose to remain single and live an adventurous life. She prospected for gold and ran boarding houses and restaurants all over the West, but found most of her fame and fortune in the silver-rich town of Tombstone. During her life she made and lost several fortunes, but gave most of her winnings away to charitable causes. During the heyday of the boom town of Tombstone she became one of its leading citizens. Despite her business success she’s best-known as the “Angel of the Mining Camps” for her kindness and generosity.
Nathan Oakes Murphy settled in Prescott in 1883, where he went into business with his brother Frank building railroads. Oakes, as he was known, was twice appointed territorial governor and was territorial delegate to Congress.
His brother Frank was one of the territory’s greatest entrepreneurs, opening mines and building railroads such as the storied “Impossible Bradshaw Mountain Railroad” from Prescott up to Crown King, and in 1895 the rail line from Phoenix to Ash Fork that linked the capital city to the Santa Fe Railroad on the mainline. He also owned the famous Castle Hot Springs resort at the southern end of the Bradshaw Mountains, which attracted some of America’s rich and famous. Murphy was a man of great integrity who was able to bring in Eastern capital to help develop the territory. During his time he was one of the most influential men in Arizona.
William “Buckey” O’Neill, a native of Ireland, arrived in Phoenix in 1879 and worked as a reporter and faro dealer. He was the first editor of the Phoenix Gazette, before heading to Tombstone where he was a reporter for the famed Epitaph during the days of “helldorado.” He later moved to Prescott where he was elected sheriff of Yavapai County. He gained national fame following the daring capture of a gang of train robbers. He was elected mayor of Prescott, and during the Spanish-American War in 1898 became a captain in the storied Rough Riders and a favorite of the outfit’s commander, future president Theodore Roosevelt. Captain O’Neill was killed just prior to the famed charge up San Juan Hill. In 1907, an equestrian statue known as the “Buckey O’Neill Statue” was dedicated on the grounds of the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott.
Joseph Rutherford Walker was one of the many Scots-Irish adventurers who found fame exploring the American West. In 1863, near the end of his long career, he led a party of prospectors up the Hassayampa River and found gold where the city of Prescott is today.
In August of 1775, soldiers from the Spanish colonial army arrived at a Pima Indian village called Chuk-Shon, which meant dark at the base of a mountain. The newcomers built a presidio (fort) to protect the Pima and Spanish settlers along the Santa Cruz River and named it San Agustin de Tucson. Their commander was not a Spaniard but a red-headed Irishman named Hugo O’Conor. What, you may ask, was an Irishman doing in the Spanish army? During their “troubles” with the English, many young Irishmen found it necessary to immigrate to Spain. O’Conor did so at age 18, rising eventually to the rank of brigadier general before his death four years after the founding of Tucson.
Then there were the seven Sisters of St. Joseph, those intrepid women who left St. Louis and headed for Tucson by way of San Francisco in 1870 to establish an academy for girls next to San Agustin Church. They battled seasickness on the steamer during the journey down from the City by the Bay to San Diego, followed by an uncomfortable carriage ride to Yuma. On the lonely road to Tucson they were terrified by howls of “wolves” (actually they were coyotes) and moments of uneasiness during the frequent marriage proposals they endured from lonely men along the way. They endured, as does the St. Joseph’s Academy they established.
My favorite “Luck of the Irish” story comes not from Arizona but from Virginia City, Nevada. John Mackay and Jack O’Brian, two Irish immigrants, were strolling into the boom town of Virginia City when Mackay said to O’Brian, “Jack, how much money have ya got?”
O’Brian turned his pockets inside out, “Not a penny,” he said, “How much ya got in yours?”
Mackay pulled out a fifty cent piece, examined it, then threw it out into the chaparral. “Now,” Mackay said with a wide grin, “we can walk into town like Irish gentlemen.”
The two worked in the mines and invested their earnings. In 1873, they invested in a mining property with two other Irishmen, James Fair and James Flood. For ten months they dug into the mountain, finally hitting a thin vein of silver, which soon pinched out. They searched and found it again, and soon the vein widened to 20 feet, then 50. Soon it expanded into a vein 20 feet high, 50 feet wide and 120 feet long of almost pure gold and silver. Incidentally, a foot-wide vein was considered rich. In some places, their vein was three hundred feet wide.
The four Irishmen, Mackay, Fair, Flood, and O’Brian became known as the “Bonanza Kings” in the annals of mining in the Old West.
Mackay was famous for his honesty, fair dealings with his employees, and generosity, especially to the charities. The Mackay School of Mines at the University of Nevada in Reno is one of his legacies.
These are but a few of the Irish who left an indelible mark on the history of Arizona and the West. The real “Luck of the Irish” was to be born Irish, for theirs is the proud story of a people who were maligned, ridiculed, and made the victims of ethnic cleansing. By sheer determination, hard work and perseverance, they were able to overcome.
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