Scalping, Big Braves & Butchery: An Irish Indian Fighter Writes Home to His Mother in Dublin

I recently came across the remarkable letters of Sergeant Thomas Mangan, which are here transcribed for the first time. The 22-year-old Dubliner was a recent emigrant from Ireland, who within a year of arriving in his new home found himself in the midst of the savage and brutal struggle for control of the Western Plains. Written from an isolated military post in Colorado Territory in 1866 and 1867, Thomas’s letters travelled over 4,000 miles before arriving in their ultimate destination– inner city Dublin. There they were read by his widowed mother, who learned about the gory realities of this savage fight to the death, including scalping and other forms of mutilation. The letters also discuss life on the frontier, as well as Thomas’s experiences with his family since emigration,– and his future plans for himself and his mother. (1)

Refugees from fighting with Native Americans in 1862 (Library of Congress)

Refugees from fighting with Native Americans in 1862 (Library of Congress)

Thomas Mangan and Sarah Connolly were married in Castlekevin, Co. Wicklow on 3rd February 1834. From there the couple moved to Dublin, where their son Thomas Jr. was born in 1845; he was baptised in the Church of St. Andrew in Westland Row on 8th December that year. Thomas Senior died in 1857, leaving Sarah raise their young son alone. Thomas Jr. started his working life in Dublin at the age of 13, helping his mother to run the household. By the mid 1860s mother and son were living at 14 Wood Street in the heart of the city. Thomas appears to have been working on nearby York Street at this time, earning 5 shillings a week, while Sarah was employed in a nearby business. Then in the spring of 1865 Thomas decided to try his luck in the United States. He made his way to Chicago, where his maternal uncle Edward (Ned) Connolly lived. However he soon grew disillusioned with the support he got from his family in America, and after only 8 months– on 2nd January 1866– he enlisted in the U.S. Army at the aged of 21. His papers describe him as 5 feet 8 inches in height, with fair complexion, gray eyes and brown hair who was by occupation a clerk. It would be months before he had an opportunity to write back to his mother in Ireland. When he did so, he was a soldier at Fort Sedgwick in Colorado Territory– an isolated post surrounded by large numbers of hostile Native Americans. (2)

Pilgrims of the Plains as imagined by Harper's Weekly in the early 1870s (Library of Congress)

Pilgrims of the Plains as imagined by Harper’s Weekly in the early 1870s (Library of Congress)

Fort Sedgwick Colorado Territory

Sunday 2nd December 1866

Dear Mother after a long absence I take up my pen to write to you I would have wrote to you months before this only I was away on detached duty and I never could get the chance to do it then. This is not an easy place for a man to write that is knocked around and to let you know the reason we were knocked around is the Indians played hell here all summer [?] and is expected to be worse they have killed over 100 men of our regiment alone besides men of other regts. and citizens they attack these trains passing over the plains here to California & Salt Lake and other places they attack those trains then take their stock and all, kills the men and scalps them. They likes to scalp well they carry those scalps they take on a cord or string round their body, thats an honour they think as much as a soldier thinks of medals on his breast and a great deal more. When they take a good lot of scalps any of them above others they make him a chief or warrior of them, a big brave they call him, so they like to scape well then. I received that newspaper you had sent me and the other thing all right. I sent fifty dollars to Larry to send to you about 2 months ago and I don’t know whether he sent it to you or not. He sent me a letter about 3 weeks ago, a blank sheet of paper in the envelope a powerful lot of news indeed, I told him to send me a couple of stamps to write to you and after a long absence he sent me one. Indeed I wrote t[w]o letters to him after I sent the money would be in the express office when he get[s] that letter and after 2 months absence he sends me a blank sheet of writing paper with one stamp, never letting me know one word about it one way or the other. I sent it back to him the same way. Dear Mother I must say he is very ungrateful. I even wrote to the man he is working for to know was he with him. The reason I followed it up so much is for you to get the money. All I say is I hope he has sent you the money or will against Christmas, it will be £6 or £7 pounds of English money.

Dear Mother I would like you to find out on the quay what is an American dollar worth there for I am sorry I didn’t put the 50 dollars in a latter and sent it to you for a man in our Compy. sent 100 dollars in a letter home to London, England and it went all wright and moreover I could send you money far oftener– they would change it on the quay for you I should think as well as London, now don’t forget to let me know in your next letter. Dear Mother I remember by your last letter that you wanted to know is there any people out here or is there any winter. Well I will tell you there is a little town 4 miles from the post with about 40 people that is all, they call it a town it has about 4 or 5 log buildings and for the winter, I need not tell. [illegible- For?] 3 or 4 hours one night last week it snowed it was more than [illegible] high the snow. The stage or mail coach drove into the river [illegible] road it was coming down so heavy the driver could not see [illegible- over the?] horses heads and three people was nearly killed, the 4 horses [illegible]. So you many guess the winter that is here by that.

Dear Mother if you have got the money I would like to send me the Dublin Nation newspaper every week to read by giving them my name and address. It would come to me, they would send it themselves from their office for to me for about 4s the price for six months. Dear Mother when I am paid I will send you some money also for some newspapers. A few dollars here is nothing to lay out and to send it home it would look something, it would give you as much reading for a year as you would wish besides having home news. When I get a letter from you I will send you some money for to give for papers. Its greenbacks I will send you when I hear from you about them in your letter by you seeing at the exchange office this side of the Custom House on Eden Quay.

Dear Mother I have in 11 months of my time to-day and against you get this I will have close on one year, so I intend to forward myself in reading, writing and so forth for the next 2 years. I am going on very well as you will see, the last letter I wrote to you I was only Corpl. but now I am a Sergeant so you must know that I am conducting myself well or a man won’t be raising in the army.

I must conclude with wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

No more at present from your affection son Thomas Mangan.

Direct for Sergt. Thomas Mangan Co. E 3rd Batt. 18th U.S. Inftry.

Fort Sedgwick Col. Ter.

Give my best respects to Mrs. Nolan, let me know how is her health, is her stock going on well. I hope both her and her business is for they could not go on better than I would wish, indeed I think I will see her yet in Ship Street and have a glass of cordial with her. Give my respects also to Mrs. Smyth & Eliza I hope they are going on well too as to Humphry I suppose he is in the country now if not he is any how in O’Briens with James and likewise to Mrs. Hart and husband and to all enquiring old friends let me know about James Routledge, James Daniel, Johnny Wichkam and all the boys. Tell Johnny Wickham to tell James Daniel I was asking for him I would like to hear from him, indeed enclosed is my directions for him to write to me. Tell Johnny Wickham to tell James Daniel to come to you for my directions if he gets them fro you let me know and if he is going to write and when to me.

I remember in your last letter of you saying that Mr. Sullivan was going to write to me I never heard from him any, tell him I was asking for him if he call’d and give him my respects. (3)

A Cheyenne Sundance captured in the early 20th Century (Library of Congress)

A Cheyenne Sundance captured in the early 20th Century (Library of Congress)

This remarkable letter combines descriptions of the savage fighting taking place during the Plains Indian Wars with thoughts of family, friends and business back in Dublin. It is difficult to imagine a sharper juxtaposition. Thomas does not spare his mother the gory details regarding what happened to those who fell at the hands of the Native Americans. It would not be long before he was proved right regarding the worsening situation. Less than three weeks after he had written to Dublin, the United States was rocked by the crushing defeat inflicted on their forces by a combined Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho force near Fort Phil Kearney. An entire detachment of 81 men was wiped out in what became known as the Fetterman Fight, the worst defeat government forces experienced until Custer’s Last Stand a decade later. Fully 25% of the men who died there were Irish-born (you can read about each of them here). Thomas’s next letter exhibits the absolute shock which that defeat had caused. In it he describes attempts to hunt down some of the Indians responsible, and he asks his mother to tell the tale of the horrors at home in Dublin. He also makes strong efforts to dissuade his mother from following him to America, encouraging her to stay at home instead and recounting his own poor experiences with their family already there. Instead Thomas hoped to himself return to Dublin one day, perhaps to set up a business. (4)

The area where the Fetterman Fight took place (Photo:Junkerjorg)

The area where the Fetterman Fight took place (Photo:Junkerjorg)

Fort Sedgwick Co. Ter.

Sunday Feb. 3rd 1867

Dear Mother I received your kind and welcome letter about 2 weeks ago. I would have wrote to you long before this only I was away on duty so I could not write till I got back. You told me you wish to come out to the States and you wish to know what I think of it and Laurance. I wrote to him twice about it and I got no answer from him, but my opinion is for you to stop at home for no matter how humble a home is home is sweet. Your sister may say a great lot of things in her letters to you, something like Ned and his family to me. When I was home I believed all they said then for I was foolish then. I have known it well since, I did not know the want of a home before I seen the way I was treated. I went off an enlisted, if you can out here and they treated you bad what would do. In the first place how can you tell what kind of a man her husband is, it is very well to think he is a nice man by seeing him on your own floor in your own home, remember the old saying, if you want to know what I am come live with me. After I being 8 months or about with Ned I was only 3 days idle thats when I came there from home without working. I came to Neds on Sunday and went to work a Wednesday dear Mother and after 8 months when I left I paid her every cent I owed. Mrs. Kirwan turned and told somebody I owed her for three days when I landed board, you do not think on any account of coming out here at least while I am in the army. Stay at home and do not fret about Mrs. Nolan giving up for you shall never want a cent while I can get it. I am going to send you all my pay and live well and if you have anything over its all right. Every time I am paid I shall send you my money home. I intend to save £70 while I am in the army this 3 years. I shall send it all to you so if you have any over you can keep it against I am out of my time, I may go home and put up in a little bussiness for soldiering here is far worse than in England. A man never goes to church, I never seen a clergyman this last year and two months, if a man is discharged here and cannot get work what would he do in this part of the country about military posts. The few citizens when they are idle they have to pay £2 10s a week for board and only gets two meals a day for that, 1s for the washing of a shirt. If a man goes to the States he may not get work either. A soldier here is put down as a loafer, you may thing a soldier bad at home but here he is taught less than a dog if I may say it.

Dear Mother I am thinking when my time is up if I had a little money saved I could do well some place at home where I would not be known. I have a Cockney chap a comrade from London he is saving all his money and sending it home to his mother against he is done with the army here. Me and him enlisted the one day. I think he is doing a very good thing indeed. I suppose you read in the papers at home or heard of the fearful massacre of some of our soldiers here at Fort Phil Kearney. There was 90 men and 4 officers killed by the Indians. The[y] fought them 7 hours 5000 Indians there was. Our First Lieutenant were killed amongst the officers. When they were dead the[y] cut their breasts open took out there hearts and put them in their mouths, pulled out their eyes, cut off their ears, fingers, toes and noses and then scalped them, burned some of the wounded after doing all that. In fact I could not describe it to you. Just now as I write the Compy. of cavalry is coming into the Fort after being 15 days in the snow after them. They went out about 3 weeks ago the same and they had a little skirmish with them. They killed about 40 Indians and our Cavly. lost 1 man whom the Indians shot with their arrow knocking him off his horse and left to froze on the ground frozed to death, found dead in the snow next morning. When he was knocked off his horse the horse ran away and left the poor fellow to die. There was two more wounded not badly. There was 27 frozed of them, 3 of them since has lost both feet. The boy was frozed was Irish only 16 years of age. We are all armed here to the teeth. Every Cavlry. man had a 7 shooter carbine and 6 shooter revolver. There was never a man escaped of the 94, I forgot to tell you to tell the tale, not one, all butchered. I got a letter from my aunt McGurk yesterday I wrote to her to-day against you get this letter I will have money on the water to you.

I must conclude, give my best respected to Mrs. Nolan and Mrs. Smith.

No more at present from your affectionate,

Son Thomas Mangan.

Direct Sergt. Thomas Mangan Compy. E 36th U.S. Inftry.

Fort Sedwick [sic.] Colorado Territory.

I wish to tell you we are the 36th now under the new organisation in the U.S. Army there is no more 2nd or 3rd Batts. every Batt. is a Regt. in itself now so leaves us the 36th Regt. (5)

An 1867 representation of the Fetterman Fight (Library of Congress)

An 1867 representation of the Fetterman Fight (Library of Congress)

Thomas’s reference to soldiering in England and finding a place in Ireland where he ‘would not be known’ raises the possibility that he might have served briefly in the British Army. A few weeks after writing this second letter, on 23rd May 1867, the young Dubliner was carrying his company’s mail from Pole Creek Station to his unit on the Spring Creek in Dakota Territory when he was set upon by a group of Cheyenne. His body was found three days later near Lodge Pole Creek by his comrades. Thomas ultimately met the same fate he had described in such detail in his letters home to Dublin. His death had knock on consequences that he would not have wanted, as his mother emigrated to Omaha, Nebraska in order to pursue her pension claim. It would seem she lived out her final days in the United States. Stories like those of Thomas Mangan are rarely told. His service in the ruthless suppression of the Native Americans raises interesting questions regarding remembrance, some of which were explored in this previous post. Whatever the circumstances which led him to his ultimate demise, one has to feel for the young Dubliner’s premature end. His last letters reveal his hopes and dreams for a future that never came to pass. (6)

A Cheyenne attack on railroad workers in 1867 (Harper's Weekly)

A Cheyenne attack on railroad workers in 1867 (Harper’s Weekly)

*Punctuation and grammatical formatting has been added to the original letter for ease of reading. None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Thomas Mangan Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) Ibid.; Thomas Mangan Final Statement; (3) Ibid.; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; 1880 Federal Census.


Thomas Mangan Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC144447.

Thomas Mangan Final Statement.

1880 U.S. Federal Census.


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Categories: Dublin, Wicklow

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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17 Comments on “Scalping, Big Braves & Butchery: An Irish Indian Fighter Writes Home to His Mother in Dublin”

  1. July 26, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this sad and poignant piece. A rare insight into a period not so long ago that is not discussed!

    • July 27, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

      Thanks Pauline I’m glad you enjoyed it- Irish involvement in what happened to the Native Americans is something I think we need to look at in more detail, something letters like this help us with.

      Kind Regards,


  2. July 26, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    Well done, Damian. Another insight into the Irish who joined the US Army – but in this case in a campaign that can leave a sour taste when one reads of what happened to the Native Americans. We conveniently forget that so many of the Irish emigrants joined the army as a way of getting by.

    • July 27, 2015 at 9:29 pm #

      Hi Tony,

      Many thanks. Absolutely. The savage oppression of the Native Americans involved large numbers of Irish people and that is something we should never forget. It is also of great interest to me how so many were recent immigrants, presumably becoming quickly indoctrinated into how to think about the Indians and buying into the idea of Manifest Destiny.

      Kind Regards,


  3. July 26, 2015 at 10:32 pm #

    I hate reading to the end of your posts, they rarely end well. Though it is fantastic that their lives are being remembered 150 years later.

    • July 27, 2015 at 9:31 pm #

      Hi Sharon,

      I know it is one of the terrible aspects of these type of pension files. It is the double-edged sword which is both why they are so rich in terms of information and so poignant at the same time.

  4. July 27, 2015 at 4:00 pm #

    Thanks Damian .. Like so many posts here – fascinating, informative, moving. Regards and thanks for all your invaluable work. Regards Thom.

    • July 27, 2015 at 9:31 pm #

      Hi Thom, Many thanks I am glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Peppermint Woman
    July 27, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

    Your post, and the young man’s letters, only tell half the story. My ancestors fought to protect and retain what little remained of their homelands and way of life once our rapacious, greedy and, to our minds and cultural standards, thoroughly debased colonizers arrived in our homelands. You want to talk of savagery and butchery —- where do you think the practice of taking scalps came from? Early colonizers on the east coast of our country were paid cash for every Native scalp they turned in, that’s where! The practice spread as our ancestral warriors responded in kind whenever they could. If this is the kind of material you use as a reliable research resource, your findings will be as skewed, limited and biased as the young soldier’s views of our Native peoples. What’s worse: those were the writings of a young man whose own homelands had been colonized and taken from him and his people, and who then came here to my homelands and did the same thing! And now here you are, republishing his words which paint my ancestors in a biased and horrible light, without an ounce of reflection or insight. Shame on you!

    • July 27, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

      Hi Peppermint Woman,

      Many thanks for your comment. I am sorry to hear you have taken such offense at the post, as none was intended. Indeed my reason for posting these letters is to demonstrate Irish involvement in what I regard as one of the most shameful episodes in which Irish people have participated, namely the suppression of the Native Americans. It is a topic on which I have worked and written on many times in the past. It is important to note that the words of this young man are not my own. I am very aware of the history behind scalping, and indeed of the long centuries of oppression that preceded this period. I speak of a ‘savage and brutal struggle’ in the post, which I think you will agree this war was. The savagery of what was perpetrated by U.S. troops on many instances throughout the conflict is beyond dispute. I am not sure if you read to the end of the post, but you will note that I refer to Thomas’s ‘service in the ruthless suppression of the Native Americans’ which I think is pretty unequivocal. I also note in the piece that I discussed this in more detail in a previous post, which is also linked in the text. Again, I am not sure if you had an opportunity to read that post (you can do so here: In that, I speak of the Irishmen who participated in the Washita Massacre and at Wounded Knee:

      ‘Today we look with horror at the way Native Americans were persecuted in the nineteenth century. Incidents such as the Wounded Knee massacre are rightly remembered as some of the darkest in American history’

      I go on to discuss how many Irishmen viewed themselves as racially superior to peoples such as the Mexicans and Native Americans, and for a need for us to have a discussion surrounding Irish participation, particularly as so many were economic migrants and what we regard as Famine victims. Ireland has traditionally viewed herself solely as a victim of things such as empire building, but it is my intent to raise awareness of Irish participation in such events, no matter how unsavory. Letters such as these demonstrate the complexities of history; Thomas Mangan was fighting on what we rightly view today as the ‘wrong side’ of this struggle, but was himself clearly no monster.

      Kind Regards,


  6. Peppermint Woman
    July 29, 2015 at 12:35 am #

    Damian, I did not say I was offended. I was angered. I did note what you wrote about the young soldier’s ‘service in the ruthless suppression of the Native American,’ but you still published his letters without benefit of meaningful reflection and without balancing his views with that of any Native peoples’ and you still titled your post, ‘Scalping, Big Braves, and Butchery,’ and that left no doubt in my mind who you were referring to when it came to savagery and butchery. And I never confused the young soldier’s words with your own, I just scolded you for publishing them in such an unbalanced way. I do not agree that the Fetterman War was a ‘savage and brutal struggle,’ rather I define it as the inevitable result of the actions of racist, greedy and violent colonizers. Further, in your response to me you comment on the savagery of what was perpetrated by the US troops, but neither the post itself or the young man’s letters indicate anything of the kind. No, I’ll stand by what I originally wrote: what I read was one-sided, biased and unfair to the ancestors who were only defending and protecting what little they had left. And if you call yourself a scientist, archeologist, researcher or historian, that’s pretty shoddy material to be using as a source, especially if you won’t take the trouble to balance it with a Native viewpoint. Anyway, best wishes to you, I hope something good was learned in this exchange.

    • July 29, 2015 at 8:24 am #

      Hi Peppermint Woman,

      Many thanks for the comment. I must first state that this is a blog, and one that concentrates in large part on previously unpublished primary source letters from pension files, it is not an academic journal. The point of many of the posts therefore is to provide access to this primary material in what is an ongoing project, interspersed with many discursive pieces surrounding meaning and content. And to reiterate, apart from the comments in the piece, there were references and links to other articles around this topic where I discuss these issues in more detail. The titles of many of the posts are drawn from elements of the letters, hence the reference to scalping and braves. I included butchery for the stated reason of the horrific nature of the struggle, not to imply butchery on the part of the Native Americans. Although you have no doubt in your mind as to what I meant when it came to savagery and butchery, you are unfortunately incorrect. In reference to the wars against the Native Americans, I stand by my view that they were a savage and brutal struggle. There is no reason why a conflict cannot be both the ‘result of the actions of racist, greedy and violent colonizers’ and also savage and brutal. In anycase, I appreciate you taking the time to comment on the piece, your views regarding it will be available to those who read it in the future.

      Kind Regards,


  7. July 29, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  8. July 30, 2015 at 9:08 pm #

    Interesting piece and even more interesting commentary. Such complex issues.

    • August 1, 2015 at 9:14 am #

      Hi Finola,

      Many thanks for your comment, I am glad you found both the piece and the comments of interest!

      Kind Regards,


  9. Paul Johnston
    August 24, 2015 at 9:43 pm #

    Hi Damian, & thank you for that very interesting look into what is & has been, a sad refelection on our Irish history, & in particular our part in the oppression, & Ultimitally the total destruction of the Native American peoples.  I will not attempt to offer any excuse for what took place over 150 years ago, but I will say many, many mistakes were made, & many thousands of lives were lost unnecessarily, all for what ! a piece of land.  Even today so much of that land is unhabited.    Back here in Ireland we are now enjoying a peace, (  I’m refeering to the Northern Counties ) which was long overdue but very welcome.  It took time & lives were lost, but hopefully we have learned to live side by side with our neighbours.  Is it not time to look back & say sorry or better still look forward & say sorry & put out the hand of friendship & not the metal fist.  Let’s learn to live with the mistakes of the past & learn to talk to our neighbours no matter what race, creed or colour.  The Irish who succeeded in getting to America only succeeded in getting away from oppression in what they called home ! only to find that survival in the ” New World ” was no walk in the park.     ” No Irish need Apply ” left the Irish with not too many options when it came to getting employment of any kind.   We Irish have much in common with the Native Americans as we endured over 800 years of oppression but we have survived & now live side by side with our neighbours.   Lest not forget we owe the Native Americans as they did send a fortune to Ireland to help when the famine was devasting our people.   We are all entitled to our point of view, as has everyone else. I will never forget hearing the response  the Native Americans made when asked what do they call this ( America )  land & the response was ” OURS “

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

      Hi Paul,

      Many thanks for the comment! It certainly is a complex and fascinating history and one we need to explore fully, both the good and the bad.

      Kind Regards,


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