Exploring St. Patrick’s Day, 1866 in the “Wild West” – 150 Years Ago

Every year on the site we explore an aspect of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the 19th century United States. Previous posts have examined topics such as the great festival organised by the Irish Brigade in 1863 (see here) and the participants and pageantry surrounding the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1864 (see here). This year we go West, to see how the Irish were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on the frontiers of the ever-expanding United States. Taking a brief tour through cities and outposts from Kansas to New Mexico, we see what individuals like Thomas Francis Meagher and the legendary Kit Carson were doing 150 years ago today. The post also takes the opportunity to explore the 1866 San Francisco parade in detail, including a new map of the original route, plotted on Google Maps. 

Commercialism was not an invention of the 20th Century. There was money to be made from Fenian supporters. This ad for Fenian's Pride chewing tobacco appeared in the New York Irish-American newspaper on St. Patrick's Day 1866 (New York Irish American)

Commercialism was not an invention of the 20th Century– there was money to be made from Fenian supporters. This ad for Fenian’s Pride chewing tobacco appeared in the New York Irish-American newspaper on St. Patrick’s Day 1866 (New York Irish American)

A large number of the St. Patrick’s Day parades that took place in 1866 were dripping with political overtones. The Fenian Brotherhood were often to the fore in parade organisation, and everyone knew that they would soon be involved in an armed violent confrontation with Britain. Throughout the United States, Canada, Ireland and Britain, people waited to see how events would unfold. Contemporary newspapers waited with bated breadth to see if St. Patrick’s Day 1866 was the date the Fenians would choose to strike at Canada or to instigate a rising in Ireland. The thoughts of the Wyandotte Commercial Gazette of Kansas City were representative:

…many suppose [St. Patrick’s Day] will be marked by some extensive rising in Ireland or Canada, or both places. We see our Fenians here are stirring, and that a call has been issued for them to meet to-day, armed and equipped for military duty, to march to Kansas City. (1)

Many expressed relief when 17th March came and went without major incident– ultimately it would be that summer when the long awaited Fenian military movements commenced. Through the major towns and cities in the State of Kansas, the Fenians were out in force. In Atchison, local Fenians marched in procession from their hall to the Catholic Church, accompanied by a band. After celebrating mass, they proceeded to the grounds outside the city to conduct outdoor exercises, no doubt with a view to potential future operations. (2)

Advertisement for the St. Patrick's Day Fenian Ball in Nevada City, 1866 (The Montana Post)

Advertisement for the St. Patrick’s Day Fenian Ball in Nevada City, 1866 (The Montana Post)

Further west in Montana Territory, it was no surprise that the Irish community focused much of their celebrations around Thomas Francis Meagher, who was then the Acting Governor. In the People’s Theatre on Jackson Street, Virginia City, the former General was presented with a medallion badge by the Nevada Fenians. True to form, the day didn’t pass without a speech from the great orator, who delivered an address on the topic of “The Land of our Birth and the Land we Live in.” According to one reporter, the speech “abounded in those beautiful flights of descriptive imagery for which he [Meagher] is remarkable.” A poem followed, “elucidating the fervent patriotism of the Irish peasantry”, and the first portion of the celebrations drew to a close with a group of amateur male and female vocalists singing a tune to the air of St. Patrick’s Day, accompanied by a melodeon. That evening the Theatre was packed for a performance of the play The Colleen Bawn. First performed in 1860 (and remaining popular today), it was put on by special request. (3)

Virginia City was the not the only place in Montana Territory to witness major celebrations. In Nevada City, the St. Patrick’s Day festivities were organised by the Robert Emmet Circle of the Fenian Brotherhood. Things literally commenced with a bang, with “a salute fired by vulcanian artillery” announcing the opening of proceedings. A supper at the “California” was held, followed by a Grand Ball at the Adelphi Hall that was “numerously and most respectably attended” and was “marked by the highest social enjoyment.” (4)

Advertisement for the Fenian Ball in Union Hall, San Francisco, St. Patrick's Say 1866, replete with dancing couple (San Francisco Chronicle)

Advertisement for the Fenian Ball in Union Hall, San Francisco, St. Patrick’s Say 1866, replete with dancing couple (San Francisco Chronicle)

In California, celebrations ranged from the reading of special St. Patrick’s Day poems to marches and dances. Not all of the former were well received. In a review of one such celebratory verse given by Joe Goodman at Virginia, the journalist noted that it was a fair effort at Sage Brush poetry, and was “a devilish deal smoother in its jingle than Bro. Ridge’s performance at Grass Valley on the same occasion.” The Fenians, as everywhere, were to the fore in organising local events. They heavily promoted their Grand Ball to be held at Union Hall in San Francisco, which was open to any member of the Brotherhood. Their advertisements, which ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in the days leading up to the event, even came replete with little dancing figurines. (5)

When the day arrived, San Francisco put on quite a show. A procession began at Union Square at 10am, led off by the Jackson Dragoons under the command of Captain O’Brien. In an indication of just how prevalent Irish organisations were in the city, the dragoons were followed by a veritable host of groups and societies. They included the Fenian Brotherhood, the Hibernian Society, the Irish-American Benevolent Society, the Laborers’ Protective Association, the Sons of the Emerald Isle and St. Joseph’s Benevolent Society, to name a few. The “Irish Regiment” under Colonel Smith was also in attendance. The basic form of the parade is redolent of what one would expect to find in New York. Each society was accompanied by a band, and the marchers were donned in bright regalia with banners waving. Along the route of the march the sidewalks were lined with spectators, with flags flying from all the public buildings and many of the households. The march concluded at Union Hall, where an oration was given, followed by High Mass at the Cathedral at 11am. A panegyric on the life of St. Patrick was delivered at St. Bridget’s Church at Van Ness Avenue at 7pm, accompanied by a collection for the liquidation of the church debt. It was only then that everyone split up to attend the different balls, such as that of the Fenian brotherhood in Union Hall and the seventh anniversary ball of the McMahon Grenadier Guard at Platt’s Hall. (6)

San Francisco’s festivities did not end well for everyone. On 19th March the San Francisco Bulletin reported on the leniency of Judge Rix in ordering the release of those who were being detained in the Station-house for being drunk the previous Saturday. They surmised that “probably his Honor was influenced by compassion for those who deemed it almost a duty to get drunk in celebrating the anniversary of Ireland’s patron saint.” (7)

The Irish were to be found everywhere throughout the West. Among the Mormons of Salt Lake City in Utah Territory, they presented an “imposing spectacle” on their patron saint’s feast day. The Camp Douglas Brass Band kept everyone entertained with their repertoire of tunes as they marched through a number of the city’s principal streets, with St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning being a particular favourite. As with elsewhere, an oration followed the proceedings. Although the local Salt Lake City reporter didn’t hear what was said, he nonetheless made the somewhat charitable decision to “take the responsibility of saying it was eloquent and to the point.” Luckily there were only two fights that evening, as “a few Fenians were slightly elevated, it being St. Patrick’s Day.” (8)

Perhaps the best description of St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the West comes from one of the remotest locations of all. A correspondent with the New York Irish-American, known only as “A Boherbuoy Boy”– suggesting he was from Limerick City– told of the occasion at Fort Union, the military headquarters and depot in New Mexico. Fort Union had been established near the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail, and was the region’s most important military post for a number of decades in the 19th century. The isolation of the post did not stop the Irish soldiers among the garrison from enjoying the 17th March:

FORT UNION, NEW MEXICO

March 25th 1866

To the Editors of the Irish-American:

Gentlemen– As your paper reaches us here, and as we know it is read all over the continent, we wish we to let every body know how St. Patrick’s Day went off in Fort Union, New Mexico, away over the plains in the dreary waste of wilderness. There were over three hundred persons on the occasion to witness and participate in out ball– the only St. Patrick’s ball ever given in Fort Union, or, I amy say, in this Terrotiory where, indeed, it has astonished the natives. Our ball-room (75 feet by 25,) was most tastefully decorated with American flags and a beautiful assortment of paintings, and our own Irish flag, painted in magnificent style for the occasion by R.H. Davis, artist. There was also a transparency tastefully decorated, with the Sunburst, the Harp without the crown, and the following lines:-

“Cheer up, my dear country, the time is approaching

When the Star Spangled Banner, right of the Green,

Will wave in proud triumph, our country restoring:

On the old hill at Tara we’ll have then no queen.”

All the officers of the garrison and all the most influential settlers of the country for miles round were present by invitation, together with over one hundred and fifty ladies (not one of them Irish, there being none such as yet in these parts), sat down to as well supplied a table as any the States could furnish, and plenty of the best wines and liquors. We are very much indebted to our gentlemanly Quartermaster. Capt. H.J. Farnsworth, for giving us all the facilities in his power for getting up our ball, which we could not do if it were not for him. The dancing was kept up to a late hour on Sunday morning. Our Mexican band, though good in their own style, to our great chagrin could not give us even “Patrick’s Day” or “Garryowen.” Nevertheless, all went off in the best style, not an Irishman being even genteely tipsy. A BOHERBUOY BOY.

P.S.– There are eighty-two Irishmen here well drilled, ready and willing and able to join the Fenian ranks. We were about establishing a circle just at the time Mr. O’Mahony kicked up his shines, which caused us to halt. We are now waiting to hear from the Pittsburgh Convention before we ask for permission to organize a circle. (9)

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico as it appears today (National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico as it appears today (National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)

Although the identity of “A Boherbuoy Boy” has not been established, he was certainly an officer in one of the units based at Fort Union in 1866. They included detachments from the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, 5th U.S. Infantry, 3rd U.S. Artillery, 57th Colored Infantry, 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry, 1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry and the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry. Though the aggregate garrison of the Fort in March 1866 was 368 men (and 73 horses), 115 were absent, 24 were sick and 3 were under arrest, meaning that only 226 men were available for duty. If, as “Boherbuoy Boy” suggests, 82 were willing to form a Fenian Circle, it gives an indication of the prevalence of Irishmen in the post Civil War army. It is also interesting to consider what officers likely attended the occasion. It seems almost certain the fort’s commander was among them. In March 1866 that was none other than the legendary and controversial frontiersman Kit Carson, Colonel of the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry and at the time a brevet Brigadier-General of volunteers. (10)

Though we tend to be left with accounts of festivities from major towns and cities, there were undoubtedly St. Patrick’s Day celebrations throughout the West in 1866. The prevalence of Irish settlers, miners and soldiers across the territories meant that such events would have been ubiquitous. They ranged from the highly organised “New York” style parade of San Francisco, complete with all the accompanying pageantry, to the make-do efforts of officers at Fort Union, who had to live with their disappointment at having a Mexican band unfamiliar with Irish airs and a lack of local Irish women. Irish connections with these places would continue for decades to come, as would their commitment to the land of their birth. Fort Union serves as a good example of this. Irish soldiers based there in 1886 donated $5.00 to the Irish Parliamentary Party in Dublin, to aid their efforts to attain Home Rule for Ireland. Fort Union was finally abandoned in 1891, but the influence of the Irish in the area lived on. Years later, a reporter with the Las Vegas Daily Optic interviewed one Tom McGrath, supposedly the last child born at Fort Union before it closed. Described as “half Irish and half Spanish-American,” he apparently wore “a green chile on his shirt on St. Patrick’s Day to show his heritage.” Wherever they were in the rapidly changing world of the American West in the 19th century, the Irish made a concerted effort to publicly assert their nativity, heritage and community every 17th March. It was a tradition that outlived the turbulent and violent times that typified Westward expansion in the 1800s, and one which continues to this day. (11)

A 1922 depiction of Kit Carson. A legend in his own lifetime, his legacy endured until the late 20th Century. He was a likely attendee at the Fort Union St. Patrick's Day ball in 1866 (Library of Congress)

A 1922 depiction of Kit Carson. A legend in his own lifetime, his legacy endured until the late 20th Century. He was a likely attendee at the Fort Union St. Patrick’s Day ball in 1866 (Library of Congress)

(1) Wyandotte Commercial Gazette 17th March 1866 (2) The Atchison Daily Champion 17th March 1866 (3) The Montana Post 24th March 1866. (4)The Montana Post 24th March 1866,The Montana Post 10th March 1866. Grand Ball; (5) San Francisco Chronicle 28th March 1866, San Francisco Chronicle 17th March 1866. (6) San Francisco Bulletin 17th March 1866; (7) San Francisco Bulletin 19th March 1866; (8) The Semi-Weekly Telegraph 22nd March 1866; (9) Olivia 1993, Fort Union National Monument Website, New York Irish-American Weekly 28th April 1866; (10) Olivia 1993; (11) New York Irish-American Weekly 31st July 1886, Simpson 2008:85;

References & Further Reading

New York Irish-American Weekly 17th March 1866. Fenian’s Pride.

New York Irish-American Weekly 28th April 1866. St. Patrick’s Day in New Mexico.

New York Irish-American Weekly 31st July 1886. The Parliamentary Fund. Subscriptions Still Coming In. 

San Francisco Bulletin 16th March 1866. Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. 

San Francisco Bulletin 17th March 1866. Local Matters. St. Patrick’s Day.

San Francisco Bulletin 19th March 1866. Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

San Francisco Chronicle 28th March 1866. St. Patrick’s Day Poem.

San Francisco Chronicle 17th March 1866. Grand Ball.

The Atchison Daily Champion 17th March 1866. St. Patrick’s Day.

The Montana Post 10th March 1866. Grand Ball.

The Montana Post 24th March 1866. St. Patrick’s Day.

The Semi-Weekly Telegraph 22nd March 1866. St. Patrick’s Day. 

The Semi-Weekly Telegraph 22nd March 1866. Improving.

Wyandotte Commercial Gazette 17th March 1866. The Fenians.

Olivia, Leo E. 1993. Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest: A Historic Resource Study, Fort Union National Monument, Fort Union, New Mexico. 

Simpson, Dorothy Audrey 2008. Audrey of the Mountains: The Story of a Twentieth Century Pioneer Woman. 

Fort Union National Monument New Mexico.

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Categories: St. Patrick's Day, Thomas Francis Meagher

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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3 Comments on “Exploring St. Patrick’s Day, 1866 in the “Wild West” – 150 Years Ago”

  1. John Murphy
    March 19, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    Very interesting to learn of the Irish influence and celebration in the West. Was not aware that this went on in such an early time in history. My background from growing up in Boston made me think the celebration of St Patrick’s Day was an East Coast activity. As always your insights are an education and enjoyable.

    • March 21, 2016 at 11:57 am #

      Thanks John! It is fascinating- I was drawn towards it when I came across the Fort Union letter- goes to show how prevalent it was!

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