“I Saw San Francisco When it Was Only a Village”: The Voices of California’s Irish Pioneers

Laurence Macken was born in Slane, Co. Meath on 12th May 1828. In 1850 he was a young man just three days shy of his 22nd birthday when he landed in the California Territory, one of the thousands of emigrants and natives alike who had been infected by the gold fever that had spread like wildfire throughout the United States after 1848. The men who left their old lives behind to head West in pursuit of the precious metal would be immortalised as the “49ers”, and though most failed to find their fortune, they changed California forever. Laurence was one of those who never left. The Meath man– who remained a miner until 1871– died in Napa on 20th July 1907, having been a resident of The Golden State for nearly six decades. To mark his death that year, a relative recounted the story of Laurence’s journey to California, as part of a company of Massachusetts gold-seekers:

He came to Boston at the age of 19 and lived on the island of Nantucket until the old excitement broke out in Calif. [the California Gold Rush] With others he formed a company in Nov. 1849 and manned the whaling bark Powhattan and came around the Horn arriving in S.F. [San Francisco]  in May 1850. They then continued on to Sacramento towing the bark by hand up the Sacramento River and were a month in making the trip from S.F. to Sacramento. The company then proceeded to a point on the middle fork of the American River, then known as “Spanish Bar” and began mining operations. After working in common for several months, the company dispersed. Mr. M then prospected at Sonora, Poverty Hill, Don Pedro’s Bar and on into Mariposa County where he engaged in pocket mining for a number of years.

Gold miners in California in the late 1840s or early 1850s. Irish flocked from not only the United States but also from Ireland and Australia to participate (Library of Congress)

Gold miners in California in the late 1840s or early 1850s. Irish flocked from not only the United States but also from Ireland and Australia to participate (Library of Congress)

Laurence Macken’s death warranted an obituary in the local Napa press, which recounted the story of his company of Bostonians and their journey with the Powhatan. Aside from telling his tale as a pioneer, it also noted his contribution to the later development of California, notably the fact that he spent many years as Superintendent of the Napa State Hospital grounds.

Laurence’s story is one of those that form part of the collection known as the Pioneer Index Files in California State Library. It was started in the early years of the early 20th century, in order to record something of the lives of pioneers who arrived in the territory and state before 1860. As with Laurence’s file, much of the biographical information was provided by the children or later descendants of these pioneers, and sometimes included additions such as newspaper clippings. Well over 100 of the files relate specifically to people who had been born in Ireland. In a number of cases, it was actually the aged California pioneer themselves who recounted the basics of their story. I have gone through a small number of the files in search of the voices of some of these original Irish pioneers in California. Some travelled to their new home in covered wagons across the Plains, while more took to steam and sail to arrive at their destination. They witnessed the development of San Francisco, worked gold mines along the American River, and were part of the famed enterprise that was the Central Pacific Railroad. We hear from nine of them below.

William Barry, Rochfortbridge, Co. Westmeath, 1906

William was born on 2nd October 1831 to Edward Barry and Jane (née O’Byrne). He had arrived in California on 1st May 1852, via a sailing vessel which came from Australia around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope (many of the California Irish pioneers arrived via Australia). During his time in California he had lived in Niles, Centerville and Mission San Jose in Alameda County, and San Juan in Monterey County. He had worked as an orchardist and from 1885 had been employed by the Horticultural Commission of Alameda County. A Republican in politics, he had received his early education in Ireland. When he gave his statement he was living in Niles, Alameda County. He described how he arrived in California thus:

Left Liverpool Eng. April 2nd 1851, a sailor on the ship Satellite bound with passengers for Port Phillip (now Melbourne) Australia arriving there in July, being the first ship to enter that harbor after the gold was discovered in Australia. Thence we sailed for Port Adelaide Australia, thence to Valparaiso, Chile, South America, arriving in San Francisco May 1st 1852 being one month lacking one day on the voyage. With the exception of 2 years in Monterey Co. I have been a resident of Alameda Co. for 54 years.

Aspinwall

Aspinwall New Granada (Panama), an important stop for many passengers en-route to San Francisco, such as Michael Calhoun Dufficy (Library of Congress)

Michael Calhoun Dufficy, Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, 1906 & 1919

Michael was born on 31st December 1839 to Francis Dufficy and Alicia (née Jones). He had married Edwina O’Brien in Marysville, California on 2nd February 1863. Edwina had come to California across the Plains with her father in 1849, and the couple would go on to have nine children. Michael had arrived in California in December 1852. He had taken the steamer Falcon to Aspinwall, crossing the Panamanian isthmus before taking the Northerner from Panama to San Francisco. Prior to that he had made his home in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he had lived between 1846 and 1852 and where he had been educated. In California Michael had first made his home in San Francisco before moving to Marysville. He was an Attorney, and in 1894 was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of California. He served two terms as the Justice of the Peace for San Rafael, and was by politics a Democrat. A candidate for the assembly for Yuba County in 1873 and for Superior Judge in Marin County in 1898, Michael died in 1919.

Francis Foley, Fermoy, Co. Cork, no date

Francis was born on 3rd December 1827 to John Foley and Bridget (née Birmingham). He was educated in Ireland, where he was apparently intended for the priesthood. After emigration he spent a short time in New York, before journeying overland across the Plains to California, arriving on 25th August 1849. Francis was twice married, first in San Francisco in 1852 and again in San Juan in 1859. He took great pride in the fact that he had held the position of Commissary at San Quentin Prison under Governor Gage; in politics he related that he had been a Democrat, “but free trade changed me into [a] thorough Republican.” Both of his marriages produced children, and one of his son’s by his first marriage was the law partner of Governor Gage.

Commisioner Foley

Francis Foley in later life, as depicted in his role as Commissary of San Quentin in the San Francisco Call, 29th August 1902 (California Digital Newspaper Collection)

Robert Gordon, Co. Monaghan, 1906

Robert was born in September 1823 to James Gordon and Jane (née Harbison). Educated in Ireland, he had first landed in New York before taking a steamer to California, arriving on 9th January 1852. He married on 26th February 1866 in Bloomfield, and made his home near Petaluma, where he made a living as a farmer and stockraiser. The highest office he had held was as a school trustee, and he was by politics a Republican. He felt that among his most notable achievements was that he had “raised as high as sixty bushels of wheat per acre and ten tons of potatoes.” He went on:

These rich and productive lands are pastureing stock at present after we spoiled it; plou[gh]ing the ground up spoiled the pasture age, the farmers now are living by stock with a few hundred hens to a few thousand hens…

John Sarsfield Gorman, Ireland, 1909

Born in Ireland on 8th May 1846 to Martin Gorman and Margaret (née Byron). Prior to moving West he lived in New York and Rhode Island, where he was educated, and ultimately landed in California via the steamers Nebraska and Nevada in the Autumn of 1867. He married Mary Louise Levine in San Francisco on 11th October 1881. He worked in Camp Independence and Darwin in Inyo County, as well as “all the early mining camps around Nevada.” This was unsurprising given his trade as a Master Smelter; he also spent time as a “mining expert” and rancher. In terms of public office, he served as Sheriff and tax collector in Inyo County, and was Chairman of the Republican County Central Committee for Inyo across two terms. He remembered that he was “in Darwin when Vasquez [a notorious bandido] was robbing people…and helped to guard the camp when a raid from his band was looked for.” He also noted that in 1895 he made a stand as Sheriff “to prevent white men from selling liquor to Indians.”

Vasquez

The bandido Tiburcio Vasquez, who John Sarsfield Gorman remembered operating in California (Santa Cruz Public Library via Wikipedia)

Jerome Madden, Clonakilty, Co. Cork, 1906

Jerome thought he was born around 5th March 1829, though his only record of it was burnt in the Sacramento Fire of 1852. His father had been John Madden, his mother Catharine (née Fitzpatrick). He had married Margaret Eveline Evans on 9th June 1869 in the Congregational Church in Sacramento. Jerome remembered that he had emigrated in 1842 and spent two years in New York, before living in Canada between 1844 and 1846. Returning to New York from 1846 to 1849, he journeyed to California that year via the sailing packet South Carolina around the Cape, making landfall in San Francisco on 30th June 1849. Jerome was a 49er– he recalled making his home at “mines in various counties” between 1849 and 1854 (he became a naturalised citizen in 1853). He moved on to Sacramento between 1854 and 1873, and then to San Francisco and San Mateo from 1873 to 1906. After his five years as a miner, Jerome had worked variously as a searcher of records and land titles, country recorder and auditor, and county clerk and recorder until 1865, when he became an assistant to an attorney working for the Central Pacific Railroad. He spent ten years connected to the famed company, before moving on to the Southern Pacific Railroad where he was employed until 1903. He described himself as a “strong Unionist in 1862 to 1865 and a member of Union League of Sacramento.” Jerome was also a member of the Washington No. 20 Sacramento City Masonic Lodge from 1854 through to 1906, and was living in Berkeley when he gave his account.

John Wallace McBride, Ireland, 1909

Born on 6th May 1836 to Owen McBride and Ann (née Goldrick). He was married in California on 13th February 1866. Having first arrived in New York, J.W. spent time in Missouri and South Carolina before taking the overland route into California, arriving on 1st October 1852. He recalled his early years as follows:

Left Ireland very young– landed in New York. Visited various cities in the U.S. Left St. Louis May 5th 1852 with my father. Crossed the Truckee dessert and came through the Beckwith [Beckwourth] Pass. Before reaching our destination supply exhausted. We landed on the North Yuba in a rich missionary camp.

John said he had been educated in St. Louis and the Plains. During his working career he spent time as a miner and a farmer, and had lived in Forbestown, Sacramento, the Salmon River and Callahan since he had been in The Golden State. In terms of public offices, J.W. had been County Supervisor of Siskiyou County, a member of the board, and a member of the State Legislature as a Democrat.

Beckwourth Pass

The Beckwourth Pass, the lowest pass in the Sierra Nevadas, and an overland route for settlers on their way to California, including John Wallace McBride (Moabdave via Wikipedia)

Patrick McErlane, Lisnagrot, Co. Derry, 1906

Born on 16th March 1822 to Michael McErlane and Mary (née Scullon). He had married Margaret Cronin in San Francisco in November 1855, but by the time he gave his account he had been a widower for 34 years. Having initially emigrated to New York, it took him three attempts to get to California, eventually landing on 23rd August 1852, having left New York in February. He initially lived in Bolinas for 10 years, where he helped to build the first sawmill constructed there. He then moved to San Francisco and finally to Petaluma in April 1868. When he first arrived in the state he worked as a carpenter, but latterly became a fruit grower. Patrick recalled that he had been educated in Ireland, and by politics was a Democrat or Independent. He died on 23rd February 1908, and his nieces sent in his obituary from the Petaluma Argus Courier which added more detail with regards to his initial efforts to reach California:

…May 12th, 1847, having left England he arrived at New York. In New Hamburg, New York State, he worked for his cousin in a large grocery and dry goods store. Next he decided to reach California. He sailed to Panama and found that his ticket from that region to this State was a fake. At Panama he secured a passage to San Francisco for $130. After being out 60 days in an unfavorable wind– they could not get passage on the regular steamer– the captain made for San Blas on the Mexican coast which they reached 5 days later. Next they were obliged to put in at Honolulu…At Honolulu about 50 passengers, among whom was Mr. McErlane, chartered a vessel for San Francisco. After being out fifty-one days they sighted Bolinas in Marin county as the ship was in some danger the first officer, Mr. McErlane and others, took a small boat and landed at Bolinas. They walked ten miles to Olema where Mr. McErlane got employment at a sawmill.

James Hill, Corr Hill, Co. Cavan, 1906

Born on 17th April 1834 to Bernard Morris and Annie (née Tully). Educated in Ireland and Santa Clara College, he was married to Miss M. Colbert on 22nd May 1866 in Weaversville. Before heading to California he had lived in Albany and Congress Hall for six years. He arrived in March 1852 via steamer and sailing ship, recalling his journey as follows:

Left New York on Steamer U.S. States her first trip– bought a through ticket to San Francisco was swindled as they had nothing on this side to take us up. Sta[y]ed 3 weeks in Panama and then agent…charted English Brig…to take us to S.F. [the subsequent journey took weeks, with harsh rationing of supplies becoming necessary]

By August 1852 he had move to Weaversville, where he settled for good, engaging in activities such as livestock and sawmilling. He became Director of the County Fairs in Trinity and Shasta Counties and was Chairman of the local Republican committee. Looking back, he recalled that he “saw San Francisco when it was only a village. Oriental Hotel best in the city [was] only a two story frame building.” 

The Pioneer Index Files are a fascinating resource, which offer yet another opportunity to explore the individual Irish experience of 19th century immigrant life in the United States. Each of these stories was compiled from scans of the original files on http://www.ancestry.com, and it is hoped to return to them in a future post on the site.

San Francisco in 1851 (Library of Congress)

San Francisco in 1851 (Library of Congress)

References

California State Library – Sacramento Co, Sacramento, California, Pioneer Index File (1906–1934). Scans of original index cards accessed via Ancestry.com

California Digital Newspaper Collection. San Francisco Call Volume 87, Number 90, 29th August 1902.

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Categories: Life in America

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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10 Comments on ““I Saw San Francisco When it Was Only a Village”: The Voices of California’s Irish Pioneers”

  1. Jackie
    April 11, 2016 at 2:51 am #

    Sounds like a great collection, Damian, good find. And you always seem to find Irishmen with connections to Western New York — this time, McErlane who spent time in Hamburg, NY (where I grew up). Thanks for bringing these stories to a wider audience.

    • May 6, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

      Thanks Jackie! As we know there are so many Irish connections to Western New York :-)

  2. carolmcl
    April 11, 2016 at 4:53 am #

    I assume Gorman Pass was named after John Sarsfield Gorman?

    • May 6, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

      That is a good question, I am not sure, but something I will have to explore.

  3. April 11, 2016 at 8:12 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History and commented:
    Great post

  4. April 11, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

    Another valuable genealogical source! Thanks, Damian!

  5. April 11, 2016 at 10:57 pm #

    This was such good, interesting reading, Damian. I really enjoyed it. Lawrence Macken was born in the same year as my great grandfather, John Darcy, in County Clare. I now wonder what would have been had John went to California insread of Montreal and then to Boston. I probably would not have been born here in Texas.

    • May 6, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

      Hi Joseph,

      Thanks for that! It is incredible just how much decisions made in the 9th century impact who we are today, particularly for those like the Irish diaspora. One of the reasons it is so fascinating to study!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ‘Ireland at the Diggings’: The Irish of the California Gold Rush Celebrate Home, 1853 | Irish in the American Civil War - September 1, 2016

    […] themes is the subject of the Irish in the West. Among the many topics touched upon have been The Voices of California’s Irish Pioneers, St. Patrick’s Day in the ‘Wild West’ and the experiences of an Irish Silver […]

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