Early Irish Settlers in California

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XIII (2) start of chapter

Among the few, not of Spanish origin, who settled in California prior to 1848, were many Irish, of every class, who proved, by their presence in a distant and then almost unknown country, to the possession of those qualities so essential in the pioneer of civilisation—courage, enterprise, and love of adventure.

The first sojourners were the mountain trappers, whose knowledge and education extended little beyond the woodcraft so necessary to success in their perilous occupation.

The trapper's chief thought was of the trail and the Indian ambush; his constant study, the habits and the haunts of game; his wealth and his defence, a rifle and a horse.

This was a wild and dangerous, occasionally a remunerative calling, which too often terminated in his being a victim to the bullet or the knife of the treacherous savage, who adorned his wigwam with the scalp of the white invader of his hunting grounds.

To one of this class, an Irishman, Captain J. S. Smith, is due the credit of having led the first party of white men over land to California.

At the head of a band of some forty trappers, in the service of the American Fur Company, he had the courage to cross the lofty ridges and formidable barriers of the Sierra Nevada.

Smith, who was a native of the King's County, emigrated at an early age to the United States, joined the Fur Company, and ultimately became chief trader at their post on Green River.

In one of his excursions, exploring the county south and west of Salt Lake, he crossed over to California, visited San Diego and San José, where he encamped with his party for some time.

There is a letter of his extant, written in May 1827, to Padre Zuran, the missionary priest of San José, in which he gives an account of himself, and his reasons for remaining so long in the vicinity.

On his return trip he and most of his party were slain by the Indians east of the Sierra. But few escaped—four or five at most; and among them was an Irishman who, from his great stature, was known as Big Fallen. He remained in the country.

Between the years 1825 and 1836, some few Irishmen arrived by sea, and settled in California. These were principally masters or other officers of American trading vessels, or seamen before the mast, with an occasional adventurer in search of a home; and being wise enough to appreciate the advantages offered by a lovely country and a fine climate, and liking the character of the inhabitants, they resolved to abandon the deep and its dangers, and cast anchor for life on shore.

Generally settling in the different seaports, they soon, owing to their knowledge and industry, became independent; and having married and become naturalised, they were recognised and treated by the kindly and hospitable people amongst whom they came as belonging to themselves.

Their similarity of religion was greatly in their favour with the Spaniards; and this important advantage was in no small degree enhanced by the ease and quickness with which they acquired the language of the country, as well as by their natural politeness and their deference to the fairer portion of the creation, traits for which the Irish are at all times honourably distinguished.

These qualities and accomplishments rendered them great favourites with the descendants of the Castilian hidalgo, and facilitated their worldly success.

Many of these early settlers were men of fair education and good manners, and came principally from the Southern provinces of Ireland.

Among them were to be found Reads and Dens of Waterford, Allens of Dublin, Murphys of Wexford, Burkes of Galway, Coppingers of Cork, and others.

Some became extensive proprietors of land and raisers of stock, others practised as physicians, while more acquired wealth and repute as enterprising merchants; and they with their families, that quickly sprung up around them—vigorous in body as in intellect—formed the nucleus of that Irish and Catholic element which was to be so wonderfully strengthened by subsequent and continuous emigration.

I might be inclined to linger over the history and fortunes of Don Timoteo Murphy, who, arriving in 1829 from Peru, where he had spent two years, rose to an eminent position, as Administrator of the Mission, and Alcalde for the district of San Rafael, acquired vast estates, and was universally esteemed and honoured during a residence of a quarter of a century in the country. He is thus spoken of by a fellow-countryman and friend, himself one of the most fortunate and respected of the Irish settlers in California:

‘Murphy was a splendid specimen of a man, tall, powerful, and well-built, a good horseman and keen hunter. He imported the first greyhounds to California, and kept a kennel of twenty to thirty hounds; the abundance of deer, elk, and antelope afforded material for the chase, and Murphy gave them little rest. He was hospitable, kind, and generous, and looked up to as a father by the people of the country.’

About the year 1838, the trail across the Sierras to California began to be travelled more frequently by hunters.

In two years after a small party of emigrants arrived by that route; and from that date to the present each succeeding year has brought with it bands of hardy and adventurous men and women to develop the resources of that portion of the American continent.

In the exploring expedition of John C. Tremont many Irishmen joined, and remained afterwards in the country.

The year 1844 witnessed a remarkable arrival—that of a body of immigrants from Canada and Missouri, mostly Irish, including a single family numbering no less than five-and-twenty individuals.

This party formed a valuable addition to the community, consisting of respectable and intelligent men, who, from their previous training, were well fitted to cope with the difficulties incidental to a settlement in a new country.

The leader of this party was Mr. Martin Murphy, a native of Wexford, who brought with him his family of sons, daughters, and grandchildren.

Mr. Murphy had originally emigrated to Lower Canada, from which he passed to Missouri; but, not finding that the Missouri of that day realised the anticipations which he had formed of it, he decided, old as he was—he was then in his sixtieth year—on seeking a home more suited to his habits and feelings.

He gathered together the different branches of his family, and joining with other Irish families in their neighbourhood, thus formed a numerous party, or train, to cross the plains to California, whither they were destined.

Martin Murphy must have had considerable pluck, fortitude, and confidence in himself and his associates, to start on a journey of 2,500 miles over a trackless prairie, inhabited by fierce and hostile Indians, bound to a land then little known, and that only from the vague accounts afforded by trappers and others, who from time to time returned to the settlements in Western Missouri.

The party, however, reached their destination in safety, having met with no casualty beyond the loss of their waggons, which they were compelled to abandon in the defiles of the Sierras.

The gallant leader, with his unmarried sons and daughters, settled in the valley of San José, where the family purchased large tracks of land, and became extensive owners of stock, counting the one by the league, and the other by the thousand.

It is little more than a year since Martin Murphy died, at a grand old age, the founder of a prosperous race.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America