From tried-and-true cowboys to colorful adventurists and outlaws, many Irish immigrants called the Old West home. They came for many reasons ranging from pursuing opportunity to fleeing persecution. Some of their lives ended well, while others were not so lucky. Here’s a brief background on a few:
Thomas Fitzpatrick: This original mountain man immigrated to the U.S. in 1810. He became part of a fur trading expedition in 1823 and learned the ins and outs of the frontier. He discovered the south pass through the Rockies, paving the way for other cowboys who would follow in his footsteps. He was a fearless mountain man and explorer, a guide who saved countless lives while conducting emigrants to new lives in the West, and an Indian agent who worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice for the Native Americans. He’s a legendary figure of the American West.
Nellie Cashman: Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1845, Nellie left her widowed mother and sister to pursue a life in America. She was a quintessential gold mining stampeder and her quests for gold took her throughout the western United States, south into Mexico, and later into British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, Canada. She paid her way by establishing businesses, buying and selling mines, and mining. Excess dollars earned from these ventures, supplemented by funds she raised from her fellow miners, were used to establish schools, churches, and hospitals from the Mexican border to Alaska.
Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan: James Dolan was born in Galway, Ireland and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was five. He served in the Union Army and then moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico where he worked as a clerk for Lawrence Murphy. In 1874, the two men became business partners in a retail and banking operation. They were highly successful, but not well liked by local farmers and ranchers because they had no business competition and took advantage of this by charging high prices for goods. In 1878, a war broke out (The Lincoln County War) over some commercial real estate issues and Dolan ended up murdering one of his employees, but was later acquitted. He went on to purchase multiple properties and became a successful business owner.
Billy the Kid: We’d certainly be remiss if we left out one of the most notable Irish cowboys of all time. He was born in New York, the son of Irish immigrants and orphaned at the age of 15. He was arrested for the first time when he was 16 and then headed out west. He continued to pursue a life of crime and was responsible for many killings during his short life of 21 years. He was an outlaw, but eventually his Irish luck ran out.
If you want to read more about the Irish in the west, check out this book: “How the Irish Won the West.”