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O'Neill, the county seat, is situated about three-fourths of a mile north of the Elkhorn, on land gently sloping to the south. Immediately south of O'Neill is the valley of the Elkhorn, about ten miles wide at this point, while to the east, north and west, extends further than the eye can reach, the beautiful and fertile, gently rolling table land which separates the valleys of the Elkhorn and the Niobrara. O'Neill is in the center of a fine grain and stock-raising country, fifty miles north-west of Neligh and the same distance south-west of Niobrara on the Missouri.
The first settlers in the immediate vicinity of O'Neill were H. H. McEvony, Frank Bitney, John T. Prouty, Eli Sanford, John Sanford and Eli H. Tomphson, who reached the Elkhorn about half a mile below the present site of O'Neill, July 13, 1873. In the succeeding autumn, Herman Hoxsie and his two sons, Wilson and Henry, David Wisegarver, Samuel Wolf, and some others located here.
On the 12th of May, 1874, Gen. John O'Neill, in honor of whom the town was named, arrived here with the first colony of his countrymen, consisting of Neil Brennan, Patrick S. Hughes, Timothy O'Connor, Henry Curry, Thomas Connolley, Michael H. McGrath, Thomas N. J. Hynes, Michael Dempsey, Thomas Kelly, Robert Alworth, Ralph Sullivan, Patrick Brennan, Thomas Cain, Henry Carey and Patrick McKarney.
November 1, 1874, Rody J. Hayes, James Ryan and John Reddy arrived, and in May, 1875, the General arrived with the second colony, consisting of Patrick Hagerty, John J. and Thomas O'Neill, nephews of the General, John Cantlan, Michael Ryan, Michael Costello, D. P. O'Sullivan, Herman Strasburg, William Sullivan and a few others; some of the men bringing families.
In 1876 Gen. O'Neill brought in his third colony, consisting of one hundred and two men, and a few women and children, and in 1877, his fourth, consisting of seventy-one men; a few having families.
The town site of O'Neill comprised originally 160 acres and was platted by Thomas I. Atwood in May, 1874. An addition of eighty acres was made in 1875, which was platted by John J. O'Neill. Upon the arrival of Gen. O'Neill's first colony there was no building in the town, and no timber in this part of the county, so in order to provide shelter for themselves and their families, they immediately erected a sod house thirty-six by eighteen feet in size. Having examined a map of the county showing the location of the timber within it, six of their number started for the Redbird, with a load of willows, which were driven into the ground sufficiently near together that two were always in sight; thus making it easy to find their way home with suitable timber for a roof to their sod house. The house completed, they moved into it May 19, 1874. In it they managed to live with tolerable comfort while putting in their spring crops, although it was somewhat crowded, there being thirteen men, two women and five children. Their crops in, they built log houses on their claims, and each soon had a home for himself. The logs for these houses were cut on Eagle Creek and hauled a distance of eighteen miles.
The sod house in which all the little colony lived for a time was by them facetiously named the "Grand Central Hotel," and as such it enjoyed an extended reputation, but woe to the fond anticipations of the incoming pioneer, who knowing it only by its name, expected to find, as many did, a large two or three story frame building, surrounded by a wide porch, with comfortable, cane seat, arm chairs, where the weary traveler could rest and refresh himself to his heart's content! Once obtaining a view of the "Grand Central," the cherished hopes of the expectant pioneer were very suddenly supplanted by feelings of the most intense disappointment and disgust, which often found expression in the most emphatic manner.
This incident is illustrative of the disappointment felt by many, if not by most of those from the East, seeking homes on the Western plains; and these plains have been and are being settled up much more rapidly than would be the case were it not for the fact that most men prefer to endure the privations of a new country than subject themselves to the ridicule of their acquaintances, which would have been lavished upon them, upon a return to the conveniences, comforts and delights of home. Too much should not be expected.
The building of O'Neill did not commence until after the arrival of the General's second colony in 1875. The first frame building was erected by Mr. Maybury under contract with Patrick Fahy, of Omaha, who was largely interested in the original town sight of O'Neill. This building after numerous delays was, in October, 1875, erected, and from that time the town has grown and prospered. The building was occupied by Patrick Hagerty for a store, and with the several additions that have been made to it makes the comfortable store which that thrifty merchant now occupies. A tailor shop and clothing store was opened by Daniel J. Scanlon in 1878, and in the same year a second general store was opened by Daly & Purcell.
The first school was taught by Miss Ellen O'Sullivan in 1879, in a building erected by the Catholics for a church. This denomination commenced the erection of a church edifice in the fall of 1881, forty feet by eighty in size, basement of brick, and superstructure frame, to cost about six thousand dollars. The Methodists and Congregationalists have church organizations but as yet no church buildings, the court house being used instead. Rev. J. P. Bedard, a French Canadian Catholic missionary preached the first sermon in O'Neill in 1874, and was followed by Rev. J. T. Smith, in 1878, who is still pastor of the Catholic Church.
The first child born in O'Neill was a son of Mr. and Mrs. James Ryan, in March, 1875. The first marriage--a double one--Neil McIlravie to Ellen Tomphson, and Samuel Wolf to Sarah J. Tomphson, occurred May 30, 1876, and the first death was that of a daughter of Michael H. McGrath, in February, 1875.
At the present time O'Neill has four general stores, one hardware store, four agricultural implement depots, two lumber yards, two blacksmiths, one bank, four hotels, four law firms, two newspapers, one millinery store, and a population something over two hundred. There is one physician in O'Neill, the only one in the county.
The Elkhorn Valley Lodge, I. O. O. F., was instituted November 30, 1876, with ten members, and was the pioneer lodge of the Upper Elkhorn. The members held their meetings every week in a log house two miles east of O'Neill for three years, very rarely having present less than a quorum, although most of them had to travel two miles, and some as many as five. The original members were E. H. Tomphson, H. H. McEvony, Francis McEvony, Wilson Hoxsie, David Wisegarver, Herman Strasburg, Joshua Ewing, C. C. Whitney, Samuel Wolf and O. R. Elwood.
A. O. H. Division, No. 1, was organized July 4, 1879, with twelve members, officers as follows: Martin Walsh, County Delegate; John McCann, President; Jerry Kelly, Vice President; Dennis Handly, Secretary; and Edward Gallagher, Treasurer. The order now has forty members.
The Holt County Record.--This paper was established in June , 1879, by T. J. Smith, the first thirty numbers being printed at Niobrara, Knox County. It was then removed to O'Neill. In July, 1881, M. B. Gearon bought one-half interest, and in November, 1881, Patrick Hagerty bought the other half. Up to this time it had been Democratic in politics; it now became Republican. February 22, 1882, Judge G. M. Cleveland bought Gearon's interest and assumed editorial charge. On the 14th of March, 1882, the name of the paper was changed to the Holt County Banner.
The Frontier.-- The Frontier was established about October 1, 1880, by W. D. Mathews. It has always been Republican and has labored steadily for the interests of the Elkhorn Valley and Northern Nebraska in general. Its editor was commissioned Postmaster at O'Neill by Postmaster General Thomas L. James, December 18, 1881.
DAVID ADAMS, firm of Cheney, Adams & Co., bankers, was born in Union County, Ohio. In the fall of 1880, came to Neligh. The following spring came to O'Neill and established this bank.
DAVID L. DARR, County Treasurer, is a native of McDonough Co., Ill., where he was raised. In 1877, he made a trip to the Black Hills; soon after returned and settled at Paddock, Holt Co., Neb.; engaged in farming and had several contracts for stage routes. Was Precinct Assessor in 1879. In the spring of 1880, he engaged in merchandising at Red Bird, a small village eight miles (east or) below Paddock, on the Niobrara River, continuing this business about eighteen months, or till the fall of 1881, when at the age of twenty-five he was elected County Treasurer.
ED. E. EVANS, proprietor Commercial House, is a native of Dunkirk, N. Y. When a child came with his parents to Evansville, Wis. There he assisted on their farm. He afterwards removed to Mitchell, Iowa. There engaged in the livery business. In the spring of 1869 came to Buena Vista County, Iowa. Also engaged in the livery business. In the fall of 1873 was elected Sheriff. Held this office two terms. In the fall of 1873 came to Niobrara. Ran a livery. The following spring came to O'Neill. Engaged in the hotel and livery business. He built this house in the fall of 1881, which is the largest and best in the County. He has held the office of Deputy Sheriff of Knox and Holt Counties.
PATRICK FAHY, real estate and farming. Founder of O'Neill City and colony, on e of the largest and most successful Irish American colonies in the Untied States. Was born March 15, 1843, in Cross Boyne, County Mayo, Ireland. At the age of seven he came with his parents to New York. There he remained about five years. They afterward removed to Dane County, Wis. There he assisted on their farm. In the spring of 1868, he came to Lincoln, Neb. Engaged in the lumber business. In the fall of 1870, he sold out to his partner and engaged in real estate. In the fall of 1878, he formed the acquaintance of Gen. Jno. O'Neill, whom he employed to go east and bring back at least twenty-five families with him to colonize in Holt County. He also induced Wm. McLaughlin, of Lincoln, to take one quarter interest in this enterprise. Mr. Fahy subsequently bought Mr. McLaughlin's interest, and defrayed the entire expenses. Mr. O'Neill only succeeded in bringing back fourteen families, instead of twenty-five, the others coming in afterwards, having heard and read of the county. The colony consisted of about fourteen families, there being at that time about six other families in the county. Notwithstanding he paid Gen. O'Neill $150 a month for four months, also seventy lots in O'Neill City, he also made him a present of $100 over and above his contract when he discharged him. The colony located here May 12, 1874. Mr. Fahy had the town laid out and platted by Thomas I. Atwood, civil engineer. His brother James having just arrived here from college, he assisted in laying out the town. Mr. Fahy now owns about one-fourth of the town, and Jno. Fitzgerald, President of the First National Bank of Lincoln and Plattsmouth, also owns one-fourth interest. Mr. Fahy has donated seventeen lots to the Catholic Church, also subscribed $100 for building the same, and $25 to the M. E. Church in O'Neill City. He gave 20 acres adjoining the town to the R. R. Co., for depot purposes. He built the first store in O'Neill. Rented the same to Mr. Hagerty, which has since been enlarged. He was married Sept. 11, 1877, to Miss Sarah Fitzgerald, of Plattsmouth, Neb. In the spring of 1880, he removed to O'Neill, where he has since resided. Mr. Fahy being an admirer of the great Irish warrior, Hugh O'Neill, named O'Neill in his honor.
PATRICK HAGERTY, general merchandise and agricultural implements. Is a native of Ireland. In about 1859, came to New York City. Soon after moved to Minnesota. Worked at various kinds of labor. He enlisted, in 1862,, in Company A, First Minnesota Cavalry. Served fourteen months. Returned to Minnesota and worked on a farm. He then bought a scholarship in the Hamline University at Red Wing. After attending about two years, he engaged in teaching school. This he continued about six years. In 1875, he came to O'Neill, opened this store and was the only resident here for about two years. He commenced business with a capital of about $1,900. He is now carrying a stock of about $20,000, all of which he has acquired by industry and strict attention to business. He held the office of postmaster several years.
ED. HERSHISER, drugs, paints, oils, etc., was born in Somerset County, Pa. At the age of twelve came to Waterloo, Iowa. Studied medicine three years. He afterwards entered a drug store at Onawa, Iowa, where he remained three years. Sept., 1880, came to O'Neill. April, 1881, he established this business.
W. D. MATHEWS, Postmaster and Editor of the Holt County Frontier, is a native of Stephenson County, Ill. He edited the Rockton Herald in 1875, also the Beloit Graphic, Wis., in 1877, afterward the Daily and Weekly Reformer of Monroe, Wis. June, 1880, came to O'Neill and established this paper. Was appointed postmaster December, 1881.
JNO. McBRIDE, agent for Wilcox Lumber Co., was born in Carbon County, Pa. When a child came to Dubuque, Iowa, with his parents. There learned the carpenter trade. In May, 1877, came to O'Neill, also carried on this business. Mr. McBride has built all the business houses and residences in town. He is Chairman of the Democratic Central Committee. August, 1881, he was appointed agent in charge of this yard.
J. .J. McCAFFERTY, firm of Brennan & McCafferty, hardware, tinware, furniture etc., is a native of Ireland. Came to America when a boy and again returned and served in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1873, returned to America. Was traveling agent for Wm. Holman about two years. He then went to Colorado and the Black Hills. In 1875, came to O'Neill. Followed farming. Now owns 134 acres, and has just sold one acre in O'Neill for $50 cash. In 1878, this business was established, this store being then 16x24. It has since been enlarged as their business required it. Now is 16x84, and they carry a stock of about $10,000, by far the largest business in this line of any in the county.
GEN. JOHN O'NEILL. The subject of this sketch was born in the townland of Dungannon, parish of Clontibret, County Monaghan, Ireland, March 8, 1854. Five weeks previous to his birth his father died. When he was six years old his mother came to America, leaving her children at home. John received a rudimentary education in his native land, and followed his mother to the United States, joining her in Elizabeth N. J. After attending school a short time he became clerk in a store. The confinement of the store not suiting his disposition, he obtained occupation as traveling agent for a publishing house. He traveled through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, meeting with considerable success. In 1855, he established a Catholic bookstore in Richmond, Va.; but for the reason that the Catholics formed but a small proportion of the people of Virginia, his enterprise failed. He then entered the army, joining the Second Dragoons in May, 1857, of which regiment Albert Sidney Johnston was Colonel and Robert E. Lee was Lieutenant-Colonel. Upon the breaking out of the War of the Rebellion. O'Neill was a member of the First Cavalry, holding the office of Sergeant Major. He served under McClellan on the peninsula, distinguishing himself by intrepid bravery. His horse was shot under him at the battle of Gaines' Mills. Joining the Fifth Indiana Cavalry, he served in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, in 1863. With fifty men he made a charge upon two regiments and a body-guard under General Morgan, putting them to rout, and recapturing a number of Union prisoners, for which act of bravery he was promoted to First Lieutenant. At his own request he was appointed captain of a company of colored infantry. Being troubled with a wound he had received, he resigned his commission and returned to Elizabeth, N. J., in 1864, when he was married to Miss Mary Crow. He then went to Nashville Tenn., established a claim agency, and was on the high road to fortune, when an armed invasion of Canada was determined upon by the Fenians. President W. H. Roberts commissioned O'Neill a colonel of one of the regiments of the army of invasion. On June 2nd was made his famous raid on Ridgeway, on British soil. Though temporarily successful he could not sustain himself without more assistance than his backers in the United States were able to render, so he was obliged to retire again to American soil. In September, 1866, he was appointed Inspector-General of the Fenian Armies. He then returned to Nashville and sought to re-establish his business, which had suffered immeasurably during his absence. Soon afterward he removed to Washington, and was fast building up a profitable business, when, in the fall of 1867, he was elected a member of the Fenian senate. Upon President Roberts resigning, O'Neill was elected his successor. In 1870, he made an attempt to carry out his programme for a second invasion of Canada. The assembling of an expedition in Vermont for the purpose had barely begun, when President Grant issued a proclamation against any "infraction of the neutrality laws, " and O'Neill and several of his officers were lodged in prison. This step on the part of the United States government terminated the Fenian war on Canada. In 1871, General O'Neill went west and engaged in the laudable work of colonizing his countrymen on the unoccupied but fertile plains of Nebraska. He founded colonies at O'Neill and Atkinson, Holt County, and in Greeley County. This work had but fairly begun when in 1877 his health failed, and on January 8, 1878, he died in Omaha of paralysis. On January 11, he was buried, highly honored and sincerely mourned. It is not possible in a few words to give a just estimate of his character. Having failed to liberate his native country from what he considered the oppressor's yoke, he turned his attention to the work of freeing as many as possible Irishmen in America, by making them independent on farms in the West. Towards the accomplishment of this end, his self-sacrificing spirit, his boundless generosity and his untiring zeal were working wonders, though without means of his own, and too often without the encouragement and aid he had every right to expect. The question with him was not whether he should receive again the full commercial value of his time and money expended, but rather would his fellow countrymen be benefited by the success of his plans. He was an unselfish spirit; his mistakes were not of the heart. Let him rest in peace.
SANFORD PARKER, County Clerk, Holt County, Neb. was born in 1852 in Dodge County, Wis. Moved to Trempealeau County, Wis., in 1856. Attended Carroll College, at Waukesha, Wis., during the years 1866-7. In 1874-5, served as Sheriff of Trempealeau County, Wis; also the offices of town clerk and constable; also engaged in livery business and lumber. Went to the Black Hills, D. T., in 1876-7. Located in Paddock, Neb., in 1878. Was elected County Clerk of Holt County in 1878. Held said office to present time.
REV. J. T. SMITH, Pastor of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, is a native of Ireland. There he received his preparatory education. In 1870, he came to America, continued his studies, and was ordained by Bishop Ryan, of Buffalo, N. Y., in June, 1877. The following September he came to O'Neill, and has since had charge of this church. Also has charge of the Catholic Church at Atkinson, Holt Co., Neb.
MICHAEL E. TIERNEY, blacksmith, was born in Sullivan County, N. Y. He was raised in Providence, R. I. In 1870, came to Luzerne County, Pa. There commenced to learn this trade. Worked at it there seven years. In 1877, came to O'Neill and opened this shop. Has since carried on this business. He made a homestead claim of 160 acres; also a timber claim of 160 acres. Has now about 80 acres in cultivation.