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PostMy Ancestor John Charles O'Leary and 19th-Century Oregon, Montana (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 05/22/21 4:24 am)
I just read with great interest Richard Hancock's wonderful mini-essay on "Cowboys and Vaqueros Compared" (May 18th), just as I am approaching the end of Last Train to Wisdom, the beautiful, final novel written by Montana native, Ivan Doig, and recommended to me by a high-school friend who is now an Arizonian.
This bittersweet and clever novel addresses the themes of youth, aging, personal loss and the American Wild West, and surprisingly contains more than a dash of German author Karl May and his two famous literary creations, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. Richard's description of vaqueros and Bill Pickett reminded me immediately of Doig's colorful character in Last Train named Rags Rasmussen, a flashy and eccentric character in his own right who is also the world-champion bronco rider in the novel.
The volatile mixture of Richard's fascinating post and Ivan Doig's writings triggered some rich memories (gained from books and Ancestry.com-collected documents) about my O'Leary relatives, who migrated en masse to the Wild West in the 19th century. The first such emigration wave was led by County Cork-born, John Charles O'Leary (1832-1920), and Alice Maria Vernon, a New Yorker (1843-1922), and was touched off between 1876 (birth of a daughter in Flint, Michigan) and 1879 (birth of a son in Oregon). Within the last six months, I have been working closely with the resident historian of the Sherman County (Oregon) Museum in the county seat of Moro, Sherry Kaseberg, to ferret out more detail about this branch of my family. This work is being done with the intention of producing an article for the museum's magazine about my O'Leary ancestors in the Wild West, with vintage photos from the museum's collections. Maybe this will approach something like Ulysses, except that the primary character, John Charles, was absolutely nothing like the mild-mannered, long-suffering and soft-spoken Leopold Bloom.
While I was writing the text of this proposed article, Sherry was kind enough (i) to review on her own time the museum's archives concerning this era, (ii) to collect from those sources documents mentioning my O'Leary family members (of which there are many, including some entries about a relative whom Sherry and I share, much to my great surprise), and (iii) then to forward these articles and extracts to me for my review and integration into the article.
A few of these contemporary sources that Sherry sent me were newspaper articles from small hamlets in Sherman County like Grass Valley, Rutledge and Wasco, reporting that my great-grand uncle, John Charles O'Leary, had been peppered with buckshot more than once by some farmers, who objected to John's habit of herding his sheep through the farms of these neighbors without their permission, while the sheep foraged on their merry way. As unusual as these events might appear nowadays, they didn't surprise me in the least. From researching John Charles' "colorful" past as a lumberjack and work-gang leader in the Michigan pine forests in the 1850s, I can't imagine him leading his sheep, with mouth muzzles neatly strapped firmly over their jaws, parading single file on the shortest route across farmer's fields. Nor can I envision him asking for permission to do so.
Some surveyor of Sherman County long ago must have had a strange sense of humor when he named a canyon in Sherman County "O'Leary Canyon" after Uncle John Charles. He also seems to have had, as a "blood-brother" back then, his own version of "Winnetou," who joined the misbehaving Irishman and his family as traveled from Sherman County to the growing town of Big Timber in the Treasure State. John Charles made this final journey of his accompanied by a few of his then-adult children and in the company of George LaHome, a French-Canadian Native American, who eventually settled in the town of Red Lodge, Carbon County, Montana, and where he passed away in 1921.
JE comments: Pat, your colorful ancestors never fail to enthrall! So the cattlemen-sheepmen antagonism is more than the stuff of fiction. Wikipedia's entry on the Sheep Wars tells of some 54 (human) deaths spread over several Western states beginning in the 1870s. The sheep suffered in far greater numbers, with as many as 100,000 slaughtered during this time by violent cattle ranchers.