"From Shamrocks to Serapes"
(Kelly Tobin O'Donnell - Masters Thesis USD 1995)
Paddy comes to California
The first known Irishman in California arrived at Santa Barbara in September 1795. Joseph O’Cain worked as a crew member on the Britisher until she was wrecked in the far East. After that, he hired on a British ship from Bombay for the voyage home. When the ship arrived in Santa Barbara, O’Cain was mesmerized by the beauty of the place and petitioned the governor to remain in California. His petition denied, O’Cain continued on his journey to Boston.
The first Irishman known to settle in California chose Monterey as his home. John (Juan) Mulligan, a native of Down County, Ireland, landed at Monterey in 1814. In his History of California, Hubert Howe Bancroft suggests that Mulligan, a weaver, arrived with the John Gilroy party. Little information about Mulligan survives, although it is probable that he was the first foreigner to settle in California.
Those few Irish who arrived in California between 1825 and 1836, arrived by sea. They were principally masters or officers of American trading vessels from Boston and New York, or seamen before the mast.
Quite a few Irishmen achieved a good level of success while the Mexican government controlled California. John J. Read, born in 1805 in Dublin, left the Emerald Isle in 1820 and arrived in San Francisco in 1826 on a Mexican ship. Mr. Read first settled in Sonoma County, but moved to the mission at San Rafael after Indians drove him out.
Some years later, he moved to Sausalito and obtained a land grant on the bay between Sausalito and San Rafael. An entrepreneur, Mr. Read acquired a small boat and used it to operate a small ferry service, perhaps the first on the San Francisco Bay. In 1832, he began operation of the Golden Gate Ferry. On October 13, 1836, Mr. Read married Hilarita, a daughter of Don José Antonio Sanchez. The wedding took place at the Mission Dolores church, and that same year, the governor of California appointed himto the post of administrator of the Asistencia of San Rafael. .
Another success story of Northern California Irish involves a native of County Wexford. Born in 1800, Timothy Murphy made his way to Monterey via Lima, Peru. Murphy worked in Peru for the commercial house of Hartnell and Company and was transferred to the northern Pacific branch in Monterey in 1828. From there, he moved to San Francisco.
A naturalized Mexican citizen in 1839, Mr. Murphy served as an Indian agent for the Mann Indians, Land Commissioner, and Juez de Paz. Don Timoteo, as he became known, also held the positions of Alcalde at San Rafael and administrator of San Rafael Mission from 1837-1849. He died at home in San Rafael in 1853, a few years after the American conquest of Alta California.
Another son of Erin who arrived in California in the mid-1800s found it a place of endless opportunity. Jasper O’Farrell was born in Dublin in 1817. Appointed to an English surveying expedition to South America in 1841, Mr. O’Farrell found his way to Yerba Buena on October 20, 1843 after he left the company in Valparaiso.
In 1843,he worked for the Mexican government as engineer and surveyor of Spanish and Mexican land grants in the San Francisco area. Prior to O’Farrel’s survey, the grants had no fences; the owners based the boundaries on natural objects such as trees, rocks, and streams and the topography of the land. O’Farrell’s survey maps became the foundation of legal boundaries of the ranchos. In 1847, when O’Farrell retired from government service, he received a ranch in Mann county for his services.
In 1847, O’Farrell took a job surveying and expanding the growing town of Yerba Buena. The military governor of California, General Stephen Watts Kearny, granted by decree all of the beach and water lots between Telegraph Hill and Rincon Point to Yerba Buena. With future development in mind, O’Farrell laid out Market Street diagonally across the checkerboard map. The design of San Francisco remains O’Farrell’s triumph.
O’Farrell married a daughter of a fellow immigrant, Patrick McChristian, in 1846. Two years later, he gave up his Mexican land grant in Mann County for an imposing estate near Bolinas which he titled “Annaly,” the ancient title of the Gaelic patrimony of the O’Farrals.
In 1853, O’Farrell re-entered government service when elected to the state senate to represent Sonoma and Mendocino counties. He later became a member of the State Board of Harbor Commissioners in San Francisco and was eventually defeated by Stanford in the election for Lieutenant Governor. O’Farrell died suddenly in San Francisco on November 16, 1875.
As shown by the above examples, Irishmen who arrived in California before 1848 became prominent as rancheros and adapted to the Spanish customs and ideals of the area. The Irish who settled in California took strong root and thrived in the Spanish and Mexican hospitality. They adopted the culture of their new communities and the local inhabitants gladly accepted them. These successful Irish had more than just the good fortune to avoid the ghettos of the eastern ports, they had the courage, enterprise and love of adventure it took to settle the frontier.
The Irish had little problem with assimilation into Spanish California. This may be due to the similarities they shared with Mexicans in religion and customs, and the ease with which the Irish learned Spanish. They must have found several crucial commonalities in order to achieve the level of success they did in California. The endless opportunities available in California also attracted the Irish. Towns such as San Diego had ample space and small populations. Even though a part of Mexico, California was still a frontier needing buildings, roads and businesses, and the Irish arrived willing and able to work.
The lack of Anglo prejudice also attracted the Irish to California. An article in the San Francisco Monitor explained why the Irish should emigrate to California:
"[the people] have not the prejudices of race or religious bigotry which exist in some parts of the East to contend with; unskilled labor is more respected here than there, and finally, the natural resources of the country are greater, and the population less dense than in any of the Atlantic States.
Clearly in all areas, California offered more to the Irish immigrants, both rich and poor, than did the crowded ghettos of the Anglo-dominated eastern cities.
When the Irish began to arrive, they first established a large community in San Francisco. By 1852, approximately 4,000 Irishmen lived there. Even though laborers represented almost half of this group, they achieved a high level of success. The youth of the city and the lack of an Anglo upper class contributed to this.
Although these also characterized San Diego, an Irish community as such did not develop there. Perhaps San Diego was not cosmopolitan enough to attract a large group of non-American immigrants, or perhaps the Irish who settled there did not feel a need to create a distinctive community.
Whatever the case, those who emigrated from Ireland and settled in San Diego, achieved comparable levels of success to their compatriots in San Francisco.