O'Neill, county seat of Holt County, was founded by General John O'Neill, a native of Ireland and veteran of the American Civil War. The "general," a rank bestowed on him by admirers because he commanded three Fenian incursions into British-governed Canada, first directed colonists in 1874 to this fertile Elkhorn Valley site which bears his name. General O'Neill also induced other Irish groups to settle at Atkinson in Holt County and in Greeley County.
Many Irish coming to O'Neill had emigrated to America earlier, as result of famine and economic distress, temporarily settling in eastern cities. General O'Neill, knowing the agricultural heritage of his people, said his object in founding Nebraska colonies was "to encourage poor people in getting away from the overcrowded cities of the East."
The Irish were a major immigrant group contributing to the settlement of Nebraska. Speaking the English language, they blended into the population and were found in many communities. However, due to ancient animosities with Britain, some of them colonized in America. Foremost colony in this state is O'Neill, proclaimed the Irish Capital of Nebraska by the Governor in 1969.
It has been 148 years since the area once claimed in Holt County by General John O'Neill a proper monument is now in place to celebrate O'Neill's foresight in settling Holt County and bringing forth the two biggest settlements, being O'Neill and Atkinson.
The idea for the statue came from former O'Neill Mayor Lois Schaffer who got the ball rolling with the Fenian Women's Auxiliary for the $60,000 sculpture which was partially funded by brick selling and then a $25,000 grant from the Holt County Tourism Board.
The sculpture which has been sitting on the Holt County Lawn for a few months was dedicated on Saturday with great fanfare. This includes a march starting at Handlebend by bagpiper Steve Sexton and accompanied by the O'Keefe Honor Guard of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and three of the General's great great-grandchildren.
Speakers at the event included Herb Mignery, the sculpture's artist, Holt County Commissioner Bill Tielke and O'Neill Mayor Scott Menish. The event concluded with Kay Stepp singing "The Old Irish Blessing."
General O'Neill was a colorful individual and as time passes by, many of us don't know the story of the man who gave his name to our fair city.
The following are excerpts from a "Piece of Emerald" published by the Independent during the 100th Anniversary of the City in 1974.
Before the end of January 1834, the black plague passed over the northern part of Ireland. A neighbor of the O'Neills with his wife and children were stricken. With there being no one to care for them, O'Neill volunteered. A short time after, he contracted the disease and died.
Six weeks after her husband's death, on March 9, 1834, the young widow gave birth to a son. The child was given his father's name.
Feeling that America offered better opportunities for one in her circumstances, Mrs. O'Neill decide to seek a home for herself and her two older children in that new country. She located in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
John, the youngest child, remained in Ireland in the home of his Grandfather O'Neill. We may reasonably infer that John, during his early years, was imbued with a deep sense of the injustices of England in dealing with Ireland, and that the desire to aid in freeing his native land from English domination was then enkindled.
In December 1848, John left his native land to join his mother, brother and sister. When he was twenty-one years of age, he opened a Catholic Book Store in Richmond, Virginia.
In 1855, a cavalry regiment, the First Dragoons, was stationed at Richmond. O'Neill, anxious for a military career, sold his store and joined the regiment. When? In the summer of 1857. The United States troops were sent to Utah to quell the Mormon Rebellion, he deserted and accompanied some regiments to California.
There he joined the First Cavalry where he was distinguished for military ability. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was stationed in San Francisco as a sergeant.
The early summer of 1861 found O'Neill and his regiment engaged in bravely defending the Union. His valiant services in the Peninsular Campaign, June 1862, led to his appointment in December 1862, as second lieutenant on the Fifth Indiana Cavalry. The following April he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant
About the middle of June 1863, O'Neill contributed valuable service in Morgan's famous raid. He was entrusted with the task of harassing the raiders and of keeping the Federal commander informed of all the enemy's movements. His scouting and skirmishing with his command of fifty picked men along the bluffs of the Ohio during the last two days of the great raid were as effective as those of any officer during the war
In December 1863, after the Battle of Cumberland Gap, Captain Day, O'Neill's company commander, received the following report:
“Lieutenant John O'Neill, Company I, Fifth Indiana Cavalry, my acting assistant adjutant-general, rendered me great fire and was finally wounded and was taken from the field.”
O'Neill resigned from his regiment early in 1864 because he felt that he was slighted by not being considered for promotion.
The following summer, at his own request, he was appointed captain of a company of colored infantry. His impaired physical condition, resulting from the wound he received the previous year, forced him, early in November 1864, to resign from active service in the war.
Later, in Burlington, Vermont, 1870, General O'Neill was taken prisoner by U.S. Forces after invading Canada. When he was a prisoner, O'Neill conceived the idea of establishing the Irish of the eastern mining cities on farms in the Middle West.
He knew that dire poverty and misery prevailed in those large centers of population and he longed to relieve the sufferings of his countrymen. In one of his letters of that time, he wrote:
“I have always believed that the next best thing to giving the Irish people their freedom at home is to encourage such of them as lands and build homes in America”
Being determined to carry out his plans as soon as possible, he spent most of the years 1872 and 1873 traveling through the States of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska. He was convinced that the last-named State possessed the greatest advantages for settlers.
Its healthful climate, pure water and fertile land appealed to him. There were millions of acres of free government land and cheap railroad and speculation land waiting for settlers. He felt that nowhere could better opportunities be found.
O'Neill met Patrick Fahy, a land agent who interested him in a townsite in Holt County in November of 1873 when the two men were n Lincoln. O'Neill agreed with Fahy and his partner, Mr. Boyd, whereby he was to receive $600 and some lots in the townsite on condition that he would go East and work up immigration for the county.
During the first three months of 1874, O'Neill gave lectures in all of the leading cities of the mining district in Pennsylvania.
“Why”, he said, “are you content to work on the public projects and at coal mining when you might in a few years own farms of you own and become wealthy and influential people?”
In all his lectures, there was strong evidence of his sincerity. The following is a typical illustration.
“My heart is with the Irish people. My earnest desire is for the amelioration of my race. For this reason, I urge you to colonize and possess the land, and all other advantages will follow. As a powerful means to that end, I would inculcate temperance and economy so that you may save your money for this noble purpose”
O'Neill brought two parties of settlers into Holt County in 1874-75. These were joined in April of 1877 by the addition of 71 men, some with families.
A reporter to the “Omaha World-Herald", in the issue of May 25, 1877, gave the following account of the Holt County colonies which now included O'Neill City and Atkinson, named after Col. John Atkinson of Detroit, Michigan, who gave O'Neill financial assistance necessary to locate a townsite west of O'Neill City late in 1874.
-Article originally published in the Holt County Independent - Jun 7, 2022
General John O'Neill in uniform.
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