Biography of John A. O’Farrell

John A O'Farrell
John A O'Farrell

John Andrew O’Farrell was born in the county of Tyrone, province of Ulster, Ireland, on the 13th day of February 1823. He pursued his education in the common schools until his thirteenth year, and was then placed in a naval school where he remained for two years. He went to sea in the Oriental Steamship line when fifteen years of age, sailing from the East India dock on the Thames, London, England, to the city of Calcutta, Hindustan, East Indies. The return trip occupied seven months time and the vessel delivered and received mails and passengers at the isle of St. Helena, off the west coast of Africa, and at all the ports of entry on the African coast and the isles of Madagascar and Ceylon in the Indian ocean, thence to Madras and Calcutta. At the age of sixteen, on his return from India to London, Mr. O’Farrell was transferred to the Australian liner, Nebob, of the East India Company, sailing from Birkenhead, opposite Liverpool, England, to Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. On the return trip they stopped at Chinese and Japanese ports for mails and passengers, and sailed the Pacific route through the straits of Magellan, crossing the southern Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope and taking on mail and passengers at St. Helena and other stations on the way to England. This trip occupied thirteen months time.

The father of our subject was Andrew O’Farrell, a military engineer, who served in that capacity on the battlefield of Waterloo under the Duke of Wellington. He was for thirty-one years an engineer in the British service. His eldest son, Patrick Gregory O’Farrell, entered the British navy as a cadet and served continuously in the navy for twenty-eight years, being on the Arctic expedition with Captain McClure in the early ’40s, on a three-years trip in the frozen polar region.

After his return from Australia in the ship Nebob, John A. O’Farrell remained at home for eighteen months, working at the trade of shipsmith in Captain Coppin’s shipbuilding works on the river Foyle, at Londonderry, in the north of Ireland. He was then between nineteen and twenty years of age. The White Star liner, City of New York, was undergoing repairs, and he worked on her and shipped as one of her crew, as an able seaman, bound for New York. He landed in New York City on the 5th of January 1843, being nineteen years and eleven months of age. The following day he left for Philadelphia, and through his uncle secured a position in the Philadelphia navy yards as ship smith. He was employed in that capacity until the Mexican war broke out, when he sailed on the United States store-ship, the Lexington, which was ordered to the Mexican frontier on the Pacific waters, bound for Monterey, the Mexican capital of Alta, or Northern, California. There was no such place as San Francisco then on the Pacific coast, and on the site of the present city was an old Spanish settlement of two hundred people, the place being known as Yerba Buena. The ship was loaded with arms and ammunition and a force of marines under command of Captain C. Q. Tompkins, of Company F, Third Artillery, and Lieutenant W. T. Sherman. The Lexington sailed around Cape Horn, making the trip from the Delaware to the bay of Monterey in one hundred and ninety-eight days. They arrived at their destination January 29, 1847, and found the United States frigate. Independence, commanded by Commodore William Branford Shubrick, lying at anchor in the bay. When the Lexington arrived Commodore Shubrick boarded her and finding Captain C. O. Tompkins with Company F, of the Third Artillery, placed him in command of the land forces, while Lieutenant Sherman, afterward the celebrated general of the civil war, was made quartermaster and adjutant. Two days later the sloop of war Cyane, under command of Captain Dupont, entered the harbor, having on board General S. W. Kearny with his staff and troops. He established headquarters at Monterey and Commodore Shubrick took command of the sea on the frigate Independence. General Kearny’s staff was composed of the following: Colonel R. B. Mason, of the First Dragoons; Captain Folsom and Lieutenant Ord. afterward General Ord, with Lewis Dent as private secretary. Dent was the brother of Mrs. General Grant. He was appointed probate judge and magistrate, before whom all difficulties were tried. In May 1847, General Kearny returned to the United States in the sloop of war Cyane, to report to the government his opinion and to give an account of the new territory of Alta California. Colonel R. B. Mason was left in command of the land forces, with Lieutenant Sherman as adjutant and Captain Folsom quartermaster. There were no mail routes then on the Pacific coast in California, not even a wagon road. All travel was over the trails or by canoes on the rivers. A trimonthly mail was established by Colonel Mason and Commodore Shubrick, being carried three times a month from Monterey to Point Danas, thence to Los Angeles and on to San Diego, and returning by the same ports to Monterey, thence north to Yerba Buena, Captain Folsom’s station. The store-ship Lexington was detailed for the mail service from December 1847, until the 1st of May 1848.

Mr. O’Farrell was a seaman on the mail ship and on the first Sunday in May 1848, at the trading post in Yerba Buena, he met Captain John Sutter, Jim Marshall and others who had arrived from Sutter’s sawmill at Coloma, forty miles from San Francisco. They had the first gold dust Mr. O’Farrell had ever seen. It was as coarse as grains of wheat and corn. Marshall gave him three grains of gold, worth about two dollars, and he engaged with Sutter to work in the gold mines. He was to receive a percent of what he washed out of the ground at the mill, and his daily wages averaged from thirty to fifty dollars. Being fond of excitement he visited all the newly discovered gold-producing localities in the territory of California. On the 9th of September 1850, California was admitted into the Union with the provision that all men over twenty-one years of age in the state on that date were made by act of congress lawful citizens of the United States. Mr. O’Farrell had been seven years in America, either on land or in American waters, and was twenty-seven years of age, so he cast his first vote in California, in the fall of 1850. That winter the snow was very deep in the mining districts of California, and the bay of San Francisco was crowded with ships from all quarters of the globe. Seamen’s services commanded high wages and Mr. O’Farrell engaged on the Red Jacket, a Baltimore clipper, for the round trip from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand, thence to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, stopping at Honolulu both going and on the return trip. The vessel at length arrived again in San Francisco, laden with coal, which was then a valuable cargo in San Francisco. Nine months had been consumed in making the voyage. In 1851 William H. Aspinwall & Company, of New York, secured the United States mail contract, to carry the mail by the isthmus route, and placed three large steamships on the Pacific side to run between San Francisco and Panama. These vessels were called the California, the Oregon and the Panama. Commodore Vanderbilt was an unsuccessful candidate for the mail contract, which paid several millions of dollars during the four years of its term. Vanderbilt, however, resolved not to be defeated in his plans. He went to Liverpool, England, and connected himself with all the Atlantic Ocean lines of every nation of Europe, and they placed four large steamers on the Pacific between San Francisco and the Central American port of San Juan del Sur. From that port passengers were taken across the isthmus to Graytown, whence the English lines of steamers carried the mail and passengers to Kingstown, Jamaica, where they could be transferred to American and English vessels. In the winter of 1852, when the snow in the mountains was too deep to admit of profitable gold-washing, Mr. O’Farrell worked on the Vanderbilt line between San Francisco and San Juan del Sur, and in 1853 he was engaged on the ships of the same company on the Caribbean sea, on the Atlantic side, sailing between Graytown and Southampton, England.

In the fall of 1853 England and France declared war against Russia and Patrick Gregory O’Farrell, the eldest brother of our subject, was one of the naval officers under Admiral Dundas, being stationed on the Black sea and the sea of Azov. As seamen were in great demand for that naval service, John A. O’Farrell shipped at Spithead, Portsmouth, England, on the Agamemnon, the flagship of Admiral Lyons, for service on the Black sea and along the Crimean coast. That vessel reached the bay of Odessa about the 15th of February 1854. The British fleet, under the command of Admirals Dundas and Lyons, numbered twenty-one ships, including war ships, frigates and curvets or sloops of war, while the French fleet, under command of Admirals Hamlin and Brunnette, numbered twenty-three ships. The orders to demand the surrender of Odessa arrived on the night of the 21st of April 1854, by the naval mail packet Credock from Constantinople to the fleet. Of course the order was not complied with, and the first guns of the Crimean war were turned upon Odessa about five o’clock on the morning of Saturday, April 22, 1854, the cannonading continuing thirteen hours. The city was on fire, but Prince Mencicoff, the Russian general, did not surrender. The British war ship Terrible was destroyed by the Russian fire from the guns of the forts of Odessa, and several ships of the French and British fleets were crippled, and the fleets were unable to effect a landing. The British army of over thirty thousand men under Lord Raglan, and the French army of forty thousand men under Marechal St. Arnod, with ten thousand Turks under Omar Pasha, were ordered to the front under the protection of the combined fleets of France and England. On the 14th of September 1854, at Kilmatta bay, where the river Alma connects with the Black sea, the French, British and Turkish troops were landed. The Heights of Alma, a rocky cliff, are situated from one to three miles from the shores of the Black sea, and along the apex of the cliff was the Warnsoff stage road from Sebastopol to Odessa. A telegraph station and mercantile houses were located there, and General Mencicoff, commander-in-chief of the Russian army, concentrated seventy thousand men there on the night of September 19, 1854. On the following morning the French, British and Turks, under the command of Field-Marshal Arnod, of France, formed a battle line three miles in length at right angles on the north bank of the Alma and the shore of the sea. The Russian army of seventy thousand opened fire on the French army, who had their position along the sea ‘shore, hoping to drive the French into the sea, but the heavy guns of the fleet kept the Russians at bay until Lord Raglan with his command arrived, bringing the cannon up the Alma river and onto the heights in the third hour of the battle, and attacked the Russians on the level plain of the heights. This move drew the strong force of the Russians from the French, who almost as if by magic scaled the heights. The roar of artillery and the thunderous sounds of the battle lasted for three hours, at the end of which time the Russians retreated toward the valley of Balaklava. So intense had been the battle that it required six days to bury the dead and get the wounded on board the hospital ships. On the seventh day after the battle of Alma the combined force of French, English, the Piedmontese, under General Forey, and the Turks, under General Omar Pasha, marched toward the Balaklava valley, a thriving agricultural district farmed principally by Scotch farmers who immigrated there to raise wheat on a large scale. At the head of this valley the Warnsoff stage road from Odessa to Simferopol and Sebastopol crosses the Takernea River on a long stone bridge of many arches. A Russian fort stood in this locality. The two famous brothers, the Generals Luder, held this position, fifteen miles from Sebastopol, with a strong army, and General and Prince Mancicoff with his men who fought in the Alma, were fortified on the heights on the south side of the valley, whilst the sons of Emperor Nicholas, Michael and Nicholas, held their artillery and cavalry forces for any emergency on a commanding position. The Russians held position where the guns of the fleet could not reach them, and where they could deliver a deadly fire on the French, British and Turks. The French and British marines and the marine artillery were ordered ashore together with the artillery of the navy, and the troops forced a position on the nearest heights, known then as the marine heights. While getting their guns in place under cover of darkness, on the morning of October 17, 1854, the Russian pickets opened fire, and the battle of Balaklava commenced. Captain Nolan, of the Seventeenth Irish Hussars, was field dispatcher for Lord Reglan, who gave him a written dispatch to the Earl of Cardigan, who commanded the cavalry, to charge up the valley in order to know better the Russian position. Cardigan ordered Captain Nolan to lead the charge. He and his six hundred men then dismounted, tightened their saddles and then remounted for the fatal charge. They rode over a rolling ridge about one thousand yards only to find themselves within the range of sixty field-pieces, planted on each side of the valley. To retreat was certain death. Captain Nolan charged for the battery, he and his men cutting the Russian gunners from their guns, and then turning at the command to right about face, cut through a second time and charged down the valley to their own line, where Captain Nolan, who had lead in what was one of the most daring and brilliant military movements in history, was killed by a cannon shot.

On the 5th of November 1854, the allied armies of France and England, in connection with the fleets, had arranged for the final assault on Sebastopol. Marechal McMahon, of France, with his men, stormed the Malakof, capturing the principal defense of Sebastopol, Forts Nicholas and Alexander, with several hundred guns, which commanded the naval entrance to Sebastopol. Here the Agamemnon, the flagship of Admiral Lyons, was crippled. Many of the men were killed, and Mr. O’Farrell was among the wounded. For his meritorious services in that engagement, however, he received a Crimean prize medal, which he still has in his possession. In 1856 the Crimean war was ended, and he returned to California, where he resumed mining in the gold districts.

In the fall of 1857 Mr. O’Farrell was one of a party who organized a company at Downieville, California, to prospect for gold on the Pike’s Peak mountain range, at the headwaters of the Platte River, then in western Kansas, but now in the state of Colorado. He was one of the first to find gold, making his discovery April 6, 1860, in what is known as California Gulch, where the Leadville Mining Camp is now located. Attracted by the gold discoveries through out the northwest he has visited and worked in the mining regions of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, but has made his home in Boise, Idaho, since June, 1863.


Illustrated History of the State of Idaho. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company. 1899.

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