Fremont County, Iowa

Irish Settlers
by by Veronica (O'Connor) Keasling

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of 3 November 2008

Irish Settlers In The Northeast Corner of Fremont County, Iowa

Iowa was opened to settlers in 1813, became a territory in 1838, and was ceded by the Indians to the government in 1843. Western Iowa opened for settlement in 1845 and Iowa became a state in 1846. In 1848 Ireland was attacked by the potato famine.

The Irish came to America and eventually to Iowa to escape the results of the potato famine. Many of them were recruited to build the railroads.

In 1849 Bishop Loras secured monks from the Irish Trappist Monks of Mount Melleray in County Waterford, Ireland, to establish Our Lady of New Melleray Abbey on 500 acres west of Dubuque, IA. To support the Abbey, the monks acquired cattle grazing land in White Cloud Township in Mills County just north of the present site of Imogene. Under the direction of Brother Bernard Murphy, herds were fattened and shipped to Chicago to feed a nation engaged in a Civil War. Irishmen who sold their farms for the Abbey in Dubuque, and those who helped build the Abbey, came to work the ranch and settled in the area.

1879 saw the building of the Wabash Railroad across Iowa. On October 11, 1879, the last spike was driven precisely at noon near Walnut Creek, connecting St. Louis and Council Bluffs. Five hundred men were hired to help lay and surface track on the Council Bluffs and St. Louis line from Council Bluffs to Chillicothe, MO. The first train through Imogene was the Wabash Flyer, known as the “Cannonball.”

Imogene, then known as “Little Ireland," was later renamed after either Imogene Blanchard (the railroad superintendent’s daughter) or Imogene Anderson (the townsite manager’s daughter). This was never officially documented.

One Irishman’s history: Patrick “Patsy” O’Connor was one of those hired to build the railroad, his family coming to America from County Cork. Johanna Keefe, also from County Cork, came with her parents at the age of two to Sodridge, Canada. In 1869 her family came to the United States and located first at Clinton, IA. Johanna’s father worked for the railroads and gradually, as the tracks were built, the family moved westward until they settled at Glenwood. In 1875 she was married to Patsy O’Connor in St. Francis Church in Council Bluffs.

They lived first as overseers of the Trappists’ Brothers ranch in Mills County. Johanna worked as housekeeper and cook at the ranch. Seven years later, in 1877, they purchased a farm two miles northwest of Imogene where they plowed the land and began their family of seven children. In 1891 they bought the “family home” west of Imogene where they lived until their deaths – Patsy at age 55 (1898) of cancer, and Johanna at age 71 (1925) of “the infirmities of advanced age.”

The O’Conners are examples of many of the families who came, settled, and gave the strong Irish flavor to the northeast corner of Fremont County.

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