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Captain John D. O’Brien, Kildare-born US Army veteran and Wyoming rancher

James Durney

In 1903 Kildare-born John D. O’Brien was mentioned in a volume titled Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming as being among one of the ‘brave defenders of America’s honour’. The biographical sketch said no one in Converse County was more entitled to recognition than the ‘worthy Captain O’Brien, who, after years of danger, privation and gallant army service, is passing his declining years on his pleasant and beautifully located ranch on LaPrele Creek, eight miles west of Douglas, Wyoming’.
John D. O’Brien was born in Kildare c.1838 - an exact date is given in the original article, but it does not match any records in the county - the youngest of nine children. His father, John O’Brien, a marine engineer, died in a shipwreck off the Cape of Good Hope in 1841. Mrs. O’Brien then moved to Liverpool and in 1847 left for America with some of her children. She took up residence in New York City where she lived until her death. In 1852, young John O’Brien enlisted in the U.S. Army as a musician and was assigned to the 4th Artillery Regiment. His military assignments included duty in Texas against Comanches and other hostile Indians, and in Florida against scattered bands of Seminoles in the Third Seminole War. At the expiration of his enlistment, he returned to New York City and took employment in the U.S. Custom House. In May 1860 John O’Brien married Anastasia Shea, a native of Kilkenny. Five children – a daughter and four sons – were born to the couple while they lived in NYC.
In January 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, John enlisted in the Union Army. He served with the 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment, fighting in the Army of the Potomac, until the end of the war. The 4th Infantry was engaged at such notable battles as Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg. The 4th Infantry went West to the Wyoming Territory in 1867 and served at Fort Laramie for a time before locating to Camp Sill. After about six weeks they began building Fort Fetterman, an outpost taking its name from Lt. Colonel William Fetterman, who had met his death with eighty of his men in December 1866 in an Indian massacre near Fort Phil Kearny.
While at Fetterman, the O’Briens sixth child, Margaret, was born – the first Caucasian child to be born at the fort. The O’Briens eventually raised a family of sixteen – four died early in life – besides caring for their granddaughter, Elsie, who had lost her mother while still a toddler. Elsie remained with her grandparents through her earliest years, later joining her father, John, who was foreman on the V. R. Ranch, at Uva, Wyoming.
During the summer of 1873 John O’Brien served as orderly sergeant on the Big Horn expedition in 1869 and also accompanied the Yellowstone expedition in 1872. The 4th Infantry was amalgamated with the 30th Infantry to form the 1st Wyoming Infantry in 1874. In May 1877 John O’Brien was discharged ‘with honourary mention’ from the service. He settled down to raise livestock on a ranch six miles south of Fort Fetterman.
In spite of his love for ranching, the military spirit still welled within him and in April 1898, when President William McKinley issued a call for volunteers to serve in the Spanish-American War, John O’Brien enlisted and was commissioned captain of Company F, 1st Wyoming Infantry, on 27 April 1898 – just days before his sixtieth birthday.
The 1st Wyoming Infantry Regiment embarked at San Francisco and arrived at the Philippines on 31 July. They disembarked on 6 August and were immediately engaged in skirmishing duty. The 1st Wyoming was the first regiment to enter Manila and Captain O’Brien engaged in his first guard duty on the wall separating the old city and the new. Following the occupation of Manila, the 1st Wyoming was assigned numerous duties involving frequent battles against insurrectionists with Company F reportedly ‘making many brave charges and doing valiant service’ the most notable being the capture of the old church at Gaudaloupe, which had been occupied by 1,500 Filipinos.
Frequently riding with Captain O’Brien during the campaign was Teddy Roosevelt, destined to become the next president of the United States – and who became a personal friend of the captain. On 7 March 1899 Captain O’Brien was wounded by a bullet, which mutilated his right wrist. He, nevertheless, remained with his company, leading them in ‘numerous gallant engagements’ until 6 July, when orders came to embark on their homeward journey.
Landing in San Francisco in mid-August, the men of Company F mustered out at the Presido on 23 September 1899 and returned to their Wyoming homes. Captain O’Brien returned to his peaceful life on his Wyoming ranch at LaPrele Creek. He suffered a severe case of malaria while in the Philippines and upon returning always slept with a canopy of mosquito netting over his bed. Captain O’Brien also brought back three mischievous monkeys from the Philippines and they lived in a specially constructed monkey house on the ranch. Two died the first winter, but the third lived for several years.
In the early 1900s Captain O’Brien moved from his ranch to a residence in Douglas, where he soon became involved in civic affairs serving as Justice of the Peace, as well as U.S. Commissioner. John D. O’Brien died on 4 August 1915 in Douglas, Converse. He was preceded by his wife, Anastasia, who died in January 1914.

Note: My thanks to Richard James Rielly, Jr., Aztec, New Mexico, for bringing this story to my attention when he visited the Local Studies and Genealogy Department, in Newbridge Library, in July 2012.



In 1903 Kildare-born John D. O’Brien was mentioned in a volume titled Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming as being among one of the ‘brave defenders of America’s honour’.

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