John O'Farrell - More adventures of the Boise pioneer

History Corner

Print Article

John A. O'Farrell is remembered for being one of the pioneers of Boise in the middle 1800s, having built an historic log cabin that still stands, serving in the Idaho Legislature, being the father of seven children and adopting seven more - including the daughter of an Indian chief - but he did a lot more than that.

Born in Tyrone County in Ulster, Ireland, in 1823, he inherited an adventurous spirit from his father, Andrew, who served in the British Navy for 31 years and was with the Duke of Wellington in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo in the Netherlands (now Belgium), where Napoleon was finally brought to his knees following his return from exile.

At age 13, John was sent to an English naval school to be a seaman - the first step in a life of adventure that would make a good movie. At 15 he boarded a ship of the Oriental Steamship line and headed for India and the Dutch East Indies. On the return trip, they stopped at Ceylon, then back to India, Madagascar and a number of African ports.

In those days, it wasn't unusual for boys to go to sea at such an early age. Life expectancy in Britain was only 29 years and there was little time to waste.

Back in England, 16-year-old John transferred to the British East India Company ship Nebob and was sent to Sydney, Australia. At that time, Australia was a penal colony where convicts from Britain and Ireland were sent to serve as indentured workers or imprisoned under brutal conditions.

Sailing out of Sydney Harbour, the ship headed for Chinese and Japanese ports for mail and passengers. They were in China when the British were smuggling opium to meet a big Chinese demand. The First Opium War was just around the corner. But by that time, O'Farrell was heading back to Britain via the Strait of Magellan, across the Atlantic and up the west coast of Africa.

They also delivered and picked up mail and passengers at St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic (where Napoleon was exiled and died six years after Waterloo). The trip took 13 months.

For the next year and a half, O'Farrell was back in his native Ireland working as a ship smith at Captain Coppin's shipbuilding works in Londonderry. He was still only 19.

One of the ships he worked on was White Star's City of New York. He then joined the crew and sailed to New York for his next big adventure. He immediately went to Philadelphia and through his uncle secured another ship building job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, he returned to sea aboard the USS Lexington, a sail-powered sloop-of-war store ship heading for Monterey, Calif., to help enforce a blockade. The trip took 198 days from Delaware around Cape Horn.

Then he started meeting some interesting people who would one day make history.

On board with a force of Marines was a young lieutenant named William Tecumseh Sherman who would go down in the annals of Civil War lore.

Also at Monterey were Joseph Libbey Folsom, founder of the city of Folsom, Calif., and Edward Ord, namesake of the U.S. Army's Fort Ord on Monterey Bay.

During the time of the Mexican War, there was no mail service on the Pacific Coast, so the Lexington was assigned to provide mail service three times a month between Monterey and Dana Point, where the mail would continue overland to Los Angeles and San Diego.

The next historic figure that O'Farrell met was Captain John Sutter of California Gold Rush fame. He met Sutter and sawmill builder James W. Marshall in Yerba Buena - which later became San Francisco - who had just arrived from Sutter's Mill, Coloma, northeast of Sacramento.

Twenty-five-year-old O'Farrell's life changed when Jim Marshall gave him three grains of gold, worth about $2, and then hired him to mine gold, paying him a percentage of what he found. It amounted to $30 to $50 a day - big money in those days.

A new law made it possible for O'Farrell to become an American citizen and he cast his first votes in 1850 when California became a state. As much as he enjoyed the lure of gold he went back to sea aboard a Baltimore clipper called Red Jacket heading for Auckland, New Zealand, Melbourne and Sydney, before returning with a load of coal to San Francisco with a stop in Hawaii.

Next, he crewed for the Vanderbilt Line sailing on the West Coast, Caribbean and then back to England where once again he went to war.

In October 1853, Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Kingdom of Sardinia declared war against Russia, starting the Crimean War. The battleground was the Crimea Peninsula at the north end of the Black Sea. The objective was to stop Russian expansionism against the weakening Ottomans.

O'Farrell's eldest brother Patrick was already serving in the Royal Navy on the Black Sea. There was a call for seamen, so John enlisted. He was assigned to the HMS Agamemnon, flagship of fleet commander Rear-Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons. The ship reached the war zone in February 1854.

The Allies fielded more than 975,000 military, while the Russians and a few Greeks countered with about 700,000. It was during this conflict on Oct. 25, 1854, that the famous Charge of the Light Brigade took place, immortalized by Tennyson's poem about the disastrous British cavalry charge at the Battle of Balaclava.

The Allied warships exchanged cannon fire with Russian shore fortifications, and the Agamemnon was hit and crippled. John O'Farrell was wounded in the battle and earned the Crimean Medal of Valor for his actions.

What happened at Balaclava?

FitzRoy Somerset, Lord Raglan, commander of the British troops sent an order to Lord Lucan-George Charles Bingham, who in turn ordered his brother-in-law Lord Cardigan whom he disliked to lead the Light Brigade charge in the Balaclava Valley.

The objective was to stop the Russians from removing guns captured during an earlier skirmish. Later they were spotted returning for the artillery, prompting Lord Raglan to send the following message to Lucan:

"Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of horse-artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate."

As Captain Louis Nolan left to deliver the message, Lord Raglan shouted, "Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately" But it was unclear to Lucan which guns he meant. "Not tho' the soldier knew, someone had blunder'd:" Tennyson wrote.

As the 674 horsemen raced down the valley, sabers flashing, Russian cannons were waiting for them on both sides. "Boldly they rode and well," Tennyson continued, "Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell." The battle lasted but 20 minutes before the survivors retreated. They left 107 dead comrades on the battlefield, with more dying later of their wounds.

Then the blame-game started. It was the battle of the noblemen, with the lowly army captain caught in the middle. The debate among historians as to who was at fault for the disaster continues to this day.

Defending Nolan, Lord Cardigan stated that the Captain "did not have the least idea of the mistake which was about to be perpetrated."

When O'Farrell learned about the Light Brigade's misfortunes later - as the whole world did - he must have been grateful that he was a seaman and not cavalry.

In the years that followed, John O'Farrell married Mary Ann Lambert and returned to gold mining in 10 states. In 1860, he led a prospecting party to Pike's Peak in Colorado and found a rich deposit at a site called California Gulch. But by June 1863, his seafaring and mining days were over and he moved to Boise for the rest of his life.

He was father of seven children, raised a stepdaughter and adopted seven other children, as well as building his log cabin and serving the community as one of Boise's pioneer residents. John O'Farrell died in 1900, ending a life of adventure - touching a lot of history along the way.

Not a bad journey.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. Contact him at

O'Farrell's ship owner

The British East India Company (est. 1600) which hired 16-year-old John O'Farrell as a sailor aboard its ship Nebob no longer operates, but over the centuries did some remarkable things:

* Occupied and ruled St. Helena Island and helped imprison Napoleon there.

* Hired Captain Kidd to fight pirates in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

* Introduced tea to India from China.

* Shipped its tea on American-owned ships involved in the Boston Tea Party (Dec. 16, 1773).

* Developed operations systems for civil service, banking, finance and education still used in India and elsewhere.

* Corporate flag was model for the Stars and Stripes.

Dangers at sea

John O'Farrell's years at sea were filled with constant danger. One of them was disease, often caused by unsanitary conditions on board. Even going ashore in foreign ports could expose sailors to exotic diseases that their immune system and medical science in those days couldn't handle - including cholera, typhoid and malaria.

USS Lexington's historic mission

After John O'Farrell served on the Lexington, the ship joined Commodore Matthew C. Perry's four-ship squadron that entered into Tokyo Bay in 1853 and demanded under threat of gunfire that Japan negotiate an open door policy. The feudal and xenophobic Japanese eventually agreed and Japan was dragged unwillingly into modern times.

In the middle of the Crimean War

The Balaclava Valley on the Crimean Peninsula - scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade - was populated by Scottish farmers who immigrated to grow wheat on a large scale.

John O'Farrell and General Sherman

While in Monterey, little did they know that both would leave their mark in Idaho - O'Farrell's historic log cabin and O'Farrell Street in downtown Boise, and Sherman's fort and Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d'Alene.

British warship HMS Agamemnon

O'Farrell's ship "Was a Royal Navy 91-gun battleship ordered by the Admiralty in 1849 ....the first British battleship to be designed and built ...with installed steam power...(but) was expected that she would spend much of her time traveling under sail power...therefore carried a full square rig on three masts, in common with large sailing warships of the period."

- Parkes "British Battleships"

Opium and tea

The Chinese enjoyed selling their tea to the British but insisted on being paid in silver. This depleted British silver reserves, so with a wink from the British Government, the East India Company smuggled opium into China - demanding payment in silver. That evened things up.

Print Article

Read More Syd Albright

HISTORY CORNER: Dogs of our fathers: Part I

January 20, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press Common belief claims pet dogs evolved from wolves. But not everyone agrees. Some say early humans raised wolf pups as pets and after a few generations they somehow became domesticated. Or perhaps wol...


Read More

HISTORY CORNER: France’s gift to the United States: the Statue of Liberty

January 13, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press For 143 years, the Statue of Liberty has shined as a beacon of hope and freedom in a world filled with too much despair and bondage. Édouard de Laboulaye was a French intellectual with an interest in...


Read More

Dark chapters in the cultural history of a growing America

January 05, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, North America was home to as many as 15 million Native Americans. The 2010 Census says that today there are 5.2 million people in the United States wh...


Read More

HISTORY CORNER: Native Americans, explorers, trappers, settlers and miners — the Snake River has seen them all

December 30, 2018 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press High on the Continental Divide at a place called Two Oceans Plateau at 8,200 feet altitude, three tiny creeks in Yellowstone National Park flow west and south into Wyoming’s Lake Jackson. That’s ho...


Read More

Contact Us

(208) 664-8176
215 N. Second St
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 83814

©2019 The Coeur d'Alene Press Terms of Use Privacy Policy