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Irishman Found A Good Fight in Fledgling Utah
Will Bagley
Published: 03/17/2002 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

St. Patrick's Day, the day historian Floyd O'Neil considers the holiest of the year, is a good time to remember the career of Utah's most famous--or infamous, depending on one's viewpoint--Irishman.  

Born in County Kerry, Ireland, about 1820, Patrick Edward O'Connor came to America as a teen-ager. In a time of bitter anti-Irish prejudice, he dropped the "O" from his name but remained proud of his heritage. 

Like many immigrants, Connor joined the U.S. Army and served in the legendary First Dragoons before settling in Texas. He commanded a company of volunteers in the Mexican War. Gen. Zachary Taylor commended his bravery at the Battle of Buena Vista, in which Connor was wounded. 

Connor moved to California in 1850 and ran a construction business that laid the foundation of the state Capitol.  

In 1853, he and the California Rangers hunted down the notorious bandit, Joaquin Murieta. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Connor accepted a commission as colonel of the California Volunteers.  

Much to their disappointment, his men were ordered to Utah to protect the overland mail route rather than being sent to fight the Confederates.   

Unofficially, they were to keep an eye on the Mormons, a community Connor considered "traitors, murderers, fanatics and whores" whose leaders preached "treason from the pulpit." 

Nonetheless, as he approached the territory, Connor ordered each soldier to treat Utahns with "the same courtesy and justice that he would show to his own people." 

Brigham Young had promised to make "the road up Jordan a hard road to travel," but the troops marched unopposed up Main Street with their bands playing and flags flying. "Not a cheer nor a jeer greeted us," a chaplain recalled. The soldiers turned up First South to the mouth of Red Butte Canyon where they founded Camp (now Fort) Douglas in October 1862.  

Connor lost little time stopping Indian "depredations" on the overland trail. In January 1863, Mormon gunman Porter Rockwell led Connor's force north in bitterly cold weather to attack Bear Hunter's band near today's Franklin, Idaho. This hard-fought battle (which a surgeon later charged "was instigated without a doubt by the Mormons") quickly degenerated into the largest massacre of Indians in the history of the West, slaughtering at least 250 Shoshone men, women and children.

The Bear River Massacre cast a shadow over Connor's reputation but won him promotion to brigadier general. 

In November 1863, Connor opened a campaign to bring a "new, hardy and industrious population" to Utah Territory after Mormon prospectors showed him silver ore found in Bingham Canyon. Connor began a career that won him the title, "Father of Utah Mining."  

Young believed mining would bring Utah only "nakedness, starvation, utter destitution and annihilation," but Connor thought attracting a population of "gentile" prospectors was "the only sure means of settling peaceably the Mormon question." 

After the war, Connor engaged in developing Utah mining and transportation. He founded a smelter and built the steamboat Kate Connor, named after his wife.   

As a founder of the Liberal Party, Utah's first political organization, Connor continued his war on theocracy. When King Robinson was brutally murdered after challenging Mormon land titles, Connor blamed Brigham's Destroying Angels and vowed: "As long as I have breath I shall denounce and cry aloud for vengeance on the foul assassins."  

Yet Connor also despised injustice and offered to pay Young's bail when an overzealous judge sent the prophet to jail for failing to pay alimony.  

Connor died in 1891, never winning the great fortune he sought, but his contributions to Utah politics and prosperity still endure.

Utah historian and author Will Bagley wishes he were Irish.

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