O'Brien's arrive to a "scene from Hell"
They helped bury Custer's dead upon arrival to Montana from Ireland
Lewistown News Argus**
Sunday, December 15, 1991
Christmas Edition by Mary Lou Sennett
Bridget and Michael O'Brien, who had left Ireland in the 1870s to better their lives, were on their way to homestead in Montana when they came to the valley of the Little Big Horn River on the morning of June 26, 1876.
Topping a rise, they came upon a scene from hell. The day before, General George Custer had led his men against the Sioux and Cheyenne, a battle that none of the white men survived.
Dead men and horses, broken guns, lances and arrows littered the landscape. Bridget and Michael, a former Army man, were among those who helped bury the dead that day.
The O'Briens had come to Montana.
They settled near Moore and had seven children - Kate (Brown), Molly (Switzer), Lil (Johnson), Belle (Hodges), Richard "Dick", Bill and Tom.
Records are unclear as to what happened to Michael, but Bridget later married George Logan and had two more sons. She's remembered as a strong and feisty Irish woman.
The O'Brien children settled in the Moore area, except for Lil, who "moved back east," according to family accounts.
In 1904, Dick married Catherine (Kate) Tresch, whose family was also involved with some of the major history that shaped America.
Kate's father, Zacharias Tresch, was born in Switzerland, where the name was originally spelled "Trosch."
One of six children, he and his older brother, Sebastian, emigrated to the U.S. during the Civil War.
Not wishing to get caught up in the fighting of a war they didn't understand, they landed at New Orleans, thinking it was neutral territory.
Sadly, they were wrong. Both were immediately "drafted" into the Confederate Army. Sebastian was in the Louisiana Zouave Battalion and the last that Zacharias heard of him was that, at the age of 25, he was in "Sherman's march to the sea." Army records do not show what happened to him, and Zacharias. searched for many years, but could find no clue as to what had become of his brother.
When Zacharias was drafted into
the Confederate Army, he was asked his name and replied "Zack." With his heavy
accent, the army decided he must have said "Jack," and for some reason enlisted
him as "John," a nickname for Jack. At that time, he didn't read or speak
Zack/John was captured by the North and given the usual opportunity: be shot or imprisoned, or change sides.
Since John (as he was now known) had little stake in either side winning, he began working for the North. He is still listed in Southern Army records as a "deserter."
John ended up in Montana Territory and tried panning for gold at Diamond City. He found enough gold to melt down and fashion a ring. Made of pure gold, it is too soft to wear and is a keepsake in the Tresch family.
He also mined enough to buy horses and a wagon to haul freight. As his freighting business prospered, he added more horses and wagons. One of his regular runs was to Great Falls, which took seven days each way.
In Diamond City, John met Marie Danioth, who had come over from Switzerland to visit her uncle. After a brief courtship, they were married at White Sulpher Springs in 1880 and moved to Beaver Creek, south of Lewistown, where they homesteaded what is still. "the Tresch place."
John died in 1931 at the age of 94. He had stubbed his toe and ignored it until gangrene had become so spread throughout his body that it killed him.
John and Marie's children were Catherine (Kate), John Jr. (Johnnie), Walter (who died at the age of 25), Julius (Booblie), Sarah and Marie (Toots).
The family story is that Kate was the first white child born in the Beaver Creek area.
In 1889, when she was seven, she started school at the Brassey School near Beaver Creek, walking two miles each way. There were 48 students, but since the winters were so severe and most of the students had to walk so far to get to school, classes were held only in the summer.
When Kate was 22, she married Dick O'Brien and according to her account, she could "sew, wash clothes, iron, stack hay, shock grain, milk cows, run the mowing machine and the binder... but I couldn't do much cooking, which was quite a handicap when I got married."
The O'Briens' "honeymoon trip" was on a hayrack-load of furniture 15 miles to the ranch south of Moore in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, where she spent most of the rest of her life.
She and Dick built their home, in which a family still lives, in 1910 from gray bricks made with molds they made themselves. (Jack Hanna owns the ranch now).
Five children were born on the ranch, with only a midwife in attendance. Said Kate "...with two of them, the midwife came too late and my husband took over. He did a good job."
Dick and Kate O'Brien's children were Walter "Mick"; Agnes "Hy"; Elsa "Dan", who married George Richardson in 1943; Ted, who married Shirley Allen in 1945; and Shirley "Shing", who married Dr. Martin Hutchinson in 1938.
Mick, the oldest child, started school in a one-room log cabin not far from the Logan cabins (his grandmother and step-grandfather's place) on Beaver Creek. He and his brothers and sisters later attended school near Trap Creek and rode horseback four miles each way to school.
Dick, like Kate's father and brother, was a freighter. With a "jerk line" of eight to ten horses, he hauled lines of two to six wagons loaded with merchandise between Billings, Harlowton, Great Falls, Fort Benton, Garneill and Lewistown.
"There weren't really any competitive feelings," his son Mick said. "There was more than enough work to go around. He'd sometimes be gone for weeks."
But that changed when the railroad came to Central Montana. Work for the freighters disappeared. Dick, who "knew horses," turned to raising a herd of top horses.
"He must have had good horses," said daughter Shirley "Shing" Hutchinson, who lived in Santa Rosa, Calif. "I remember that we had a stallion that he used to take around to the neighbors' ranches to breed their mares."
When Dick was gone running freight, Kate had learned to cope with small children on the relatively-isolated ranch.
It was good that she was, in the
words of some who knew her, "a right strong woman."
Dick died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Kate was just 35 years old. Her oldest child, Mick, was 13; her youngest was six.
"Some of the rest of us had the flu, too, "Mick remembered. "My brother was in the hospital 14 weeks and my sister had to be in the hospital, too. I had it, but never got sick enough to go to the hospital.
"It was my mother that kept things together," he continued. "I don't know how she did it. Of course she couldn't dig post holes or do the haying, so there were some men who worked on the ranch who came from all over the country.
"We kids all worked. If we found any problems, we told Mother. She somehow managed every difficulty that came up."
There were some problems even Kate couldn't make right. The children, who were. doing the work of grown men, sometimes ran into situations they couldn't handle.
On a summer day in 1920, 14-year-old Agnes was mowing hay. The horses apparently "spooked" and she was thrown in front of the sharp blade of the mower and severed her arm. Within a few days, she was dead from shock and loss of blood.
Mick has several shortened fingers.
"When I was around 14," he said, "I was greasing the pump jack and ran my hand through the gears. I was lucky I didn't lose more than the parts of a few fingers." Kate was never one to elaborate on trouble. In describing the multi-year drought of the 1920s, she said "...then the dry years came and we went broke."
The Great Depression also hit Central Montana before folks were over the "dry years," but somehow Kate hung on to the O'Brien ranch.
Shirley, the youngest of the children, said "I don't know how she managed to keep the ranch. I know she paid into the mortgage for years and year and years.
"We lived o.k. because we were on the ranch. We raised our own cattle, pigs, chickens and geese. We had a big garden and a root cellar and prepared food in the fail to last all winter."
One thing that had to go during those hard years was Dick's prized herd of horses.
"You couldn't give a horse away," Mick said. "We tried. We sold what we could, gave away what we could. The rest had to be butchered for hog food. There was just nothing to feed the horses. It was awful sad."
There were good times, too, for the O'Briens, and most of them revolved around family. They lived close to Kate's sister, Sarah Carter, and the families worked and played together.
Christmas in the 1920s was far different from the glittery, gift-filled celebration it is today, but it was certainly a celebration.
"We had such fun," Shirley remembered. "We'd go to my Grandma and Grandpa Tresch's. Everyone in the whole family would do just about anything to get there.
It was a good 20 miles from our ranch to Tresch's. One year, when we went in the sled, the foot warmer Mother had filled with hot charcoal to keep us warm tipped over when the sled slipped sideways. It was exciting, but we were o.k.
"Having Aunt Toots come from Butte with her family was a big event. The Carters would come from Denton and Uncle Booblie and Aunt Verna lived close, so they were always there.
"It was different than now, though," Shirley continued. "There were no presents. Our celebration was oranges and sweet potatoes, which we never had any other time, and nuts and all the candy we could eat from our Uncle Johnnie. And celery was a big treat."
"Uncle Johnnie" was Dick's brother, who never married and who was a great favorite with the youngsters in the family.
Booblie's daughter, Bonnie Tresch Morrison. remembers a Christmas some years later.
"We were his unruly family. He never forgot us at Christmas. One year, when we were at a school Christmas program, he apparently left early and put our presents in the middle of the kitchen floor at home.
"Coming home from the program with tired and cranky kids, Mom was trying to find the light switch and fell over the toys. She was mad at us kids for not picking 'our stuff' up.
"Finally when the lights were turned on, there were our Christmas presents. Boy, were we excited! But as there were no-names on anything, we had to guess what went to whom and before it ended, I'm sure there was a fight or two before we were sent to bed."
When Mick married Iva Inez (who was always called Inez) Munkers, Kate moved into Lewistown and spent time traveling to visit family, and Mick and Inez moved onto the family ranch.
In 1960, when Mick and Inez moved to the Roehl ranch, which the family had bought some years before, closer to Moore, Kate moved back to the original ranch. She died in 1974, at the age of 82.
Mick and Inez ranched the place near Moore and raised their children there. They had three - Susan, who married Brian Payne; Kristy, who married Bill Whitsitt; and Richard, "Rick," who married Karen Sennett.
The children were born, though, when O'Briens lived on the "home place" and Kristy still remembers the years of heavy snows.
"One year, when I was about five," she said, "it snowed so heavy that there was a mountain of snow along the side of the two-story house. We were able to go out our bedroom window and slide down the mountain. Even Mom and Dad came out and played in it.
"Another year," she continued. "It snowed on the Fourth of July. Dad always had a terrific fireworks display for us. He had it all set up and the snow ruined all the fireworks. We were upset, but it was still fun to have that much snow on the Fourth of July.
"Dad raised cattle, wheat and hay on the "new ranch,"' Kristy said, "but what he liked best was being a cattleman and enjoying his kids. I don't think he had much of a childhood because he had to become the 'dad' to his brothers and sisters at a young age, but he just got an enormous kick out of watching us kids do things, especially 'rodeo'.
"Susie and I barrel-raced and participated in 'Miss Rodeo' contests. Rick rode bareback broncs and bulls. Dad would load the horses up in old Army trucks and take us to towns all over Montana. Dad enjoyed watching Rick ride bulls until the time a bull tore the shirt right off him. I'm not sure he enjoyed it as much after that.
"He always encouraged us to do things," Kristy continued. "I ran for Miss Rodeo Montana in 1969 mostly because he wanted me to. But when I won, that year was one in which I grew a lot. I got rid of my shyness, improved my self esteem and developed an ability to speak extemporaneously before people."
Mick, now 86, was active in Democratic politics and served as a delegate from Montana to the National Democratic Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy.
He was also involved in the Farmers Union and was instrumental in getting the Rural Electric Association to get electricity to the Snowies.
In his younger years, Mick did a bit of "rodeoing" himself. His son, Rick, tells of hearing about the time the bronc Mick was riding in the rodeo actually jumped out of the arena.
"They didn't catch up with the horse 'til he was about a mile down the road," Rick said. "I can't imagine what Dad must've been thinking, tearing down the road on a wild horse."
Mick retired in 1979, having, as he says "gone from the horse-and-buggy days to men on the moon," and Rick and Karen moved onto the ranch. Inez died in 1990 and Mick lives by himself in their home in Lewistown.
And back out in Moore?
Out in Moore, there are another Kate and Michael O'Brien, Rick and Karen's children, continuing the story of the O'Brien's in Montana.
Copyright 1998-2006 - Ann Kramlich and Betty Distad - All Rights Reserved
** Consent to post the stories and photos for non commercial use from the Lewistown News Argus was graciously granted by Dave Byerly owner and Publisher. These stories and photos may not be used by any commercial entity for any reason without consent from the Lewistown News Argus.