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Sec A Page 4 Missoulian Centennial O'Keefe One of Most Colorful Characters

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O’Keefe One of Most Colorful Characters

Baron Cornelius C. O’Keefe, one of Missoula County’s most colorful pioneers, became a legend in this area because of his unusual personality and his appeal to the imagination.

He acquired the title baron when he was elected for two terms as a member of the First Territorial Legislature. Tradition has it, that being of a ready wit, he registered himself at the territorial capitol as Cornelius C. O’Keefe and added the title land baron instead of farmer. Nicknames were the rule rather than the exception in those days and the name stuck. Often he was called “Barney.”

Because of his fiery Irish temper and quick sense of humor, the baron figured in many an anecdote. It was he who as defendant in the historical first lawsuit defended himself. On being questioned about his credentials by the judge, O’Keefe swung his arm and smashed His Honor with his fist square between the eyes, remarking drily, “There are my credentials.”

County Commissioner

Later, the baron turned his boundless energy to the legal side and served 12 years as county commissioner. The citizens found that he could not only handle his own affairs capably, but the affairs of the community as well.

On a trip in 1864 to trade a load of O’Keefe potatoes with the potato-starved gold camps, his outfit – himself, his brother Dave, a Mexican horse-wrangler and 12 horses – was surrounded by Indians.

The Indians rebuilt his fire, enjoyed a roast-potato feast, led off his horses, requested his brother’s leather gaiters as a gift, snipped the buttons off their coats and turned an eye toward the baron’s necktie. At this point the baron objected. He met the Mexican with a fist when that timid wrangler pleaded with the baron to hand over the tie. The Indians thought this choice, until the baron treated an Indian, who attempted to snatch the tie, the same. The humbled brave went at the baron with knife in hand. Here the chief interrupted, insisting that O’Keefe was too good a man to die.

Saw Death Coming

Nevertheless, he died in 1893, at the age of 56. His manner of dying was as characteristic as his life. He felt death approaching when he noticed his fingers getting cold. Calling to Eliakum Ross, the brother of his son-in-law, he said, “I’m getting cold. I’m not feeling well. I’m going to die today.” His relatives tried to persuade him it was only his imagination, but he lay on the bed fully dressed, and before the day had passed, Baron O’Keefe had also.

He was born Sept. 13, 1827*, in County Cork, Ireland, and sailed for New York in 1853. The metropolis was too ultra-civilized for him and he went around Cape Horn to Washington Territory. In May of 1859 he joined the Mullan expedition which reached Hell Gate Ronde in the fall. There he settled about 12 miles west of Missoula in the valley which bears his name.

In September 1865 the baron married Annie Lester, who was born in Ireland in County Tipperary. Miss Lester had crossed the plains with friends by ox-team in 1863. She taught school until her marriage. The couple had two daughters.

*Astute readers will note that if he was indeed born in 1827, he would have been 66 in 1893.

Last Updated on Sunday, 20 November 2016 21:14