NAPOLEON BYRNE OF BERKLEY, CALIFORNIA
Morgan Byrne is said to have fought in the rebellion of 1798 alongside ‘his cousin’ the famous Miles Byrne. The family tradition as recorded by Mary Tennent Carleton in ‘The Byrnes of Berkeley’ (California Historical Society Quarterly, March 1938) is that he made his escape to America after the rebellion by hiding in a hogshead that was loaded onto a ship.
The family of Miles Byrne remains for the time being something of a mystery. Stephen Gwynn in his 1907 introduction to the Memoirs of Miles Byrne (Maunsel & Co) introduced Miles as ‘a young and well-to-do farmer at Monaseed on the northern border of county Wexford’. Miles and his father, by his own account, certainly were familiar with the Byrnes of Ballymanus of whom he said:
Garrett Byrne was a descendant of one of the oldest and most distinguished branches of the Byrnes of the county of Wicklow; he inherited the small estate of Ballymanus, and lived in great style, associating with men of the highest rank in the county, all of whom esteemed and feared him: he was a perfect gentleman. He was dexterous in the use of arms, particularly the small sword and pistol; my father often saw him shoot swallows from his hall door with a pistol ball. He brought up his family with high notions of what they owed to their ancestors. He had five sons, all splendid men Garrett, John, Colclough, Edward, and poor Billy or William, who was executed at Wicklow, and two daughters Nelly and Fanny, both very fine women, and very well educated.
Miles also personally knew both Ned and Billy Byrne of Ballymanus:
Edward Byrne, or “Little Ned,” as we used to call him, though he was nearly six feet high, because he was the last of the brothers… After the Insurrection was over, Ned Byrne married in Dublin the third and youngest daughter of Mr. Kavanagh, of Ballyscarton, sister to the brave Thomas Kavanagh who was killed at the battle of Arklow. He thereby became brother-in-law to James Doyle, James D’Arcy, and Ned Kavanagh, and allied to the Redmonds.
… though very young at the time, I knew poor [Billy] Byrne too well not to appreciate his high mind, and the horror with which he spoke of crimes committed previous to and during the insurrection. I dined beside him two days before his arrest, at the house of my half-brother, Edward Kennedy…
This interconnection between the two Byrne families appears to support the local tradition that they were cousins of some sort, but Miles was frustratingly silent, or perhaps modest, regarding many details about his own family. However, he did talk of a marriage connection between his family and the Byrnes of Ballymanus through the intriguing Mrs. Meagher – she being a ‘Miss Byrne’ before her marriage, and according to Miles a member of the Ballymanus family:
I must not omit to mention the name of a generous high-minded lady, who came to our camp at Mount Pleasant, for the purpose of aiding and assisting Billy Byrne to get several prisoners liberated. This lady was Mrs. Meagher, of Coolalugh, whose son-in-law, Dan Kervin, was one of the leaders of the county of Wicklow men, and who distinguished himself so much at the battle of Arklow; he enjoyed great influence in our army. Mrs. Meagher being a Miss Byrne before her marriage, and related to the Ballymanus family, and possessing very graceful manners, succeeded beyond her expectations in persuading even those who had had their dearest relations murdered by the Orangemen, that retaliation could not bring them to life, and that it would be better to show themselves generous and merciful on this occasion.
I must here mention how I became connected with Mrs. Meagher, and her son-in-law, Dan Kervin. The latter married, about 1795, my brother-in-law’s sister, Miss Mary Doyle, of Ballytemple. I was at their wedding, which terminated in a melancholy way. After spending a delightful evening, just about eleven at night, when the young married couple were retiring from the supper table, the bride in crossing the hall to go to her bedroom fell dead on the floor. She was leaning on my sister’s arm at the time. It is needless to say what all felt that sad night, when they were suddenly plunged from the height of gaiety and mirth into such sorrow. The year after this mournful event, Dan Kervin married one of Mrs. Meagher’s daughters, by whom he had two children. He was killed by a cannon ball at the battle of Vinegar Hill. Mrs. Meagher’s eldest son, Peter, who resided in Dublin, and my half-brother, Edward Kennedy, married two sisters, the Miss Leonard’s, of Meath Street
Apart from brief accounts of his parents, his half brothers, Hugh and Edward Kennedy, his sister Katherine who died aged eighteen, Miles writes of his uncle, John Byrne, the youngest of his father’s family, who was not married and who was killed in a charge of cavalry. There is also a note of one of his father’s sisters who was married and living in the town of Arklow. Pat Bruslaun, his favourite first cousin, also figures in the Memoirs:
Poor Bruslaun was not forty years of age; he left three children quite young. He was, without exception, one of the bravest men that ever lived He was respected by everyone who knew him. For my own part I loved him from my childhood like a brother. I had many first cousins, but to none of them was I so attached as to him; his mother was my father’s eldest sister.
While Miles said that he had many first cousins, unfortunately no more were named. Other Wexford/Wicklow Byrnes who figure in his account were Murtough Byrne of Little Aughrim, Isaac and Jacob Byrne of Ballyellis and Darby Byrne, who saved himself by enlisting into the British Army after the rebellion. There was also Martin Byrne, a woollen draper in Francis Street, Dublin, and Mr. and Mrs. Byrne of Townsend Street, Dublin, who had adopted Mrs. Byrne’s cousin, Miss Lawless, but these probably were not closely related, as neither was the famous William Michael Byrne.
This is just about all Miles had to say concerning his family. A John Byrne (1790-1860) is claimed as a first cousin to Miles on an internet genealogy, and there is no particular reason to doubt that the Morgan Byrne who settled in Missouri was another first cousin of Miles. A Morgan Byrne is mentioned in 1798 in connection with Fr. Murphy. On 28th May 1798 Murphy and Byrne, along with Edward Roche, Thomas Donovan, and George Sparks, numbered among the local United Irish leaders assembled with their forces at Oulart Hill. They launched a successful ambush upon the North Cork Militia.
Morgan ‘Byrns’ or Byrne settled in Missouri and married a Miss Greene. One of their known sons, Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne (1817-1905) was born in 1817 and so named because of the admiration Morgan’s cousin, Miles Byrne, had for the French emperor.
The family later settled in New Madrid, Missouri. On 21st December 1829 the heirs of John Whttenburgh sold land to Morgan Byrne for $400. Morgan must have died by 1837, for on 9th December 1837, Luke, Mariah, Napoleon and Peter Byrne, presumably his three sons and daughter, along with Peter’s wife, Zeriolda, sold 640 acres of land in Howard County to Federal Walker and William Payne, which land had come to them as heirs of Morgan Byrne. (See Genealogical gems from early Missouri deeds 1815-1850, by Marsha Hoffman Rising).
Napoleon Byrne married Mary Tanner of Virginia. In 1859 Napoleon and his family moved far from Missouri to settle in Codornices Creek, California, on a farm that later became known as 1301 Oxford, Berkeley. Carleton says:
Napoleon had a very prosperous plantation where he owned slaves and raised thoroughbred horses and cattle. Because of the malarial condition along the Mississippi River, he sold the plantation, freed his slaves, and brought his family to California, arriving in the fall of 1859 after a six months’ journey across the plains in covered wagon. With him he brought his wife and four young children – Peter, James, Maria and Edna, a babe in arms; his wife’s mother and sister; two… freed slaves – Hannah, a nursemaid, and Uncle Pete, [Endow] the wagon driver – and some valuable stock, of which a fine Durham bull died on the way. Although they were able to bring little furniture, Mrs. Byrne did bring her guitar, some books, music, and a trunk full of silk dresses and other finery.
The journey was not perhaps as arduous as one would imagine for in one letter back to relatives Mary (Tanner) Byrne wrote with excitement about their first visit to San Francisco, where they were parading “up and down Montgomery Street” and she was buying new clothes.
The family first settled in Oakland, Alameda County, California where Napoleon bought “squatters rights” to some land (plot 85) from Stephen and Francis Connolly for $1250 on 31st March, 1860. Just a few days later he purchased 160 acres from Margaret Adams for $2000. On 15th May he paid Horace Highly, presumably a partner to the Connollys, $4600 for his rights to plot 85. His wife Mary expressed her happiness at their new location in a letter to relatives in Missouri dated 9th October 1859. By April 1861 Napoleon had acquired 827 acres, which he was hoping to develop into a stock farm. His land, a few miles north of Oakland, stretched from what is now known as Live Oak Park up to Grizzly Peak, including what is now Codornices Park and the Berkeley Rose Garden. Napoleon soon built a small house on the property. The couple added four more children to their family after their arrival in California.
Napoleon’s wife, Mary, wrote about Codornices Creek, in a letter of 26th March 1860, quoted by Carleton, saying:
I should regret immediately to lose this place, as I believe it the prettiest situation in the valley; indeed I have difficulty in believing there is prettier in the state. We have a beautiful view of it crossing the bay; even from the city we can see our little house distinctly. We can see it from Oakland to great advantage and from any part of the valley this always looks to me as the fairest spot. I mean, of course, its natural situation, as there are no improvements whatsoever.
Mary was clearly enamoured of her new life, which was reflected in her letters back to Missouri. As well as writing about ‘Nap’s’ land deals at $30 an acre; she described her first visit to the fair in East Bay:
The display of fruit and vegetables was a far greater sight than I had ever dreamed could be made of such articles all in the bright of growing perfection… Grape raising is getting to be a mania here, and wine making is going to be one of California’s richest productions…
Napoleon was seen as a political oddity being a Southern Democrat in a Republican State, especially during the American Civil War (1861-5). Feelings could run high and Napoleon was not on friendly terms with several of his neighbours, whom he referred to as “damnyankees” or “damnrepublicans” in such a way that his granddaughter, Marguerite Hussey, remembered that the family for years used to think that these were single words because of the way that “Nappy” spoke them.
In March 1868 Napoleon sold some of his land to George Tait for $10,000 enabling the family to build a mansion on the south bank of Codornices Creek, a three-bay villa, very much in the style of a Georgian Irish gentleman’s residence.
In the early 1870s Napoleon decided to plant up the piece of ground he had acquired known as “Byrne’s Addition,” which was along the Sikeston Road. He renamed it “Hatcher Avenue” in honour of soldier and politician Robert A. Hatcher, a Democrat who served in both the Confederate government and later the U.S. House of Representatives.
In April 1873, having suffered some financial setbacks, Napoleon sold off just 10 acres of his land, but then in August he sold a large acreage at 1301 Oxford for $49,000 to Henry Berryman. Berryman was no farmer but he saw a potential for development that Napoleon had missed, and he began the construction of a waterworks, reservoir, railway, and housing on the land.
The servants who had travelled with them, freed slaves Hannah Byrne and her husband Pete Endow, are believed to be the first free African-American settlers in the West. They presumably lived with the family until 1873 when the Byrnes moved to Venice Island. Certainly in 1859 they were the first Afro-Americans to settle in Berkeley. Napoleon had freed them but that they were close seems supported by the fact that Pete was known in the family as “Uncle Pete” while Hannah was nursemaid. Apparently they left, or had to leave, their own children behind in Missouri to settle in California. They saw the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1863 and in later years they lived in Live Oak Park, Oxford where Pete set up business in whitewashing.
The reason for Napoleon selling off various sections of his land was that he had never been happy with the quality of the soil on the farm. Indeed Mary had written about his complaint that his land was ‘not of the first class,’ although she went on to say that the farm was ‘good enough to pay for itself with one or two crops’. Napoleon however, had joined three friends in a consortium to purchase Venice Island, which was situated in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. They knew of the great crops already grown around the Stockton Delta, and they believed that by reclaiming Venice Island they could achieve the same. The family moved there in 1873 despite Mary’s misgivings. She died within the year. Then, the cost of employing Chinese labour to build levees and reclaim the marsh proved prohibitive. The new farming venture proved to be a financial disaster and was only sustained by Napoleon selling off most of his Berkeley property.
In June 1877 Napoleon sold 4 acres, including the Byrne mansion, to Louisa Berryman for $14,500. In 1900 the Berrymans gave the house and land to their daughter and son-in-law, Mendel Welcher, who renamed it “The Cedars.” They also re-modelled the mansion in an Italianate style. Mrs. Welcher’s sister Alice Robinson, who had married into a Hawaiian missionary family, later inherited it. Subsequently, the Chinese Christian Missionary Alliance Church purchased a lease of the mansion in 1951. The mansion at 1301 Oxford was declared a Berkeley landmark in 1976 and then a historic national landmark in 1978 but sadly the property was by that time in poor repair. It was then assigned to The People’s Church of Berkeley, although the Robinson family and the Missionary Alliance retained their rights over the property. Now disused it fell into further decline and descendants of Napoleon tried to acquire the property, but without success. Concerns at its increasing dilapidation led to the formation of the Byrne House Neighbourhood Association who had the intention of seeing the mansion restored and made available for community use. Unfortunately the house was destroyed by arson in 1985. Even then the Neighbourhood Association attempted to acquire the ruin for restoration but were turned down. Eventually demolition was permitted. In 1990 plans were finally enacted to conserve what was left of the site and surrounding landscape as an historic Berkeley City landmark. A commemorative plaque marks the location of the original Byrne Mansion.
Napoleon finally gave up and abandoned Venice Island in 1880, returning to Berkeley, which was now a prosperous college town. He built a house at 1313 Oxford and set up in business. All he had left of his once large estate in Berkeley was 6 acres. The Berkeley City Directory of 1883 lists fuel merchants Byrne & Sons, situated between Shattuck Avenue and Walnut Street. It is said that he sold coal and timber as if he was operating a charity and that unpaid bills eventually forced him to close down.
Napoleon has been described as Berkeley’s most prominent Democrat of the time. He was asked to run for office although the Democrats had no chance of winning in California. His daughter Kate Byrne remembered how at a Democratic County Convention Napoleon was nominated for the Legislature. He responded, “Boys, I’m too busy with my ranch, and can’t be bothered running up to Sacramento.” The presiding officer answered: “Hell Byrne, you don’t expect to get it, do you?” Kate also recalled how Napoleon knew a contractor named Murphy, who had five sons. Meeting him after the birth of another boy, Napoleon asked Murphy when he was “going to quit.” Murphy answered, “Not until Berkeley becomes Democratic.” In 1887 Napoleon was rewarded for his loyalty to the Democrats when President Grover Cleveland appointed him as Berkeley’s first Postmaster.
In 1881 Napoleon’s daughter Edna married farmer Frederick Carleton whose family had settled in Berkeley in 1854. In the same year Napoleon’s son, James, was elected Town Clerk. James successfully ran for a second term, but died in office following the amputation of one of his legs. His brother, Peter Byrne, became Oakland City Attorney but he also died relatively young.
Napoleon died 2nd November 1905. He had played a role in the development of the city, but his lasting legacy was the plantation he and his wife had made of cedars, cypresses, and pine trees which can still be enjoyed in Live Oak Park. Descendants of the family still live in East Bay.