Omaha’s first Irish neighborhood, if you can call it a neighborhood, was a hill full of dugout shanties lovingly named Gophertown.
It’s barely a footnote in the history of the Irish in Omaha. There are no historical markers at the site (now north Omaha’s Miller Park), no photographs and few mentions of the little town ever existing.
But one story that survived Gophertown’s short-lived history is a doozy.
Picture frontier Omaha in 1857. Irishman Dennis Dee, along with family members Michael and Maurice, was among 38 original male pioneers of Omaha just three years earlier. Struggling to find fortune in the new Nebraska Territory, Dee made a home in an abandoned dugout on a ridge between the towns of Saratoga and Florence. Some accounts say they dug their own homes in the dirt; others claim they simply modified remnant Native American earth shelters.
Just north of Gophertown, powerful landowners in Florence had united as the Florence Claim Club, a sort of unofficial government of the land rights of the area. Claim clubs of that era often took justice into their own hands, in several cases drowning people in the Missouri River or dunking them underwater so many times they had little choice but to relinquish their land rights to the claim club or face death and disposal downstream.
The leader of those men was James C. Mitchell, the founder of Florence. Short-lived frontier newspaper the Omaha Nebraskian described him as a “valiant and terrible man.”
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The paper’s Oct. 7, 1857, edition tells the only recorded account of a scuffle that broke out between the people of Gophertown and the Florence Claim Club. The article says Mitchell recruited a mob to storm Gophertown, angry that Dee had purchased his plot of land without the go-ahead from the claim club.
The article says the claim club’s men dressed in divers’ costumes and approached Gophertown from all angles.
The mob lost its element of surprise when it arrived in Gophertown to find all the men had left to work in the fields, roads and ditches for the day. All that remained were women and children.
Word spread from Gophertown immediately. Dee’s fellow Gophertonians returned home and armed themselves with guns, pistols and shillelaghs (Irish clubs used like nightsticks). The men were prepared to fight.
The shanty dwellers beat back the landowners and chased them from Gophertown, south past Saratoga and into the streets of Omaha. By noon, the Irish were victorious — or so it seemed.
The landowners fled. But later that night, they returned with reinforcements.
The Nebraskian described the mettle of the men in Gophertown in Homeric terms.
“This simply caused their wrath to burn,” the article reads. “They loaded their guns and took fast hold of their (shillelaghs) and made haste to revenge themselves upon the invaders.”
When the men from Florence returned, the defenders of Gophertown did just that. According to the newspaper, the second fight ended quickly. The poor men of Gophertown were heroes that day.
“The wanderers from Florence suddenly recollected that they had some business to transact at their homes,” the story says. “They turned and fled toward Florence, looking neither to the right nor to the left but running with the speed of the wind with the tails of their coats sticking straight out behind them.
“The bullets which followed them were not swift enough to catch them.”
Not much was written about Dennis Dee after the Battle of Gophertown. The same goes for the little shanty village.
If it remained long, Gophertown certainly would have met its demise upon the creation of Miller Park in 1896, though given the scarcity of historical mentions, it probably was gone long before then. Dee died in 1888 at age 56 at his son’s home in Little Bohemia.
Meanwhile, James C. Mitchell lived only a few more years after the incident in Gophertown, dying at 49. Second to the founding of Florence, Mitchell is perhaps best known for casting the deciding vote to locate the territorial capitol in Omaha rather than Florence, spurning the very town he founded and sought to protect.