May 29, 2001
Last modified May 28, 2001 - 10:56 pm
Dunnigans Battle Through Early Years
By LORNA THACKERAY
Of The Gazette Staff
Four months after Lt. Col. George A. Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry were wiped out on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, Pvt. Patrick Thomas Dunnigan was on his way to Montana with the Army.
As part of the Fifth Infantry under the command of Col. Nelson A. Miles, Dunnigan’s duty was to avenge Custer and to pursue victorious Sioux bands led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the Yellowstone region.
Montana produced a spectacularly miserable winter that year. Simon Snyder, captain of Company F, recorded temperatures of 40 below and frequent blizzards. But Miles refused to let a little brutal weather keep him in camp during 1876-77. He outfitted his men in buffalo coats and soldiered on.
Bison were still plentiful on the Yellowstone when Dunnigan arrived in October 1876, and the Wild West was still truly wild.
His wife and his first three children followed in 1877 to the Tongue River Cantonment that was the predecessor to Fort Keogh.
Years later, Julia Dunnigan Peterson, Patrick’s youngest daughter, recalled for family members that the family made the trip from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on the legendary steamboat Far West. It was the Far West that carried the wounded and the news of Custer’s defeat back to Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D., in July 1876.
Julia said Dunnigan was in the field with the Fifth Infantry from October 1876 to January 1877 and fought his last engagement with Crazy Horse at Hanging Woman Creek. She was probably referring to the Wolf Mountains battle on Jan. 8, 1877, fought during a blizzard near what is now Birney.
Two troopers died in the encounter, and seven were wounded. Indian accounts say three warriors were killed, and two died later of wounds.
Dunnigan definitely earned the military headstone that stands over his grave. But it’s his Civil War service, not his perilous journeys under Col. Miles, that are recognized on the headstone, where he is identified as “Lt. P.T. Dunnigan Company I of 47th New York Infantry."
Church records show he was born in 1846 in County Longford, Ireland. Family members weren’t sure when he crossed the Atlantic, but his great-granddaughter, Mary Pat Brady Young of Greer, S.C., said he came first to Canada and then to New York.
A few months after the Civil War exploded in April 1861, Dunnigan enlisted as a private. If the year of his birth is correct, he would have been about 15.
Young said he was wounded in the spring of 1864 at Cold Harbor, Va., during the Wilderness Campaign. In her pension request several years later, his widow reported that he was hit by a shell in the right thigh and right knee.
It must not have been a serious injury since he fought the war to the end in 1865 and was discharged with the rank of first lieutenant.
Making a living proved difficult for tens of thousands of young men released all at once from military service at the end of the war – especially if the solider happened to be an Irish immigrant.
Government records show that Dunnigan re-enlisted in the Army in 1866. He became part of the Fifth Infantry and apparently spent the next 10 years at forts Leavenworth, Hays and Riley in Kansas.
In Junction City, Kan., he married Catherine Josephine Shelly on Sept. 23, 1870. Like her husband, she was born in Ireland, probably in 1846, since she listed her age as 41 on an 1887 government form.
She had her first child in 1871 and five more after that, the last born just before Dunnigan’s death on June 13, 1884.
Government documents show that he was discharged from the Army at Fort Keogh on May 15, 1879. From there, records of the Rev. E.W. J. Lindesmith pick up the family history, and it is from here that things really start to get interesting.
Lindesmith recorded that Dunnigan stayed in Miles City as a laborer and was working at a ranch west of town in 1881.
Three years later, he was dead of heart disease that his doctor said resulted from rheumatism that may or may not have been contracted in the military service. Just when he acquired his illness was the subject of a pension battle that Catherine fought unsuccessfully for the next 12 years.
Dunnigan’s great-grandson, Thomas Peterson, a psychologist who works in Miles City and Billings, said Dunnigan’s death left Catherine destitute. Somehow she still had to raise six children – the oldest about 13 and the youngest about 4 months.
She was one feisty lady, relentlessly pursuing the government to grant her a widow’s pension on grounds that her husband’s fatal illness was contracted while he was still in the Army, Peterson said.
She first filed a claim under the “general law" in 1887, but could not convince the government. Catherine reopened her claim on Oct. 11, 1905, and was turned down again about two weeks later. She had an attorney file an appeal, but it, too, was rejected.
In his letter to Catherine’s attorney in January 1906, the commissioner of pensions said the evidence was too thin, too old and too conflicting to conclude that Dunnigan’s illness was service-related.
Dr. R.G. Redd, who attended Dunnigan, gave some statements saying that the illness was probably due to military service and others that said he didn’t know when Dunnigan was first treated for the disease – before or after he was discharged.
The commissioner said there were no records while Dunnigan was in the service that he was treated for rheumatism or that he ever filed for a pension because of it.
Catherine, of course, had not been idle all this time. There were children to feed. At some point, she filed for a patent on land covering a lot of what is now Miles City.
The family lived in a home on Yellowstone Avenue that Peterson said was a watering stop for Wells Fargo drivers. Among her visitors was Calamity Jane. Peterson said his grandmother, Julia Peterson, told him that she could remember Catherine and Calamity Jane visiting, apparently good friends.
The land itself became a matter of controversy. In an interview that Peterson taped with his grandmother in the 1960s, she described how the Northern Pacific took Catherine’s land. Julia told her grandson that the government by mistake granted two patents on the land, one to her and another to the railroad.
She said she didn’t know about the problem until 1904, when she got a letter from the government saying they were going to try to take care of the error by asking the railroad to relinquish its patent and issue a new one to her. Somehow it never happened, and the railroad started building tracks and selling lots.
Catherine tried to fight, but got nowhere. Julia told her grandson that her mother took all documentation showing ownership of the land to an attorney named Turner. But he left to work for the railroad, hauling all her papers with him.
Attempts over the years to get him to return the documents proved futile. She hired lawyers along the way, but none of them was able to do much.
“The railroad took this little family of immigrants and slam-dunked them," Peterson said.
Julia had a picture of a young man she kept on a dresser in her house. Peterson said that, when he asked her about it, she told him it was of her youngest brother, John, who lived in Alaska. She changed the subject whenever he pressed for more information.
For years, John remained an enigma. Then one day about 10 years ago, a Canadian family named Blair was passing through and stopped to inquire about Julia Peterson.
Julia, they said, was the sister of Blair family patriarch, John Blair, who had been born in Miles City. When told their name was probably Dunnigan, the Blair family was intrigued, but could offer no help in unraveling the mystery.
Then about two years ago, a descendant of Patrick and Catherine’s son Walter called from Cut Bank. When ask if he knew anything about what happened to John, the man, also named Walter Dunnigan, said that John had killed a man from the railroad and had to leave.
“The only thing we can surmise is that he became so frustrated with his mother’s plight, and when things got out of hand he went to Canada," Peterson said.
He did sneak back in once or twice and was there for Catherine’s funeral in 1924. The family apparently knew John was coming and kept the services a low-key affair, he said. That may be the reason no headstone was placed on Catherine’s grave, Peterson surmised.
John apparently was still living in Miles City in 1912, when a city directory lists him as a telephone operator. His address was his mother’s home on Yellowstone Avenue. By 1914, his name was gone from the directory.
Lorna Thackeray can be reached 657-1314 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: Tue May 29 19:02:07 CDT 2001 Central Time
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