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William O’Connell

Father and son of the same name who, with the rest of the family, homesteaded north of De Smet. They were the inspiration for Wilder’s characters, Bill O’Dowd and brother, in Little Town on the Prairie.

William O’Connell came in one day this week and planked down the cash for the News one year. He has a beautiful claim just north of town. -Kingsbury County News, April 5, 1880

Tay Pay Pryor’s drinking buddy in Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 6, “The Month of Roses”) is said to be Bill O’Dowd, whose brother brought him to a nearby claim to keep him from drinking. It didn’t work, because, as Pa said, the two saloons in town were “two too many.” Whether there is any validity to Wilder’s story about the O’Connells is unknown.

Tay Pay Pryor was Mary Power’s father, Tom Power, and Bill O’Dowd was William “Bill” O’Connell, the son of William O’Connell. Perhaps Laura changed Bill’s last name to avoid confusion with Elmer McConnell?

William O’Connell, Sr. was born in Canada in around 1833 and came to the United States in 1856 with his wife Bridget and son James, born earlier that year. The couple had two more children born in Illinois: William (1858) and Helena (1863-1934). The family was living in Evanston (Cook County) Illinois prior to moving to Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory. Only the 1880 census gives Bill O’Connell’s birth location (incorrectly) as Minnesota.

The William O’Connell family was in Kingsbury County only about four years, while son James remained in Illinois and didn’t accompany his family west. Father and son were in the area to attend Reverend Alden’s first preaching service in the Surveyors’ House on February 29, 1880, as they are mentioned in the church records. Among those present at this first service were Mr. and Mrs. C.P. Ingalls, Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace, Mr. and Mrs. R.A. Boast, T.H. Ruth, A.W. Ogden, Mr. O’Connell and William O’Connell (Catholic), and others, making twenty-five in all.

On July 28, 1879, William O’Connell (Sr.) filed on a tree claim, the SE 21-111-56, just south of Almanzo Wilder’s homestead and just east of Royal Wilder’s homestead. He filed on a homestead at the same time, the SW 22, just east of his tree claim. He also filed intent to preempt the SE 13-111-56 two miles to the east, which he paid cash for in August 1881. Bridget and Helena O’Connell moved to the homestead in the summer of 1880, and the family was friends with the Wilmarths in De Smet and active in the organization of the Catholic Church in town.

In April 1882, William (Sr.) relinquished his tree claim and son Bill filed on the quarter section as a homestead. A month later, Bill relinquished the claim and left De Smet and moved to Minneapolis. There, he worked at various jobs, including a mason, watchman, and elevator man. He married his wife Ella, and the couple had one child, daughter Lena (named Helena after Bill’s sister), born in 1884.

William O’Connell, the father, died around 1887, and Bridget and Helena moved back to Evanston. In 1889, Helena married William Hanley, and the couple – along with Lena’s mother – settled in Chicago. Bridget died in the early 1900s.

Bill O’Connell, the son, spent the rest of his life in Minneapolis, living with his daughter Lena and son-in-law, John Blinn, after the death of his wife. Bill died in the 1930s.

Bill O’Connell (PG)
Bill O’Connell’s father (PG)
Bill O’Dowd (LTP 6)