As promised, Balladeer’s Blog returns to some brief looks at assorted Pony Express Riders as seasonal posts now that the Frontierado Holiday is fast approaching. (It falls on August 5th this year.) Frontierado is about the myth of the old west, not the grinding reality.
IRISH TOMMY – Thomas J. Ranahan was better known as Irish Tommy during his days as an Expressman (the official title of Pony Express riders). Ranahan was born in Ireland on August 28th, 1839 and his family moved to America in 1841, settling in Vermont.
The Ranahans moved on to Kansas in 1855 and a few years later Irish Tommy alternated between being a stagecoach driver for the parent company of the Pony Express and filling in for Expressmen who fell to illness, horse thieves, bandits, hostile Native Americans or the elements.
One of the most memorable times that Ranahan was delivering a mochila (mail packet) of crucial importance was shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln in early November of 1860. Upon reaching the Green River Crossing station of the Pony Express in Wyoming with election results, Irish Tommy was impressed with the size of the crowd that had gathered for word.
The Station Master and his friends were in favor of secession if Lincoln won, while at least as many others were Lincoln supporters. One of the most vocal of Abe’s backers was a stagecoach driver called Rowdy Pete, who on one occasion famously provoked the pro-secession people at Green River Crossing by showing up literally wrapped in an American flag.
Irish Tommy had to intercede to prevent the rival sides from violently mobbing each other when he brought in the word of Lincoln’s victory. Ultimately, it came down to a three-way stare-down among Ranahan, Rowdy Pete and the Station Master.
The pro-secession man reportedly backed down and the incident ended without violence.
When the Pony Express went under in late October of 1861, Irish Tommy moved back to the parent company, this time riding as an armed guard protecting payroll shipments in the Denver region from would-be bandits. In 1866 the business was sold to the Wells Fargo Express Company and Ranahan departed.
Come 1867 Irish Tommy was a scout for the army, serving under Colonel George A. Forsythe during Indian Wars in Kansas and Colorado. Ranahan was one of the combatants in the Battle of Arikaree Fork along the Arikaree River on September 17th, 1868.
That battle, also called the Battle of Beecher Island, pitted 51 soldiers and scouts against a Native American force of roughly 250-300 Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho. Irish Tommy and his comrades held off their opponents for 9 days, with the famous Cheyenne War Chief Roman Nose being shot to death during one of the assaults on the besieged, hunkered down soldiers.
Ultimately, the Native Americans rode off when they sighted reinforcements arriving to help the army men. Ranahan and company lost 17 dead with their attackers losing over 100 dead, so each side lost about a third of their force.
In 1872 Irish Tommy moved to Boise, ID and settled in as an employee of the Union Pacific Railroad. He married in 1877, was widowed, then married again in 1914. He passed away on December 27th, 1926.