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John and Patrick Tormey: Nineteenth Century California Pioneers

by Michael Tormey, April 15, 2006

(Note: This article serves as an introduction to the longer and more detailed narrative, A History of Rodeo, California and the Role Patrick Tormey Played in its Early Development.)

ever there was a topic in Tormey history that would make an excellent subject for a novel or dramatic movie, it would be the lives and times of John and Patrick Tormey. Brothers who emigrated from Ireland in the mid 1800s, they became California pioneers during the period that immediately followed California statehood. (California was officially admitted as the 31st state of the Union in September, 1850.) Ultimately settling in the San Francisco Bay area, they played an active role in the early history of Contra Costa County (see A History of Rodeo, California), where they acquired extensive land holdings and actively shaped growth and development in their communities.

Their story is one of drama and intrigue. As young men, they left their homeland (though at different times) in the wake of the Great Potato Famine (which occurred during the period of 1845-1849) and settled in America at a time when Irish immigrants were largely looked upon as second class citizens in this country. Having started with relatively little, through hard work and determination they slowly built what anyone in their old Irish hometown would have considered a vast empire. They had it all... decadent mansions, vast land holdings, huge ranchlands and personal fortunes befitting any gentried land owner in Queen Victoria's nineteenth century Great Britain. But alas, they had it all to lose; and lose they did. Following the untimely death of his older brother John in 1877, Patrick Tormey's good fortune seemed unstoppable, until he fell prey to the Panic of 1893 (the worst financial crisis to hit the United States in its history to that point). And if a financial disaster wasn't enough, Mother Nature delivered a second blow with the Great Earthquake of 1906 -- toppling buildings and toppling the last remnants of Patrick Tormey's dreams. Despite the losses suffered, however, John and Patrick Tormey's legacies endured, as did the love and respect their fellow citizens had for the brothers who did so much for 19th Century Contra Costa County, California.


Their Beginnings

John and Patrick Tormey were born in County Westmeath, Ireland to Patrick and Mary (Rooney) Tormey. They were known to have had at least one other brother and four sisters. (To date, this researcher has only been able to identify the name of one sister: Ann Tormey, who married Peter Fagan.) It is believed that these Tormeys originated in Crowenstown, a township within County Westmeath. (If you have information that would help identify the names of the unknown children of Patrick and Mary Rooney Tormey, please contact Michael Tormey.)

John Tormey (of this article) and his sister, Ann, were the older of their siblings. Ann's date of birth is not yet known, but John is known to have been born sometime in 1825. Interestingly, John was a full 15 years older than his younger brother, Patrick (also of this article), who was born in March, 1840.

In 1849, John Tormey (then 24 years old) and his sister, Ann Tormey, left Ireland and set sail for America, arriving in New York sometime in the month of April. (Patrick Tormey, then only 9 years old, remained behind in Ireland, along with his other brother and sisters.) After arriving in New York, John and his sister, Ann, immediately proceeded to Peoria, Illinois, where they remained for about 10 months before journeying on to California.

While there is no written account to confirm the details of why John and Ann Tormey left Ireland for America, it is known that, while in Illinois, Ann Tormey was married to a Peter Fagan. It is assumed that this Peter Fagan, like the Tormeys, originally lived in County Westmeath, Ireland and that he journeyed ahead to America (likely having some relative already established there to sponsor him) to prepare the way for his bride-to-be and their future life together. It is also assumed, therefore, that John Tormey accompanied his sister so as to provide appropriate escort and to ensure her safety, while himself also taking advantage of the chance to escape economic hardship and famine in Ireland and relocate to a new land of opportunity. In any case, it is known that the Tormeys and the Fagans were closely associated and that Peter Fagan was instrumental in helping the Tormeys ultimately get established in California.


John Tormey's Move to California

In the Spring of 1850, one year after having left Ireland, John Tormey accompanied the Fagans (Peter Fagan and his new bride Ann Tormey, John's sister) and a cousin (to date, unidentified by this researcher) as they left Illinois and set out to relocate to California. They traveled by ox-driven covered wagon across the western plains -- a long and difficult journey that typically took up to 6 months. It is unknown whether California had been a pre-determined destination planned long in advance, perhaps before the Tormeys even left Ireland, or if it had been an afterthought once they settled in Illinois. In any case, they were not alone, as large numbers of Americans migrated -- some would say stampeded -- to California during the "Gold Rush" period of 1849-1852, following the discovery of gold near Sacramento in 1848.


A typical "wagon train" scene, showing pioneers heading westward in ox-driven
covered wagons, much like those John Tormey and the Fagans would have
traveled in. (Source and artist unknown.)


Like many aspiring men of the time, John Tormey himself was bitten by the "gold fever" bug. Upon arriving in California with the Fagans, he set out on his own and tried his hand at gold mining, which he did for 2 years in Tuolume County. The endeavor was sufficiently successful to allow him to put aside some meaningful savings, but it was a hard life, considering the effort it required, and one that he was not inclined to continue long term. John Tormey instead believed that there was equal or greater promise in farming and cattle ranching (and, no doubt, they were a better fit with his Irish upbringing, which placed great value on the land and all that it provided and supported).

Thus, setting out to first establish himself as a rancher, in 1853, John Tormey traveled through what were then known as the "Western States" in search of an affordable band of cattle, which he purchased and then drove back to California. His final destination was Suscol, in Napa County, where his sister and brother-in-law, the Fagans, had already settled. Once in Suscol, he initially leased a small tract of land on which to keep his small herd of cattle. A year later, however, in 1854, John Tormey pooled his funds with Peter Fagan and an Isaac Lancashire (a cousin?) and together they purchased a 3,000-acre tract of farm and ranch land in Suscol. There John Tormey remained for the next decade, as he worked hard to establish himself as a successful cattle rancher and grain farmer.


Patrick Tormey's Move to California

By 1858 (nine years after emigrating to America and four years into his ranching and farming enterprise in Suscol), being well-established and financially stable, John Tormey sent for the rest of his family in Ireland -- bringing to America his younger brother Patrick (who was by then 18 years old), a third brother and three sisters. (Little is known about John and Patrick's third brother and three sisters. Until further research reveals more clues, it is unclear exactly who they were, how old they were when they left Ireland or exactly where they ultimately settled when they arrived in America -- though it is presumed they settled in California. It is also unclear whether their parents were still alive at the time or if there were other extended family members, such as aunts and uncles or cousins, that remained in Ireland.)

It is known, however, that the young Patrick Tormey chose to make California his home. Inspired by the success of his older brother, he too set out to gain experience in grain farming and cattle ranching. He spent the next three to four years working various jobs (some for his brother, John, some for other ranchers and, for a brief period, working in the California Flour Mills) until he was able to save enough money to lease and then ultimately purchase some agricultural land of his own.


Relocation to Contra Costa County

Some 15 years after arriving in California, John Tormey set his sights on opportunities in Contra Costa County, where he was able to acquire an attractive 2,000-acre tract of the coveted "Pinole Grant" in 1865.

Two years later, in 1867, John Tormey (then 42 years old) and his younger brother Patrick (then 27 years old) teamed up -- pooling their resources to acquire an additional 7,000-acre tract of the Pinole Grant.

Contra Costa County was to remain home for the Tormey brothers for the remainder of their lives; and it was in Contra Costa that their fortunes rose and ultimately fell again. (This is best understood by reading the more detailed chapter, A History of Rodeo, for which this article serves as an introduction.)


Their Families

In 1859, at the age of 34, John Tormey married Anna Waterhouse, a native of Missouri. (They were married in Stockton, California.) Together, John Tormey and Anna Waterhouse Tormey had nine children. To date, however, research has only uncovered the names of five, listed as follows (not necessarily in order of birth):

    1. Thomas L. Tormey

    2. John V. Tormey

    3. Philip J. Tormey

    4. Mary T. Tormey

    5. Ida M. Tormey


In May, 1875, at the age of 35, Patrick Tormey married Mary Matthews, a native of Boston. Together, they had three children:

    1. John P. Tormey

    2. Leo F. Tormey

    3. Mary Tormey


(Anyone with more complete information on the families of John and Patrick Tormey, especially dates of birth and death, is kindly asked to please contact Michael Tormey.)

Related Links of Interest...




The California Tormeys


Their's is a dramatic story, not unlike many immigrants who proceeded or followed them -- full of success and failures, happiness and sadness, riches made and riches lost...

» Read more





History of


No history of Rodeo would be complete without mention of early California pioneers John and Patrick Tormey, brothers who emigrated from Ireland and settled in California in the mid 1800s...

» Read more





The Rise and Fall of Tormey, California


Lost to the annals of history is the small town of Tormey that, until 1971, thrived in the upper northwest corner of Contra Costa County, about 28 miles outside of San Francisco...

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City Directory Records of CA Tormeys


Information on Tormeys listed in San Francisco city directories for the period of 1861-1921...

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