James O’Meara was born of Irish parentage in the City of New York, on June 22, 1825 to Timothy and Mary O’Meara, of County Cork, Ireland.
At four he began his school life in the “sandboard class” of the old-time “infant school”; when he had completed the course in the infant school, where only reading and writing were taught, he went to private schools until ready for college. He received his college education at Williams College.
His father never considered him too young to listen to great men talk; so when Daniel Webster was pouring forth all that magnificent eloquence of which he was master, Timothy O’Meara took his little boy to hear and to meet the great man.
When the boy grew to manhood, he recalled his childish elation when Webster, while talking to a group of friends, unconsciously placed his hands upon the soft, curly, brown head of the little boy standing beside him, then looked down and said, as he patted the head: ‘Here is a head that should count some day. I think when you grow up you will be a writer, my boy.’
This experience, perhaps, more than any other influence in his life, aroused the desire that led James O’Meara to make political journalism his life work.
When he was nineteen years of age his brother Maurice, the eldest of nine children, died in South America. The father sent James, his second son, on the sad mission of finding and returning with the body.
The death of Maurice necessitated a journey other than that to South America, for now James became the eldest son and as such became the heir to certain estates in Ireland.
As soon as he was twenty-one his father took him back to the old lands, where certain business affairs required his signature. This trip gave him glimpses of life in the Old World, the vivid recollections of which never forsook him.
Upon his return to New York he became interested in New York politics and newspaper work. His familiarity with life in the great city made both most attractive to him.
But politics claimed more and more of his interest, and though so young a man, his skill with both pen and tongue won for him a place in the New York Legislature.
Just what might have been his career had he remained in New York will never be known, for the news of the wondrous El Dorado was beginning to set the spirit of unrest at work in those filled with the ardor of youth, and he, too, was aglow with the desire to see this glorious new land of gold.
His home ties were of the strongest, for he was of the most affectionate and social nature, but the fascination of the new life “around the Horn” impelled him to leave home and a promising career in New York for the West.
On March 8, 1849, the stout bark Palmetto sailed out of the harbor bearing an enthusiastic throng. For one hundred and ninety-three days she sailed down the Atlantic and up the Pacific. September 17, 1849, the bark reached the long-looked-for haven and James O’Meara was in California.
Like thousands of others he sought the excitement of the gold fields, but soon returned to the more attractive life in San Francisco. He wrote for the Times and Transcript and was soon associated with those interested in politics.
There was no man who won so much of his affectionate loyalty as did Dr. Wm. M. Gwin. It was his misfortune to be blind to the disastrous influence of this man whose cause he so devotedly espoused. He saw in this master of political manipulation a hero whom he idealized and idolized.
With his ardent and affectionate admiration so thoroughly aroused, he set about to do his utmost to serve one in whose integrity of character he had not the shadow of a doubt. It was this intimate association with Dr. Gwin that gave him the opportunity to write his history of the most famous political episode in California with such accuracy.
A frequent guest in the Gwin household, he felt their interests as his own. He wrote “Broderick and Gwin” that the election of Gwin and Broderick as senators from California.
In 1854 the government sent commissioners to the Hawaiian Islands to negotiate with the king in regard to annexation. Of this commission James O’Meara was a member.
After several months spent upon the islands, the commissioners finally succeeded in bringing matters to the point where all that was necessary was to secure the signature of the king.
The hour for this was set at twelve o’clock the following morning, and then the commissioners were to sail for the United States on the vessel awaiting them in the harbor.
But before eleven o’clock the following morning the king was dead. Prince Liholiho, or Alexander, became king, the treaty remained unsigned, and annexation was delayed for decades.
Leaving Mr. David C. Gregg, an old friend then serving as United States commissioner to the islands, the disappointed commissioners returned to San Francisco. Again. O’Meara plunged into political affairs on the continent.
The closing years of his life were spent in his home. No literary work of any sort came from the fingers too enfeebled to write, for at least three years. He spent his days reading and re-reading books, old and new, and the countless newspapers and magazines that every mail brought to his table.
A gentleman of the old school, his gentle, chivalrous and affectionate demeanor in his household had produced a home of unusual happiness. Always hopeful, always cheerful, the devoted husband and father had earned and spent freely to make his family happy. (All here is from Frances L. O’Meara, his daughter; Journal of the American-Irish Historical Society, 1917)
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