1849 : Charles O’Malley Renames Michigan Counties

March 8, 2023 all-day

Throughout much of the early 1800s, it was common for young Irish men and women to leave Ireland in search of opportunities elsewhere. Ireland lacked a middle class, most natives were poor farmers and those who were educated and ambitious had limited opportunities to advance.

Charles M. O’Malley was one of those young Irishmen who sought an avenue to advance by leaving his village of Derradda in County Mayo. Charley was educated – he had finished his regular schooling and then enrolled in Maynooth Seminary to study for the priesthood. He interrupted his seminary studies to leave Ireland, never to return. He immigrated to Canada in 1834 with his younger brother Tully and the pair landed in Montreal. Both became affiliated with the University of Montreal, with Charles teaching mathematics for a brief period.

But the two were restless and anxious for more adventure than university life could provide. They soon left the urban center of Montreal for the wild and unsettled area of northern Michigan. They ended their westward journey in Mackinaw in 1835 and happened upon another ambitious man, John Jacob Astor. Astor was just then in the midst of building his fur trading empire, and he hired the pair to serve as clerks in his growing enterprise.

Neither man stayed with Astor very long although their employment must have been profitable because Charlie soon opened his own mercantile business on the island with the help of young Tully. Mackinac Island was a busy place. The fur business required the warehousing and movement of large stores of trade goods and furs. The island village was host to traders, Indians, and businessmen of all types who were regularly coming and going and visiting the row of stores that fronted the busy waterfront area.

O’Malley was described as an honest and industrious merchant. His financial success and generosity enabled his helping other Irish emigrate from their homeland to the U.S. both before and during the Irish potato famine. One of those who came was O’Malley’s sister, Margaret, who promptly married another Irishman named Chambers.

Another of O’Malley’s sponsored immigrants was his niece, Bridget. Bridget also married an Irishman on the trip to America. The pair settled in Mackinaw and ultimately built the Cloghaun Bed & Breakfast on Mackinac Island after raising enough capital by fishing and exporting salted fish.

Charlie’s success in business provoked his entry into politics where he was also successful. He entered local politics first and then succeeded to state-wide office becoming Mackinaw’s representative to the State legislature in 1846, 1847 and 1849. In 1849, Charlie’s peers elected him as Speaker Pro Tem in a show of their admiration.

Not everyone was happy with Charlie, however. One of Charlie’s jobs was in jurisprudence, as he became a judge while brother Tully became sheriff of Mackinaw County. Mackinaw was the political center of northern Michigan and the pair were involved in several disputes. By 1850 Charlie had developed a reputation of being an irascible sort who was given to impulsive decisions.

Two examples of Charlie’s decisions are illustrative: the Michael Dousman case and that of “King” Strang. The wealthy Dousman was being sued in O’Malley’s court and the judge objected to Dousman’s testimony as being too personal. The two men had a chance meeting sometime later and their quarrel took on a physical aspect with both men using their fists. Charlie was bested. He promptly returned to his court and wrote an order demanding Douseman’s arrest and imprisonment on the charge of contempt of court.

Charlie gave “King” Strang the same treatment. [Strang took the name “King” to indicate his exalted status as king of the Mormons who resided on Beaver Island.] Charlie had no particular respect for Strang and he demonstrated his opinion by sentencing Strang to life imprisonment for contempt of court after Strang had given testimony in court that Charlie didn’t like. The charge was later reduced to one year in jail. By the way, Strang also represented Beaver Island in the state legislature proving that Charlie believed in uniform treatment regardless of one’s station in life.

Charlie left Mackinaw for a time when he moved to Escanaba. It was reported that both he and Tully dabbled in the lumbering business in the Upper Peninsula while maintaining their primary interests on Mackinac Island.

In addition to the naming of several Michigan counties, Charlie’s most lasting legacy was the building of the Island House Hotel in 1852, the first hotel on Mackinac Island. The hotel still proudly stands along the shore of the Island bearing testimony to the work and success of Irish immigrant Charles M. O’Malley, he who named Roscommon County, Michigan in honor of his Irish homeland.


Charles O’Malley: Mackinac Island’s Legendary Legislator, MIRS, September 20, 2013.

W. E. Tudor, “The Story of Charlie O’Malley“, Houghton Lake Resorter, April 26, 2012.

Michigan Maps in the 1840s

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