Keeper Bio: O’Neill, John


Date of Service: 1827 – 1838

1768: Born in Ireland on November 23.

1786: Immigrated to America at age 18. Works as a gunsmith.

1794: Served in the militia during Whiskey Rebellion.

1790s: Marries Mary Virginia O’Neill and moves to Havre De Grace.  Manages a nail factory and serves as town commissioner. Has five children – Jane, Anne, Matilda, John Jr., and William.

1798: Serves as a lieutenant in the Navy.

1813: Defends Havre de Grace from the British with Potato Battery cannons at Concord Point. O’Neill is injured and captured by the British. Upon intervention by daughter, Matilda, O’Neill is released by Admiral Cockburn.

1827: Concord Point Lighthouse, a thirty-six-foot-tall conical tower of Port Deposit granite is constructed by John Donahoo. On November 3, in recognition of his heroism in 1813, President John Quincy Adams appoints O’Neill as first keeper beating out 7 other applicants, including John Donahoo, for a salary of $350/year.

1838: After serving 11 years as Keeper, “Defender” O’Neill dies on duty January 26 and is buried in Angel Hill Cemetery.

1861: Four generations of the O’Neill’s served as keepers at Concord Point following his death.

Keeper John O’Neill, “The Defender”  Anecdotes:

John O’Neill became widely known for his heroic acts on the morning of May 3, 1813, when British forces under Admiral George Cockburn attacked Havre de Grace. The story is told that as a member of the militia, O’Neill was manning the Potato Battery cannons at Concord Point when the British barges appeared. He commenced firing, but his fellow militiamen ran away. Firing the cannon alone, he was injured by the gun recoil and fled into town.

British forces landed at Concord Point and eventually captured O’Neill who had continued to resist with musket fire. Word reached the town that he was to be hung as a traitor the next day. A popular legend tells that his 16-year-old daughter, Matilda, rowed out to Cockburn’s vessel, the Maidstone. She brought evidence of his commission in the militia and pled for his release. Cockburn gave her his gold-lined snuffbox in honor of her bravery and promised to release her father, which he did.

O’Neill became known as the “Hero of Havre de Grace” and received a ceremonial sword from the citizens of Philadelphia in honor of his heroism. The sword carries the following inscription: “Presented to the Gallant John O’Neill for his valor at Havre de Grace, by Philadelphia, 1813”

John O’Neill became the Keeper of Concord Point Lighthouse at the age of 59 and served until his death in 1838.

Source: Friends of Concord Point Lighthouse. Coast Guard Historian’s web site.

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