From pots and pans to politician, pioneer made her own life out West
They were the vanguard of the greatest migration in American history. Best known as the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party of 1844, this small band of hardy pioneers challenged the unknown and survived. Lured by the promise of a mild climate, few diseases, and the open, fertile land of California, these pioneers had chosen to risk their lives in an attempt to reach the Pacific Coast.There were only 50 people in the Stephens Party, of which 16 were children. These brave families struggled through rough country and extreme weather as they pushed and pulled their heavily laden wagons more than 2,000 miles. Their epic journey took them nearly a year, but they became the first pioneers to bring wagons to Sutters Fort and are credited with opening the long-sought California Trail.
Little known among these daring Argonauts was a quiet, unassuming young woman. Sarah Armstrong had braved the dangerous transcontinental crossing with the Stephens Party, and she too had nearly starved when the pioneers were trapped for weeks in a snowbound encampment along the headwaters of the Yuba River. Armstrong was an 18-year-old newlywed from Ohio when she and her husband, Allen Montgomery, joined other California-bound settlers in Missouri. Although the move west was her husbands decision, Sarah was hoping for a better life in the West, far from the dreary farm life of her youth. In the small Midwestern farming communities of 1844, there was a strict division of labor and a womans work was in the household. Wives were expected to make and repair clothing, do all the cooking, and care for the children. But men were not the real breadwinners of this economy. Besides their regular domestic chores, women also generated one-third to one-half of all the food production on the farm. During harvest, wives would likely be out in the fields, helping the men. One contemporary doctor commented on the conditions of farmwomen; In the civilization of the 19th century, a farmers wife, as a general rule, is a laboring drudge. It is safe to say, that on three farms out of four, the wife works harder and endures more than the husband and more than the farm-hand.Married women in the 19th century were required to make clothing, do all the cooking, care for the children, and help out in the fields. But despite all that they contributed, married women enjoyed no civil rights; wives could not vote, own property, serve on juries, or hold public office. A man even owned his wifes labor power; any wages that a woman earned while married were legally owed to her husband.In general, few women agreed with the idea of moving west, away from their family and friends. One young midwestern girl wrote in her diary I came in one evening to see a look on dear mothers face that I had never seen before. I walked away after the usual greeting and sat silent. After a time she said, What do you think your father has done? He has sold the farm and as soon as school closes, we are moving to California.
The trip across the plains fulfilled Allen Montgomerys fantasy of camaraderie, action, and achievement. Young Sarah may have been reluctant to join her husband on the trail, but remaining home with no independent livelihood was a poor prospect. On the trail, the chores would be different, but still split by gender. Men were primarily concerned with transportation. They were responsible for the care of wagons and livestock, as well as for the leadership and protection of the family. The daily march usually began just after sunrise and did not stop until the midday meal, which the women had usually prepared that morning. After an hour or so of rest, the party resumed the trek west until late afternoon when the men were so tired they could barely walk. The men worked at peak capacity from the time the oxen were yoked in the morning until they were herded in the evening. But when the wagons were parked and the oxen set out to graze, the men were off duty. They could work at their own leisure, rest, and enjoy the company of the other men. For women like Sarah, however, there was no relief from the daily drudgery of their endless chores. They awoke at 4 a.m., an hour before the men, in order to stoke the fire and prepare breakfast. One man observed in the pre-dawn darkness Other than the women busy cooking breakfast, there was no activity except sleeping, which is performed by the male part of the camp to the greatest perfection.Despite all the hardships, Sarah made the best of it. One humorous frontier aphorism summed up the womens overland experience perfectly: This country is all right for men and dogs, but its hell on women and horses.The arduous trek was tough on Sarah Montgomery, but her early days in California proved just as challenging. Shortly after she and Allen arrived at Sutters Fort in early 1845, Capt. John Sutter ordered them north to work, hand-sawing timber into badly needed lumber. The Montgomerys built themselves a small, one-room cabin near Sutter Creek and settled in. Life for pioneer women in early California was lonely and isolated. Their endless duties and the long distances between settlements gave American women few opportunities to visit one another.
But Sarah envisioned a better life for women, and she was ready to act on it. In January 1846, Sarah organized Californias first quilting-bee party. Nearly 20 women attended, a surprising number considering the difficulty and danger of winter travel in those days. The women sewed, talked and laughed late into the night. Sarah wondered how she could do more.Raised on a farm, Sarah had little formal education, but she was very ambitious. When her husband joined in the 1846 Bear Flag Rebellion, she moved back to Sutters Fort to attend school. She listened in on childrens classes in order to learn how to read and write. After the excitement of war, Allen grew bored with married life so he deserted his wife and sailed for Honolulu, leaving her penniless.Two years later, Sarah married Talbot Green, a prominent and successful merchant in San Francisco. Talbot Green was generous and well-liked, but also somewhat mysterious. He had traveled to California on horseback with the 1841 Bidwell Party, carrying medical supplies and acting as a doctor. Green had also packed a heavy bag of metal that he claimed was lead for rifle-balls.
Respected now and wealthy, Sarah loved Talbot Green and her new life in San Francisco. By 1851, Sarah was pregnant with her first child. But when her husband ran for mayor, a shady past was discovered. Green was publicly denounced as Paul Geddes, a fugitive bank clerk from Pennsylvania, who had deserted his wife and children a decade earlier. Presumably, the bag of lead he had hauled across the continent was gold bullion stolen from the Pennsylvania bank. Green denied the charges; he vowed to clear his name and he shipped out for the East Coast. Six months pregnant, Sarah grimly watched as her second husband abandoned her. Geddes would never return, but to his credit he did send money to Sarah to care for their son, Talbot Jr., who later became California state librarian. Within a short time, Sarah was granted a divorce. In order to survive and raise her boy, she cooked and took in boarders. In 1854, at age 29, she married Joseph Wallis, a well-known attorney and popular politician from Santa Clara County.
It wasnt long before Sarah herself began getting involved in politics. The success of that first quilting bee long ago had enforced her desire to shed the social shackles that constrained Victorian women. In 1856 she bought the 250-acre Mayfield Farm in present-day Palo Alto. To take title in her own name was highly unusual for a woman at that time, but there was nothing ordinary about Sarah Wallis.Sarah championed many causes, including bringing a railroad line from San Francisco through Mayfield, started Californias first Womens Club, and persistently lobbied the State Legislature in Sacramento for womens rights. In 1870 she was elected president of the California Womens Suffrage Association. Her prominence in the 19th century womens movement became so visible, that suffragette Susan B. Anthony, as well as President Ulysses S. Grant, visited her at her Mayfield home. During her lifetime, Sarah gave birth to five children, including her first son by Talbot Green. For a time Sarah owned the land where Sutter built his sawmill, the site where James Marshall would later discover the yellow flakes that sparked the California Gold Rush. Sarah Wallis was 80 years old when she died in 1905. She had been wealthy once, but in her generosity had spent most of her money helping others. Surprisingly, there are no known photographs of this tireless and well-respected activist. She was buried in an unmarked grave beside her husband and son in the Union Cemetery in Redwood City, Calif. Today, the only monument to her energy, vision and influence is a little-known state historic plaque near the site of her beautiful Mayfield House, which was destroyed by fire in 1936.Although Sarah died six years before women won the right to vote in California, her persistent battle for equal opportunity was for all women, not just herself. This early feminist with little schooling had not only helped open the California Trail, but she blazed a life-long path for all women. Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.
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