In 1844, the Stevens-Murphy company left Missouri hoping to be the first wagons into California. Mostly Irish Catholic, they sought religious freedom and education. All went well—until October when a heavy snowstorm forced the party to separate in four directions. Each group risked losing those they loved as they planned their escapes, waited for rescue . . . or even their own deaths.
Welcome to Novel PASTimes! We are pleased you stopped by today.
Thank you! The men and women in this story chose me to be the main speaker today. I’m Mary Sullivan, but you should know that there are nine other women who are a part of this amazing story based on real people and a real incident in 1844-45.
Tell us something about where you live.
So, where do I live? I lived in Canada before heading west and I spent a grueling winter in the Sierra Nevadas. Now I live in California but getting there wasn’t easy! This story is set mostly, though, in the mountains. Now the pass where we wintered is known as Donner Pass. A couple of years later that disastrous party had a terrible time. We were there before them in an equally terrible winter near Lake Tahoe but we had a very different outcome.
Is there anything special about your name? Why do you think you were given that name?
Many in my family were named Mary or derivatives of Mary like Maolisa. One of my fellow travelers bore that name. It has an Irish connection which most of us on this Stephens-Murphy-Townsend wagon train have. Many, like Maolisa Murphy, came from Ireland to Canada then to Missouri and finally to those incredible mountains in the west. We all wanted a new life and an opportunity to worship freely in what was known as Alta California.
Do you have an occupation? What do you like or dislike about your work?
Like most women of my time, I am a homemaker and had to make adjustments in being my mother’s helper after she and my father died of dysentery just days before we headed west from Iowa. My brother John and two little brothers and I were left orphans. John, however, wanted me to be sure I behaved like a proper lady. But my real skills are not in knitting or cooking but in working with the oxen and in solving problems and using my physical strength like walking long miles in snowshoes to reach help. Women can do those things and still be a lady. And I love to read and I helped another young woman — a wife — learn to read. Very gratifying. So is making sure my little brothers have night time stories of encouragement and faith.
Who are the special people in your life?
My brother John who is two years older than me and my two little brothers ages eight and ten. I’m a little shy but because of this journey I’d made new friends including Sarah and Ailbe and Ellen and Mrs. Patterson and…and then I also met Peter. That’s a whole new story!
What is your heart’s deepest desire?
I want to make my mother proud even though she isn’t on this earth anymore. And I want to do that by being true to myself, by speaking up and offering ideas even when others might say a woman should be silent. I also want to keep my brothers and the other children who are waiting for rescue to trust that they are not alone. I want to keep their spirits up.
What are you most afraid of?
That we will die here in these mountains before I have a chance to live.
Do you have a cherished possession?
The Aron wool sweater that Sarah showed me how to knit. I took apart the sweater my mother made for me to learn how to do this “womanly” thing, to make my mother pleased that I did learn a woman’s art.
What do you expect the future will hold for you?
I may not be able to wait for rescue but rather will start out to bring a rescue team to us. The risk is great but I will do what I must for my brothers and my friends.
What have you learned about yourself in the course of your story?
Oh my goodness! I’ve learned that friendships are the fuel that keep us warm in time of trials. I’ve discovered that leadership involves listening more than talking. I’ve witnessed the power of faith in struggle and how helping others in a challenging time is a way to help oneself. I’ve also come to accept that I can be different from other women — liking the outdoors more than cooking and sewing, being physically strong and still be a lady. I also realize that tending and befriending is a better response to stress than fight or flight!
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I was in the background when this story began. Ellen Murphy, a real beauty, was important in this story of One More River to Cross but she chose a different route out of this winter deluge. Then Maolisa was pretty important because she didn’t realize that she was about to deliver a baby. Now there’s a story! She thought she had another two months! Then Sarah Montgomery’s story took front stage as she came to terms with being abandoned by her husband who stayed behind to guard his weapons. At one point, all the women had moments of abandonment. I came to love each of these women (and a couple more I haven’t even told you about). When we shared things like where our feet had taken us or how we prepared a memorable meal, all ways to help us deal with starvation and the cold and the eight feet of snow, and our fears, I realized how tragedy had brought me into a family of women whom I didn’t know I needed. Now, when things get difficult I pray and I reach out to friends who help to support and sustain me until I can hear God calling me to a new direction.
Thanks for allowing us to get know you a little better!
Jane Kirkpatrick is the New York Times and CBA bestselling and award-winning author of more than 30 books, including Everything She Didn’t Say, All She Left Behind, A Light in the Wilderness,The Memory Weaver, This Road We Traveled, and A Sweetness to the Soul, which won the prestigious Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Center. Her works have won the WILLA Literary Award, the Carol Award for Historical Fiction, and the 2016 Will Rogers Medallion Award. Jane lives in Central Oregonwith her husband, Jerry. Learn more at www.jkbooks.com.