Sarah Wallis: California’s First Feminist

Sarah Wallis’ house in Palo Alto. | Courtesy Palo Alto Historical Society

They were the vanguard of what would become the greatest voluntary migration in human history after gold was discovered in California. Best known as the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party of 1844, this small band of hardy pioneers were the first to take on Donner Pass in covered wagons. They were coming to settle the West — intent on farming, ranching and building churches and schools. It was an epic journey and they nearly failed to cross the Sierra, but they persevered and all survived; in fact, two babies were born on the way.

There were 50 people in the Stephens Party, 16 of them children. Lured by the promise of a mild climate, no serious diseases and the open, fertile land of California, they journeyed 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Mo. It took them nearly a year to reach Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento), but they became the first wagon train to open the long-sought California Trail.

One member of the group was a quiet, unassuming young woman named Sarah Montgomery. She was an 18-year-old newlywed from Ohio when she and her husband, Allen Montgomery, joined the wagon company. Although the move to California was her husband’s decision, Sarah was hoping for a better life away from the drudgery of subsistence farming.

For Sarah and the other women, there were many hours of sweat and toil on the trail. In addition to their daily cooking chores, women prepared butter and cheese, made gravies, stewed dried fruit and baked bread and biscuits. Despite the hardships, they made the best of it. One humorous frontier aphorism perfectly summed up a woman’s overland experience: “This country is all right for men and dogs, but it’s hell on women and horses.”

Shortly after Sarah and Allen arrived at Sutter’s Fort, Captain John Sutter hired Allen to work hand-sawing timber into badly needed lumber. With his earnings the young couple built themselves a one-room cabin near Sutter Creek and settled in. Life for women in early California was lonely and isolated. The long distances between settlements gave American wives and daughters few opportunities to visit one another. In January 1846, Sarah organized California’s first quilting-bee party. Nearly 20 women attended, a surprising number considering the difficulty of winter travel in those days. The lonely women sewed, talked and laughed late into the night. Sarah wondered how she could do more.

Because she was raised on a farm, Sarah had little formal education, but she was ambitious. When her husband joined in the Bear Flag Rebellion in Sonoma in June 1846, she moved to Sutter’s Fort to attend children’s classes to learn to read and write. She remained there until spring 1847 when Allen marched home from the Mexican-American War. Unfortunately, after the adventure of war and battle, Allen had grown bored with married life and he soon deserted Sarah and sailed for Honolulu, leaving her alone and penniless.

Two years later, Sarah married Talbot Green, a prominent, wealthy merchant in San Francisco. Green was generous and well liked, but also somewhat mysterious. He had emigrated to California on horseback in 1841. Despite no training in medicine, he told everyone he was a doctor. Green had also packed a heavy bag that he claimed contained lead to cast rifle balls.

Sarah was happy with Green and her new city life in bustling San Francisco. In 1851, Sarah became pregnant with her first child, but when her husband ran for mayor of San Francisco 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 so-called lead he had hauled across the continent was gold bullion stolen from the bank.

Labeled a bigamist and a scoundrel, Green vehemently denied the accusations. Vowing to clear his name, he shipped out for the East Coast. Six months pregnant, Sarah grimly watched her husband leave. Geddes would never return, but to his credit he did send money to Sarah to care for their son. Green later wrote his business partner, Thomas O. Larkin, and admitted his guilt.

Sarah Montgomery Green was granted another divorce. In order to make ends meet she cooked, cleaned and took in boarders. In 1854, at age 29 and with a young son to raise, she married her third husband, Joseph Wallis. Wallis, a well-known attorney and popular politician from Santa Clara County, was appointed judge and then, with Sarah’s help, was elected as a state senator. It wasn’t long before Sarah herself began getting involved in politics. The success of that first quilting bee had enforced her desire to shed the social shackles that constrained Victorian era women.

In 1856, Sarah bought the beautiful 250-acre Mayfield Farm in present-day Palo Alto. She took title to the house in her own name, an unheard-of legal move for a woman at that time. Sarah championed many causes for her community and California. She spearheaded a successful effort to bring a railroad line from San Francisco through Mayfield. The influence she wielded was extraordinary at a time when women were effectively shut out of politics. Wallis persistently lobbied the California Legislature in Sacramento, demanding a woman’s right to vote, to own title on legal property, access to state colleges and to practice law.

In 1870, Sarah was elected president of the California Women’s Suffrage Association. Her activism in the 19th Century women’s movement grew to such heights that eminent social reformer Susan B. Anthony and President Ulysses S. Grant visited her in Mayfield.

During her lifetime, Sarah gave birth to five children including her first son with Talbot Green. Talbot H. Wallis later became California State Librarian in Sacramento. For a time, Sarah owned land near where millwright James Marshall later discovered the yellow flakes that sparked the California Gold Rush. Sarah was 87 years old when she died on Jan. 11, 1905. She had been wealthy once, but through her generosity had spent most of her money altruistically.

Although she died six years before women gained the right to vote in California, her persistent battle for equal opportunity was for all women. In 1844, as a member of the Stephens Party, young Sarah was among the first Euro-Americans to stand on the shores of Lake Tahoe. This early feminist with little schooling not only helped open the California Trail, but she blazed a life-long trail for all women.