A Remarkable Life
She was a woman of remarkable qualities; a woman who rose from being an uneducated young bride going west in a covered wagon in 1844, to becoming a co-founder of the 1870s suffrage movement in California. Men called her a beauty, too. Her name was Sarah Armstrong Montgomery Green Wallis.
Sarah Armstrong was born in Ohio on August 11, 1825, but grew up in Indiana until her family moved to western Missouri in 1839, where her parents died three years later. Needing a source of income, Sarah hired on as a domestic for Dr. John Townsend and his wife Elizabeth in Buchanan County, Missouri. On March 15, 1844, in Buchanan County, eighteen-year-old Sarah Armstrong married Allen Montgomery, a young gunsmith. Meanwhile, Sarah’s employers had decided to re-settle in California.
If the newlyweds established a separate home together it wasn’t for long. A month after their wedding day, Sarah and Allen accompanied the Townsends to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they joined with the extended Martin Murphy clan, and others, to form the Murphy-Stephens-Townsend Party. This company of emigrants was the first to bring wagons across the rugged Sierra Nevada—with much hardship—and they were lucky: all of the members of the party survived the journey, despite an ordeal the women and children endured at a makeshift winter camp on the Yuba River, while the men rode ahead to Sutter’s Fort for help.
Sarah and Allen built themselves a snug, one-room cabin in the vicinity of Sutter’s Fort. In January 1846, Sarah hosted the first quilting bee in the Sacramento Valley, attended by every settler in the area. The quilting party was a day of pleasurable socializing; troubles began later in the year. First came the Bear Flag Revolt in June, followed three weeks later by American military personnel arriving to conquer California in the Mexican-American War. Allen Montgomery participated in the Bear Flag Revolt, and soon afterward volunteered to fight in the war. Sarah, with other wives in the same circumstances, moved inside Sutter’s Fort for their own protection. While living there, Sarah learned to read and write from another pioneer woman.
After the war Allen went to Hawaii, and Sarah moved to San Francisco to be near the ships when he sent for her to join him, only to learn he had died there. Two years later she married popular, polished, accomplished Talbot H. Green, who had come to California with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party in 1841. The wedding took place in San Jose on October 25, 1849. If her wedding to Allen had been a simple ceremony before a justice of the peace, this one was witnessed by many guests, and—because Talbot Green was a successful businessman about to embark on a political career—members of the press, who reported that the wedding cake was a beautiful, delicious concoction filled with sweets and fruits.
But it was Talbot’s very political aspirations that caused Sarah’s newfound happiness to implode. While running for mayor of San Francisco in early 1851, a newly-arrived immigrant recognized him as Paul Geddes—who, ten years earlier, had absconded with a Pennsylvania bank’s funds, and deserted his wife and children. The exposé created quite a scandal, and although his disbelieving friends denied what they called “false and malicious reports,” Talbot/Paul insisted on returning east to clear his name. Sarah, now six months pregnant, was probably among the large crowd who saw him off when he boarded the steamship Panama on April 15. Talbot/Paul did arrange for financial support for her and his unborn child, but he was never to return. On July 3, 1851, Sarah gave birth to a healthy baby boy she named Talbot Green Jr., and presumably had her invalid marriage legally annulled.
On July 25, 1854, in San Francisco, she married Joseph S. Wallis, a prominent attorney/politician from Santa Clara. Two years later she acquired title to the 250-acre Mayfield Farm, now part of Palo Alto. She and her husband settled there, building large home. Joseph Wallis served as Associate Judge in the Court of Sessions of Santa Clara County 1859-1860, and was elected to the California State Senate in 1862. He adopted Sarah’s son, who took the name Talbot H. Wallis, and was later to become the tenth California State Librarian. The marriage was a happy one, producing two more sons and two daughters.
With the full support of her husband, Sarah joined other strong-minded women to found the suffrage movement in California, becoming president of the California Women’s Suffrage Association Convention in 1870. In 1873, the California State Woman Suffrage Educational Association was established with Sarah Wallis as president. She lobbied successfully for women to practice law in the state, and not be denied admission to state colleges based on gender.
An economic depression in the mid-1870s forced Sarah and Joseph to sell Mayfield Farm and move to a smaller home in the town of Mayfield. She lost this house too, after Judge Wallis’s death in 1898.
Sarah moved with her oldest son to Los Gatos, but she would not live to see the fruit of all her considerable efforts. She died there January 11, 1905, six years before women in California won the right to vote. March is National Women’s History Month.