• Cheryl Anne Stapp

An Ordinary Woman


Teenaged Eliza Marshall emigrated with her family from England to the United States in 1839. They settled in Pawtucket, in the section of town with spinning and weaving mills. Eliza thought they were living in Rhode Island, but until state boundaries were redrawn in the 1860s, that part of Pawtucket was actually in Massachusetts.

Eliza, who had attended grammar school sporadically at home while working in a Hayfield cotton yarn factory, took a job as a weaver in the Pawtucket mills. She was fifteen. Four years later, when she was nineteen, a former English neighbor named James Gregson, who had emigrated to Philadelphia with his family in 1837, visited the Marshalls. He was 21, and had just finished his training as a blacksmith. They were married October 20, 1843.


A year later Eliza and James Gregson moved to Illinois, where she gave birth to a son who only lived for three months. Eliza had no desire to work in the Illinois cotton mills, and feared her husband “wasn’t stout enough” for heavy blacksmith’s work. Indeed, James had trouble holding a job because he was frequently ill. The couple managed to hold poverty at bay until Eliza’s mother Ann Marshall and the three younger Marshall children joined them, but by the spring of 1845 they were destitute. They decided to head to Oregon where they heard good free land was available.


Packing what provisions they could gather, the combined family of six set off with one wagon and six oxen to pull it, reaching the Snake River before running out of supplies and money, so they joined a company as hired hands: James to drive wagons and Eliza to do cooking and washing. Another disaster threatened when they lost most of their oxen to Indian raids, forcing them to cut their wagon down to a cart, which in turn meant abandoning many of their personal goods. A few miles farther on they joined the Grigsby-Ide Party, being piloted by mountain man-turned-guide Caleb Greenwood, who had convinced his charges that going to California was far easier, and would be more rewarding, than going to Oregon.


Greenwood wasn’t entirely truthful about the ease of the trail. Nevertheless, after much hardship and travail, the Gregsons and Marshalls arrived safely at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley, on October 20, 1845.


A few days later the Gregsons accepted a job from Englishman Thomas Hardy on his ranch on the Sacramento River, living in what Eliza called a “crude tule wigwam” for several months. Disillusioned with Hardy’s promises, they returned to Sutter’s trading post in the spring of 1846, where Eliza learned that her mother Ann Marshall had married another English immigrant while she and James were away. Eliza lived at Sutter’s Fort while James first participated in the Bear Flag Revolt that June, and then a few weeks later enlisted in a volunteer battalion to fight in the Mexican-American War. To pass the time while waiting for their men’s return from the war, Eliza taught reading and writing to three other women who were living inside the fort for their own protection. In September 1846, Eliza gave birth to a daughter she named Ann.


Still at Sutter’s Fort when the Donner Party survivors were brought there beginning in March 1847, Eliza said she would never forget “the looks of those poor people.” Meanwhile, the war had ended on California soil in January. James returned in the spring, and accepted work from Captain Sutter. The family remained in the area until January 1848.


After the gold discovery the Gregsons went to Coloma, where Eliza gave birth to a second daughter. James mined $3,000 in gold, but became ill again in late 1848. The couple moved to Green Valley in Sonoma, where Eliza supported them by taking in washing, ironing and sewing until James recovered his health. About 1850 they jointly purchased, with her brother Henry, a 160-acre farm in Green Valley. At the first county fair in Healdsburg, Eliza and James won a silver butter knife for the best butter.


Eliza and James lived in Green Valley the rest of their lives, raising a family of nine children who all lived to adulthood. Eliza Gregson died February 1, 1889, aged 65; James lived for another decade, dying in August 1899. March is National Women’s History Month.


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