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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Haunted by Tragedy

Her real name was Meriam but everyone called her Mary. She was a Donner Party survivor, fifteen when she was rescued from a four-months-long nightmare of freezing cold, starvation, and horror. In time, her emaciated face filled out again to its former prettiness, but she would be haunted by the tragedy for the rest of her life.

Mary was fourteen when her family set out overland in the spring of 1846. Born November 15, 1831, she was the fourth child of Jeremiah and Levinah Murphy, but her father had died in October 1839. Led by Mary’s widowed mother, the California-bound Murphy kin included Mary’s married sisters Sarah Murphy Foster and Harriet Murphy Pike, their husbands William Foster and William Pike; Mary’s four brothers, two nieces, and a nephew.

Disaster had stalked the Donner Party since they left the main caravan in Wyoming to form their own wagon company, determined to follow a shortcut promoted by a man named Hastings. They spent sixteen days hacking a wagon road through the gnarled Wasatch Mountains, exhausting themselves to advance a mere thirty miles. They lost personal goods and draft animals while crossing the arid Great Salt Desert, and lost more travel days resting for too long afterward.

Death stalked them, too. While the company was still rolling through the Nevada desert, an old man fell behind and was never seen again. Frayed tempers led to the stabbing death of a teamster, another member was reported murdered under suspicious circumstances, and Mary’s brother in-law William Pike died in a firearms accident.

As the Donner Party began ascending the Sierra at last, a storm arose on October 28, a month earlier than usual. Still, most of the party made it through deepening snow to a small alpine lake—to find that the pass above it was snowed-in. Unable to get across, they made camp in hopes the storms would cease. Instead, the storms worsened. By November 6, dangerously low on provisions, they realized they were trapped. Never-ending snowfall buried their cattle, and their stores of other foodstuffs were mostly bare.

In mid-December, after a young man had died and the desperate emigrants were beginning to eat their dogs, captured field mice, and boiled strips of rawhide, a group of 15 individuals—including Mary’s sisters Sarah and Harriet, and Sarah’s husband William Foster—departed the lake on snowshoes to find help. After being lost in the snow-blanketed Sierra for 33 days, the snow-shoers finally reached Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River. Rescue teams were mobilized; Mary Murphy walked out of her mountain prison with the First Relief in February, 1847, leaving behind family members who were unable to travel to await a second rescue team. She never saw them again.

This first group of survivors stayed at Johnson’s Ranch for a few days while efforts to rescue the others continued. Traumatized and unsure of her future, Mary accepted a marriage proposal from William Johnson, a man many years her senior, marrying him at Sutter’s Fort on June 25, 1847. Johnson proved to be an abusive husband and within four months Mary left him, fleeing to the home of her widowed sister Harriet Pike, who had re-married and now lived on a ranch a few miles north of Johnson’s establishment. There was no divorce law in California so Mary—a convert to the Mormon faith like her parents and sister Sarah Murphy Foster—secured an annulment, according to the laws of her church, from a recently-arrived Mormon Elder.

Mary had already met French-born Charles Covillaud, the superintendent of the ranch where Harriet’s new husband worked. He, too, was some years older than Mary, but she knew him to be a kind man, and a gentleman. They wed at Sutter’s Fort on Christmas Day, 1847. It was a happy marriage and they had five children together, yet Mary’s grief over that horrible time in the mountains, a sorrow deep in her soul, never left her. Of the thirteen Murphy family members who had started west in 1846, six had perished: Mary’s mother Levinah, brothers Landrum and Lemuel, brother-in-law William Pike, niece Catherine Pike, and nephew George Foster.

Mary herself died young, on September 27, 1867—six weeks short of her thirty-sixth birthday—and seven months after the death of her beloved husband Charles Covillaud in February. She was remembered by her community as a lovely, kind, and generous woman.

The city of Marysville, California, is named for Mary Murphy Covillaud, as are Mary Covillaud Elementary School and two streets in Marysville. March is National Women's History Month.

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