The true story of a Pioneer Mother of California

Mary Sawyers Swan Cook


From The Willits News, May 4, 1923, A Pioneer Mother of the Golden State

Immigration into California, in the early 1850’s, after the first flush and fever of the gold rush had abated, may not have quite the air of romance of the tradition of courage and of adventure that is our great heritage.  These after all were the real creators of the commonwealth; the forerunners of an abiding prosperity; they were state builders.

Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Sawyers Cook lived in Willits for nearly a half century.  She is regarded as one of the pioneers of the Little Lake valley.  Yet her experience of California life goes back over a score of years preceding.  Back of that is the experience of her girlhood in Missouri.  Her story is interesting. 

She is one of those quiet, perhaps largely unnoticed persons, who are the real foundations of our California communities.  Often these pioneers have shared in experiences so full of romance and historic interest that their story needs to be told in order to become in the possession of a later generation.  May that generation carry forward the tradition of vision, intrepidity and hardihood.


This is the very true story of my 3rd Great Aunt, Mary Elizabeth Sawyers Swan Cook, regarded as one of the early pioneers and “mothers” of California.   As professed in the 1923 Willits News article, her story is packed full of romance, adventure, danger, history, courage, love, tragedy, strength and fortitude.  Mrs. Cook was caught in the web of an uncanny number of infamous events and persons that define who Californians and Americans truly are.  Her story will be passed down to my grandchildren, themselves 6th generation Californians, and the generations to come.

Her story begins 180 years ago.

Kentucky and Missouri (1839-1854)

Mary Sawyers was born in 1839 in Missouri and was the youngest of seven children of Thomas Hiram Sawyers and Mary Pierce “Polly” King.  Her father was a farmer and furniture maker.  Tom learned the cabinet-making trade in Louisville, Kentucky, and farmed land he bought along the Bullskin Creek in Shelby County.

Mary’s 2nd great grandfather, James Sawyers, was born in Tyrone, Ireland and emigrated to the Virginia Colony about 1745.   Mary’s grandfather, John Sawyers, was born in Virginia in 1764.   He was a 2nd Lieutenant with the Continental Troops in the American Revolutionary War with Britain, and also served with the Adams Regiment of the Ohio Militia during the War of 1812, also against the British protagonists.

Daniel Boone

John Sawyers settled in Kentucky and was a close friend and hunting companion of Daniel Boone.   Boone, born in Virginia in 1734, was an American pioneer, frontiersman, and trailblazer of the ultimate expansion and extension of the young country to the Pacific Ocean. His exploits made him one of the first folk heroes of the United States.  He is perhaps most famous for his exploration of what is now Kentucky, and establishment of one of the first American settlements west of the Appalachians. By 1800, more than 200,000 Americans migrated to Kentucky by following the route marked by Boone.  Mary’s father and grandfather were among those early pioneers.

The United States in 1839

In 1839, the United States was vastly different from what it is today.  It had only been 65 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed and the first shots were fired in the American Revolution.   There were only 26 states with a total population of a little over 17 million people. Missouri was the Far West of the young country. Everything beyond was unclaimed or disputed territories. All of California and the rest of the Southwest (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and much of Texas) was owned and controlled by Mexico.

This wild, unsettled frontier was occupied by Native Americans and a handful of settlers.   Before the Gold Rush in 1849, what is now California was home to no more than 8,000 non-Native Americans.   Within three years, over 300,000 newcomers would invade the new state to strike it rich or make money from those trying.

Here was the big news at the time in Missouri.  In 1838 the Governor threatened to kill any Mormon that didn’t voluntarily evacuate the State.  This was followed by the Great Squirrel Invasion of 1839.  Hundreds of thousands of famished rodents decimated the farmers’ crops that year, and then mysteriously vanished.

Mary’s older sister, Melcena (b.1827), and three older brothers were born in Kentucky:  Edward (1829), John (1831) and Fielding (1833).  Fielding died a year after he was born, and that same year Tom moved the family 500 miles west to Clark County, Missouri.   Their son, Mountjoy King, was born in 1835 and a younger sister died in childbirth in 1837. Mary Elizabeth Sawyers arrived two years later.

In 1840, Tom sent five-year old son Mountjoy to live with an uncle back in Kentucky.  He wouldn’t return home for twelve years.   Mountjoy recalled what it was like being separated from his family.

My uncle was not married so he took me to my grandfather’s [Edward King] farm in Kentucky to live.  All went well for some time, until I began to think of my dear loving mother, and the dear ones that I had left—maybe to see them no more.

Grandfather and all the family were good and kind to me, humoring me to most everything.  My longing to see the dear ones I had left finally died away and I could go to bed and sleep without crying myself to sleep.

In a year or so grandfather sold his farm in Shelby County, Kentucky and bought a farm in Trimble County near the Ohio River—about opposite the City of Madison on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, and I liked it much better.  There I could hear the steamboats whistle and I learned nearly all the names of the different steamboats—Ben Franklin, George Washington and many others.  So, time passed on and I was growing taller and of course growing older.

The uncle that brought me home with him got married and took me to live with him—to be company for his wife when he was gone.  She was a kind and loving aunt and I loved her as such.

When she married my uncle, her father gave her three negroes—one woman and two boys—for it was in time of slavery—so I stayed with uncle and aunt about one year.

Grandfather missed me so much and thought he could not do without me—and it was so arranged that I went to live with grandfather and I was glad of it, but it was not long until the sad news came in a letter that my dear mother was dead.  It was 1842. That mother I was hoping to meet again in this world.  No one knows what I suffered but Him who knoweth all things.

My suffering was so great I don’t know but that I wished to die to be with dear mother far above the sky—but a consoling thought was that I had two brothers and two sisters, that I would see them again sometime.

Thomas Hiram Sawyers

Tom was out of sorts.  As recalled by Fannie Sawyers Hicks, one of his daughters with his second wife:   “After the death of his first wife, my father started two or three times for South America.  On one such attempt a hogshead of tobacco rolled over on him and crippled him.  He later said, ‘I guess it wasn’t intended for me to go to South America.'”

Hogsheads of Tobacco

Fannie Sawyers Hicks

In 1849, England, Ireland and the United States were hit hard by the virulent cholera epidemic.   The virus that attacks the intestines and produces high fevers claimed the lives of Mary’s older brothers, Edward (then 20) and John (18), in March of that year.   The young men died within ten days of each other.

Mountjoy was still living with his grandfather when his father, Thomas, brought the news to him in person.

In the summer of 1849 my father brought me the sad news that my two brothers were dead, and he wanted to take me home with him.  But grandfather begged so hard for him to let me stay with him, as he was getting quite old and made my father some promises what he would do for me, which probably he forgot before he died.  So, I stayed with grandfather until he died, which was in August of 1850.  Then I lived with my step-grandmother until March of 1852 when my father came after me and I went with him to his home in Missouri arriving there the second day of April 1852.  I helped my father on his farm doing general farm work in the years 1852 and 1853.

This clearly was a difficult time in Mountjoy’s life and it doesn’t take much to imagine how hard those years had to be for young Mary Sawyers.    Mountjoy was sent away when she was a toddler, so she really didn’t even know him.    Her mother died when she was only three years old and her father struggled, as evidenced by his failed attempts to flee to South America.  When Mary was eight, her older sister, Melcena, got married and, although living close by, was out of the house and starting her own family.

With the deaths of her two brothers, ten-year old Mary was the only child living alone with her father in a house consumed with grief and shouldering the chores that were previously shared with her three older siblings.

But not for long.  A year after the death of his boys, Tom, 51, married Margaret “Peggy” Hay, 26 years his junior.  Peggy was only two years older than Melcena.  Marshall Ney, the first of their seven children together, was born nine months later.   Adding to her other duties, Mary was now asked to help her step-mother with the care and feeding of her half-brothers and sisters.

Margaret Peggy Cook

Soon, another fever would take hold of her father, brother-in-law and hundreds of thousands of other Americans and forever change the course of Mary’s life.


The California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, when the precious yellow metal was found by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in what is now the town of Coloma, about thirty miles east of Sacramento.  By the end of 1849, the lure of gold brought 300,000 people to California from all over the United States and abroad.  The sudden influx of gold into the money supply reinvigorated the American economy, and the explosive population increase hurtled California to becoming the 31st state by 1850.

Tom Sawyers brought his son, Mountjoy, back home to Missouri in the spring of 1852.  Mary finally got to spend time with the 17-year old brother she barely knew.

In the fall of 1853, Tom sold his farm, cabinet shop and pretty much everything else he owned. He, like so many others, had contracted Gold Fever and could not pass up the chance of striking it rich.  Tom spent the next several months getting ready for the four-month trip from Missouri to California.  He bought wagons, oxen teams and the food, supplies and equipment they would need.  Although late in the game, Tom was confident they would have luck in the gold fields.

Joining Tom, Peggy and their two young children—Marshall, now 3, and one-year old Martha Ann—were Melcena, her husband James Case, and their two children, Mary who was six and two-year old Nancy Jane.  Rounding out the party were Mountjoy, now 19, and Mary Elizabeth who had just turned 15.

Melcena Sawyers Case

The wagon train treks have been romanticized in books, movies and television shows.   Suffice it to say, they were terribly difficult and often deadly.   In 1854 there was no cross-country railroad, telegraph or mail service.  There were no roads; only trails carved into sand, rock and dirt by the hooves and metal covered wheels of the heavy oxen and wagons.  This truly was the “Wild West” inhabited by tribes of Native Americans who very angry with the invasion of their lands.

  The Overland Trail

Their wagon train was led by a man named William Musgrove, a veteran of several crossings. He led the Sawyers-Case party along the well-traveled Overland Trail from Clark County, Missouri, through Council Bluffs (Iowa), along the Platte River (Nebraska), through Wyoming and on to the great Salt Lake (Utah) where they spent two weeks to rest the stock.  From Salt Lake the train crossed the brutal deserts of what is now northern Nevada until they reached the base of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada where the Truckee River pours out of the mountains.  That place is now Reno, Nevada.  They followed the river up the mountains as they made the treacherous climb of the seven thousand-foot range to the north side of Lake Tahoe.   From there they dropped down the western slope to Pleasant Valley, California, very close to where the first gold was found at Sutter’s Mill.   The journey covered about 2,000 miles.

The wagon trains had to make it over the Sierras by late September, early October, latest.  Otherwise, they ran the risk of getting stuck in the heavy mountain snows.   Such was the fate six years earlier of the infamous Donner Party.  They tried to make it across in November, 1846, but were trapped by a huge blizzard just north of Lake Tahoe in what is now known as Donner Pass. As food supplies dwindled, some men in the party were dispatched to get help.   None arrived until mid-February.    Of the 89 members of the party, only 48 reached California, many of them having eaten their dead to survive.

The Indian Attack

Mountjoy Sawyers shared his first-hand impression of the journey.

On the third day of May 1854 we left our Missouri home and started to cross the plains for California. After crossing the Missouri River we were then in the Pawnee Indian country and after traveling three days, the third night the Indians stole eleven head of our best work oxen and killed them and carried the meat across the Platte River—as it happened the oxen stolen belonged to Musgrove, the boss of the train, who had plenty of good work oxen to rig up other teams.

We then traveled on and crossed the North Fork of the Platte River in what is now Nebraska. On the third day of June, about 3 o’clock in the morning, the Indians stampeded our cattle and run them down the river about six miles.  The Indians then surrounded us and kept up a continual fire with their flint lock muskets, until about 10 o’clock in the morning.  We formed a ring with our wagons and we stayed inside the ring for the Indians were on all sides of us.  We were completely surrounded.  We could only see the flash of their flint lock guns.  We fortified ourselves as best we could until daylight, then the Indians would lay flat on the ground and shoot, then hold up a blanket that looked just like an Indian for us to shoot at.  We soon caught on to their trick and we would shoot close to the ground. Then they soon quit and went off to the river.  As other trains were coming that were behind us, we sent a man on the fastest horse we had and got help from other trains.  We got all of our cattle back. 

We heard a few days after our fight with the Indians, that they told some traders that they lost nine of their men.  Only two of our company were slightly wounded, one being my older sister, Melcena, shot in the shoulder.  The bullet went straight through and lodged in the side of a wagon.  Her husband, Jim Case, dug out the bullet and kept it.

We got all straightened out and travelled only about three miles that day, then camped and made ready for another battle, but it commenced to rain with thunder and lightning and kept it up most all night.  That ended our trouble with the Indians.  We were not bothered with them any more while crossing the plains.

In crossing the desert, which was sixty miles without grass or water, we traveled mostly in the night, until we came to the Hot Boiling Springs.   There we met Will Musgrove, the son of the boss of our train.  He had brought plenty of cold water which made us all glad.  We rested there all day and part of the night.  About 10 o’clock in the night we started across a six-mile desert of deep sand and about daylight we came to the Truckee River, a beautiful clear stream of water.  There we rested for a while then started across the Sierra Mountains, and made it over all right, and arrived in a little valley called Pleasant Valley, Nevada County, the 3rd day of September, after a long four months of travel across the plains.

I could tell of many close calls that we had while on the plains, such as six hundred head of cattle getting scared, or as we call it “stampeding,” and six or seven ox teams all running at the same time.  I would say that it was not a very pleasant place to be, with that many cattle running all around you, some of them bawling as they ran.

This was Mountjoy’s only reference to what must have been a nightmare of effort in getting the  party over the Sierras.

Mary Sawyers also recalled,In Salt Lake our party joined a group of cattlemen bringing through a herd of 1,200 cattle to California.  That drove was reduced to one by the time they reached California.  But that was a familiar story, as numerous skeletons along the Nevada desert revealed.

Trying Their Luck at the Rough and Ready (1854-1857)

From Placerville, the Sawyers and Cases travelled an additional 50 miles north and settled in a mining camp by the name of the Rough and Ready near today’s Grass Valley.  The men went to work digging for gold, along with thousands of others frantically seeking the one lucky strike which would bring an end to a lifetime of hard work.  The first winter was bitter cold and claimed the lives of many in the camp.

The Sawyers-Cases lived in tents, densely packed in this boom town, until wood structures could be built.  Fires frequently raged through the Camp taking many homes and buildings with them, only to be quickly rebuilt to sustain the quest for riches.

Boarding House at Rough and Ready


At Rough and Ready, Mary Sawyers unexpectedly ran into a young miner, Samuel P. Swan, who she had known in Missouri.  They were married in October 1855.  She was 16 and Sam was 23.  Mary gave birth to their daughter, Martha Elizabeth Samuel “Lizzie,” in November of that same year.  Sam had luck with his mining.  He continued to work his claims until the summer of 1857.  By that time, Sam had collected enough gold dust to warrant a trip back east to see his family in Pittsburgh.

The other family members weren’t as fortunate.  Melcena Case had not fully recovered from the wound she suffered in the Indian ambush, and Jim was struggling with his mining.  In the spring of 1856, the Case family struck out on their own and moved to the Petaluma area near the Pacific coast above San Francisco, where Jim resumed farming.   Tom and Peggy Sawyers’ third child, David, was born in Rough and Ready and, by the fall of 1856, they too gave it up and followed the Cases to Petaluma.

Mary was eight months pregnant with Lizzie when she married Samuel.  This likely did not sit well with Mary’s father, Tom, and could explain why Mary, Sam and baby Lizzie stayed on at Rough and Ready and did not follow Mary’s parents and older sister to Petaluma.   On the other hand, unlike Mary’s brother, brother-in-law and father, Samuel had amassed a small fortune in gold, and they had the means to pursue their independence.

Mountjoy King Sawyers

Willits, Little Lake Valley, California

Mountjoy stuck it out another year and left Rough and Ready around the same time as Sam and Mary and joined his family in Petaluma.  The following year, Mountjoy came upon a lovely place known as Little Lake Valley about 100 miles to the north.  There were only a few people living in this area that would become the town of Willits in Mendocino County.   Tom and Peggy moved to the Valley in 1858, and she became only the third woman to settle in Little Lake.   As Mountjoy recalled,

I was well pleased with the valley; returned to Petaluma and told the family what I thought of this part of the country, then went back and secured for father and family what is known as the Sawyers’ Ranch and moved them to this valley in January1858.  Here he lived and raised his family and died on the 25th day of December 1879, leaving his second wife, Peggy, and seven children by her.   She of course was my step-mother, but a better step-mother would be hard to find, who lived until January 18, 1914, and was laid in the grave by our father, Tom’s, side.

Three of Tom’s and Peggy’s children were born in Willits including their last, Robert Lee, born in 1865, four months shy of Tom’s 66th birthday.



The story of the wreck of the SS Central America has been told again and again in print, but for some reason the tragic feature of over 400 sturdy California miners going to their deaths that others might be saved has been omitted. The sublime act of those who freely gave their lives that others might live constitutes one of the brightest chapters in the earlier history of the Golden State, when the shaping of its destiny was in the hands of men who could do and dare and meet Fate’s stern decree with the fortitude of a Spartan.

Steamer Sonora


By the summer of 1857, Samuel Swan had managed to accumulate about $10,000 of gold dust and coin.  That’s about $275,000 in today’s Dollars—a very nice nest egg, indeed.   He longed to head back east and see his family in Pennsylvania.   Neither Sam nor his wife were anxious to make another slog back East by wagon train, especially with a baby girl not yet two years old.   Fortunately—or, in retrospect, unfortunately for this young family—the explosion of growth in California and the need to get the valuable gold in the coffers of the banks on the East coast resulted in the establishment of a fleet of steamships that could cut the trip from coast to coast from five months to a little under four weeks.

Sam, his seventeen-year old bride of less than two years, and baby Lizzie boarded the steamship Sonora in San Francisco on August 20, 1857, bound for Panama City.  The price per ticket in steerage, the lowest class, was about $150 per person.

Aspinwall Panama (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

The Sonora arrived in Panama City two weeks later on September 2.   A narrow -gauge railroad line across the 47-mile isthmus had recently been completed.  A trip that used to take several days by wagon and foot through mountainous jungle was made significantly shorter and easier by the opening of the Panama Railway. They climbed on the train and made it to Aspinwall on the east coast of Panama a few hours later that same afternoon.

SS Central America (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

On September 3, they boarded the SS Central America (formerly known as the George Law), commanded by Captain Wm. L. Herndon, for the seven-day trip to New York City.   There were 596 on board:  491 passengers, including 32 women and 28 children; and 105 officers and crew.   Most of the male passengers were miners, like Sam, returning to their home states.

Sailors in those days professed it bad luck to rename a ship.  The fact is, the vessel was named after its principal builder and part owner, George Law.  Law had recently sold his stake in the ship to his partners and it was he that insisted the name be changed.

Captain William L. Herndon

Captain Herndon, 43, had spent his entire career at sea since age fifteen.   There was no Naval Academy or other similar education opportunities to learn to become a boat captain.  Training was through several apprenticeships on different ships and voyage assignments that could keep a young man away from home for one to three years.   Herndon was an able sailor, natural leader and intellectually curious.  One of his assignments involved being the first non-native to explore the Amazon River valley starting in Lima, Peru in the Andes Mountains and travelling through Brazil to the Atlantic Ocean.   His exploration party travelled over 4,300 miles.  The two-year adventure and the 400-page book he wrote about it, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, earned him worldwide praise and acclaim.

Herndon married Frances Elizabeth Hansborough of Virginia in 1836.   Their only child, Ellen, was born the following year, two years older than Mary Sawyers Swan.  Ellen was praised for her beautiful singing voice, although she never sang professionally.   Herndon assumed command of the 278-foot steamer SS Central America in 1855 and had several round trips from New York to Aspinwall under his belt.

One of the main functions of these steam ships was to carry mail and passengers from the East Coast to California, and passengers, mail and gold freshly mined in California to the East Coast.

In addition to passengers, the Central America carried $1.6 million of gold bars and coin [worth over $150 Million today] desperately needed by East Coast banks to prop up their capital.  It was estimated that the gold on the ship represented 20% of all the gold held in the banks’ vaults on Wall Street. This didn’t include the copious amounts of gold carried by the passengers.

A typical steamer cabin (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

The Central America had three decks.   The first and second class cabins were located aft in staterooms situated on both the second and third decks, and were occupied by 159 persons including 24 women and 27 children.   The 332 steerage passengers were carried forward on the second and third decks in three-high tiers of double bunks anchored against the sides of the ship. There were eight women and 3 children travelling in steerage including Mary and baby Lizzie.

The Central America enjoyed fair weather and smooth seas, and arrived in Havana on Monday, September 7.  The passengers did not go ashore.  Cuba was riddled with the deadly Yellow Fever disease.   The next day Captain Herndon set sail and steam for New York City.  The smaller and slower sister steamship, Empire City, commanded by Captain McGowan, left Havana later that day, also bound for New York City.

The wind began to pick up on Wednesday and by Thursday, September 10, the Central America was battling an intense hurricane with ferocious winds producing thirty-foot waves.   At this point the ship was about 75 miles off the southeast coast of Florida.

Mary Sawyers Swan recalled the eroding situation.

The second day of the storm the steamer sprung a leak and her hold rapidly filled with water.  The pumps were put at work, but proved ineffective.  Then the first step which was to disclose glorious manhood took place.  The California miners aboard the doomed vessel, with a wealth of the yellow metal in their possession, commenced to bail the ship of its burden of water.  Every vessel which could be secured was brought into requisition—buckets, barrels and the like. For nearly a week the unequal battle continued with nearly all the men thus engaged grasping buckets and other vessels with hands from which the flesh had been worn, exposing bare bone.  But not a soul aboard the fated ship faltered in his work.  There was no day, no night, but work, work, through a period which seemed eternity.   At times the women on the ship assisted the men in the contest against the encroachments of the sea.  But the wailing of an infant, crying out for its mother’s sustenance, the sobs of children, temporarily neglected in the fight to avert impending doom, caused the mother heart to beat with quickened pulsation and to leave the fight for life to stronger hands.

Bucket Brigade (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

Flooding swamped the bottom deck-steerage where Mary and Lizzie were riding out the storm in one of the top bunks.   As the ship was tossed by mammoth waves, Mary was thrown from her bunk onto the wooden floor and severely bruised.

The flooding extinguished the coal and wood burning fires that drove the steam-driven engines and paddlewheels.  The Central America’s sails were ripped to shreds by the hurricane’s winds and she lost her forward mast.

By noon on Saturday, September 12, Herndon realized the ship could not remain afloat much longer.   He flew distress flags and fired rockets to attract attention of any nearby ships.   In those days there was no radio, wireless or any other form of communication.

At 1:00 p.m. the brig Marine, Captain Hiram Burt commanding, spotted the Central America in distress.   Using a speaker horn (like one of those orange traffic cones), Herndon shouted to Captain Burt to standby and prepare to help with rescues.  Although the wind had abated some, the sea was still boiling with monstrous waves.  The Marine had also been damaged in the storm and was barely seaworthy.    Herndon couldn’t tie off his ship to the Marine because he had lashed all of his hawser lines around broken-off masts to create drag in a desperate attempt to keep the Central America pointed into the wind.   Those efforts failed.

The Brig Marine and Capt. Hiram Burt (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

Women and Children First!

Captain Herndon ordered the sixty women and children to begin boarding the lifeboats.   The Central America was outfitted with six lifeboats, but one was lost during the gale and another crushed when lowered into the roiling sea.   Young mother Mary never forgot the harrowing rescue attempts.

When it became evident that the ship was nearly at an end, the women and children were thrown into the sea with ropes noosed about their waists.  The ends of the ropes were grasped by the men manning the life boats which had been launched and we were hauled aboard and rowed to the brig Marine of Boston, in command of Captain Hiram Burt.  The Marine lay seven miles away from the Central America, which was about to founder, and was herself little better than a derelict, having been dismasted in the storm.

Lowering the women into lifeboats (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

The lifeboats could only take a few passengers at a time because of the rough seas.   The wind was blowing the Marine and its skinny crew of fifteen further away from the Central America by the hour.   These boats were powered only by the arms and backs of sturdy sailors.  It took the first boat about a half hour to reach the Marine.   The boat that made the 9th and final trip reached the Marine, now seven miles away, in two and one-half hours.

Captain Herndon and his officers maintained control and discipline, and only had to discourage a few of the men from jumping into the lifeboats.

When the lifeboats finally reached the Marine, Captain Burt devised a way to get the women and kids out of the boats into his.   They would wait for the enormous waves to lift the boats up close to the Marine’s deck, thus enabling Captain Burt and his sailors to reach down and grab the arms of the soaked and terrified women and children.

Mary Swan and her baby were in the fourth boatload taken off the Central America.   Mary recalled the agonizing ‘goodbyes’ with her husband.

When the order came for the women and children to prepare for lowering to the lifeboats, my husband left his place at the pumps and came to me.  He said, ‘I don’t know that I shall ever see you again.’  He was very glad to think that I could be taken off.  He wanted me to go, and said that he did not care about himself, if it were possible that I could be saved, and the little child.  He told me that he would try to save himself if an honorable opportunity should present itself after all the women were taken off.  He had been sick for three or four days before the disaster, but notwithstanding this, he persisted in keeping his place at the pumps. 

As I was leaving the ship, my husband tied about my waist a heavy belt containing about $10,000 in gold dust and nuggets, saying: ‘If you are saved this will be a good friend to you—if you drown, it will help carry you to the bottom.’

 He lashed Lizzie on Mary’s back, kissed them goodbye, and returned to the pumps.  That was the last they saw of him.

Just as she was preparing to leave the Central America, Captain Herndon gave Mary his gold pocket watch and chain.  He asked her, “If you should survive, and I pray to God that you do, please try to get these to my wife and daughter in Albany, New York.

When Mary’s lifeboat arrived at the Marine, Captain Burt and crew tried three times to hoist her and Lizzie into the boat.  Each time they lost their grip and the pathetic pair plunged into the sea.  Mary’s battered body and the additional weight of her baby and money belt no doubt contributed to the difficulty.  However, the fourth try was a success and Mary and Lizzie were brought safely aboard; “safely” a relative term because no one on board the Marine was out of danger—far from it.

 During all this time the men on board the Central America continued their bailing efforts, most reaching a point of total exhaustion.   Once all the women and children were safely aboard the Marine, Herndon permitted the male passengers to begin boarding the lifeboats.   This process was less disciplined with several passengers and crew leaping into the boats or into the water to be picked up.   Forty-nine men made it to the Marine.   Samuel Swan was not one of them.


The last moments on the Central America were relatively calm.   Resignation set in that no more lifeboats would be returning from the brig Marine, now blown more than eight miles away.   The lifeboat crews were beyond exhausted.  One mate, boatswain Black, over a nine-hour period made seven trips between the steamer and brig and rowed an estimated 23 miles in the rough seas.

The 487 men remaining on the Central America prepared for the inevitable sinking of the ship.   Most mustered into their cork and tin life preservers.  They hastened to fashion make-shift rafts from doors, decking, furniture and anything else that could float.   Some elected to lock themselves into staterooms, drink copious amounts of alcohol and smoke a final Havana cigar, rather than suffer the fate of the open water.


Buckle On Your Life Preservers-We’re Going Down! (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

About 8:00 p.m. Captain Herndon and his officers changed into their dress uniforms.   Herndon fired one more rocket, lit with his own Havana cigar, low across the darkened horizon—a signal the ship would soon go down.   Mary Swan—now Mary Cook at the time of her interview in 1901—had not forgotten that moment from forty-four years earlier.

Here Mrs. Cook paused and, it was several minutes before she could proceed.  Then she took up the narrative and told how, when safely aboard the brig Marine, she had looked out upon the waste waters and had seen in the gathering dusk of the evening the rocket sent skyward from the deck of the Central America, which told her that the ship was doomed. 

Mrs. Cook had prayed that her husband might be spared to her, but when the rocket lighted the heavens she knew that hope would never be realized. She gave a cry in the agony of despair, but at once a hand was laid upon her mouth and further outcry was stifled.

A whispered word in her ear told her she must be brave:  that all the survivors aboard did not know the significance of the fleeting illumination of the skies, and too crushed and weak to offer protest, she did as she was bidden.

So it was, Mrs. Cook says, that outside the officers of the brig, only two or three aboard knew that the ship had sunk, carrying with her over 400 brave souls to a grave beneath the storm-tossed waves.

Two enormous waves crashed over the deck of the Central America, now sitting very low in the sea, and many men were washed overboard.  Captain Herndon barked out his last orders: “Buckle on your life-preservers!  We are going down!”

“A bright flash of lightening lit the deck, revealing the entire scene, and a tremendous sea struck the Central America.  She shuddered, plunged stern first at an angle of 45 degrees and, with a simultaneous cry from the engulfed mass, she disappeared at 9:00 p.m.”

It is estimated that the Central America went down about 125 miles east-southeast of Charleston, South Carolina. The force of the hurricane and strong current had blown her over one-hundred miles off course.

After the sinking (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

Utter chaos, panic and horror enveloped the men pitched into the sea.   Some were killed within the first few minutes:  Some struck by pieces of broken ship; others entangled in rigging, locked in their staterooms, or sucked deep by the force of the sinking ship.  There were others who lost preservers or something to hold onto and could not swim.    However, many survived the early aftermath of the sinking; clinging to their preservers and floating debris in the pitch dark.

This was different from the conditions that took so many lives when the RMS Titanic was lost in 1912.   The air and waters of the North Atlantic were near-freezing, and those in the water were overcome by hyperthermia in a matter of minutes.

The Central America went down in the relatively warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream.    The major threats facing those men were the roiling seas, hanging on to something sturdy, fighting off other men trying to grab them or their piece of wreckage, exhaustion from bailing water from the ship non-stop for almost three full days and nights, and no other boats nearby to rescue them.   These factors resulted in a slow death for too many.    When they finally lost sight of the brig Marine, hope was all but abandoned.


Captain Anders Johnsen (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

This is by far one of the most strange and remarkable things that occurred during the midst of this unfolding tragedy.   The bark Ellen, with Captain Anders Johnsen and a crew of thirteen fellow Norwegians, were in route from Honduras with a load of specialty wood bound for Falmouth, England.   Their ship encountered the hurricane and broke a mast and lost sails.   This story is well told by Normand Klare in his book, The Final Voyage of the SS Central America.

At just before 6:00 p.m. Saturday, September 12th, Captain Johnsen stood on the quarter deck with two crew members and the helmsman, when a bird flew around the captain, grazing his right shoulder.  It flew around the vessel, then again around his head.  When it flew at his face, Johnsen grabbed the unusual bird and held it by the legs. 

The bird,” he said, “is unlike any bird I saw before, and I don’t know its name.”

 After the bird bit the captain and some of the crew he had the thing beheaded and thrown overboard.

Typical of the superstition found among many seamen of the era, Captain Johnsen recounted ‘I regarded the appearance of the bird as an omen, and an indication to me that I must change my course.  I accordingly headed to the eastward direction.’

At about 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 13, Johnsen on the quarterdeck with helmsman, Gustav Jacobsen, was alerted by agonized cries near his vessel.  He soon identified them as a large number of human voices.   Presuming himself to be in the midst of a wrecked vessel, he aroused all the crew.

Jacobsen and the Ellen had steered into the aftermath of the sinking of the Central America only four hours earlier and a mass of men in the water struggling to survive.    All because of that frigate-pelican!

Forty-nine men were brought on board the Ellen over the next seven hours.  The final rescue was completed at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday.  Finding no others, Johnsen headed the Ellen for Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Virginia.

But There Were Others-The Final Rescues

Minutes before the Central America went down, Fireman Alexander Grant cut away a large portion of the deck as a makeshift raft.  He and ten other men clamored on top of the deck after being plunged into the seas.  Their combined weight caused it to submerge about a foot.   George Dawson, one of the passengers, managed to survive the initial moments by grabbing onto a life preserver and a piece of a gang-way plank.   They watched the brig Marine drift out of view and, although they were only a few hundred yards away when Captain Johnsen and the Ellen miraculously arrived on scene, their cries for help were carried away by the wind and unheard.

Over the next three days, eight men died and rolled off the deck into the sea.   All were nearly wild from hunger, thirst and exhaustion.  Dawson finally abandoned his “raft” and climbed on board the deck with Grant, a passenger named John Kinnerly and one other young man named Frank.

Four days after the wreck, although many pieces of the ship were seen, nothing to eat was found.   There was no fresh water to drink.  They saw small fish around the raft but weren’t able to catch any.  Dawson finally clubbed a dog fish with an oar.  Grant cut it up but, even though they were starving, it was too tough to eat.  After drying it in the sun, they managed to eat a little of it.  Frank and Kinnerly died that night. It was now just Grant and Dawson.

On Thursday, the fifth day of floating in the sea, Grant spotted a boat.  The boat appeared to be about three miles away, but Grant could not tell if anyone was in it.  Determined to reach it, he removed all his clothing but his underwear, tied a life-preserver around himself, and though weak and spent from days without food and water, he struck out, hoping to be able to improve their position and chances for reaching safety.   Dawson stayed on the raft.  As Normand Klare wrote in his book:

Grant could not remember how long he struggled toward his goal, but as he neared it he saw a man sitting in a boat trying to scull it toward him.  As Grant reached the boat, Second Engineer John Tice reached out to help him in, and after a joyful moment of meeting, the two surviving crew-members combined efforts to rescue Dawson from the hurricane deck.   Dawson stripped off his wet clothes but kept a wet cloth over his head.   They left lying upon the raft the dead body of Frank. 

Dawson, Grant and Tice floated aimlessly for another three days.  The eighth night since the wreck brought a heavy rain, and the men were able to finally drink some fresh water.  

On the morning of the ninth day, Captain Colin Shearer and his crew aboard the bark Mary, hauling a load of molasses and sugar from Cuba to Cork, Ireland, spotted the lifeboat and made way for it.  When Grant and Dawson caught sight of the ship they grasped their oars and began feebly to row; they seemingly had lost all feeling in their emaciated bodies and all three men were not far from death.

As they neared the Mary’s side lines were thrown to them and weakly seized, anything more beyond the capability of their exhausted bodies.  A sailor jumped down, carefully placing more lines around them, and lifted them one by one to the deck—at last rescued from their tortuous ordeal. 

Sailors on the Bark Mary hoist the survivors (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

All told, 101 men and sixty women and children were rescued by the Marine, Ellen and Mary. 435 men perished in the wreck including Samuel Swan.   It is not known how long Sam may have struggled in the sea.   God rest all their souls.

Not yet out of danger-Making way to the Eastern Seaboard

The brig Marine limped northwest for Norfolk, Virginia.   The women and children were cramped into seven bunks in a cabin no bigger than a good size stateroom.   They were ankle deep in water, clothed in soaking rags. Of the thirty-two women on board, 18 had husbands on the Central America and were worried sick about their fates. Food was scarce.

Rescued women and children aboard the brig Marine (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

Mary shared this heart-rending memory with The Sacramento Bee in 1901:

The women and children aboard made serious inroads in the larder of the little ship, so that for a week each person’s allowance was a small piece of “hard tack” [a biscuit] a quarter of the size of one’s hand, once a day.

Upon this scanty fare depended the life of Mrs. Cook and her baby girl, just taken from the breast.  None could foresee how long these conditions would last, and it looked for many weary days that they had escaped drowning only to meet death by starvation.

One day one of the survivors saw Mrs. Cook moisten her hard tack in a cup of water and feed it to her starving little one, while in every line of face and feature of the mother grim hunger was revealed.

Approaching the mother he tendered his scanty store, begging that it would be accepted.  He had a wife and two children in Albany, New York, he said, and if a mother could give her all for her child, he, as a father, could do as much in memory of the little ones he might never see.

The starving woman took the proffered mite, and for this act she says she owes a debt of gratitude to mankind which can never be repaid.

The crew was exceedingly generous, sharing their clothes, food and fresh water.   Still it was barely enough, and after four days everyone was near starvation.   Wednesday evening, they encountered another ship, the clipper Euphrasia, Captain William Lanfare commanding, who generously provided the Marine with fresh supplies of food.

The Marine made little headway over the next three days due to light winds and the damage suffered by the ship.    On Friday, September 18, Captain Burt flagged down the steamship City of Norfolk off Cape Henry.  Her commander agreed to tow the Marine into Norfolk, but only after first extorting $500 from the passengers.

Captain Johnsen and the Ellen, with the 49 men rescued from the Central America, reached Norfolk a few hours before the Marine.

The first news of the disaster was telegraphed from Charleston, Virginia to New York City on the evening of September 17, and appeared in the morning newspapers the next day.

Mary and Lizzie were among the eighty-five rescued passengers that left the Marine and boarded the more seaworthy Empire City, but not before they handsomely compensated Captain Burt and his crew for their heroic efforts.  The Empire City arrived in New York City on Saturday, September 19, one week after the sinking of the Central America. 

When the passengers received word to go ashore, Mrs. Mary Swan burst into tears and, wringing her hands, wailed: “Where shall I go after I go ashore?”  When asked, she said: “No, I have no friend in New York, nor in all the world, now that my husband is lost.” She and other ladies got into carriages, and the hackmen drove them to hotels, refusing to take pay.

Mary told the Sacramento Bee in 1901 that, “It is my belief that the majesty of manhood stood forth to the world in all its grandeur when those California miners gave their lives to the rule of the sea: Captain Herndon’s order ‘Women and children first’ will ring in my ears until I depart this place.”

When the reporter told Mary that one of the survivors of the wreck of the Central America was a resident of Sacramento, she expressed the hope that he might be found.  “Though painful the meeting would be, because of memories recalled, there would yet be something akin to peace and comfort in the sunset of my life to greet and feel the handclasp of one who shared with me one of the most trying experiences which fall to mankind.”

The Captain’s Watch and a Lifelong Friendship with a United States President

As mentioned, just before Mary and her baby evacuated the Central America Captain Herndon gave her his gold watch and chain.  Upon arriving in New York, Mary did not have the opportunity to make the 150-mile trip to Albany, but the watch, with the awful tidings of the disaster, were carried to the Captain’s wife and daughter by a man who volunteered to perform the sad service.

Ellen was twenty years old when she lost her brave father.  She became engaged the year before to a young lawyer named Chester A. Arthur.   They married in 1859 and their first child, William, was born in 1860, but tragically passed away in 1863 at the age of 2.   A son, Chester Alan Arthur, Jr. was born the following year.

Mary Herndon and Chester A. Arthur

Arthur Sr. became actively involved in the Republican Party, and held important posts in New York and Washington D.C.   In 1880 he was selected to run as Vice President alongside Presidential candidate James A. Garfield.  Chester Arthur became the 21st President of the United States when President Garfield was assassinated in September of 1881.

Arthur served as President through 1885, but due to failing health elected to not seek reelection.   He passed away in 1886 from kidney failure.

The significance of the watch, young Mary’s sacrifice in getting it into the hands of Captain Herndon’s family, and the overwhelming circumstances of the tragedy—Mary and Frances Herndon both losing their husbands amidst the staggering loss of life from the biggest maritime disaster of its time—forged an irrevocable bond among Mary Sawyers Swan Cook, Frances Herndon and Chester and Ellen Arthur.  Up until the time of his death, President Arthur and Mary corresponded regularly.  The Captain’s watch was passed down to President Arthur’s son and he too occasionally wrote to the woman who braved the wreck of the SS Central America with his grandfather.

Aftermath of the Tragedy (1857-1876)

Upon arriving in New York City, Mary and Lizzie were put up in a hotel and did not want for anything.   Food, clothing and other essentials were donated by the generous New Yorkers.    Of course, Mary also had Sam’s money belt with $10,000 of gold coin and dust which she guarded with her life.

It was Sam’s desire to have his family make its way to Pittsburgh to visit his family.   It is not known if Mary and Lizzie made it there.   In 1860, they were living with some relatives of Sam’s in Newark, Licking County, Ohio: Monroe Worthington Swan, his wife Sophia Graham and their six children.  Mary was now 21 and Martha 4.

The American Civil War broke out in April 1861, and Mary enlisted as a Red Cross nurse with the Union Army.  It is around this time Mary relocated to Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania during the Civil War

Pennsylvania was very much involved in the War, and every man, woman and child was impacted by the bloody conflict.   It is possible Mary served as a nurse in Washington County.

Although it was the battleground for the bloody and pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Pennsylvania’s role during the American Civil War amounted to much more than one major confrontation between Union and Confederate forces. Several smaller battles took place in the state during the Gettysburg campaign. York was occupied by the Confederates in late June 1863, and most of Chambersburg was destroyed by fire on June 30, 1864. Men from Pennsylvania fought in all the major battles of the Eastern Theater. Those who did not join the military fed the Union war effort by working in munitions factories and farming. Support for the troops also came in smaller ways, as described by a Pennsylvania soldier marching through Littlestown on his way to Gettysburg: “Most every household standing ready with water buckets dealing out water to the boys as we marched along, and the Stars and Stripes hanging out in all directions.  [From]

In 1863, Mary married George M. Cook.   George was born in 1834, five years Mary’s senior, and raised in Washington County.  Like his father, George was a successful farmer.   George likely was exempted from service in the Union Army to continue to farm and provide the much-needed food for the troops and civilians.    Mary and George had their first child, Harry, in 1864, and four more sons and two daughters would be born to them, all in Washington County.

In 1875, the Cooks’ youngest daughter, Cora, passed away at the age of two.  On October 6th that same year, Mary’s and Samuel’s only child, Martha Elizabeth “Lizzie” Swan, was tragically killed in a horseback riding accident.    Lizzie was a fine horsewoman, but while riding that day her saddle became loose and she was thrown from her horse.   She was a month shy of her 20th birthday and engaged to be married.  Lizzie is buried in the Washington Cemetery, Washington County, PA.

Martha Lizzie Samuel Swan tombstone, Washington Cemetery PA

The following year, the Cooks moved to Willits, California, and Mary was once again reunited with her family and the growing Sawyers-Case clans after twenty years of living apart.

WILLITS (1876-1924)

Willits was and remains a small town in Mendocino County about twenty miles north of Ukiah.   As the sign says on the arch across the main drag discarded by the City of Reno, Willits is the Gateway to the Redwoods, the giant sequoias east of town situated on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  However, Willits may be best known as the place Seabiscuit, the famous racehorse of the late 1930s, retired and spent his final years.


The town is named after one of its early settlers, Hiram Willits, however, as Bertha Beattie Cook who was born and spent most of her 105 years there would tell you, Hiram wasn’t the “founder.”   Mr. Willits arrived in Little Lake Valley in 1857 by wagon train from Indiana. There were a handful of families already settled there.   Bertha recalled “Mr. Willits bought up a large acreage and opened a general store.   There was a blacksmith shop, too.  Then he put the post office in his store, and that is when the area became Willits…because of the post office.”

Bertha was born in Willits in 1880.   Total population back then was about 150 including the Cases and Sawyers who arrived in 1858, and George and Mary Cook and their six kids who came in 1876.  Farming, logging and cattle raising were the principal industries.   Bertha would marry George and Mary’s youngest son, David.

It Was a Wild Town

Bertha recalled what it was like growing up in Willits.

Talk about a wild and wooly town, Willits was it.  There were two big mills, Muir Lumber Co. and Northwestern and the railroad was going in.  There was only one marshal and those loggers, cowboys and railroad men would come in town on a Saturday night.  Why a woman wouldn’t dare walk up the street!
The marshal—I can’t remember his name, but I think it was Livermore—well, he would deputize several men, but it didn’t do much good. Different ones would come in town and ride their horses up and down Main St.  and into the saloons. One fellow who had quite a “Brannigan” on told the marshal to get on his horse and gallop to the bridge north of town. 

The fellow had a six-shooter waving it around and the marshal did as he was told, first exacting a promise form the gent that he would behave.  The marshal said later he felt if he did as he was told it would cool the cowboy off.  It worked.

Mary and George built a home on Main St. and raised to adulthood their six children.  Their second son, Charles Hamilton, died in 1896 at the age of 28 and is buried in Santa Barbara.  He was not married.

In addition to raising her family, Mary served as a doctor for the townspeople.  Because of the experience she acquired as a nurse in the Civil War, many of the residents came to her for medical aid.

Their other kids had married and were starting families.  Their youngest son, David Godfrey, had recently married Bertha Beattie just one month before the tragedy that befell their town and family.

Main Street Willits 1900 (source: Saunders)

WILLITS DESTROYED BY FIRE-Our Beautiful City Is Almost Entirely Wiped Off the Mendocino Map.  The Most Disastrous Conflagration Ever Recorded in the History of Mendocino County-Losses Approximate About $60,000 

The fire broke out a little before one on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 5, 1901.  It started in Mr. Bowen’s livery stable on the north end of town and, fanned by strong winds from the northwest, quickly engulfed the adjoining wood structures.   Tom Flanagan’s blacksmith shop, Joe Gaffney’s saloon, Mrs. Vincent’s mortuary, Mosler’s blacksmith shop and Otto Miller’s livery were quickly knocked down by the flames like dominos.  Pretty soon the entire west side of Main Street was wiped out.

Bertha Cook said “I never worked harder in my life.  There was no fire department then and volunteers from the mills, and just everybody pitched in trying to save what they could.  I remember dragging my sewing machine to safety.”

The majestic Palace Hotel on the east side of Main St.  caught fire and, because of the heroic efforts of the volunteer bucket brigades, the flames were held in check until everyone got out safely.   Once the flames consumed the Hotel, the fate of the east side of town was sealed and the fire made a clean sweep of everything: Wells’ saloon, Sam Blodes’ barbershop, the South End millinery store, Mrs. Good’s barbershop,  Harmes’ butcher shop, J.C. Stays’ merchandise store, Tom Moore’s restaurant, Dryden’s livery stables, Mrs. Longland’s hotel, the printing shop and many others.   All told, 34 buildings were lost.

Many of the homes in town were also destroyed.   George and Mary Cook’s house was one of those burned to the ground.  Any of the letters from President Chester Arthur and his son that Mary kept were likely lost in the fire.   The home of the newlyweds, David and Bertha Cook,  was heavily damaged.

Miraculously, there was only one person seriously injured in the fire.   Unfortunately, it was George Cook.    He severely burned his hands and arms in his valiant attempts to put out the fire at their home.    Blood poisoning ensued as he fought to recover from his painful wounds.  Mary and whatever other medical help they were able to muster could not save her husband of 38 years.  He passed on September 7, three months after the fire, and is buried in the Sawyers Cemetery.

The Great Quake of 1906

The hardy citizens of Willits rebuilt their town including a fine new hotel aptly named The Willits Hotel.   It would be less than five years before another natural disaster struck the town.

The first shock waves from the great San Francisco earthquake slammed into town in the early morning of April 18, 1906. In San Francisco, over 3,000 were killed and 80% of the city was levelled by the magnitude 7.9 quake.

Although more than 130 miles away, there was a lot of damage in Willits. Several buildings on Main Street were destroyed and there was one fatality. C. L. Taylor, the manager of The Willits Hotel, was standing on the balcony of his second-floor room when it collapsed.  He was buried by the bricks and rubble of the crumbled hotel.

After her home and husband were lost in the 1901 fire, Mary Cook built a new home on Wood St.  Fortunately, she and her house were spared by the earthquake.

Bertha Beattie Cook on her 105th birthday

Bertha Cook recalled the terrifying event.

I remember my husband and I were home on East Valley St.  I had our baby daughter in my arms when the first shock hit. Looking out the window we could see the trees across the way swaying wildly back and forth.  It was terrible.  When suddenly down the street came one of our neighbors, cursing and trying to put on what looked like his pants, but upon further inspection my husband discovered he was trying to put his legs into the sleeves of his coat.   Well, I guess we were all pretty excited!

The Willits Hotel before and after the earthquake


The last eighteen years of Mary’s life were spent relatively peacefully in Willits.  She was well looked after by her five surviving children and their spouses: Dave, Wade, Frank, Harry and Martha Jean.   Two of her six half-sisters were also residents of Willits.   Mary also doted over her twelve grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Mary passed away in her home on Wood St. on Thursday, June 26, 1924, surrounded by family.  She was 85.   Mary had struggled with her health for quite some time, and spent most of her last year in bed with a lingering illness.

Mary’s obituary in The Willits News featured one of the last photos taken of her and the caption LIVED AN EVENTFUL LIFE.   “She was one of the oldest pioneers of Little Lake Valley and one of the forerunners who helped to build this great west into what it is today.  She lived an interesting life, half a century of which she had spent in Willits.”

Mary could certainly be remembered for all of the suffering she endured: the tragic deaths of two husbands; the losses of her mother, three brothers and a sister before Mary turned ten years old; and the early deaths of three of her children.

However, Mary’s legacy is a long-life filled to the absolute brim with adventure, perseverance, grit, a fierce determination to never give up or in, and her steadfast care, service, love and devotion to her family and friends, and the many souls she befriended on wagon trains, shipwrecks, battlefields and everywhere she called home.

Mary made her own arrangements for her funeral services before she died.   It is only appropriate that this courageous pioneer, this great woman’s last wish, was to be laid to rest in her coffin with her body wrapped in an American flag now with 48 stars under which she had served so faithfully.   

Mary Sawyers Swan Cook (Courtesy of Rebecca Sawyers Kirkland)


What happened to Mary’s sister, Melcena Sawyers Case?  Jim and Melcena Case and their two daughters relocated from Petaluma to Willits in 1860, and rejoined her parents and her brother, Mountjoy, who had settled there two years earlier.  Jim purchased a tract of land for a farm and, with help from his family and neighbors, built a house.   Jim and Melcena brought three more children into this world in Willits:  James Lester, Tillie and  Drury Goldman.

Melcena never did recover from the wounds she suffered in the Indian attack of their wagon train in 1854, and for the last twenty years of her life she was mostly bedridden.   Melcena passed in Willits in 1904 at the age of 77.  At the time of her death she had nine grandchildren.   Her husband Jim lived in Willits another ten years before his passing in 1914.  Jim Case donated the land for the first school in the area, known as Sawyers School, and another acre for the Sawyers Cemetery in town.   Jim Case wasn’t much for self-promotion.


Jim and Melcena Sawyers Case


What happened to Mary’s brother, Mountjoy King Sawyers?  Not another wagon train?

Mountjoy, or “Joy” as he was called, was 23 when his parents moved to Willits.   He helped his father, Tom, clear land, plant fields and build shelters for livestock.  Tom continued with his trade of cabinetmaking, building much of the family’s furniture and helping with the building of other homes.

Joy married Hester Ann Whited in 1871, a young lady he had been courting for many years.  The Whiteds were a very large family, and there would be numerous marriages over the years involving Whiteds, Cases and Sawyers.  Joy and Hester moved to a large piece of land he had homesteaded called Deer Ridge Ranch.   They built a fine home on the property with a handsome staircase leading up to the second floor.  There was a large garden with fruit trees, and the usual milk cows, horses and chickens.

Their first child, Murvin, was born in 1872, followed in successive years by Thomas Harvey, Dora Luzena, Daisy May and Sarah Ann.  A devastating diphtheria epidemic hit California the year Sarah Ann was born.   All of Joy’s and Hester’s kids came down with the dreaded disease, but thankfully survived.  Six of the children of their good friends and neighbors, the Angles, tragically died.

In 1873, Joy was ordained as an Elder and Pastor in the Baptist Church and remained active the rest of his life.   His ministry covered a wide area, and he took frequent trips by horse and buggy to tend to his flock.

Joy’s dad, old Tom Sawyers, passed in 1879 at the age of eighty, and he is buried in the Sawyers Cemetery he donated to the town.   Now known as Little Lake Cemetery, there are a lot of Sawyers, Cases and other kin buried there.

Joy and Hester lived on Deer Ridge Ranch for 30 years and raised their children to adulthood on that place.  Murvin and Tom helped out with running the ranch and also hired out to other ranch families in the area.

Hester and Mountjoy Sawyers (seated) with their children, Sarah Standlee Sidwell, Daisy May Cook, Dora Winans Henry, Thomas Harvey and Murvin Lee 1915

Sometimes, it’s just in the blood

In 1903, the Sawyers family made a huge decision, prompted largely by Frank Standlee who had married Mountjoy’s daughter, Sarah Ann, two years earlier.  Frank was convinced there was still plenty of wealth to be found in the gold fields of California. He kept after the aging Joy about the dream his father, Tom, had when the family first came to California in the 1850s seeking to make a fortune in gold.  Joy, now 68 years old, perhaps had forgotten that he and his father had little to show from over two years of toiling at Rough and Ready, and that the only one in their family who had any luck, sister Mary’s husband Sam, never got a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor.  If Joy asked for the counsel of his younger sister, Mary, she didn’t change his mind.

In any case, after months of discussion, the decision was made.    Joy and his son Murvin would join forces with Standlee, and the families of all three would form a wagon train and travel together to seek their fortunes.   Sometimes, it’s just in your blood.

Joy and Hester sold Deer Ridge Ranch and everything else they owned except a wagon, a team of horses and some furniture.   Along with Sarah and Frank Standlee, Murvin and Millie Sawyers and their children, Thelma (3) and her one-year old brother Othel, the group set out for Mount Bullion—attractive name—in Mariposa County on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, near the entrance to Yosemite National Park.

The deja vu of it all is rather eerie.   In 1853, Mountjoy’s father, Tom, and his new wife Peggy sold everything they owned in Missouri.  The first children they had together, also aged 3 and 1, together with the three surviving kids of his first marriage, Melcena, Mountjoy and Mary Elizabeth, formed a wagon train headed for the gold fields about three hundred miles north of Mount Bullion.

The route of this new band of hopefuls took them south through Petaluma and then across San Francisco Bay by ferryboat, an experience that spooked all the horses and nearly brought an end to the journey right there.  This wagon train took many weeks and was terribly hard on the women and children.

Today, the 300-mile drive from Willits to Mount Bullion takes a little under five hours.  In 1903 the roads were primitive and, after they reached the foothills, a large portion of the trip was uphill over rocky terrain that the wagons could only cover if everyone got out and went on foot to ease the load.   They finally reached the small mining town where they were to live for the next two years.

Housing was scarce but the men managed to get two primitive wooden houses put together before the first snows came.   The winters were severely cold, and life was hard.  Millie was pregnant with her third child and in the middle of the first winter, December 1903, Lloyd Mountjoy was born.

The baby was premature and, of course, there was no doctor in the area.   Murvin fashioned an incubator out of a cracker box lined with clean soft bits of blanket, which was kept warm beside the wood burning stove that the family took turns stoking around the clock for weeks on end.  By such loving and devoted care, the baby was kept alive.  Lloyd reached the age of 64.

Things were not going well with the mining.  Joy and Hester were getting too old for the hard life they were enduring, and all were homesick for the rest of the family.  In 1905, the quest for gold was forsaken, and the weary group made the long journey back to Willits.

Joy was now 70, Hester 55, and all of proceeds from the sale of Deer Ridge Ranch had been lost in the ill-fated Mount Bullion adventure.  With the help of his sons, Joy built a one room cabin of hand-hewn logs on a property owned by his daughter Dora and her husband, Sam Winans.

Tom Sawyers second wife, Peggy, died in 1914.   She was survived by her step-children, Mountjoy and Mary Elizabeth Cook, her seven children with Tom, 27 grandchildren and 35 great grandchildren.   Peggy was laid to rest next to her husband.

By 1915, Mountjoy was in failing health.  That year the International Exposition—precursor to the World Fair—was held in San Francisco.   Dora and Sam attended the Exposition, and upon their return to Willits, they told her father of the wonders they had seen at the fair, including a flying machine invented by some brothers named Wright.  Old Joy, who read his Bible daily to the day of his death, answered, “The Bible tells us that the day will come when sermons are delivered through the air.  I guess that is how they will do it.”   At that time, of course, no one dreamed of anything as fantastic as programs beamed through the air by radio or television.

Mountjoy King Sawyers died November 1, 1915 in Willits at the age of 80.   His funeral and burial took place at the Sawyers Cemetery and was attended by hundreds who remembered “Brother Sawyers” not only as a long-time pastor of the local Baptist Church, but also as a circuit rider back in the days before there was a church.   He was laid to rest in what was regarded as one of his father’s finest pieces of craftsmanship; a coffin made of curly redwood, a type of wood Tom Sawyers had never seen before moving to California.

An old friend of Joy’s, Luther Baechtel, had a new Ford automobile which he drove in the funeral procession, but it spooked the horses pulling the hearse, so it was relegated to the rear end of the procession.  The hearse that carried Mountjoy to the Sawyers Cemetery was later placed on exhibit in the Mendocino County Museum.


Two Rock School Class
Willits 1913

Mill Family Children
Willits 1913

Main Street Willits 1920

This story is dedicated in loving memory of my aunt, Joan Westlund Case.

Joan Westlund Case

About Casey

Vernon Case “Casey” Gauntt recently retired from 42 years of practicing law in San Diego. Casey, a 4th generation Californian, has always been intrigued by his family’s rich history and has been researching and writing their stories the past ten years. Some of those stories can be found on Casey’s blog which he launched in 2011 to share the many other stories he has written and received from others about grief, loss and light. Casey is the co-author with his son, James Tedrow Gauntt, of the book Suffering Is the Only Honest Work- The First Book, released on in 2016.  Casey’s second book, WHEN THE VEIL COMES DOWN, is now available on Amazon.

Casey lives in Solana Beach, California with his wife and best friend of over 47 years, Hilary. Hilary manages her own very popular food blog much to Casey’s culinary delight.


2 responses to “MARY SAWYERS SWAN COOK (1839-1924)”

  1. Bonnie Lou S Koons says:

    Hello! This evening I just discovered my family connection with the Sawyer family. I am so excited! I knew I had family in Ukiah, CA. My Great Uncle was Mayor of Ukiah many years ago. I am related through the Runkles. Is this story out in book form? If so I want to purchase two. One will make the most awesome Christmas present for my Aunt. Thank You!

    • Casey Gauntt says:

      Bonnie- I’m so glad you found the story of our ancestor and remarkable woman, Mary Sawyers Cook. If you send me your mailing address I’ll be happy to send you two copies of her story in booklet format.

      She is one amazing and strong woman. I hope I got a trace of her genes!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Author Bios

Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

From The Blog

Read the Blog

Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

Featured Stories

See All The Stories