One of the most passionate subjects which has always interested me since childhood is the story of my Great Great Grandmother’s life. There are several aspects of her life that are interesting, growing up in Quebec, crossing the continent on horseback with covered wagons, and then living during the wild west days as a young woman, waiting five years for her beau to marry her, and helping him with his businesses which encompassed much of northern California from the coast to the central valley. In this vignette, I thought I would concentrate on two of her lifetime passions, herons and the well being of the Native American Indians. Interestingly enough, these two entities, including my great, great grandmother, have much in common. Quite simply it was their innate ability to find one’s way to better hunting grounds, which encompassed extreme survival in harsh realities.
In 1842, Helen Murphy, age 20, and her family decided to leave the chill of Quebec, harsh winters of deep snowdrifts, frozen hills and the icebound St. Lawrence River, where ice fishing is a common sight. The Native Americans, whose colorful Tipis dotted the iced-over St. Lawrence River, and extreme fishermen braved the elements, to cut holes through the hard pack-iced-in river to let down fishing lines into the river water. Traveling in winter was difficult enough, by horse-drawn open sleds, and walking through the snow on snowshoes, we in our lifetimes don’t have to live in these circumstances. There were many reasons to leave this icy endurance, where the growing seasons were short when winter didn’t leave its icy grip on the area until late May. There was soil erosion due to the extremely bleak weather, and these reasons grew into a reality that could no longer be put off. Leaving Quebec meant a chance to be adventurous because they too were early explorers whose eyes skimmed the shores of the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, and subsequently they followed the Ohio River, the Mississippi and the muddy Missouri River as they progressed along. Clues of animal life, birds and Native Americans were documented in her mind, which she shared with her future husband, daughter, two sons, in fireside talks into the long evenings in Stockton, and years later she told her stories to my grandmother. All the while traveling on wooden barges, paddleboats, and steamships, and in places by wagon, she focused on the birds and the terrain as they traveled along. Her continued fascination with the Great Blue herons, whose roosts included the transcontinental destination of Quebec for part of the year in summer, and, seemingly these birds followed them as they coursed along the waterways in search of a better way of life.
After arriving in Missouri, they came to a place now known as Old St. Joe, an outpost that was founded by Joe Robidoux, a trapper. The trading post, consisted of log cabins that were permeated by the smell of fresh beaver pelts, salted meats of elk, deer, bear, buffalo and various leather goods, furs and clothing, all gave off different odors depending on how fresh the fur was or how tanned the leather was. The Murphy family settled in Irish Grove, and raised corn and wheat for what was to be only two years, after losing Mary Foley Murphy, Helen’s dear mother to malaria. The Murphys had tried every known natural remedies, even ones that were provided by Native American traders, who knew the ancient ways to treat this illness, yet she still succumbed to the fevers that overwhelmed her. It was a period of shock and clearly no one could be consoled, so the family once again, decided to pick up their roots, and twenty-seven Murphy cousins, children, adults, with patriarch, Martin Murphy, Sr. planned for what was known to be a more favored climate. The pious family considered California to be a final destination. This journey would be a monumental task, as they discussed the travel with expert witnesses, trappers and Native American traders whose wanderings to procure beaver pelts, buffalo, elk and moose hides led them far into the unmapped and unknown wilderness. I heard there was a crude map scratched into the hide of a huge beast, probably a bear my grandmother thought, of the wilderness trails and tribal lands and this rudimentary map was pegged across the log wall from the top beam to just below knee high at the trading post. The post was always bustling with trappers, Native Americans, and the pioneers who ventured forth to the fringes of known civilization at that time.
It was finally decided that Caleb Greenwood would be their guide, as he had trapped, traded, and lived among the Native Americans for quite a bit of time. He also spoke several dialects and he convinced them that he was their best bet, because he knew the Native Americans way of life, and of course, his keen knowledge of the trails, rivers and the mountains were skills that no one could deny. Clearly it was known that the trip would be quite arduous, they would transverse through new territory, and meet many tribal leaders and warriors. Martin Murphy, Sr. continually optimistic and good-natured decided as he sold their farms, and built wagons to transport their belongings that whatever challenges they would meet, he would make the best of every situation, after all he had endured a life in Ireland, traveled over the Atlantic in 1820, and lived a spartan and frugal life in Quebec and made a successful living there, even though the climate was so harsh. I heard how he had befriended the Cree, who had migrated through their farm land twice a year. Our family left, food, kittling, fire-strikers and blankets in the outer barns for anyone who was out there during the harsh winters. Sometimes the Cree left gifts for the Murphy children. With the political state of Missouri being a slave state, that provided another reason to move beyond and find another way of life where people of all races would be treated equally. Besides being adventurous, I heard that Martin Murphy, Sr. was also a tinker, and he created a butter churner, which turned as the wagon wheel turned. It was a huge task to outfit the group, which included some infants and family friends.
As they prepared to leave, Helen looked up into the sky, wishing for sunnier weather as the heavens opened up and rain poured down making huge watery and muddy ruts into the ground, which made it difficult for the oxen and horses to pull the wagons. Yet, as they proceeded forward, the Blue Heron standing in the marsh to the side of the river took flight before her eyes, heading in a north westerly direction.
Copyright 2010 Helen W. Holden-Gladsky