The True Story of Mary Cook, Part I: Wagon Trains, Gold Rushes, Shipwrecks, Wars, Fires, Earthquakes, Love & More!

By Vernon Case Gauntt

Editor’s Introduction: Here is a story that will interest all kinds of readers. This is a tale brimming with drama, history, and incredible events. And for family historians, this narrative is a vivid reminder that our ancestors’ lives were filled with stories just waiting to be discovered – though perhaps not all as astonishing as this one.

The story of this story began back on 12 September 2017, when we published this article on the GenealogyBank blog: A Fortune Lost at Sea: Ship Sinks with CA Gold Rush Treasure. More than a year later, Vernon (he goes by Casey) Gauntt posted this comment: “My third great aunt, Mary Sawyers Swan, was on that fateful voyage of the SS Central America with her husband, Samuel P. Swan, and their 21-month-old daughter, Martha ‘Lizzie.’”

In a follow-up correspondence, Casey said his aunt had a remarkable life: “This woman finds herself in the middle of some of the greatest events in this country’s history: early pioneer, wagon trains, Indian attacks, Gold Rush, one of the most disastrous ship wrecks of all time, Civil War, fires, San Francisco earthquake, and brushing shoulders with a U.S. President.”

Intrigued, we invited Casey to tell our readers his aunt’s story, which you are about to read. (Casey is an accomplished writer. If you enjoy this story, check out his website: Write Me Something Beautiful.) Such a long and eventful life as Mary’s requires a bit of story-telling, and so we are presenting the tale of Mary Sawyers Swan Cook in three parts over the next three days. Enjoy!

Casey’s Introduction: This whole story started when I was adding Mary to my family tree about eight months ago. I got a “hint” – two sentences – that Mary, her baby, and husband Sam were on that fateful last voyage of the SS Central America. I had never heard or read one word about that. I began to chase down the story. There were family records about the wagon train trip in 1854 and the Indian attack when Mary’s oldest sister, Melcena, was seriously wounded. But all the rest was news to me.

Fortunately, Mary’s story was told and preserved through first-person interviews Mary, her brother Mountjoy, daughter-in-law Bertha Cook, and others (including those who were rescued from the Central America) gave to the newspapers. And of course, having the ability to now more easily track down those old newspapers online enhances the research capabilities. I also received a lot of help from researchers at the Library of Congress and San Diego State University, and the Mendocino County Historical Society. Everyone was so helpful, and I think they had fun digging into the story.

I think that is a good message for all family historians: Everyone has a story out there waiting to be discovered – you just have to do a little “mining” and take advantage of the wonderful tools out there.

Photo: Mary Elizabeth Sawyers Swan Cook
Photo: Mary Elizabeth Sawyers Swan Cook. Credit: from the author’s website, and used with his permission.

Mary Elizabeth Sawyers Swan Cook’s Story

This is the very true story of my 3rd Great Aunt, Mary Elizabeth Sawyers Swan Cook (1839-1924), regarded as one of the early pioneers and “mothers” of California. As professed in a 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.

From the Willits News, 4 May 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.”

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, and served with the Adams Regiment of the Ohio Militia during the War of 1812, also against the British.

Illustration: “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap” by George Caleb Bingham, 1851–52
Illustration: “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap” by George Caleb Bingham, 1851–52. Credit: Washington University in St. Louis, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum; Wikimedia Commons.

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. (1)

In 1839, the United States was vastly different from what it is today. It had only been 63 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed. 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 Mormons 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 the 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.” (2)

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.’” (3)

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.” (4)

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 helped her step-mother with the care and feeding of her half-brothers and sisters.

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.

Photo: a woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush, 9 July 1850
Photo: a woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush, 9 July 1850. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Gold Fever

The California Gold Rush began on 24 January 1848, when the precious yellow metal was found by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in what is now the town of Coloma, about 30 miles east of Sacramento. By the end of 1849, the lure of gold had 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 in 1850.

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. (5)

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 were very angry with the invasion of their lands.

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 wagon 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 7,000-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, or early October at the 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 of 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.

Illustration: “Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska” by C.C.A. Christensen, 19th century
Illustration: “Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska” by C.C.A. Christensen, 19th century. Credit: Brigham Young University Museum of Art; Wikimedia Commons.

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 11 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. (6) 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.” (7)

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.” (8)

Photo: Rough and Ready, California
Photo: Rough and Ready, California. Credit: Isaac Crumm; Wikimedia Commons.

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

From Placerville, the Sawyers and Cases traveled 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.

At Rough and Ready, Mary Sawyers unexpectedly ran into a young miner, Samuel P. Swan, whom she had known in Missouri. They were married in October 1855. (9) She was 16 and Sam was 23. Mary gave birth to their daughter, Martha Elizabeth Samuel “Lizzie,” in November of that same year. (10) 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. (11)

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 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.” (12)

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.

Tomorrow: Part II. Mary’s harrowing rescue from the sinking SS Central America.


(1) The Willits News, The Sawyers Family, February 12, 1975.
(2) Rev. Mountjoy King Sawyers, An Outline of My Life, April 1915.
(3) Page 23 of a history of Thomas Sawyers, date and author unknown. A hogshead was a very large wooden barrel used to transport tobacco.
(4) Rev. Mountjoy King Sawyers, An Outline of My Life, April 1915.
(5) The Willits News, The Sawyers Family, February 12, 1975.
(6) This area is now known as Steamboat Hot Springs, just south of Reno.
(7) Rev. Mountjoy King Sawyers, An Outline of My Life, April 1915.
(8) The Willits News, A Mother of California, May 4, 1923.
(9) Thomas Carnegie Burnett, The Family of Mary Elizabeth Sawyers (Swan) (Cook), part of the collection of the Mendocino County Historical Society in Ukiah, CA.
(10) Headstone of the grave of Martha Elizabeth Swan in the Washington Cemetery, Washington County, PA.
(11) The Willits News, The Sawyers Family, February 12, 1975.
(12) Rev. Mountjoy King Sawyers, An Outline of My Life, April 1915.

11 thoughts on “The True Story of Mary Cook, Part I: Wagon Trains, Gold Rushes, Shipwrecks, Wars, Fires, Earthquakes, Love & More!

  1. Oh, I so enjoyed your family stories. I love U.S. history and genealogy, and these stories had both. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Oh my God! This is my family also! My great grandfather was Sheriff in El Dorado City! My father was born in Santa Rosa, Ca. Fountain Cook also lived in Santa Rosa. Fountain Cook was my great grandfather’s brother. I have pictures of the grave of Mary Elizabeth Cook in Petaluma I believe.

    1. Hi Jessica–this would be a small world indeed! Please send your email to me at and we’ll see if we can trace our common ancestors. Mary’s second husband, George Cook, was born and raised on a farm in Pennsylvania. He and Mary, together with their 7 children, moved to Willits CA in 1877. As you will read in Part III of the story, George was severely burned in 1901 in his attempts to put out the fire that consumed their house and most of the town. He died from his wounds a couple months later. Mary lived until 1924. Both are buried in the Little Lake Cemetery (fka Sawyers Cemetery) in Willits. Thanks for reading and connecting! Casey

    1. Mary’s 2nd great grandfather, James Sawyers, and his family were from Tyrone, Ireland, and then he immigrated to Virginia. This must explain the choice of the, otherwise unusual, name for Mary’s older brother: Mountjoy King Sawyers. Thank you Monta Lee for reading and weighing in on this.
      Vernon Casey Gauntt

  3. I love reading these stories. I probably would have missed this, but I was researching a word, and one thing leads to another, and I came across this article and started reading it. I too love some of the history from that time era. I hope we find stuff from our ancestor.

    1. Hi Karen- I’m glad you enjoyed the story. As I mention in the introduction, I literally stumbled on Mary’s story as I was filling out my family tree and took a peek at one of the “hints” someone else had posted about the shipwreck. I knew nothing about Mary, the shipwreck, her time in the Civil War or her friendship with President Arthur and his family. It was so much fun to chase down her seemingly never-ending story. Good luck with mining your ancestors’ stories. They’re out there waiting for you!

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