Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 23, 1999
Sarah Wallis: A 20th-century life in the 19th centuryCity pioneer, suffragette leader nurtured local growth and modern ideas
by Steve Staiger
The life of Sarah Armstrong Montgomery Green Wallis was as rich and long as her name. Although she was one of the Peninsula's earliest residents, she had already experienced much of California's history before settling in what is now Palo Alto in 1856.
She arrived in California in 1844 as a young woman who had traveled across the plains with the Stephens-Murphy Party. Several members of the group later helped shape the Peninsula area. Elisha Stephens settled in the Santa Clara Valley and is honored through the misspelled Stevens Creek and other landmarks. Members of the Murphy family were pioneers in Sunnyvale. The party also included Allen Montgomery and his 18-year-old bride, Sarah.
Sarah was a true daughter of the American frontier, born in southern Ohio in 1825. Her family continually relocated westward, crossing the Mississippi in 1839, settling in western Missouri, where her father died in 1842.
Unlike many women who made the journey, Sarah enjoyed crossing the plains, later recalling that "it was a delightful trip except when we got into the mountains." The party experienced difficulties with early snows in the Sierra but managed to survive, unlike the Donner Party that followed the same route through the mountains two years later.
For several years, Sarah and her husband lived around Sutter's Fort, eventually settling in a cabin near the site of James Marshall's gold discovery on the American River. Sarah's husband was a gunsmith, a valuable craftsman on the frontier. He became involved in the Bear Flag Revolt, the insurrection in 1846 by American immigrants seeking independence from Mexico. After this brief adventure, the Montgomerys moved to the new community of San Francisco, where Sarah took in boarders to supplement the couple's income.
In the fall of 1847, Allen Montgomery again responded to the call of adventure and sailed for Hawaii, leaving Sarah in San Francisco. After safely arriving in the islands, he disappeared. Although many believed he died in Hawaii, there are indications that he may have returned to California after the news of the discovery of gold. At any rate, Sarah and the community considered her marriage to be terminated.
In 1849, Talbot Henry Green moved to San Francisco from Monterey, where he had been a business associate of Thomas Larkin. He soon became a prosperous businessman in the booming gold rush town of San Francisco. By the fall of 1849, Green and Sarah Montgomery were married, an interesting situation for both of them. In the absence of an official notification of death, Sarah was still legally married to Montgomery. Green's status was even stickier. Active in local politics, he was a San Francisco city councilman in 1850 and the next year was nominated for mayor.
In April 1851, a San Francisco newspaper published a report that Talbot Green was in fact Paul Geddes, a Philadelphia businessman facing fraud charges in Pennsylvania who had fled to California, leaving a wife and children at home. While the question of Sarah's possible illegality in marrying Green was never seriously raised, the problems facing Green/Geddes obviously were serious. Insisting on his innocence, Green went back East, claiming he would return with proof to clear his name.
Sarah was pregnant with her first child when Green sailed from San Francisco. Having some financial resources, he made provisions for her support before departing. She did not hear from him until 1854, although he continued to correspond with Thomas Larkin. Sarah began the legal procedure to obtain a divorce from Green when it was apparent that he would not be returning to California. As a final settlement in hopes of doing right by his wife and son, Green had proceeds from a legal dispute involving Larkin delivered to Sarah.
Now a woman of some means, Sarah's third attempt at matrimonial bliss proved to be successful and long-lived. Joseph Wallis and Sarah were married in July 1854, and her son was adopted by Wallis. In 1856, Sarah acquired title to Mayfield Farm, the area now known as Barron Park, from its previous owner, Elisha Crosby. The Wallis family built a large home on the farm. Four more children were born to the couple.
Sarah and her new husband actively participated in the Peninsula's development. She was an investor in the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, persuading management to move the local station from the Churchill Avenue crossing to the new town of Mayfield (now California Avenue). Joseph Wallis was the local justice of the peace for several years and served as a state senator after his election in 1862. For the remainder of his life, he was always addressed as Judge Wallis.
While the wealth in the family came from Sarah, the property initially was in her husband's name, due to the legal limitations on a married woman's right to control her property. Sarah and Joseph became strong supporters of women's equality, active in local, state and national affairs. When Elizabeth Stanton toured the West promoting women's suffrage, she spoke at a meeting held at Sarah's Mayfield Farm.
The California State Woman Suffrage Educational Association was incorporated in 1873 with Sarah Wallis as president. She led the successful lobbying for passage of a bill allowing women to practice law in the California court system and providing that no person could be denied admission to a California state college on the basis of gender.
The economic depression of 1875 destroyed Sarah's wealth, and she was forced to sell Mayfield Farm, relocating to a smaller house in Mayfield, where she continued to work in the local women's movement. By the 1880s, an evangelical spirit began to flavor the women's suffrage movement. There were prayers, hymns and other spiritual elements to their meetings. Sarah continued to hold meetings in her home, but to some, her meetings were no more than "religious services."
Sarah would not live to see the success of the women's suffrage movement. She continued to have financial problems and was evicted from her Mayfield home after Joseph's death in 1898. Her eldest son provided a home for her in Los Gatos, where she died in 1905. She is buried in Union Cemetery in Redwood City.
Sarah's life reflects the spirit of the pioneer in California history. She traveled across the plains by wagon, lived in a Mexican California and saw the state grow from a few thousand inhabitants. While many of her life experiences predate her time on the Peninsula, she did live 40 years in the community and made an impact on what Palo Alto is today. Few people have the opportunity to live a life as full as that of Sarah Armstrong Montgomery Green Wallis.
Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association writes "A Look Back" every two months.