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Mary of Marysville’s Harrowing Journey

On February 19, 1847, the First Relief rescue team helps Meriam “Mary” Murphy and about 20 other survivors of the Donner Party down from the frozen Sierra Nevada. Mary is just shy of her 15th birthday.

In the spring of 1846, Mary and 12 relatives — her entire immediate family — start their westward journey from Tennessee and Kentucky, northwest through Illinois and across Missouri before rendezvousing with the rest of the Donner Party at the Big Blue River in Kansas.

Portrait of Mary Murphy Covillaud and two children
Mary Murphy Covillaud. Courtesy of the Yuba County Library

It’s early November by the time the group is forced to haltl near Truckee (now Donner) Lake, trapped by an early and particularly cold and snowy winter.

At this point in their journey Mary and her family have logged well over 2,500 miles only to be stranded less than 200 miles from their final destination, Sutter’s Fort.

The encampment runs out of food by mid December. Two of Mary’s older sisters and their husbands are part of a group of 17 that attempts to snowshoe down into the valley. Six survive after a 33 day ordeal that includes eating the flesh of their dead.

Mary stays behind with her mother and the younger Murphy children in their makeshift shelter. When relief finally comes in February, Mary and 20 others are brought to safety.

The arrival of spring, the melting of the snow and arrival of more relief teams reveals that only seven members of the Murphy clan survive. Almost half of the 87 emigrants in the Donner Party perish.

Mary’s rescuers bring her down to a valley ranch owned by William Johnson, located near present day Wheatland. She quickly settles into her new life in California, marrying Johnson later that same year. She leaves him soon after, however, alleging abuse and cruelty. Her next marriage is by all accounts much more successful.

Charles Covillaud, Courtesy of Yuba County Library

When she is 17 years old, Mary weds landowner Charles Covillaud on Christmas Day 1848. Covillaud owns a ranch just north of the Yuba River in a settlement called Yubaville. The ranch becomes a stopping point for riverboats bringing gold prospectors up from San Francisco and Sacramento to the mining fields.

In early 1850, a council is formed, a plan is drawn, and land deeds are prepared for the official founding of a new town. But there is already a place called Yuba City across the Feather River, so “Yubaville” seems redundant.

Consensus comes quickly among locals on naming the new town Marysville after Covillaud’s wife. Charles and Mary live a comfortable and prosperous life in the newly christened Marysville. They have five children together. Most of Mary’s descendants, as well as those of her surviving siblings, settle throughout California.

Panorama view of Marysville from 7th and C Streets; Cortez Square at 6th and C Streets, loading area to the mines (left, center); D Street to the right, passes by the courthouse (center); stagecoaches, horse drawn wagons and carriages, pack animals, horses, and people in streets; Sutter Buttes in the background at right.
Marysville 1856 [2009-1871] California State Library

Mary’s eventful life ends in 1867 at 35 years of age. She dies seven months after her husband. In the 1950s, over 100 years after the founding the City of Marysville, Marysville Grammar School changes its name to Mary Covillaud Elementary to honor one of the city’s mos revered and notable pioneers.

TOP PHOTO: The Pioneer Memorial, dedicated to the Donner party, at the Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)