Friday, March 6, 2015

Her Name was Mary, and Hers was Clara

Grave stone of Mary, Mrs. J.E. Townsend, Mammoth Lakes, CA.

When I lived in the town of Mammoth Lakes, CA, high in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, I came across this lone grave nestled amongst the pine trees up off the road on the way to the lakes basin. It was near an area called the old Mill site, an area that once hosted a large mining operation in the late 1870's. Intrigued as to why this young woman was buried by herself on the side of a mountain I decided to do some digging, and no not literally but rather into her history. It saddened me too that she was only referred to as "Mrs. J.E. Townsend:," I needed to know her name. There is power in your name and she was obviously a strong woman if she found her self in these remote and high mountains in the 1880's.

In a book that I picked up from a local antique store called "A Child Goes Forth" (now known as "Doctor Nellie" published in 1934) I came across the story of  Mrs. Townsend. Dr. Helen MacKnight, a local, early woman doctor, had recounted the story told to her by an old prospector known as "Old Charley". He had been friends and a business (mining) partner of Townsend's throughout the mining camps in Nevada and Northern California. Townsend met and married a beautiful young woman and brought her to Pine City, the mining camp located in what became Mammoth Lakes. They were very much in love and he wanted her to leave for the winter but she refused. She wanted to stay by his side. Well that particular winter proved to be very difficult with storm after storm and deep snows. The last storm was said to have left 6' of snow and they were desperately hungry. So the men decided they would go attempt to shoot some rabbits. While he was cleaning his gun a shell got stuck in his rifle and the gun went off and killed his wife.

Sierra's around Mammoth Lakes, CA.

Charley said Townsend went just about out of his mind with grief. They couldn't bury her body. So they had to bury her body temporarily in a hole in the snow and then stake the spot and keep the coyotes out of it and wait for spring. Charley ended up nursing his friend throughout most of the winter and watching over him so that he wouldn't kill himself. Finally in the Spring they were able to take her down to the flat and bury her. She was from back East Charley said and she was always talking about having a little house with a white picket fence around it so they built one around her grave. Eventually Townsend left the area because it was too painful for him to remain. Her name was Mary... and she was just 34 when she died.

All the years that I lived in Mammoth I would make a small wreath of flowers and bring it to Mary's grave in the Spring. This stone and fence (not picket) was built in the 60's by a local craftsman. The name Mary has its origins in Egyptian and meant simply Love. How apropos.

Now I find myself in Ohio and I wander and explore the many pioneer cemeteries scattered across the
countryside here. One day, in the small town of Verona I came across a large monument dedicated to the McGrew's. The stone announced that the couple had been "massacred at Taiama" and that they had been missionaries in West Africa. I was intrigued and had to know more.

Clara McCoy McGrew, Verona, Ohio.

Clara lived the life of a simple farmers daughter until she met and married her husband Lowrey in 1883. She entered the seminary in 1886 and went on to share the pulpit and duties of her husband who became a minister. They were members of the United Brethren in Christ church and became active in missionary work in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The Brethren are German Baptists, also referred to as "Dunkers" because they believe in triple immersion as well as non resistance, they were pacifists.
The Rev. Lowery McGrew and his wife Clara B McCoy McGrew were killed in May of 1898 during an uprising. Apparently they were taken by canoe to an island in the middle of the Taia River and there they were beheaded and their bodies thrown into the river, and were never recovered. I found this information in the History of the Woman's Missionary Association of the United Brethren in Christ archive online.
The name Clara means "bright and clear" and I can imagine, looking at her picture, that she was both of those things and much more.

I find great inspiration in both of these women's stories; courage, conviction, strength, daring, and dedication. They both died in their 30's and both tragically, and in a time when women had few rights they were both determined pioneers. Both followed their hearts and that is what is most important.