Mary Harlan Smith

Mary Harlan was a young woman of 19 when her frontiering father George Harlan decided to move to California. The family left Michigan in October 1845, with 11 wagons to transport Mary’s parents, five siblings, her maternal grandmother, and a number of cousins.  When the wagons reached Lexington, Missouri in December to spend the winter, Mary wed John Van Gordon. The Harlan Party, now enlarged by more Harlan relatives and another family, departed Independence on April 6, 1846, in company with a 500-wagon caravan.  Later, wagon-master George Harlan was persuaded to take the Hasting’s Cut-off through the Great Salt Desert.  They weren’t the only ones led astray: behind them trailed the Donner Party, who became trapped in the snow-blocked passes of the Sierra Nevada. The Harlan Party reached Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River on October 25, 1846, the last company to safely cross the Sierra Nevada that season. After re-supplying at Sutter’s Fort, they settled near Mission Santa Clara, where Mary’s bridegroom, and her mother Elizabeth, died in December 1846. The following year she married Captain Henry C. Smith and moved to the Oakland Hills. The gold discovery in 1848 excited the Harlan clan as much as it did everyone else. In the early summer of 1848 Mary and her new husband mined successfully at Coloma and also engaged in some trading with the local Indians. Mary Harlan Van Gordon Smith was born in Indiana October 8, 1826. She attended school in a log house in Michigan, traversed the continent in a covered wagon, watched the Battle of Santa Clara from the back of a wagon during the Mexican-American War, experienced the gold rush first-hand, and raised four children to adulthood. She died in 1922 at the age of 96, having resided in Santa Clara County, San Francisco, Carson City Nevada, San Ramon Valley, and Livermore.


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