Pioneer Women: Eliza Gregson

covered wagonAs a young teenager, English-born Eliza Marshall emigrated to the United States with her family, settling in Rhode Island. At nineteen she wed James Gregson, a blacksmith by trade. A year later the couple moved to Illinois, but Eliza wanted no part of working in the cotton mills, and feared her husband “wasn’t stout enough” for heavy blacksmith’s work. Indeed, James was often ill and couldn’t keep a job. By the spring of 1845 the couple, now joined by Eliza’s mother and three siblings, was destitute. They decided to head to Oregon where they heard good free land was available, but their journey was fraught with hardship and danger.  At the Snake River they ran out of supplies and money, so they joined another wagon company as hired hands.  Then—learning that some emigrants were going to California, they headed in that direction instead—suffering the loss of most of their oxen and personal goods before they crossed the Sierra Nevada, and made it to Sutter’s Fort.  Sutter hired James for various jobs, but between these projects they lived in what Eliza called a “crude tule wigwam” on a ranch farther north. When the Mexican-American War broke out Eliza stayed at the Fort while James enlisted in a volunteer battalion. There, she taught reading and writing to other women waiting for their men’s return, and had a baby daughter.  After the gold discovery they went to Coloma, enjoying some success until James became ill again in late 1848. The Gregsons moved to Sonoma, where Eliza supported the family by taking in washing, ironing and sewing. They were among the first to grow wheat successfully in this area and remained there the rest of their lives, raising a brood of eight children. March is National Women’s History Month.