Some people’s life history has too much packed in to seem credible. The story of Sarah Cullimore Owen Montgomery (1833-1914) who arrived in Laramie in June of 1868, is one.
Sarah married William Owen (1831-1863) in Bristol, England in January of 1853. Barely 11 months later, their first child was born—Evangeline Victoria.
But in the next year, Sarah’s life took a roller coaster ride into history. Her husband, brother and parents learned from missionaries of the Mormon utopian community in Utah Territory. William signed up and they joined a boatload of prospective immigrants to Utah in the spring of 1854. Sarah’s parents and brother joined them two years later.
“Fearful storm…obliged to hold Eva in my arms to prevent her being thrown out of bed,” said Sarah in her journal on May 4, 1854. The boat landed in New Orleans. From there the party took a riverboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis. They joined a westward-bound wagon train, reaching Salt Lake by the fall of 1854. Sarah walked much of the way, holding 10–month-old Eva.
Sarah’s husband, William Owen, joined the Mormon Church but Sarah did not. They settled in Battle Creek, Utah Territory, (now renamed Pleasant Grove) that Mormons had settled around 1847. The 1860 Utah Territory census shows the Owen family with two more children, Henrietta, age 3, and William Octavius, age 1 month.
Sarah was outspoken in opposition to polygamy. This helped ostracize her from her mostly Mormon neighbors. Her great-granddaughter, Barbara Rockwell, says that she demanded that her husband choose between his family and his religion “and he chose his religion.”
Her husband was sent back to Europe as a missionary, where he may have been for a year or two, leaving Sarah with almost no resources in a “tiny adobe house” with three little children. William was back in Utah by 1863. He died that year, great-grandson Kim Nelson suggests the Mormon Church had excommunicated him. There is a hint that he was “killed,” Sarah uses that word in an inscription on the back of the photo of herself, giving a very short synopsis of her life for a grandchild many years later.
Sarah’s parents Lettice and William Cullimore took in their two youngest grandchildren so the penniless widow Sarah could go to the mining town of Rocky Bar, Idaho, where gold had just been discovered. According to Rockwell, Sarah operated a little restaurant and store there. Eva, age 10, assisted her. Sarah accepted gold dust in lieu of cash from the miners.
She left Idaho in 1866, and flush with gold dust, gathered up the children and moved to Salt Lake City. Somewhere along the way, she remarried—William Montgomery was her second husband’s name according to Rockwell, but nothing more is known about him. By 1868 he is no longer a part of the family, though Sarah retained his name for the rest of her life. She enrolled her children in an Episcopal school in Salt Lake, but her son Willy reports that Sarah was not satisfied with the school and was determined to go back to England.
When recounting the story of how she came to be in Laramie in 1868, Sarah said some property she had inherited in England was sold. The money was to be sent to a lawyer in Laramie, then the end-of-tracks town. She used her gold dust to buy passage on a wagon train bound for Laramie from Salt Lake. From Laramie, she expected to have enough funds to take all four of them to England.
But a surprise awaited when she got to Laramie on June 13, just over a month after the first train had arrived to the fledgling tent city. Sarah learned that the lawyer had been murdered a few days before she arrived, and the money was missing.
Despite having almost no funds, Sarah managed to secure a tent with a wooden platform and partial wood sides. She sold “ice cream and other refreshments” to new residents of Laramie. It was a dreadfully cold winter in the tent where “water froze on the back of the stove even though we kept the fire burning,” she is quoted as saying.
She helped other women organize the first school in Laramie by selling subscriptions to build a schoolhouse and hire a teacher. Her three children were among its first pupils.
The “refreshments” she sold from that first tent must have been profitable because she built the first two-story residence in Laramie, on the north side of what is now Ivinson Ave., near 2nd St. She also is credited with planting the first tree in Laramie, in a wooden barrel out front. She replaced the tent restaurant with a sturdier wooden building on 2nd St. and called it the “Famous Café.”
She took in boarders and may have continued to operate the restaurant as well. Ads started appearing in the Laramie Daily Sentinel in 1871 stating: “Mrs. Montgomery can accommodate two or three more day boarders” and in September 1872: “Mrs. Montgomery will give steady employment and good wages to a good plain cook.”
It may be that Sarah needed a cook in 1872 because her oldest daughter, Eva, had run off to Denver (in June of 1872), at age 18 to marry lawyer Stephen W. Downey (1839-1902), a widower with two young girls who was nearly as old as Sarah, then 39.
Sarah did not give the marriage her blessing. There might have been some initial confusion over just who Downey was courting—Eva or Sarah. Several Downey descendants confirm that. They say Sarah gave as the excuse for her opposition that Eva had no right to take on the responsibility of two young stepdaughters. Eva turned out to be fine at mothering, however, as Stephen and Eva successfully raised 10 children together, plus Downey’s two daughters.
Downey moved his law office to Mrs. Montgomery’s front room at 113 Ivinson (then called South A), advertising in February of 1873 that he was “ready for business” there. But by 1874, he advertised: “the entire residence or rooms within are available for rent.” Downey had a succession of other offices downtown. The Downeys moved to a rental house, watched over Sarah’s property, and Sarah began world travels.
The boarding house was among those destroyed in a fire May 16, 1907, which also burned several other wooden residences on the north side of Ivinson Ave. In reporting the fire, the newspapers mentioned that Sarah’s had been the first two-story residence built in Laramie, and the first tree planted.
By the 1880 census, Sarah’s other daughter, Henrietta then 21 and known as “Etta,” had married H.N. Roach. They lived in Washington DC with a three year old son, H.N. Roach, Jr. But the elder Roach drops out of the story, all we know is that Etta and her children (Katherine Roach was born around 1882) returned to a house at 611 Custer St. in Laramie—she soon became the Albany County Clerk of Court, and later, city librarian. Oddly, when H.N. Roach, Jr. died in 1967, his will disallowed any bequest to or challenge from another person named Roach—indicating there might have been a half-brother in Washington D.C.
Sarah herself took advantage of newfound empty nest status.. On April 15, 1873 the Laramie Independent newspaper reported that she had “departed for New York, from whence she will proceed to Europe.”
She was back in 1878 when the Sentinel reported that she and Eva had returned from a visit to Denver. But in the mid 1880s she departed for Europe again, and in 1887 sent a cable to son William in Laramie from London, reporting that she was well and “visiting friends.” Around 1892 she made a long trip to Japan. In 1907 she was in New York City and not feeling well—the paper reported that Etta had gone to be with her.
She did come back from New York, and moved in with Etta. In the winter of 1913-14 she was ill and had spent much time at a Denver hospital. Sarah died at Etta’s home in Laramie on April 18, 1914, at age 81. Her obituary was headlined “Demise of a pioneer…came from England and crossed plains to Salt Lake with infant daughter, returning to Laramie and building first two-story house in city. . .”
The obituary further notes that “Mrs. Montgomery belonged to no church or secret society . . . no flowers requested.” She died an independent soul to the end. Her family respected her wishes, and laid her to rest in Laramie’s Greenhill Cemetery without much ceremony.
The memory of Sarah Cullimore Owen Montgomery will be among those resurrected this summer in two walking tours of Greenhill Cemetery, on Fridays July 6 and September 7. Both free tours will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the cemetery entrance off 15th St., and are part of Laramie’s Sesquicentennial celebration. Costumed re-enactors will be present to tell a bit about their lives as their tombstones are visited.
By Judy Knight
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series recognizing the 150 years since Laramie’s founding. Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum. Email her at email@example.com for more information and sources for this or other history columns. Sarah’s son (William Owen), a granddaughter (Alice Downey Nelson), and great-grandchildren (Barbara Rockwell and Kim Nelson) have written about her. The unpublished manuscripts of the first two are in the collection of the Laramie Plains Museum (LPM), as is the partly fictionalized book by Rockwell. When coupled with US census records and newspaper accounts, much of what has been written is verifiable.
Caption: Sarah Montgomery, inscription on the back includes: “Thaddeus, so you will know your great-grandmother—Sarah Cullimore Owen Montgomery.” Photo courtesy of Laramie Plains Museum.