By Peggy Sue McRae
My older sister and I remain astonished to find ourselves in our seventies with our younger sisters following close behind. Sally, the eldest, has taken a recent interest in family history urging the rest of us to write down family stories.
To inspire us I looked to my own family history file for a treasure I found years ago while poking around in San Juan Island’s Historical Museum. What I found was a letter and five typewritten pages telling “The Story of My Life” by Sarah Elizebeth Mouttell Purchase. Sarah Purchase was the older sister of Emma Amelia Mouttell Mullis, the wife of George Mullis. Sarah was my great-great-aunt.
That Sarah Purchase told her life story in a succinct five pages is significant because for most of us writing five pages actually sounds doable. In a brief five pages, Sarah Purchase managed to reveal charming details of her girlhood in London, the rise and fall of family fortunes and the challenges of settling in Kansas. Here are a few brief excerpts.
In London, the family business was selling shoes and was prosperous enough that the family was able to move to a better location and larger home. Following this, the family fortunes were devastated. “There came a time when brother Joseph had the smallpox, no one would come to the house. Charlie and Fred had it too but not so bad, they had been vaccinated. I had to wait on them. All the things I needed were brought to the door. I kept well, but Father’s trade was ruined. For 6 weeks no one would come. He sold out and came to America.”
She describes the journey, “We had a fine time on the steamer, but they did not want to take brother Joseph because he showed the pock-marks so bad. There were 20 of us; some were going under Father’s care. Father said if he (the captain) did not take Joseph, he would not take any of us, so he took us. Well, we had a big storm at sea; part of the lifeboats was blown away, cabin windows broken and doors blown in. We got to the USA.” Phew! I’m so thankful they made it.
The family landed in New York and the next day headed out to Kansas. It was in Kansas that Sarah’s sisters Emma Amelia and Anna Maria married brothers George Mullis and Walter Mullus. Yes, the bothers spelled their name differently! Emma was the only member of the Mouttell family to eventually come out west. I will always be grateful to George Mullis for that. The George Mullis family had their first four children including my grandfather, Frank, in Kansas but their youngest, a daughter named Francis, was born the day before Christmas 1894 here in Friday Harbor.
If you were to write the story of your own life in five pages what would be your highlights? Your greatest challenges? Who would figure prominently? As Sally suggests, “Think about how interested some descendants (or others) may be as they enjoy reading it in 100 years.”