By Wynne Brown
As Sara Allen Plummer waved goodbye to her family from a wooden sidewheel steamer, she wondered what lay ahead for her. It was 1869, she was 33 years old, and she was hoping to save her own life by moving — alone — from New York to California.
She probably never imagined that she would one day be hailed as “one of the most accurate painters of nature in the state.” Or that Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in Southern Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains, would be named for her.
How did a young woman born in Maine leave such a long-lasting legacy in the Southwest?
Sara’s early education was as a teacher in Worcester, Massachusetts. She then moved to New York City to become certified in chemistry and physics while supporting herself by teaching calisthenics (gym) and giving art lessons.
In her spare time, she nursed wounded Civil War soldiers. Ironically, her own health was terrible, and after barely surviving pneumonia, she realized her life depended on escaping the bitter Northeastern winters.
After moving across the continent, she settled in Santa Barbara, where she became intrigued by Western plants. It wasn’t uncommon for 19th century women to be knowledgeable botanists, and Sara, a skilled observer and gifted illustrator, soon was among them. She also started Santa Barbara’s first library and established a lecture series, which attracted a certain Civil War veteran in 1876.
John Gill Lemmon, born in Michigan in 1832, was a teacher and school superintendent before he enlisted in 1862. Thirty-six military engagements later, he was captured and sent to Georgia’s infamous Andersonville Prison. After the war, he was released — emaciated and traumatized — and moved to Northern California to recuperate. He had always liked natural history and collected a few odd-looking plants that turned out to be new species.
By the time John met Sara, he was considered an important Western field botanist. They soon became “botanical comrades,” fell in love and married on Thanksgiving Day, 1880.
Where would two frail botanists spend their honeymoon? Sara wrote her family March 20, 1881:
Tomorrow at 4 p.m. Lemmonia and I start for Arizona and New Mexico on a botanic exploring expedition. … I have long desired to see the far-off land of the Apaches and then to go with Mr. Lemmon exploring, and gathering the rare and perhaps new species of flora will be sufficient delight to more than balance the fatigues consequent upon such a trip.
These two were definitely not armchair botanists:
I wish you could see our rough outfit of two gray/rubber blankets — old flannel vests and drawers, old boots and hats, a big lunch basket — filled with corned beef, crackers, cheese and three or four jars of nice currant jelly, brought in by good, thoughtful friends. We have a little alcohol lamp to make tea and cocoa over a wash dish, soap and towels. An umbrella tent, a lot of botanical books and traps. The whole outfit and occasion brimful of interest and enthusiasm if you will allow the expression.
She also brought her watercolor supplies.
After three attempts to scrabble up the Catalinas’ south-facing side, the Lemmons were introduced to Emerson Oliver Stratton, who owned the Pandora Ranch on the range’s north side. Stratton knew a better route: “We went to the highest peak of the Santa Catalinas,” he wrote later, “and christened it Mount Lemmon in honor of Mrs. Lemmon, who was the first white woman up there.”
From Tucson, the couple took the train to the Chiricahua Mountains, staying at Fort Bowie until the June heat drove them away. Two months later, they returned, and Sara wrote her family from Teviston (now Bowie) on August 24, 1881:
On Sunday at 8:30 a.m. went on to Tucson about 250 miles farther, a tedious trip, hot, dusty in some places the roadbed washed all out. Spent one night there and at noon the next day started for Bowie Station, 100+ more miles out. This place was reached between 9 and 10 p.m. The inhabitants of about a half dozen houses in bed — a saloon was open. Four or five men came to our rescue, as we were landed by the side of the track, all dark except when the lightning flashes revealed the distant mountains across the wide open plains. It was a desolate scene to us tired mortals.
Four days later, she wrote from Fort Bowie:
This morning at 5 o'clock as the first sounds of the horn are heard, we rose and with botanic press started for the ravine and the site of the Indian scouts who were encamped last season at the Fort. … Just beyond this place is the graveyard in which are buried about 60 people, most of them bearing this touching notice on the wooden headboard: “Killed by the Apaches,” “Killed by the Indians” — “Unknown,” or “Supposed to be.”
One of the many plants they collected was a new genus, and Harvard’s Dr. Asa Gray named the plant Plummera floribunda, honoring Sara’s scientific work — and her maiden name.
A week later, still at Fort Bowie, she described the Apaches:
We have been deeply anxious here for the past week owing to the Indian troubles. Of course with you the news from so great a distance sounds like a myth, but with the dwellers in the midst, it is a solemn reality. Nothing that prowls over the earth is probably more to be dreaded than the Apache Indians. They are sly, treacherous, revengeful, cruel and love to shed the blood of the white man as much as we take pleasure in killing rattlesnakes.
On September 19, 1881, the Lemmons were finally allowed to go to Fort Rucker, a closed post 40 miles away. They camped in a primitive cabin belonging to Dr. Robert Monroe, the “Hermit of the Chiricahuas,” who was convivial — at first. He even trusted them to show off the tunnel he’d hand-dug behind his cabin. The passage zigzagged through the ridge for about 125 feet, with a central room, 8 by 6 by 4 feet, especially “for occupation when Apaches were expected.”
The pièce de résistance was a fuse leading to a hidden half-keg of gunpowder. John reported:
The eyes of the inventor gleamed wickedly … as he disclosed this device and declared that by the simple possession of one match he “could blow the whole Apache Nation into shoe-strings and jumbled bones!”
Privately, John and Sara laughed about the “demented” miner and his ridiculous plan. The hermit grew increasingly moody until, one evening, he suddenly threatened the Lemmons with a rifle, accusing them of intending to rob him. John faced him down by pretending he, too, had a gun, and the hermit subsided into his customary good nature.
One day, as Sara was alone in camp, working on plant illustrations, Fort Bowie’s commander sent word that the Apache leader Juh had escaped from the San Carlos reservation — and was headed their way.
Suddenly, the refuge tunnel no longer seemed ridiculous, and Sara quickly moved all their supplies into its central room. John wrote:
How glad were we now, that we knew of its existence! How ashamed that we had ever spoken of it, slightingly, to each other, or doubted the sanity of the miner who excavated the long channel.
Their enthusiasm for the cramped, dank refuge wore off until, 11 days later, the cavalry rode to their rescue.
Yet, even with all the excitement, the couple discovered dozens of new species, including a fern named Woodsia plummerae, again in Sara’s honor.
Despite the scares they’d experienced, the Lemmons returned to Southern Arizona the following year. This time, they camped at Fort Huachuca, because Apaches were still a worry. The Huachucas turned out to be a botanical heaven, with 40 species new to science. At least a dozen of Sara’s exquisite paintings from that 1882 trip have survived.
In 1884, they traveled to Northern Arizona, and in 1892, they returned to the Chiricahuas. When revisiting the Rucker Canyon tunnel, Sara commented, “How did we live in here so long — 11 days! I couldn’t stay an hour now!”
In June 1905, they returned to Tucson, and, reunited with Stratton, they retraced their route up Mount Lemmon to mark their 25th anniversary. Sara was 70, John 74.
When not collecting plants from Alaska to Mexico, the Lemmons lived in their Berkeley-based herbarium, eking out a living by selling specimens to collectors and producing several books, all illustrated by Sara.
From 1888 to 1892, John was the state botanist for the California Board of Forestry, and Sara shared his salary as official artist. She also held positions in the Women’s Federated Clubs, the California Press Women and the local Red Cross chapters. As an early activist, she gave talks around the West on the importance of forest conservation.
Californians might claim Sara’s most lasting legacy was her successful effort to make the California poppy the state flower in 1903. However, Arizonans could contest that claim: The Lemmons discovered, described and named 110 species, or 3 percent of the state’s vascular plants.
John died of pneumonia in 1908, and Sara had a nervous breakdown in 1913. She moved into the Stockton State Hospital, dying in 1923.
How fitting that the two of them are buried together. Their gravestone reads: “Partners in Botany.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Wynne Brown traveled three times to the University and Jepson Herbaria Archives at the University of California, Berkeley, to photograph all 1,200 pages of Sara Lemmon's letters with her iPhone. She’s now in the process of transcribing Lemmon’s letters from 1856 to 1908, and she’s done enough of them, she says, “that I walk around contemporary Tucson with her voice in my ear.” She hopes to turn Lemmon’s story into a book, and her proposal is making the rounds with publishers and agents. To learn more, visit www.wynnebrown.com.