Emily Ann O’Neill Bott and her GGF, Joseph Murphy

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Emily Ann O’Neill Bott and her GGF, Joseph Murphy
I learned a new word the other day –gobsmacked.  Feel free to look it up but, rest assured, it’s exactly how I sometimes feel while researching America’s first transportation industry. Reinforcing that point, I woke up on September 15th to find an email in my inbox from Emily Ann O’Neil Bott.  It was quite a surprise.  For those familiar with early U.S. transportation history, you know that name.  Emily researched and wrote about one of the (if not the) most legendary American wagon maker, Joseph Murphy.  He was her great grandfather or, as she put it, her ggf.  Over the years, her research has garnered a tremendous amount of attention – particularly in reference to the wagons Murphy purportedly built to overcome excessive taxes placed on freighters doing business in Mexico.

Sixty-five years ago, this year, Emily’s Master’s thesis on Joseph Murphy, his wagon business, and Santa Fe Trail wagons was published by the “Missouri Historical Review.”  With my presentation on Santa Fe Trail wagons looming, I’m more than a little awed by the irony of being contacted by this wonderful lady.  I tried to respectfully refer to her as Ms. Bott and she quickly told me she was ‘Emily.’  So, you’ll understand that I’m not being disrespectful or presumptuous when I reference her by first name.  It has been a tremendous honor to correspond with her.

Emily’s Bott’s 1952 article is entitled, “Joseph Murphy’s Contribution to the Development of the West.”  After 65 years, it remains as one of the most intriguing studies of Mr. Murphy’s St. Louis-built wagons.

Emily is now 95 years young, sharp as a tack, and an absolute pleasure to talk to. The ‘ggf’ (great grandfather) moniker she uses for Joseph Murphy was how her grandmother, Mrs. L.J. Moore (1856-1948), Joseph Murphy’s daughter, had referred to Emily’s connection to Joseph. Emily shared that many of the details she obtained for the thesis came from conversations with her grandmother.  Opportunities to interview a person responsible for helping preserve such a vital part of our nation’s early transportation industry don’t come around very often – if at all.  So, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to learn as much as I could from Mr. Murphy’s ‘ggd.’

I asked Emily a number of questions related to how the Murphy article came about. She related that, while in graduate school, she was pondering the pursuit of a teaching or writing vocation. With so much of her family history tied to the development of the U.S., she decided to take the stories she’d heard from those who had lived alongside Mr. Murphy, reconnect them to a wealth of additional research, and share the results in her master’s thesis.  The finished product has been of great help to many doing their own studies of the topic. 

As we discussed Joseph Muphy, Emily passed along a few tidbits related to his character.  His demeanor, she said, could often be defined as a “steel will.”  It was a stubborn trait of commanding authority that was difficult for the immediate family to escape.  That very attribute, though, is likely a large reason his wagons were so well received.  He was a stickler for quality.  Even the original Murphy letters in our collection confirm his serious dedication to excellence.  It’s a point not missed in period accounts either.  Multiple early articles showcase Murphy vehicles as a favorite to both freighters and emigrants headed west.

A special thank you to Sarah Bott, Emily’s daughter, for providing this nineteenth century photo of Joseph Murphy.

There are additional reports that Joseph Murphy was so committed to the expert craftsmen in his employ that he provided rooming accommodations at the wagon works. The move wasn’t entirely benevolent on Murphy’s part.  Apparently, he wanted to keep his workers close so it would be harder for competitors to lure them away.  It’s a premise that comes as no surprise to me.  America’s early wagon industry could be extremely aggressive.  It not only took a great deal of personal drive but an equal amount of forward-thinking to stay abreast of competitive challenges. 

As for his own introduction to building vehicles... Murphy became an apprentice wagon maker in 1819 when he was fourteen.  In 1825, he started his own firm.  Fourteen years later, in 1839, freighters on the Santa Fe Trail took a significant financial hit when the Mexican government added a $500 tax to each wagonload of merchandise coming into the country.  An important part of the Murphy legend surrounds the large wagons he’s believed to have built to overcome this financial setback.  (I’ll share more details on these legendary wagons during my presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association on September 28th.)

Murphy retired from the factory in 1888.  That would have put him in his early 80s.  Well over a decade later, he still considered himself spry enough to take on about any chore around the house.  Emily passed along a final insight into the confidence, drive, and determination so characteristic of Joseph Murphy.  Even though that passion for perfection had served him well for decades, overconfidence can carry a dark side.  So it was, in 1901, that Murphy was determined to climb up and over yet another obstacle.  Here’s how Emily put it...  “A thorough craftsman, at the age of 96, Murphy went up on his roof to repair some chimney flashing. A fall, a broken leg, pneumonia, and it was over.”  It was a tragic end to a remarkable life.

Born in 1805, Murphy had emigrated to the U.S. when he was twelve.  He saw virtually every part of America’s westward expansion in the nineteenth century. From the discovery of gold and military campaigns in the West to the exploits of outlaws, the building of the transcontinental railroad, development of stagecoach routes, and the unfolding of countless tragedies on the frontier, Murphy’s products and reputation were thoroughly immersed in the events of the West. 

While the whole subject continues to be intriguing to Emily and her family, she confessed that she was surprised her work was still of interest to others. Her modesty belies her own accomplishments and commitment to making a difference in the lives of others.  Over the years, she’s authored a book, written regular newspaper columns, had a career in insurance, volunteered with the Make-A-Wish foundation and her local hospital, as well as raised seven children. By her own admission, her children and their families are her greatest pride and joy.

When I think back over the early transportation experiences I’ve encountered over the last quarter century, I’m beside myself.  From archaeological digs to rare vehicle finds and relics rescued from the brink of destruction, the events continue to open my eyes to the rich history of our nation as well as the incredible people that still make it the best place on earth.  As of this year, the trail of old paper and worn wheels has led me to resources in all fifty of the United States.  Thank you, Emily Ann O’Neill Bott, for reaching out and sharing even more from our past.  Like your ggf, you’ve made your own mark in American history and we are all the better for it.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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