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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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’sfirst transportation industry. Reinforcing that point, I woke up on September 15th to find an email inmy inbox from Emily Ann O’Neil Bott.  Itwas quite a surprise.  For those familiarwith 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 putit, her ggf.  Over the years, herresearch has garnered a tremendous amount of attention – particularly inreference to the wagons Murphy purportedly built to overcomeexcessive taxes placed on freighters doing business in Mexico.

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

Emily’s Bott’s 1952 article isentitled, “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 atack, and an absolute pleasure to talk to. The ‘ggf’ (great grandfather) moniker she uses for Joseph Murphy was howher grandmother, Mrs. L.J. Moore (1856-1948), Joseph Murphy’s daughter, hadreferred to Emily’s connection to Joseph. Emily shared that many of the details she obtained for the thesis camefrom conversations with her grandmother.  Opportunities to interview a personresponsible for helping preserve such a vital part of our nation’s earlytransportation industry don’t come around very often – if at all.  So, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to learnas much as I could from Mr. Murphy’s ‘ggd.’
I asked Emily a number of questionsrelated to how the Murphy article came about. She related that, while in graduate school, she was pondering thepursuit 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 alongsideMr. Murphy, reconnect them to a wealth of additional research, and share theresults in her master’s thesis.  Thefinished product has been of great help to many doing their own studies of thetopic. 
As we discussed Joseph Muphy, Emilypassed along a few tidbits related to his character.  His demeanor, she said, could often bedefined as a “steel will.”  It was astubborn trait of commanding authority that was difficult for the immediatefamily 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 ourcollection confirm his serious dedication to excellence.  It’s a point not missed in period accountseither.  Multiple early articles showcaseMurphy 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 JosephMurphy was so committed to the expert craftsmen in his employ that he providedrooming accommodations at the wagon works. The move wasn’t entirely benevolent on Murphy’s part.  Apparently, he wanted to keep his workersclose so it would be harder for competitors to lure them away.  It’s a premise that comes as no surprise tome.  America’s early wagon industry couldbe extremely aggressive.  It not onlytook a great deal of personal drive but an equal amount of forward-thinking tostay abreast of competitive challenges. 

As for his own introduction to buildingvehicles... Murphy became an apprentice wagon maker in 1819 when he wasfourteen.  In 1825, he started his ownfirm.  Fourteen years later, in 1839, freighterson the Santa Fe Trail took a significant financial hit when the Mexicangovernment added a $500 tax to each wagonload of merchandise coming into thecountry.  An important part of the Murphylegend surrounds the large wagons he’s believed to have built to overcome thisfinancial setback.  (I’ll share moredetails on these legendary wagons during my presentation to the Santa Fe TrailAssociation on September 28th.)

Murphyretired from the factory in 1888.  That would have put him in his early80s.  Well over a decade later,he still considered himself spry enough to take on about any chore around thehouse.  Emily passed along a final insightinto the confidence, drive, and determination so characteristic of Joseph Murphy.  Even though that passion for perfection hadserved him well for decades, overconfidence can carry a dark side.  So it was, in 1901, that Murphy wasdetermined 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 brokenleg, pneumonia, and it was over.”  It wasa tragic end to a remarkable life.

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

While the whole subject continues to beintriguing to Emily and her family, she confessed that she was surprised herwork was still of interest to others. Her modesty belies her own accomplishments and commitment to making adifference in the lives of others.  Overthe years, she’s authored a book, written regular newspaper columns, had acareer in insurance, volunteered with the Make-A-Wish foundation and her localhospital, as well as raised seven children. By her own admission, her children and their families are hergreatest pride and joy.

When I think back over the earlytransportation experiences I’ve encountered over the last quarter century, I’mbeside myself.  From archaeological digsto rare vehicle finds and relics rescued from the brink of destruction, theevents continue to open my eyes to the rich history of our nation as well asthe incredible people that still make it the best place on earth.  As of this year, the trail of old paper andworn wheels has led me to resources in all fifty of the United States.  Thank you, Emily Ann O’Neill Bott, forreaching out and sharing even more from our past.  Like your ggf, you’ve made your own mark inAmerican 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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