All Over The Map: Marysville named for a cannibal?

Sep 6, 2019, 11:28 AM
Downtown Marysville, Washington, circa 1920. (Feliks Banel) An early Marysville, Washington post office, circa 1890. (Feliks Banel) Mary Murphy Covillaud, namesake of Marysville, California, survived the infamous Donner Party at age 14; several sources say Marysville, Washington was named after Marysville, California around 1878. (Donner Party Diary) Marysville, Washington and the surrounding area as they appear on a 1911 topographic map. (USGS)

Marysville, Washington was unwittingly in the national news last week when MSN mistakenly used a photo of the Snohomish County town in an online story about a city council candidate in Marysville, Michigan who had used inflammatory racist language. The candidate, whose name is Jean Cramer, said she wanted a “white community as much as possible.”

Again, to be very clear: this took place in Marysville, Michigan. Not in our sweet little Marysville!

In the understandable backlash against Cramer, poor Marysville, Washington, a town of 68,000 just north of Everett and next door to the Tulalip Indian Reservation – and hometown of KIRO Radio’s Colleen O’Brien  – came under attack. City Hall and the Marysville City Council reportedly got irate emails and calls, and were the subject of social media posts from angry people who were, unfortunately, lambasting the wrong town.

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This whole episode got me wondering how our precious Marysville got its name. I’ve always loved driving by there on I-5, and can remember seeing the iconic water tower when I was a little kid. Incidentally, that tower, which was built in 1921 as part of a new municipal water system, was threatened with demolition, but was ultimately was saved by the Marysville Historical Society back in 2002.

It seems that there are two schools of thought on the origins of our Marysville’s name.

One is that town founder James Comeford’s wife was named Maria, and it was a tribute to her. Perhaps “Marysville” rolls off the tongue more easily than “Mariasville.”

The other theory, which is more interesting, is that around 1878, visitors to James Comeford’s rudimentary settlement suggested that the new town be called “Marysville” after Marysville, California. These visitors, James Johnson and Thomas Lloyd, were supposedly from the Californian Marysville, and they actually became some of Marysville, Washington Territory’s earliest residents.

Cannibal Covillaud?

If this second theory is true, who, then is Marysville, California named for? That town is about 40 miles north of Sacramento, and about 80 miles west of Donner Pass, with a population of 12,000. It was named back in 1850 after Mary Murphy Covillaud by her second husband, Charles Covillaud.

Mary Murphy was just 14 when she survived the ill-fated Donner Party, a wagon train that got stuck in a mountain pass, in 1847. Some of the Donner Party survivors, most scholars agree, resorted to cannibalism – eating the flesh of deceased Donner Party members – to sustain themselves while trapped in what’s now called Donner Pass.

I made several phone calls to Marysville, California to try and sort out fact from speculation. The woman who answered the phone at Mary Covillaud Elementary said questions about whether or not the school (and town’s) namesake was a cannibal come up with surprising regularity, and that nobody knows for sure what the answer is. The woman who answered the phone at Marysville City Hall laughed when asked the same question, then said no one had ever asked her before.

Then, I reached out to a scholar named Dan Rosen who runs a website called Donner Party Diary that he originally put together for the Donner Party 150th anniversary back in the 1990s. By email, I asked Dan Rosen point blank if 14-year old Mary Murphy became a cannibal to survive while among the Donner Party.

This is what he wrote about the cannibal rumors:

There is no evidence, and no reason to believe, that Mary Murphy resorted to cannibalism. She was rescued by the First Relief [the first of three rescue missions] which left the Donner Lake camps on February 22, 1847, and reached the relief party support camp at Mule Springs on March 2. The overwhelming evidence is that there was no cannibalism at the Donner Lake camps before the arrival of the First Relief.

Phew. Now people in two Marysvilles can breathe a sigh of relief.

Marysville or North Everett

This might not even have been an issue for Marysville, Washington, had an effort to change the town’s name been successful in 1891. In that year, nearby Everett was booming, and some in Marysville wanted a piece of the place-name action. But cooler heads prevailed, and “North Everett” never came to pass.

For the record, Marysville, Michigan was named after Nelson Mills’ wife Mary in 1859; it had originally been known as Vicksburg. Marysville, Ohio was named by founder Sam Cuthbertson after his daughter in 1819. Marysville, Kansas was named by Frank Marshall after his wife in 1854; it was originally known as Marshall’s Ferry. It can be safely assumed that these namesakes had no cannibal connections either.

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In 1926, historian William Whitfield, in his book “History of Snohomish County, Washington,” wrote this final thought about our Marysville:

With such a record of uninterrupted advancement and growth up to the present time and with so many encouraging indications and projects in evidence assuring at least immediate future progress, Marysville people are among the most optimistic to be found in Snohomish County.

Perhaps this explains Colleen O’Brien’s sunny disposition and KIRO Radio’s Daily Dose of Kindness.

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All Over The Map: Marysville named for a cannibal?