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The Sullivan Family
James Sullivan b. 1814
                               © Submitted by
Joann Betschart

Gold was discovered in California in 1848; this prompted an Irishman recently removed to Australia to pack up his family and make another long trip across the waves to another strange continent.

James Sullivan was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1814. Poverty was rampant in Ireland, and many Irish were being convicted of crimes of desperation -- stealing a shilling, for example -- and being exiled to far-away Australia in what was euphemistically called "transportation." In 1838 James Sullivan was convicted of stealing sheep and was sentenced to 10 years transportation to Australia. It may have been here that he learned the cooper's trade. It was definitely here that he met Bridget Whelan, a native of County Kildare, who had been convited in 1839 of larceny and sentenced to seven years transportation. Their first daughter, Mary, was born in 1844, followed by Delia in 1846 and Ellen in 1848.

In 1849, having served out their sentences, they embarked on the ship "Maria" bound for San Francisco. They arrived in the middle of an El Niño winter, one where the dirt streets of the city were not so much muddy as swampy, and horses and mules were said to have sunk into the quagmire without a trace. The only way to cross the streets was by a subsurface crosswalk which would be made out of materials like bags of beans or damaged rice, bundles of tobacco, and whatever else happened to be lying around. San Franciscan's used to like to watch their fellow citizens try (and often fail) to make it across the street without getting stuck in the mud; in extreme cases, they would have to mount a rescue party to free them. Newcomers like the Sullivans often got into their Sunday best to show themselves to their new home, only to ruin their fancy clothes and often lose their boots in the mud before getting far from the dock.

The Sullivans were extremely unusual in that the entire family traveled together. In the year ending April 15, 1850, about 62,000 passengers arrived in San Francisco, but only 2,000, or about 3 percent, were women. The number of children -- Mary was about six, Delia was about three and Ellen was a year old -- must have been very small, but there were children, since a public school had been established in 1847. Doubtless their parents wanted to leave behind a land full of bitter memories of exile and servitude.

An incident is reported where the captain of a ship recently arrived from Sydney actually sold three of his female passengers into five month's service for $15 apiece. This is said to have happened in January 1850, about the same time the Sullivans would have arrived from Sydney. It isn't recorded what exactly the nature of the service was.

I do not know if it was James' intention to go to the mines; if he did, he didn't stay long, because he is listed in the Sept. 1, 1850 San Francisco directory as a partner in Sullivan and Secor, coopers, along with Theodore Secor. He probably did the right thing, considering how uncertain a business mining was, coupled with the fact that half-decent carpenters were making $12 a day back then (astronomical wages for 1850, and roughly the equivalent of $960 in 1998 US money). They did have to make that kind of money, for renting a room was $200 per month (let's say $5,000 US in today's money) and apples were $1 apiece ($80 US).

The family settled in a house on Mission Street between First and Second, at the corner of what is now called Shaw Alley but what used to be Sullivan Alley. Their next four children were born here -- or at least at this location. Fire was a constant danger in early San Francisco, and six major conflagrations are recorded between 1849 and 1852.

In 1856, a group of prominent men, fed up with the fraud and ballot-box stuffing that had set into San Francisco politics, formed a Vigilance Committee, or V.C. for short. They hung two men, James Casey and Charles Cora. A third, James Sullivan, was found dead in his cell May 31, 1856 -- at first assumed to have committed suicide, but later found to have been murdered. This James Sullivan was better known as "Yankee" Sullivan, was also a native of Ireland who had ended up in Sydney, but he was five years younger than the James Sullivan of Sullivan and Secor, and only had one child, not seven. Nevertheless, I mention him because it illustrates that it wasn't a good time to be an Irishman in San Francisco, as most of the people who were being picked up by the Vigilance Committee were Irish. It was especially bad to be a former convict from Australia, regardless of what you were doing with your life now. A journalist named Alf Doten wrote in his diary:
May 31 ... The friends of Sullivan and the Irish generally are down on the Vigilance Committee, and in fact charge them with murder -- there will be trouble with the Irish yet.
June 2 ... There was a sort of mass meeting in the Plaza today of those opposed to the action of the Vigilance Committee - Those afraid of being turned out of the offices which they have gotten into by fraud and ballot-box stuffing, were there and some of them harangued the crowd, which was composed mostly of Irish &c, but the meeting amounted to nothing at all.

By 1869, Mary was married to Mattias Riehm, a moulder (that is, a carpenter who applies the finishing touches to a home, like wainscotting) who had been born in Illinois to parents from Cologne, Germany. Mott (as Mattias was known) and Mary had eight children. Their eldest son, Edward Redmond Riehm, was listed in the Territorial Enterprise newspaper of Virginia City as having died Oct. 28, 1872 at the age of 3 years, 11months and 9 days, but the others survived, including their fourth son, John, who was my great-grandfather.

Their three eldest surviving children are listed in the 1880 Census as having been born in California, but John (born 1875) and his younger siblings are listed as having been born in Nevada. No Riehms (or Reihms or Rhiems) appear in the 1870 census of California. Mary died Dec. 21, 1884 at the age of 40 years, nine months, according to the San Francisco Call. The funeral was held at her mother's home at 15 Polk Street in San Francisco. This seems to indicate she was buried in San Francisco or Colma. Mott lived in his home at 35 South G Street, eventually marrying Martha B. Moody in 1898. He died sometime in the 1920s.

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Last modified: May 20, 2006