All of us, I believe, have people in our lives we would rate as the “most unforgettable.”
Carrie Townley Porter is definitely one of mine.
It all began not long after my book “Whither Thou Goest” (nonfiction, Authors Choice Press, 2001) was published.
I was contacted by a forensic investigator named Charlotte Ware. She’d found my book on the Internet while working on her family tree and had suddenly realized that it was about her ancestors as well as mine! It turns out that her husband was the great-grandson of Eva Beardsley, the daughter of my great-grandaunt and one of the main characters of “Whither Thou Goest.” In the summer of 1878, teenager Eva and her family had migrated west to the American frontier. It was during the time of the Bannock Indian War, when the federal government was still taming the frontier by force. Our conversation evolved into my trip to Oregon and California to meet three of Eva’s long-lost still-living grandchildren for hours-long visits.
It was on this same trip that I first learned of Sarah Winnemucca, the legendary Northern Paiute “princess.” Not only was she an author, activist, educator, teacher, and interpreter, she volunteered her services to the U.S. Army during the Bannock Indian War of 1878. Outspoken and controversial, she was something of a celebrity as well. My only regret was that I didn’t get to meet her in person—she died in 1891, long before I was born.
It suddenly occurred to me that during the Bannock Indian War, Sarah and Eva could have actually crossed paths! I couldn’t help asking myself: What if they had? What if Eva and Sarah, people from two different worlds, had somehow met? Would they have been friends or foes, allies or enemies? Would Eva have learned to see beyond the color of Sarah’s skin? Would she have trusted Sarah with her life? What forces – or men – could have driven them together – or apart?
Sounds like a novel!
There was one person whom I did get to meet, however – the very much alive Carrie Townley Porter.
* * *
Around the time that Western history author Sally Zanjani was writing her definitive biography, “Sarah Winnemucca” (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), the concept of a statue came to her. She asked her friend, Carrie Townley Porter, to take a look at her proposal to create a statue of Sarah Winnemucca – yes, a statue – and put it in none other than the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol Building of Washington, D.C. After all, she reasoned, each state is invited to place two statues there. Nevada had only one – former U.S. Sen. Patrick McCarran.
Carrie, then the indefatigable State President of the Nevada Women’s History Project (NWHP), faxed the five-page proposal to the project’s committee, held a conference call the next night and the project became a must-do on the agenda. Carrie said, “Everybody got excited.”
* * *
My idea for “Desert Angels” first came to me at about the same time, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2003 that I learned about the statue project on the Internet. The website led me to Carrie, who invited me to NWHP’s third annual “Pink Tea.” It was to be a fundraiser for the statue, held at the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City, Nevada on a Saturday afternoon, April 26, 2003. Amazingly, it would be during the week of my long-planned research trip from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina. The timing was perfect!
A Pink Tea is a celebration of those who worked to gain women the right to vote. In the 1920s, women’s suffragist meetings were often disrupted by angry husbands and other men. So the women began calling their meetings “teas,” decorating them in a pink theme – which is how they became known as “Pink Teas.” If men happened to show up, all discussions about the right to vote would cease. They would swiftly turn their conversations to polite compliments about one another’s hats, or they would calmly sip tea and nibble on little sandwiches. NWHP revived the concept in 2001 to raise funds for the Sarah Winnemucca statue project. It’s held each year inside the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City. Period dress is encouraged, but not required.
I will always fondly recall that day: Even Sarah’s grandnieces, Dorothy Ely and Louise Tannheimer, nearly 86, were there, along with their daughters. For several years Louise, a Paiute elder, had gone from reservation to reservation quietly lecturing about “her” Sarah.
The women were dressed in period attire; Carrie Townley Porter as Helen J. Stewart, “first lady” of Las Vegas. She struck me as someone even Sarah Winnemucca would have admired. Bright and quick-witted, her eyes were warm and sparkling; she seemed powered by an inexhaustible energy supply. She quickly made me an active participant rather than an awkward spectator. I felt swept up in a vision bigger than all of us.
* * *
We agreed to meet in her office on Tuesday but the next morning, being Sunday, I went to church. Not just any church, mind you, but Dorothy Ely’s church, St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal. I was honored that Dorothy had invited me to be her guest.
The small church was located in Nixon, a little crossroads about seventy miles northeast of Carson City on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.
Years ago, St. Mary’s, along with St. Michael’s & All Angels Episcopal Church in nearby Wadsworth, were ministered to by Gareth Hughes, a Welsh stage and silent screen actor who, in the early 1940s, “saw the light” and adopted the name of Brother David. In 1949 Brother David was assigned as a missionary to the Paiute Indians on the reservation, but was forced to retire in 1956 due to ill health.
I stayed the night in nearby Fernley and arrived in time for the 11:00 a.m. service. Attendance was light – only five of us. (Even the pastor wasn’t there.) Dorothy led the service from the lectionary, explaining that last week was Easter Sunday and over a hundred people had come.
I couldn’t help but look around during the beautiful service. It was good to meet and worship with these people. A Ute peace pipe hung in front of the sanctuary. On the wall was a framed medallion given to the Paiute people long ago by Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud. On another wall was a single feather from Crazy Horse, perhaps the most famous Oglala Lakota leader. The feather symbolized the single eagle feather in his hair as he rode into battle.
But today was about peace.
I wanted to see more of the Pyramid Lake Reservation, long-time home of Sarah Winnemucca’s Northern Paiutes, also known as the Kuyuidokado (Pyramid Lake Paiutes/Cui-ui eaters). Following Dorothy’s advice, I first bought a valid tribal permit at the Sutcliffe ranger station and, with permit in hand, spent the afternoon exploring the reservation, which centers around the lake itself. Pyramid Lake takes its name from the impressive pyramid shaped formation in the lake about fifteen minutes north of Nixon on the eastern shore. Nearby is the fabled “Stone Mother,” sadly sitting on the shore, her basket still by her side.
Monday promised to be yet another good day. I didn’t want to miss a research opportunity so I called Carrie that morning. She was still home looking after her husband Keith, who was recovering from surgery. We spent forty-five minutes on the phone. Carrie was a gold mine of information about where to go – who and what to see. That day I took a “crash course” in Paiute life at the Nevada State Museum in Reno – studying everything from rabbit drives to pine-nut prayers. And in the Nevada State Library & Archives I discovered an entire section devoted to all things Sarah Winnemucca.
But Tuesday was the red-letter day for me. Carrie and I met at 11:00 a.m. in NWHP’s South Reno office suite at 770 Smithridge Drive. Busy as she was, Carrie spent over an hour with me talking about the statue project – and more. She even gave me two books: “Ghost Dance Winter and Other Tales of the Frontier,” by Sally Zanjani and “Women in Nevada History,” by Nevada Women’s History Project 2000. When I finally left, I promised her I would do well by Sarah – and by her.
I already knew – I had met an unbelievably extraordinary woman!
April 1, 2004 <email>: “Dear Carrie, I haven’t heard from you lately as to how your husband Keith is doing after his surgery last year. Anne and I pray that he is making a full recovery. I am so pleased over the statue of Sarah Winnemucca that you have picked for our Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. It’s as if God Himself sent sculptor Benjamin Victor your way. I have looked at his work and it is astounding! I can’t wait to see Sarah bigger than life. What an honor for this truly great woman. I have a photo of Victor’s model on my computer desktop for inspiration. We plan to travel west during June for more research on Sarah’s involvement in the Bannock War. Hope to see you then.”
On the Sunday afternoon of June 13, 2004, my footsteps led me again to Carrie — this time with my wheelchair-bound wife Anne – this time for a personal visit. Earlier that morning, Anne and I had both visited Pyramid Rock and then Dorothy Ely’s church, again at Dorothy’s invitation.
That’s where we learned that Keith had died – quite recently.
Carrie lived in a beautiful rambling ranch house on North Scarsdale Circle, located in the Hidden Valley area of Reno’s eastern foothills. As we pulled into her driveway around 2:00 p.m., ., Carrie came out to greet us the moment we drove up. She was so friendly, and seemed genuinely happy to have us as guests.
“We’re so sorry,” I said. “about Keith.”
“It’s true,” she said, “He died on May 24th.” As she showed us his picture she continued, “Today was a perfect time for your visit. Keith died on a Monday at 2:00 a.m. Everyone knew his time was coming – he’d come home to a hospital bed that we’d set up in the dining room. Keith lived just long enough to celebrate his daughter’s 23rd wedding anniversary – one day before he died.”
There was a faraway, wistful look in her eyes, the look of a woman who knows she won’t see her own wedding anniversary again. Not one to dwell on misfortune, instead, Carrie had thrown herself straight back into this new chapter in her life.
We talked more than two hours – mostly about the statue project. Carrie said that Marcia de Braga, former District 35 Nevada Assemblywoman, got the statue approved in weeks, rather than months. Carrie was also a friend of Dema Guinn, First Lady of Nevada, who was helping to raise money for the project.
“There’s a lot on my plate now,” said Carrie. “…selling the house, getting rescheduled, getting resettled.” When we left, I gave her a signed copy of “Whither Thou Goest” and a Gideon New Testament. We told her we were sorry we’d never met Keith and that we would pray the Lord would continue to comfort her over her loss.
It was nine months before we saw her again.
Wednesday, March 9, 2005, was the big unveiling — and we would be there! Carrie had arranged for our invitation to the statue dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C. That afternoon, Anne and I, along with several hundred people, found ourselves in the Capitol Building’s Rotunda, which houses a dozen life-sized statues of famous Americans, along with several eight-by-twelve-foot paintings of scenes from American history.
It was a really big deal. There were hundreds of people there: the press (with its bank of TV cameras); the United States Navy Band; and countless politicians. It was not every day a new statue arrived!
The program started at 4:00 p.m. with the presentation of colors, the National Anthem and the invocation. Joining us were a large group of Native Americans and some of our nation’s top lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Also in attendance were Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn and his wife, Dema, who’d helped raise money for the project, and dozens of NWHP members, without whose efforts there would have been no statue! Ralph Burns, a Pyramid Lake Paiute, gave a Native American blessing, followed by House Chaplain David Coughlin’s benediction.
Jim Gibbons, Republican member of the United States House of Representatives, unveiled the statue at last. Now, as when she was alive, all eyes went to the Paiute princess. Everyone had spoken their piece, but none spoke as eloquently as Sarah herself, whose weapon had always been her impassioned tongue.
Striking a pose remarkably like the Statue of Liberty, her extended right hand held a shellflower, symbolizing her Paiute name of Thocmetony (“Pretty Shell Flower”). Her left hand held a copy of her book, “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” the first book written in English by an American Indian woman. But, unlike the other statues in the hall, Sarah appeared to be in constant motion; the fringes of her native dress seemed to sway with some unfelt wind.
The statue had been created by the talented hands of American sculptor Benjamin Victor. At age 26, he had become the youngest artist to have a work in the National Statuary Hall.
In the hubbub that followed the ceremony, there was much milling about. Somehow, in all that confusion, Carrie found me. I was still taking photos.
“Here,” she said, as she thrust a tiny Bible into my hands. It was very old, very worn. “It’s a 1941 Gideon New Testament. My dad had it when he was alive.” Carrie, remembering that I was a member of the Gideons, had brought it all the way from Reno, just for me! “My dad’s name was Weldon,” she said. “He may have carried it through WWII, but I don’t know.”
I was very touched that she had thought of me amidst all the hue and cry – and I told her so.
A few weeks later, I received a copy of the Spring 2005 NWH Project News. I soon discovered that I had taken all six photos (see above) in the cover article, “Sarah Winnemucca’s Greatness Nationally Recognized.” They were the ones I had sent to Carrie and to NWH’s newsletter editor, Kay Sanders. I emailed my thanks to them saying that I felt very humbled that I had somehow become part of this historic event. Two of those photos were later included in the Nevada Women’s Fund “Spring Fling” pamphlet, dated April 1, 2005.
(Note: the NWHP first came into being as a program of the Nevada Women’s Fund [NWF] in 1996. They still share an office within NWH’s headquarters at 770 Smithridge Drive in Reno.)
Eighteen months after our trip to the statue dedication – my life changed forever.
Nov. 15, 2006 <email>: Dear Carrie, My beloved wife and lifelong partner of 46 years died on October 30 from complications connected to diabetes. Although Anne became a bilateral below-knee amputee, she never gave up and was a real trouper until the end when, at age 69, her heart finally gave out.
God saw you getting tired, when a cure was not to be
So He wrapped his arms around you and whispered, “Come to me.”
You didn’t deserve what you went through, so He gave you rest.
God’s garden must he beautiful. He only takes the best.
My loss took on a whole new meaning around the holidays.
Everything had changed. How was I supposed to move forward without her – to have good conversations, to enjoy family gatherings, to share a Christmas tree? It hardly seemed possible. My holiday memories had always centered around these family traditions. Even though joy and happiness were abundantly present in others, they were not found in me — the holidays had become a very painful time, both for me and for my grown children. Things would no longer be the same.
So that winter, seeking common solace with my daughter, I visited her and her family at their home in Upstate New York.
A painting on their wall caught my eye.
“Who painted that?” I asked.
“Dan Greene,” said my son-in-law George. “It’s Primitive art. Dan’s a friend of mine from New Haven, Connecticut. He’s the front man for a rock band called The Butterflies of Love. He’s much more famous in the UK. Dan paints under the name Cosmo. You give him three or four subjects and he combines them into one painting.”
“Will he do one for me?”
“Ask him. He just might.”
So I did, and Dan did agree to do one for me. I gave him five subjects: Sarah Winnemucca, Bannocks, Paiutes, soldiers and dust devils.
It took about six months: Dan went on tour in England with his band, finally returning to his teaching job (and painting) in New Haven.
Sadly, during the interim, my son David passed away, in April, from kidney failure at age 48 (that’s another story) — only six months after his mother.
Dan’s painting (really a watercolor) arrived in July. Right away I recounted the whole series of events to Carrie.
In a weird way, the abstract Sarah Winnemucca, the watercolor’s central figure, had helped me find solace. And Carrie, I felt, understood my grief. She had become a staunch friend.
We kept in touch…
In 2008, I married again, this time to a wonderful Southern girl (yet another story).
For several years, inspired by Carrie Townley Porter and the story of Sarah Winnemucca and the Bannock Indian War, I put together what would be my first historical novel “Desert Angels.” It would be based on true events. It would be about prejudice. It would be about love.
I traveled to the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York, Eva Beardley’s birthplace (and mine), and “Out West” three times. Following the footsteps of both Eva and Sarah Winnemucca, I traveled the length and breadth of the Bannock’s warpath, uncovering its secrets until I felt I had personally met every long-dead warrior and soldier. I lived, breathed, wrote and at last submitted the final draft to several traditional publishers.
Virtual Tales, a publisher in Vancouver, Washington, picked it up and slated my book for publication in late 2011.
Unfortunately, they went out of business in April.
But I wasn’t about to give up; the book had taken ten years of research. So, I climbed the learning curves of self-publishers such as CreateSpace, Kindle, Nook and Smashwords until I got it out there myself. I then created new websites (desktop & mobile) and entered the world of social networking, social media, YouTube, monetization and marketing.
So that’s where I am now. The world of publishing is changing daily – it’s nearly upside down. My hope is that a literary agent will someday take notice and a major publisher will want to pick up my book.
I also believe “Desert Angels” would make a great movie, in the same genre as “Dances with Wolves.” It’s the story of Sarah Winnemucca’s struggle to right the wrongs done to her people. It’s also the story of a lost, grieving young girl who loses her first love and gets the education of a lifetime in one unforgettable summer.
But “Desert Angels” is more. It’s about overcoming prejudice – about enemies becoming friends. It’s the story of a girl, Eva Beardsley, who is moved by a legend – a woman later immortalized in bronze – a woman who never stops moving.
* * *
Carrie would occasionally call me, usually around Christmas, and we would have long conversations — about family, about our mutual book progress and about life in general. She and her friend, Sally Zanjani, had teamed up to write their own book, a biography of Helen J. Stewart, the tough, pioneering American woman considered the early soul of Las Vegas and the Mormon Trail.
Jan. 18, 2012 <email>: “Dear Carrie, today the mailman brought me a copy of your book: “Helen J. Stewart: First Lady of Las Vegas.” THANK YOU SO MUCH! Now I have a signed copy from both co-authors, you and Sally Zanjani. Betsy and I look forward to reading it. She’s even a bigger reader than me. God bless you and please keep us posted on how you are doing – both health-wise and as you continue your great adventure — Love, Pat.”
* * *
It was just before the Christmas of 2014. Carrie and I had always exchanged Christmas cards, but this time the one I’d sent had just been returned. Had she moved away?
Instead, on a day I’ll never forget, I heard from Carrie’s friend, Mona Reno:
Dec. 14, 2014 <email>: “Hi Mr. Simpson, Carrie Porter died in her sleep on December 6. I hope you were able to get in touch with her. Attached is a draft obituary written by Carol Clanton [former editor, owner/publisher of Nevada’s Lovelock Review-Miner]. You have my heartfelt sympathy.”
For a long time, I just sat there in stunned silence.
Carrie couldn’t be dead; she was too alive – too “on the go!” No, people like her don’t die, they live on – in our hearts, in our memories – forever. Doesn’t anyone understand that?
But there it was — in grim black and white (excerpted here):
“Carrie Elizabeth Miller Townley Porter, author, archivist and historian, died December 6, 2014, at home in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. She was 79.…In retirement, Carrie worked tirelessly for the Nevada Women’s History Project, and spearheaded the Sarah Winnemucca Statue Project through the Nevada Legislature. In 2011, she published a book, ‘Helen J. Stewart: First Lady of Las Vegas’ with co-author Sally Zanjani. Carrie delighted in appearing in costume and in character as Helen Stewart, giving numerous ‘Chautauqua’ presentations about Las Vegas history.… In October of 2012, Carrie moved to California to live with her daughter, Barbara Codega, and her husband. [Sadly, Barbara died only five months after Carrie moved in.]”
It was true. Carrie had moved on to a different place. She can never be replaced, nor can the memories of those who knew her.
Dec. 24, 2014 <email>: 12/24/14 “Dear Mona, Thanks for letting me know of Carrie’s passing. She was one of the most unforgettable women I have ever met. She invited me sight unseen to a Pink Tea in 2003, after learning that I was researching Sarah Winnemucca for an historical fiction novel I was writing [“Desert Angels”].…It is so sad. No one can or ever will replace this truly amazing and wonderful woman.”
My reply was printed in the January 2015 NWH Newsletter as a memorial.
Sadly, Carrie Townley Porter wasn’t coming back.
The world without her will be a sorry place indeed. She was a woman who never stopped moving – much like Sarah Winnemucca herself.
Would I miss her?
I would – and I do – methinks too much so.
And I never got to say goodbye.
— Goodbye Carrie (sooduhi).