“In Heaven a noble work was done when God gave man a Mother”.
-old Irish proverb
Stories of the valor of frontier men during America’s colonization are fairly common. However, the achievements of frontier women are seldom heard. As a businesswoman and mother, Eliza Duffy’s accomplishments, during a time when a woman’s identity was derived entirely through their spouse, were extraordinary.
coming to America
Elizabeth “Eliza” Sherlock, was born April 27, 1821, to Thomas and Hannorah (White) Sherlock of Kings County, Ireland (now County Offaly), the eldest daughter of eight children. The Sherlock Family made their way to New York between 1845-1846. During the latter part of the voyage, which lasted six weeks, the ship was blown off course due to a severe storm. Mother, Hannorah, died during the trip and was buried at sea. Her husband, Thomas, died weeks after landing in New York, suffering from the same illness that took his wife.
Within a few years of arrival, Eliza met Patrick Duffy (ten years her senior) and they were married. She gave birth to her three eldest children in her early 30’s, while still living in New York. In 1856 Patrick and Eliza joined her Sherlock siblings traveling to St. Paul, Minnesota. The family settled in Carver County and Eliza helped to build a log house and clear the land for farming. She went on to bear seven more children for a total of ten.
a young mother’s determination
Stories about the determination, ambition, and accomplishments of Eliza Sherlock Duffy are legion. Patrick, her husband, was of little physical help due to his age and complications from arthritis. It was Eliza who frequently walked the nearly 50 miles to St. Paul to sell her farm produce and do the shrewd bargaining that was necessary to provide for her large growing family. While making these trips it is said that Eliza was prevailed upon to do “shopping” for neighbors because of her ability to make favorable bargains. While the land records show that Patrick Duffy acquired additional farms, it was really Eliza who acquired the money to purchase them. Her purpose was to provide her sons with farms of their own.
sharing meals with frontier neighbors
According to Eliza’s granddaughter, Margaret (Duffy) Collins, “Grandma Duffy never went to bed without putting a hatchet under her pillow!” There is a story about some Indians who barged into the Duffy cabin and stole the bread that Eliza had just baked. Several weeks later these same Indians barged in again and threw in a side of venison, apparently as their form of reparation.
Another incident some years later indicates that the rustic pioneer life was not entirely uneventful. During the heyday of bandits on the western plains, a total stranger visited the Duffy farm and asked to spend the night. Without learning his identity Eliza allowed him to sleep in the hayloft. Before departing in the morning, following a good breakfast, he identified himself as Jesse James, the renowned American outlaw. The incident likely occurred around 1876 when Jesse’s gang moved through Minnesota losing two of their members while robbing the First National Bank in Northfield.
Eliza spent her later years surrounded by her children and grandchildren until her death at age 85. Her husband, Patrick, died more than twenty years earlier, in 1898. The couple is buried in St. John’s church cemetery in Sibley County, Minnesota.
Adapted from a story in The Conlin Family Genealogy.