Life stories: Mt. Lemmon's namesake was female explorer

Sara Lemmon, the woman for whom Mount Lemmon was named, spent time camping in the Catalinas with husband, J.G. Lemmon.

Sara Allen Plummer Lemmon never got the credit she deserved for the decades of research she conducted with her botanist husband, but she did receive the ultimate recognition for her work in Southern Arizona.

In the early 1880s a mountain was named in her honor.

Sara was an equal partner in collecting and researching plant specimens, yet in the scientific papers and articles published by her husband, credit is given to "J.G. Lemmon & Wife."

"We will perhaps never know how much of the Lemmons' joint work was her doing, but we might suspect that it was considerable," wrote Frank S. Crosswhite in a 1979 article for the University of Arizona-produced journal Desert Plants.

Sara Plummer was born in Maine. Most accounts give 1840 as the year of her birth, however, the marker on her Northern California grave indicates she was born four years earlier. She attended college in Massachusetts before taking a job teaching art in New York. However, a bout of pneumonia during a New York winter prompted her to move to seek out a more temperate climate on the West Coast. Plummer, an accomplished artist and a published writer, was considered "one of the first 'intellectuals' to come to Santa Barbara," according to newspaper accounts.

Her vigor restored by the warm ocean breezes, Plummer took long walks on the beach, in the foothills and up mountain slopes where her interest in plants was cultivated.

Plummer started the first library in the seaside town. She charged readers 10 cents to check out books and sold art supplies and knickknacks to make money.

She met John Gill Lemmon in 1874 when the noted botanist came to town for a speaking engagement.

Lemmon, who preferred to go by his initials, J.G., was born in Michigan in 1832. After attending Michigan State, he became superintendent of county schools. However, his enlistment in the Fourth Michigan Cavalry in 1862 changed the course of his life. Lemmon never fully recovered from his capture by Confederate soldiers and his 15-month incarceration in a notorious Georgia prison. He emerged "an emaciated feeble survivor of Andersonville atrocities and after a year of liberal diet weighed finally a whole 90 pounds."

Lemmon convalesced at his brother's home in Sierraville, Calif. As he regained his strength and began roaming the desert, the war vet became interested in plants he had never before seen.

Six years after their first meeting, J.G. and Sara wed. It was at Sara's urging that the couple embarked on an extended honeymoon to Southern Arizona. They called it their "botanical wedding trip."

The intrepid Lemmons set out on their own, camping in a rustic "stick and mud cabin" at the base of the Catalinas before upgrading to a cave.

According to a 1905 article in the Tucson Citizen: "Mrs. Lemmon ... was not alarmed in the least at the prospect of danger. She rather invited it. She was fond of adventure and in the 25 years during which she and her husband have explored the slope mountains they have had their share of excitement."

The couple approached the Catalinas from the south, but even with their ample planning, the mountains proved impossible to conquer.

After three failed attempts to scale the mountains, the couple returned to Tucson - the southern ascent was not without its rewards: They had discovered dozens of new species that today carry the name lemmoni.

It was with their approach from the north side of the Catalinas that the Lemmons found success.

After a 40-mile coach ride to Oracle, they loaded their equipment onto a pack mule and headed into the foothills. Sara scaled the primitive trails on foot while an ailing J.G. rode the mule. At Pandora Ranch, they found owner E.O. Stratton willing to take them to the summit.

Stratton was a college-educated New Yorker turned frontiersman. He guided the Lemmons, on horseback, up the mountain, where they found lodging at a homestead in what today is Summerhaven.

"The Lemmons and I went to the highest peak in the Santa Catalinas and christened it Mount Lemmon in honor of Mrs. Lemmon, who was the first white woman up there," recounted Stratton in the book "Pioneering in Arizona: The Reminiscences of Emerson Oliver Stratton & Edith Stratton Kitt."

After the Lemmons' two-year expedition in Southern Arizona, which included forays into the Huachuca Mountains to catalog more new plant species, they returned to California to continue their work.

Despite research trips that spanned from Mexico to Alaska, it was Arizona that beckoned. For their 25th wedding anniversary, the Lemmons returned to Tucson to once again retrace their steps - accompanied by Stratton - up the 9,157-foot peak which had, by then, been officially designated Mount Lemmon.

Did you know?

In 1962 an Arizona Daily Star columnist unsuccessfully petitioned Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall to change the name of Mount Lemmon to more fully reflect the moniker of the woman for whom the peak is named. If the change had been adopted, thousands of visitors a year would motor up the Catalina Highway to Mount Sara Lemmon.

SOURCE: Tucson Citizen archives

About the story

Life Stories usually chronicle the lives of recently deceased Tucsonans. But at this time of year, when the veil between life and death is thin, and thoughts are near of loved ones long passed away, Life Stories steps back in time to remember Sara Lemmon, for whom the mountain was named. The information was compiled from Arizona Daily Star and Arizona Historical Society archives.

To suggest someone for Life Stories, contact reporter Kimberly Matas at or at 573-4191.