Sarah McAuley, the daughter of William McAuley, a farmer, and his wife, Elizabeth Atkin, was born in Londonderry, Ireland, probably in 1817 or 1818. She sailed to Canada with her family at the age of seven and grew up in a log cabin in the New Brunswick forests, near the port of St John. One of seven surviving children, she was educated at home. She upset her staunch Presbyterian parents when, probably on 9 September 1837, she married Captain Daniel Dougherty, a Catholic from New Orleans, and sailed with him to the South Pacific aboard the whaling ship James Stewart. They lived for a short time in Sydney, Australia, from where, on 26 March 1838, Daniel Dougherty commenced a whaling voyage, leaving the pregnant Sarah in the care of a friend. This friend took her in his ship to Kororareka (Russell), in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.
After the birth of her first child at Kororareka in 1838, Sarah Dougherty found her own way back to Canada, where she was joined by her husband in June 1839. In August he left on another whaling voyage, returning in May 1841. Sarah had the second of her seven children in Canada in 1840 and sailed with her husband and children as passengers aboard the sailing ship Drusilla for London, England, on 15 September 1841. On 2 January 1842 they sailed on the London for Wellington, New Zealand, where they arrived in May. They then moved to Cutters Bay, Port Underwood, Marlborough, where Daniel Dougherty had established a whaling station. As the only European woman on the whaling station Sarah Dougherty lived an isolated life, often having to maintain the little settlement during her husband's absences at sea. She regularly had to tend to the injuries suffered by the men and provide hospitality to visiting captains of foreign whaling ships.
Visitors to the Doughertys' home in Cutters Bay were always given a generous welcome. Prominent callers included the Reverend Samuel Ironside, Frederick Weld, Thomas Arnold, Te Rauparaha and his nephew Te Rangihaeata. It was in Sarah's home that Colonel William Wakefield learned of the death of his brother, Captain Arthur Wakefield, in the Wairau affray in June 1843; Sarah tended many of the wounded from that incident. During that tumultuous year she bore twins, one of whom died soon after birth, the other being drowned a year later.
In January 1849, after a brief period living on the Wairau River, Sarah moved to Wellington, where Daniel had been appointed pilot. The journey, in a rowing-boat, was long and arduous and resulted in a miscarriage. The Doughertys settled at remote Tarakena Bay, between Lyall Bay and the entrance to Wellington Harbour.
Life as the wife of a pilot was less isolated but still demanding. On many occasions Sarah would wait days, sometimes even weeks, for Daniel, when violent wind changes had blown the ships he was piloting far out to sea. She was also expected to offer hospitality to travellers on their way by ferry to Wairarapa. One such was Charles Rooking Carter, founder of Carterton. The Doughertys' house was devastated by the 1855 earthquake.
After the death of Daniel Dougherty on 4 December 1857, Sarah Dougherty established a boarding house in Ghuznee Street, Wellington. It hosted a wide variety of 'desirable' guests, including many remittance men. She was well known among her guests and outside her home as a campaigner against alcohol, having been deeply shocked at its effects on the whalers at Cutters Bay. In 1869 she moved across town to Thorndon, continuing to take in boarders, and remained there until her death on 7 November 1898. A daughter, Ellen, was one of the first state-registered nurses in the world and first matron of Palmerston North's original hospital.
Sarah Dougherty was typical of many women of her time. That this small, auburn-haired woman had great physical and mental strength is borne out by her survival to a great age. Self-taught, a 'well-informed woman' according to Thomas Arnold, extraordinarily independent, she endured hardship, risk and isolation, living for years without ever seeing her European neighbours, John and Betty Guard and their family, who lived a mere mile or so across Port Underwood. Apart from a few treasured garments bought as a young mother in New Orleans, she made all the dresses and clothes her family wore. She was known for her gardens wherever she lived. Among her flowers the lemon-scented geraniums, special lavender and strawberry cuttings, brought with care from Canada, were an oasis of fantasy in a rugged life.