Story last updated at 8/15/2012 - 1:37 pm
Below is a short history of my notorious great grandmother Emma Ansen, who was one of Alaska's pioneers. She lived her life with determination, gusto, and an inherent self-possession, and she started me on what has become an exploration of my family history. She came to Alaska on her own with only a trunk and enough money to get her started.
I flew into Juneau from my home in Redwood City, CA on May 1, 2010, hoping to piece together some information about my great-grandmother. In the six days I spent in Juneau, I visited the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (where Emma's funeral was held), the State Library and Historical Collections (where Emma's obituary is located), the State Archives (where I found a civil suit against one of Emma's husbands), the State and City Museums, the Family History Center, the Bureau of Vital Statistics, the Bureau of Land Resources (no property or land deeds were encountered for her), St. Anne's Hospital (where Emma died, though no death record was encountered), and the Evergreen Cemetery (where I learned that no marker was present on Emma's grave, a situation which I remedied later that year).
I didn't make much progress on her time in Juneau when I was there two years ago, and I'm hoping that publication of her story will elicit some information from those who knew her or have heard about her. I'm looking for any information about Emma and her husband, Ole, but my greatest desire is to find a photograph of her. Emma and her daughter (my grandmother) were estranged, and no photos came down to me. I'm also hoping that her trunk is still somewhere in Juneau, perhaps in the house they owned (the address of which I couldn't find).
My trip to Alaska showed me that the people of Juneau are warm and welcoming, and I'm hoping that they can add to the limited information about her time there.
Born Emmazetta Eliza Doane on February 13, 1859 in Burlington, Maine, she was the daughter of John and Margaret Doane and had five sisters and two brothers.
In January of 1875, when Emma was 15, George Crosby asked her to marry him, and they declared their Intention to Marry. The marriage didn't take place (I don't know why), and within a week, George married someone else, also named Emma. Emma's family moved to Lowell, Mass., and in August of 1876 she married Varnum Tuttle Fletcher. Emma was 17 and Varnum was 34. Her first child was stillborn, but four years later, their son Leman was born. Judging from the events of her life, I don't think that she had intended to have children but was a competent and dutiful mother.
In July of 1881, Varnum moved the family to Paradise in Butte County, Calif., to try his luck in the gold fields.
Emma, Varnum Fletcher, and their infant son came from Massachusetts to California on the Transcontinental Railroad, only 11 years after was finished in 1869. The trip took eight days.
He had very little success, and after a year as a gold miner he decided to go back to Massachusetts. Emma had developed what became a life long love of mining camps, and she told Varnum that she and Leman were going to stay in California. He left both wife and son and headed east. Emma got a job as a cook in the mining camp in Paradise, Calif., (she was a very good cook). In 1885, her daughter Althea was born. Althea's father was a far better gold miner. In April of 1888, Emma sued Varnum for divorce on the grounds of desertion, and in April of 1889, she married Althea's father, John Jackson Meredith. She was 30; he was 55.
A year later, John, Emma, Leman, and Althea moved south to Fresno County, Calif., where the mining was not as successful, and they fell on hard times. The result was an acrimonious divorce with accusations of abuse and drunkenness on one side and verbal abuse and unfit mother on the other. During this time, Leman was adopted by a couple who were friends of the Meredith family. Due to the accusations, the Court had placed Althea in an orphanage. She was about 6 years old. The divorce case went on for two years and resulted in Emma being granted the divorce in 1893. She left Althea in the orphanage and moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., where she rented a house and set up housekeeping.
Having established herself, in 1896 she sued for and received custody of Althea, taking her out of the orphanage to live with her in Santa Cruz. In October of 1899, Emma married her third husband, William Wyman Brimmer. But she agreed to the marriage only after she demanded and got a pre-nuptial agreement that if their marriage ended, the house and land he owned would be divided equally between Althea and William's deaf-mute daughter, Leonora. Leonora was an intelligent and well-educated young lady who married, lived well and died in her 90's.
When Emma found out that William had lied about owning the property in order to get her to marry him, she was furious. I don't think that William's life was pleasant after that. In November of 1901, William Brimmer deserted his wife and his daughter and fled north. Emma supported herself and Althea by carrying freight and passengers around Santa Cruz County in the two wagons that she had brought with her from Fresno. She sued for divorce. During a deposition, William was asked why he lied about owning the property. His answer was "I don't know." In December of 1902, the divorce from William was final, and Emma received permission to use her former name of Meredith.
Emma stayed in Santa Cruz long enough to see her daughter accepted to the St. Luke's Hospital Nursing School in San Francisco. Then, some time between 1903 and 1905, Emma got on a ship and headed north to the gold fields of Nome, Alaska. Again, she supported herself by working as a cook, and also as a greengrocer, growing vegetables in her back yard on Front St. and selling them. In January of 1918, she married Ole Ansen in St. Michael. Based on a copy of a civil suit against Ole, I gather that he was a steamboat captain carrying passengers and supplies on the Yukon River. In the early 1920s, they moved to Juneau. Ole worked as the captain of a fishing boat.
In December of 1923, Ole and Emma arrived unannounced in Placerville, Calif., where her daughter, Althea, lived. When Althea was informed that her mother was at her husband's office, she refused to see her. Only after being told that to refuse was not socially acceptable did she agree. Ole and Emma stayed at a hotel and Emma and Althea had several very polite but strained conversations, mostly about family. After three days, Ole and Emma left and went back to Juneau. Althea never saw her mother again.
Emma died on January 19, 1935 at St. Anne's Hospital in Juneau of a cerebral hemorrhage and the complications of senility. She's buried in the Pioneer Section of Evergreen Cemetery.
All of the information in the story is either from family stories about her or the documented results of years of research.
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