Friday, March 19, 2010

Fearless Females: Surprising Facts: Mary Etta Kennedy Brown -- Bodie, California and Unga Island Alaska

"--talk about stiff upper lip--a woman needs several--" MARY ETTA KENNEDY BROWN, Unga Island Alaska, 1894 letter to her sister, ADDIE.

There are several surprising facts that I have discovered about my maternal great grandmother, MARY ETTA KENNEDY BROWN. The fact that she was a very good writer is just the beginning

This is one of my favorite family photographs. Left to right, GENEVIEVE BROWN b 1894 Unga Island, AK ;   great grandmother MARY ETTA KENNEDY BROWN;   my maternal grandmother RUBY BOLTON BROWN b July 17, 1893 Alameda, CA;   and GLADYS ADELINE BROWN b Aug 1890 Onalaska, AK. Photo taken about 1899 in either Bodie CA or San Francisco CA.

MARY ETTA KENNEDY was born March 2, 1858 in Portland, Cumberland Co Maine, the youngest daughter of THOMAS KENNEDY born bf 1830 Windsor, Hants Co, Nova Scotia, Canada  and SARAH JANE BOLTON born bf 1835 Cumberland  Co Maine. SARAH JANE  died either at the time of MARY ETTA's birth, or shortly thereafter.

THOMAS KENNEDY re- married on July 22, 1861,  Portland, ME,  to Elizabeth "Lizzie" Corbett, also born Nova Scotia.  But according to census records, they apparently did not have any children other than THOMAS' three girls  by his first marriage: SARAH ADELINE KENNEDY b 1852 ; HELEN FRANCES KENNEDY b March 7, 1856 and MARY ETTA KENNEDY.

The family was still living in Portland, Cumberland Co Maine in 1870, according to census records. But by 1878, THOMAS KENNEDY was a merchant in the wild, raucous, gold-mining town of Bodie, Mono Co CA, according to tax records there.  I am not certain exactly how or why the Kennedy family ended up in Bodie. But they lived there from about 1878 until about 1896. In the 1880 census, THOMAS KENNEDY and his wife ELIZABETH were ranching on a piece of land just south of the town of Bodie.

MARY ETTA KENNEDY married FRANK RICARD BROWN on July 2, 1878 in Aurora, Esmerelda Co, Nevada. It is likely that Aurora, which is about 15 miles east of Bodie, had the only Justice of the Peace in the area. Both are ghost towns, now, and Bodie is a California State Historical park.  My mother and I visited Bodie in 2001, my gift to her for her 80th birthday.

FRANK R. BROWN was employed as an assayer, and he had offices at both Bodie and nearby Lundy.

Bodie was an amazingly inhospitable place to live. It's hard to believe that anyone would even attempt to raise a family there. Besides its renowned lawlessness, the climate was utterly brutal. At over 8000 ft altitude, it is above the treeline. Not much grows there except scrub sage. Summers were relentlessly hot, and winters brought deep snow and bitter temperatures.  But Bodie had two things that made it very attractive: lots of gold, and a good water source.

FRANK and MARY ETTA (KENNEDY) BROWN lost at least two children while they were living at Bodie: a boy Frank Kennedy Brown died at birth in 1883, and a girl Helen Frances Brown b Aug 20, 1884 died at age one. Pneumonia was common in both adults & children, and many died from it.  Their only surviving child in 1887 was daughter EMMA BROWN who was born in 1879.

1887 was an important year for the Brown family. FRANK R. BROWN was offered a position with the Alaska Commercial Company to build and manage the Apollo Gold & Silver Mine on Unga Island, Alaska.  FRANK sailed from San Francisco in spring of 1887, according to his diary, leaving his wife MARY ETTA and daughter EMMA in California.   I believe they were staying with FRANK's father, H N H BROWN, a widower, who had just retired to Sacramento from the gold mining town of Lundy, where he had been employed as a Wells Fargo agent.

MARY ETTA and FRANK R. BROWN were apart for over a year and a half. It must have seemed to her that Frank had sailed off to the ends of the earth. That wasn't far from the truth!  FRANK's letters & diary of his experiences indicate that he was literally building everything from scratch: the mine, the manager's house, even the tools they used in the process. It was a grueling, desperately lonely time for both of them.

On Sept 4, 1888, MARY ETTA and her daughter EMMA arrived by schooner  at their new home, Unga Island Alaska--another treeless, desolate and extremely remote place. I can't even imagine the courage it took for MARY ETTA to leave all that she had ever known to make a life in such a place. At first, they moved into a small house near the beach, as the large frame house that FRANK was building, which was owned by the AC Company, was as yet unfinished. The large house would be the Brown family home for over a decade. See photo below.

My grandmother RUBY told me that MARY ETTA was very, very lonely when she first moved to Unga Island-- especially for female companionship.   Eventually she would befriend some of the native Aleut women, but this was not until quite a bit later. She was very close to her sister ADDIE, but Addie & her husband BILLY HAWTHORNE still lived in Bodie, CA. It is hard to fathom the kind of isolation MARY ETTA & her daughters endured, so far from family & friends.

MARY ETTA and FRANK R. BROWN lived at Unga Island from 1888 until 1904. During that time they had three daughters, but only the youngest GENEVIEVE was actually born on Unga Island (previous to 1894, there were no doctors on the island). And my grandmother wrote that MARY ETTA and her children sailed back and forth several times between Unga Island and California to visit her sister ADDIE.  On the 1893 trip my grandmother RUBY was born, in Alameda, California.

In 1897, the isolation of Unga Island took its toll, and daughter EMMA BROWN age 16, took her own life. No one knows the exact circumstances of her death.

After the Apollo Mine shut down in 1904, the Brown family returned to the "Lower 48",  and settled in  San Francisco. FRANK R BROWN went back up to Nome that same year to prospect for gold, but at that time was already suffering from tuberculosis, and was told by a friend, Dr Call, that he must return to California for his health.

The Browns were living in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 Earthquake. MARY's sister ADDIE KENNEDY and her husband BILLY HAWTHORNE and their daughters also lived at the same address. No one in the family was injured, and apparently their house or apartment was not badly damaged. My great aunt GLADYS BROWN DRYDEN told me of how the Brown girls & their cousins wandered through the streets in the days following the quake. She said they were teenagers at the time, and did not appreciate the seriousness of the situation, or the suffering the quake caused  for so many of San Francisco's residents.

On April 19, 1907,  MARY ETTA KENNEDY BROWN died  in San Francisco, CA.  She was 46 years old. MARY's sister ADDIE and brother-in-law BILLY HAWTHORNE and their daughters continued to live with FRANK R. BROWN and his three daughters, as per the 1910 census.

FRANK R. BROWN continued to go up to Unga Island every summer, and returned "down below" in the winters. He was such a fixture in the community that he became known as "Unga" Brown.  In 1914 he and several others formed the Delaroff Development Company and  sought to work the tailings of the original mine. I am not sure what became of this venture.

FRANK R. BROWN died of tuberculosis June 19, 1939 at the home of his daughter RUBY B. MARTINE, my grandmother, in San Francisco, CA

In 1963, my grandmother RUBY B. MARTINE wrote an excellent article about the Apollo Mine and her childhood on Unga Island for the  Alaskan Sportsman Magazine (now known as Alaska Magazine). It was published, but unfortunately Ruby passed away suddenly, and never saw the article in print.

I inherited the handwritten 1887-1888 diary of FRANK R BROWN after the death of my mother's first cousin Winifred Stetson. I made a full transcription of the diary.  The original volume is currently on loan to the Alaska State Library in Juneau, AK, in the "Winifred Stetson Collection".

All photos in this blog are from my personal collection.

Other related links:

Dan Heller's photos of Bodie, California

1894 letter MARY ETTA KENNEDY BROWN to her sister ADDIE transcribed by me

My webpage on my Bodie & Lundy Ancestors from Betty's Boneyard Genealogy

Have a great day!



Larry said...

My Name is Larry Cox- I have a claim tag stake from a claim that Marry etta made in the upper mountain of the Cerro gordo range south of Bodie.

Anonymous said...

Great information on Unga Island! I have incorporated some old photos and history of the Apolla Mine in my presentation "Alaska Gold Mines",a power point prsentation of mines I worked at from 1982-1994 as a Geologist. Each mine has an exciting history from its conception to conpletion.

warrenr said...

I would be very interested in the "Alaska Gold Mines" Presentation. If you would care to share it.