This photo was probably taken in the 1860s--left to right: Louisa Eastman Klotzbach, Jacob Klotzbach,
Emma Eastman (probably Van Sickle). Louisa is wearing 1850s style clothing, whilc Emma is dressed in 1860s.
(PHOTO--GORDON FAY/MCGREGOR HISTORICAL SOCIETY)
Not many McGregor residents recognize the name "Emma Eastman," but a mention of "Virgin Em" will still raise eyebrows on Main Street almost a hundred years after her death. Older McGregorites know that a mysterious lady is buried up on the hill west of town, and along with her, those husbands who some say number ten, keep her company.
It is not clear when "Virgin Em" was attached to Emma. Perhaps it was her flamboyant nature and penchant for sticking up for herself that enticed the local coffee klatch crowd to start the name calling. And that cemetery. The story was that Emma forced her husbands to go out to the cemetery that is located on the old Eastman homestead and whitewash the grave markers whenever she was displeased with one of them, as a preview of coming events if they didn’t shape up. Some even said she faked the birth and death of a son, named Peter D. Cameron, in order to inherit the property of Peter Cameron, her fourth husband. She went so far as to make a grave marker with the phantom child’s name engraved on it—so the story went.
By the time of Emma’s death on February 7, 1905, the memory of her life and legend had so faded that the North Iowa Times did not even print an obituary. The Monona Leader of February 16 had this terse notice:
Mrs. Joseph Wilson "Virgin Em": Mrs. Joseph Wilson, an old
and eccentric character known as Virgin Em, died Monday Feb.
6th at her home in the country. Deceased has been helpless
for the past two years when she suffered a stroke of paralysis.
She is survived by her husband. The funeral was held this
Wednesday afternoon. McGregor News.
About this woman there might be quite an interesting bit of
history written. At one time she laid claim to a considerable
tract of territory within the borders of LaCrosse, but she was
unable to profit by the claim, though the lawyers dug
deep into the hidden recesses of a long string of transfers,
claimants, etc. In that time she was known as Emma Van Sickle.
Emma died at the home of her sister, Louisa Klotzbach, who cared for Emma during the last years of her life.
The La Crosse Tribune had a front page notice, but seriously confused the facts of Emma’s life, marriages and place in La Crosse and McGregor history.
Emma Eastman was born to Peter Eastman and Mary Coleman Eastman in Fitchville, Ohio on April 14, 1823. Later, George W. D. Eastman, Anna, Louisa, and Marilla would join as a brother and sisters.
The Eastmans and Colemans came from New England to Ohio in the 1820’s. Peter and Mary and family came to McGregor in 1838 and began homesteading land west of town. Emma’s grandfather, Absalom Coleman, died in Fitchville in 1835. His grave marker can still be seen outside of Fitchville. The marker is carved on a "river stone," and when the carvers ran out of room for his last name, they put the last two letters above the rest of the name. The Eastmans had been in America since 1638 when Roger Eastman came from England to Massachusetts.
marriage records of Huron County, Ohio show that Emma Eastman was
married to Ephraim Kellogg in 1837, one year before the family came to
McGregor. Emma was almost fourteen at the time. The Eastman family oral
history says that Ephraim was an old man and died soon after the
marriage, leaving Emma a fortune. Other sources say Kellogg was a young
man who was a stage coach driver and went on to run a tavern in La
Porte, Indiana. A few years after the Eastmans left town, Fitchville
Township Board records show a Eprhraim Kellogg and family were asked to
leave the township because they were poor and were a burden on the
township. Is it possible this Kellogg was Emma's first husband?
records of Grant County Wisconsin show Emma Kellogg marrying Moses Van
Sickle in 1839. In 1841 Moses filed for divorce from Emma on the basis
of her marriage in Prairie du Chien to William Cunningham that same
year. There is the the marriage record, and an early land patent shows
a William Cunningham owned land very close to the Eastman homestead. No
other record of Cunningham has been found.
The Van Sickles were early pioneers in Clayton County, and they had been neighbors of the Eastmans in Ohio before 1838. Emma would later marry a brother of Moses (DeWitt Clinton), her sister Anna would marry another (Martin), and her mother marry yet another Van Sickle brother (Jacob).
The next record of Emma’s activities is her marriage to Peter Cameron in La Crosse in 1846—the first marriage in that town. A sketch of La Crosse done by artist Seth Eastman in 1848 shows a small cabin on the shore of the river, and little else. It is not clear where Emma met Peter, but he was a fur trader and entrepreneur who had grown up in New York and traveled throughout the east trading with the Indians. He set up a trading post in La Crosse and eventually built a saw mill, shingle factory, and at his death in 1855, had a steamboat under construction and a canal that would connect La Crescent, Minnesota to the main channel of the Mississippi. Neither the canal nor the steamboat were finished.
There are a number of letters that still exist from Peter to his family and letters they wrote him. In one letter he tells that "I got myself a wife sometime since." He also states in a letter dated 1854 that Emma and he had a child who died as an infant and that his name was Peter Daniel Cameron. Peter says in the letter that Emma went to visit her mother in McGregor because she was distraught over the death of the child. It is likely that Emma took the child’s body with her on a steamboat and buried him in the family plot west of town. It seems the local wags in McGregor were wrong. There was a child after all.
The first burial in the Eastman Cemetery was Anna, Emma’s sister, who died on January first of 1854. Emma’s father died on January 12 and became the second burial. Peter Daniel Cameron would be the third of 1854. In all, the Eastman Cemetery would eventually contain over thirty burials of relatives, friends, and neighbors who preferred to be buried in the private site. Emma’s sister Louisa, who died in the home of her adopted daughter Carrie Stone Klotzbach Boyle in 1916, was one of the last to be buried there.
Emma was a prominent character of early La Crosse social life. It was said in local papers that she carried a rifle as she rode horseback through town, and she attended all the gatherings and celebrations of that early town on the mud flats of the Mississippi. One report had her saving the town from an attack by Indians due to her knowledge of the Indian language.
a dispute over ownership of some logs, Peter killed a man in 1849 and
was charged with murder. He was placed in the Territorial Prison in
Prairie du Chien. Peter’s letters explain he was told there was a Mr.
Dousman who would be friendly to him, but Peter says it turned out not
to be the case. At one point while Peter was in Prison, Emma came down
from La Crosse and kept house for Peter and the jailer. Some of Peter’s
employees kept the business operations going in La Crosse in the
meantime. In a letter to his father, Peter says that the jailer
eventually quit because he had a better job, and so Peter was hired and
paid fifty cents a day to watch over a lunatic who was also in the
jail. Eventually, Peter got out on bail and a final verdict came in
1853 when he got off with a charge of manslaughter and a $2500 fine.
Hercules L. Dousman, as jury foreman, signed the jury's statement of
verdict. In the end, it appears Dousman did help get the reduced
After Peter’s death in La Crosse in 1855, probably of cholera, Emma spent a number of years fighting in court with the Cameron family to gain control of Peter’s property. Newspapers reported that she eventually lost, although court records have yet to be found of exactly what happened.
Ralph C. Bowles was married to Emma in 1858 and according to some court records was helping her with some of the property disputes.
In 1859, Peter Cameron’s brother Daniel came to Emma’s house in La Crosse one evening and sought to get some deeds from her. Later, in a newspaper ad in defense of herself, Emma said it was a good thing she had her pistol under her pillow, because she thought Daniel would harm her. She took two shots at him—the first went through his coat, the second took off his little finger. The La Crosse Democrat reported the incident as an attempted murder. Apparently no charges were lodged against Emma. She insisted it was a case of self-defense. She said in her newspaper ad that ". . .I have no remorse of conscience in defending my own life in my own house, and in the dark in the absence of my husband.—Any one that has got a drop of true American blood will defend their own. My fore fathers fought in the Revolutionary War for their freedom and rights, and I hope their grand-daughter, Emma C. Bowles, has too noble a heart to let one Scotch Tory Rob her."
Late in 1859, Emma would petition the court in La Crosse for a divorce from Ralph. She entered into the court record a letter from Ralph mailed from Missouri in which he accuses her of infidelity, and states he should look her up and hang her, but on second thought, said it would ". . .nasty up a perfectly good rope." The letter released her from the marriage and she then married Nelson Sharp in Prairie du Chien in 1861. Other than the marriage record, no information has been found about Mr. Sharp.
In 1863 Emma married DeWitt Clinton Van Sickle and they lived on a farm outside of Elkader. The death of Nelson Sharp is noted on the marriage application. By this time Emma was 39 and this was husband number seven. Emma called DeWitt "Clinty," and when he died as a result of a runaway team of horses in McGregor in 1881, Emma had a grave marker made with this inscription:
Clinty, my heart clings to thee, love.
In heaven I hope to meet above.
You was ever kind and true to me
So was I to you. Emma C. V.
[This and other grave stones are missing from the Eastman Cemetery and are currently being sought to complete the restoration of the Cemetery under the direction of the Clayton County Pioneer Cemetery Commission.]
Emma’s second to last husband was Michael Stence, who was another Elkader farmer. He was 70 and she 58. They were married in Giard by Rev. Kaste on Christmas Day of 1881. No record of their life together has been found. The WPA Cemetery Recording Project lists Michael as being buried in the Eastman Cemetery.
As years passed, Emma would make journeys from Clayton County to La Crosse to visit friends. One newspaper story says that at age 72 she walked from McGregor to La Crosse, but was able to buy a ticket for the trip back due to the generosity of Angus Cameron and others in La Crosse. (Peter Cameron had a brother named Angus who died in 1856. Another Angus Cameron, not related to Peter, was an attorney hired by Emma during some of the land disputes in La Crosse.)
Emma’s last husband, Joseph A. Wilson, survived her, and although some written county history says he was seen driving away in an old wagon after her death, his name is listed by the WPA project as also being buried in the Eastman Cemetery.
So, Emma had nine husbands, and she would annoy some local people by saying she had tried to make it an even dozen. Three are buried in the Eastman site—DeWitt Clinton Van Sickle, Michael Stence, and Joseph Wilson.
Emma’s signature on documents at the courthouse in Elkader are the only writings that have been found in her hand. The 1880 History of the Van Sickle Family in the United States of America includes two poems and some short aphorisms attributed to Emma.
2015, Therese Samudio, a great great granddaughter of Emma contributed
the second known photo of Emma and her son James Cameron. James was
born in 1856 in Freeport Illinois. He is the only of Emma's children
who lived to adulthood. He lived with Emma and DeWitt Clinton Van
Sickle near Elkader, and after successful career in Minnesota and
southwest Iowa, returned to Elkader. James is buried in Elkader's
Emma was a colorful character in McGregor’s early history. Perhaps more of her letters, photographs and stories will be found in years to come.
Marriages/relationships--Go to the list of Emma's family relationships
Eastman Cemetery--Story and photo of Cemetery restoration/list of interments
Clayton County Genealogical Society Website
Mcgregor Historical Society/Rifles on Facebook (563) 873-2221 256 Main St, Mc Gregor, IA 52157
Additional photographs, letters, writings, diaries, etc. needed to complete biography of Emma Eastman. Please direct replies to:
Ronald G. Harris
2802 50th St. S.
Wisconsin Rapids WI 54494
Copyright © 2016 by Ronald G. Harris