Emma Lee French

Emma Batchelor was born in Uckfield, Sussex County, England in 1836.  At age 21 she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, immigrated to America and walked 1,400 miles across the plains to Salt Lake City in a handcart company. It was a long and difficult journey.  In 1858 she married John D. Lee and became one of his many plural wives.  John was excommunicated because of his involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. A few days before Christmas 1871 he, Emma and their five small children moved to an isolated area on the north side of the Colorado River and established Lee’s Ferry at Lonely Dell near the Utah-Arizona border.

 

Her husband was often gone and most of the burden of settling this area and running the ferry fell on Emma’s shoulders. She built a home, planted an orchard and garden, ran the ferry and maintained a warm, friendly place for immigrants seeking to cross the often treacherous Colorado River into Arizona. She hosted explorer John Wesley Powell and crew, traded with the Navajo and served countless other travelers.

 

In 1877 John was captured, tried and executed for his role in the Massacre. Emma maintained the ferry services for an additional two years. She held the title to the ferry and after complicated negotiations sold it to the church. She married widowed miner Frank French in 1879, and moved to northeastern Arizona where she set up a small, popular restaurant at a railroad stop called Hardy’s Station. She became known as Grandma Doctor French for her skillful medical services such as midwifery, treating the injuries of railroad workers and others and helping settlers recover from various illnesses.  On November 16, 1897 Emma Lee French died of a fatal heart attack. On the day of her funeral passing trains silenced their whistles in her honor.

 

Today, Lee’s Ferry and Lonely Dell are part of the National Park Service Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Volunteers maintain the Lonely Dell buildings and orchards as a tribute to Emma for providing essential support in the settlement of Arizona.

Copyright © 2019 by the Arizona Women's Hall of Fame.

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