“Hat’s Off to Emma” scheduled for the Old Aurora Colony Museum on Saturday May 13th, brings author Jane Kirkpatrick to Aurora to share in the ongoing celebration of the life of Emma Wagner Giesy, the featured character in the popular author’s trilogy of books concerning this feisty woman who fought for and gained a degree of independence for herself within the patriarchal structure of the German Christian Communal Society that existed as the Aurora Colony from 1856 to 1883. As part of our tribute to Emma we encourage our guests to don their finest hats! Below is a brief history of Emma Wagner Giesy by the Aurora Colony Historical Society’s Executive Director, Patrick Harris:
While fictional the novels are well researched with attention to historical timelines. What makes their fictional character more interesting is that Emma’s story lends itself to many other scenes that didn’t make the novels. Additionally, an ongoing museum exhibit features Emma’s own Wagner heritage, and what a heritage it is!
Emma Wagner, born 1833 at Phillipsberg, Pennsylvania, was the first child of David and Catherine Zundel Wagner. Both of her parents had grown up in the Christian Communal Harmony Society which was led by the visionary George Rapp who brought an emigration to America from Germany in 1804 and 1805. These “Harmonists”, following what they felt were the instructions for the ideal Christian life, shared goods and property. Shortly after their arrival in America the leader Rapp came to believe that the Second Coming of Jesus was immanent, and this became his justification for the adoption of celibacy within the community.
As many of the members, including the parents of David and Catherine, were already married with children, the timeline for the Second Arrival, posed potential problems. While the communal society was itself quite successful, the social structure eventually frayed, especially when the children grew up and desired marriage and children.
In 1832 David Wagner was one of the leaders of a major rebellion in which nearly 200 Harmonists broke away from Rapp’s leadership. David and Catherine married and Emma was born the next year. David, however, continued to believe that communal living was still the ideal for Christian living and he was one representative of nearly twenty former Harmonist families who decided to join William Keil when he formed his own communal society at Bethel, Missouri in 1845.
Unlike Rapp, Keil did not preach celibacy and he also was much more like a traditional protestant minister in his preaching. He did, however, believe in communal living and, as Ms Kirkpatrick would and did suggest in her trilogy, Keilenjoyed the patriarchal authority afforded to him.
One assumes that from a genetic perspective, being the first born child of willful and outspoken parents, Emma would inherit some of their characteristics. Indeed, she did.
In 1852 Emma decided to marry Christian Giesy. He was nearly forty and she was not yet twenty. He was perhaps the most evangelical of Keil’s followers, as he was personally responsible for bringing Keil’s message to hundreds of people as he traveled throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio.
While advocates for communal living, and experienced veterans of it as well, the Wagner’s had shown themselves to be quite willing to question authority.
Kirkpatrick’s novels suggest that Keil did not approve of this marriage. It appears also the case that Emma’s parents were not on board with her decision either. Nevertheless, Christian and Emma married in 1852 and the very next year Christian and Emma joined eight other colonists on a mission to find a western colony site in the new formed Oregon and/or Washington Territories. The selected site was at Willapa Bay in the Washington Territory (formed 1853). Emma gave birth to her son Andrew Jackson just one month after settling at Willapa. Obviously, she was pregnant on the Oregon Trail. The novels offer all sorts of interesting speculation about who knew what when with the fact remaining that Emma was simply determined that she would not be left behind in Missouri.
In 1855 an initial migration of a portion of the Bethel Colony took place. Most of the first emigrants were related to the scout families. Thus, many of the Giesy relatives came to Willapa. Emma’s parents and six siblings, however, were not among the first group.
Keil immediately rejected Willapa as too wet and too far from markets. He left the scouts and their families there and eventually found his own site at what became known as Aurora Mills.
In 1857 Christian Giesy drowned at Willapa. By then Emma had two children and a third was born six months after Christian’s death. Three years later, Emma ill-advisedly entered into a marriage with a family cousin named Jacob or “Big Jack” Giesy. After less than a year, and the birth of her fourth child, Emma fled Jack for the protection of Dr. Keil and Aurora.
Big Jack made limited attempts to contact Emma but Keil’s protection prevailed and by 1870 Jack was listing himself in the census as a widower. Meanwhile, Emma wrote a letter to her parents urging them to come to Aurora to help with her children and other affairs. This they did, arriving in late 1862, and purchasing a farm several miles outside of the village where Emma lived, with her family probably until 1873 when her father died.
Because of their experience with George Rapp, the Wagner family always keptsome of their personal money. A wealthy Uncle in France left each of the children a good sum and their personal possession of same was the price that Keil paid for their communal know-how.
In 1874 Emma’s brother Johnathan built her a house in the village. She lived there until the colony’s settlement in 1881 when she and her son Christian had another house built for her near the Pudding River. Much is made in the novels about how Emma had to fight tooth and nail for this house and that she wasn’t allowed to have her sons living in the house with her. Good fiction and partly true but in fact by 1874 Andrew Jackson was already 21 and learning to become a doctor.
The idea that Emma was forced to do anything always brings me back to the fact that she was a Wagner, and the Wagner’s pretty much ran their own affairs within the colony. Keil might not have liked it and maybe even barked about it but he truly needed them because despite their independent spirit, the Wagner’s firmly believed in the concept of communal living and thus often supported Dr. Keil and even liked him. “I will always take the Doc’s part,” Emma’s brother Johnathan wrote to another colonist.
Emma lived until 1916, some thirty five years after the end of the colony. A lot happened to her that did not make it into the novels. We call these vignettes “deleted scenes”. Andrew Jackson performs on the piano and his young colonist friends join in!
Emma’s sisters discuss the true history of the quilt she made for Christian. And they have much to say about their own talents with the needle. Two of the Giesy girls are quite pleased with life in a log cabin and they explain its virtues.
The secrets of the herb garden are introduced and Jane Kirkpatrick details what Emma wanted to have in her house, the very house that visitors will be able to enter or as one of our famous tour guides has said: “These are the very floors that Emma walked on.” Bring any of your Kirkpatrick books for a book signing from 10:30 to 11:15 in Emma’s house.
Take a tour with us through the “deleted scenes” from 11:30 a.m to 1 p.m. Join us for tea and goodies and a presentation by Jane Kirkpatrick from 1 to 2 p.m
And, concluding the afternoon, come with the Executive Director to visit Emma’s grave. She just might be there!This event is an important fundraiser for the Aurora Colony Historical Society. Tickets are $40.00 and limited to 100.
Call 503-678-5754 to order.
Source. Reg Keddie. 3.28.17