Mary Jane Branson

Mary Jane Branson, the third daughter and seventh child of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 25 July 1862 at Phillips Flat, a gold mining outpost along the Merced River, CA. She grew up mostly in Mariposa County, first at Phillips Flat (a place that now lies submerged beneath Lake McClure reservoir), then a year (1867-68) in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and from the age of seven onward at “Grasshopper Ranch,” her parents’ longterm estate a few miles north of Hornitos, CA. Mary Jane is not to be confused with her brother Reuben’s daughter Mamie, who formally was also named Mary Jane Branson.

Grasshopper Ranch adjoined the property of the Washington Mine, one of the most active hardrock mines of the latter part of the Mother Lode era and a major employer in Mariposa County. The site of the mine complex was considered part of Quartzburg, a hamlet founded at the beginning of the Gold Rush. Like Phillips Flat, Quartzburg does not exist anymore, but in Mary Jane’s youth, it was abuzz with activity, with Washington Mine being only one of the on-going excavations. Many men of the overall Branson clan -- whether their last names were Branson, Scott, Peard, Simmons, Guest, Williams, or another surname prevalent among the various cousins and in-laws -- spent an interval employed at Washington Mine. In particular, it and another nearby mine, Mt. Gaines -- both under the supervision of Moses Rodgers -- were counted on for employment by Alvin Thorpe Branson. Of all Mary Jane’s brothers, Alvin was the one closest to her in age, and the one with whom she shared the closest bond. As the late 1870s rolled around, one of Alvin’s new colleagues was Alonzo Diah Johnson.

Alonzo, eldest son of John F. Johnson and Betsey Abigail Richardson, had grown up in Orange County, VT in and near the small communities of Vershire, Ely, and Copper Flat, where his parents had farmed, and where the family home doubled as a boarding house for local miners. Born in late 1853 or the first part of 1854, Alonzo had come of age at a time when the Ely copper mine was the foundation of the local economy, and it was only natural Alonzo had chosen to pursue mining as an occupation. Unfortunately, as the 1870s had progressed, the Ely mine had become increasingly exhausted. So Alonzo had headed west, and by the end of the decade had ended up in Mariposa County.

Mary Jane met Alonzo at age sixteen or seventeen, which meant she was nearing the typical age when Mariposa County girls of that era became brides. She seems not to have wanted to be left out, particularly when all of her older siblings except Alvin were already married, and Alvin was courting Mary Eliza Simmons, a friend of hers. Mary Jane and Alonzo became wife and husband 27 March 1880. The marriage certificate was completed at Washington Mine, with Alvin as one of the signatory witnesses, and Justice of the Peace Samuel W. Carr making it all official -- Carr having served in such a capacity at a number of Branson-clan weddings. The ceremony itself was held at Grasshopper Ranch.

Mary Jane’s choice of spouse ultimately proved to be unique among her sisters. She was the only one whose first husband was a miner. Given the environment in which the Branson girls had been raised, one would think more of them would have done as Mary Jane did. All of her brothers married daughters of miners, yet all four of her sisters married men of other professions -- a subsequent exception being when Nancy remarried after the death of her first husband.

Old mining claims on file in Mariposa County show that Alonzo partnered up with Alvin Branson and with Samuel Tippett to try to exploit independent diggings. These three men were good buddies and were closely associated with one another throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s. Samuel served as best man at Mary Jane and Alonzo’s wedding, and did so again a few months later at Alvin and Mary’s wedding. Unfortunately, the three pals’ prospecting efforts generated little or no income, and the men depended on their wage-earning jobs at Washington Mine, Mt. Gaines Mine, or similar operations.

Mary Jane and Alonzo became parents of three children, Clarence in 1883, George in 1885, and Bretelle in 1887. The latter was named for Alonzo’s sister, Bretelle C. Johnson. At some point during this series of births, possibly even as early as when Mary Jane was pregnant with Clarence, the Johnson home shifted from Mariposa County to the town of Merced out in the Great Central Valley. Merced lay only fifteen miles southwest of Hornitos, but it was quite a cultural shift, from a place dominated by mining and cattle ranching to a place where commerce and crop-farming played a much larger role. The appeal for Mary Jane was of a more personal nature -- Merced was where her sisters Phoebe and Nancy had settled, and where another sister, Theresa, would come at about the same time as Mary Jane. There were also increased job prospects for Alonzo, though there is no indication he ever took advantage. He seems to have continued to be a miner and nothing but a miner his whole working life. If so, then he was often not at home in the mid-1880s, because Merced did not possess any mines. If he were indeed off at job sites without his family, then Mary Jane’s choice to be near her sisters is all the more understandable. On at least one occasion, she also had the companionship of Alonzo’s mother Betsey. A letter survives from the year 1886 that makes it apparent Betsey was in the midst of an extended visit to Merced, having come all the way across the continent to spend some time with her son’s family. At that point, George was less than a year old and Clarence was three.

And now we come to a core mystery in Mary Jane’s life story: Alonzo vanished. Precisely when this occurred is not quite clear, except that obviously he was still around at the end of 1886 in order to sire Bretelle. (Bretelle was born in September, 1887.) At some point in the next few years, and possibly as soon as the beginning of 1887, he left. As the years went on Mary Jane told her descendants that Alonzo died in a mine. This may have literally been true, but Alonzo did not die until the latter half of 1898, so it is not the whole story. Some insight is provided by a pair of statements made by Mary Jane’s niece Grace Mildred Branson Warner in the early 1970s, when Grace was asked about Branson-clan family history. Grace said her aunt Mary Jane’s husband had abandoned her. This would seem to be true. Mary Jane also claimed Alonzo went to New Mexico. This may also have been true, but not the whole story. The best picture that can be assembled at the current time is that Mary Jane and Alonzo may have been indifferent to one another from an early point in the marriage, leading to him spending most of his time off away from the family -- at first by staying in mining outposts in Mariposa County, then perhaps later in New Mexico, and then finally in Canada. At some point he stopped coming home. The lack of any children after Bretelle implies marital relations ceased altogether in 1887 or 1888.

(Shown at right with her sister Theresa.) Why Alonzo would leave is conjecture. Was it in his nature to live a bachelor lifestyle, even if this meant being a deadbeat dad? Was there something about Mary Jane’s nature that proved to be an impediment to marital harmony? Mary Jane lived a life that if pursued by a modern-day woman would cause people to wonder if she might be a lesbian. This, however, is not something people of her generaton openly discussed, and no such speculation has survived in any family documents made in her lifetime. Supposing hypothetically that she was homosexual, even Mary Jane herself might not have acknowledged her orientation to herself and might never have expressed it actively with a partner, not even as an experiment or impulse. Such an orientation would, however, handily explain why she didn’t seem to care for men. She did not share a bed much with Alonzo, she is said to have refused offers of marriage, and when she did finally marry again, the result seems to have been an almost instant annulment.

Alonzo eventually died in British Columbia 3 September 1898. Presumably he was a miner there, and died at a mining site, but so far this is an open question. It took over four months for the news to reach Mary Jane and the kids, a demonstration of how estranged the couple had become. Mary Jane no doubt learned of her husband’s fate via her sister-in-law Bretelle C. Johnson Eastman of Vermont. The two women had remained in touch after Alonzo disappeared. Among Mary Jane’s surviving personal papers is a letter written in 1896 by Bretelle to Mary Jane to inform Mary Jane of the death of Betsey Richardson Johnson. The tone of the letter is warm and sisterly.

Mary Jane became a single mother. Merced remained the haven of the family well past the turn of the century. Through those years Mary Jane continued to have the comfort of the nearby presence of her sisters and their families. (Phoebe died in 1887, but her husband and four children lingered.) To support herself and her kids, Mary Jane took a full-time job as a clerk in a Merced drygoods store. She also combined forces with her sister Nancy to run a boarding house. This did not mean she gave up the clerk job. While Nancy remained on-site at the boarding house round the clock as cook and housekeeper, Mary Jane worked at the store on weekdays and did the boarding house laundry during the evenings. This may have been a scheme the sisters developed during the 1880s, or it could be it did not come about until 1890. In January of that year, Nancy’s husband Peter Harrington died in his mid-thirties of some sort of, as his obituary puts it, “throat disease,” and Nancy was left spouseless with six children to care for.

Once the boarding house sprang into being, Mary Jane lived there, and kept her younger two children, George and Bretelle, with her. Eldest son Clarence was taken in as a ward by Theresa and her husband William Osborne Moore, who were otherwise childless. Theresa and Will lived three doors down on the same street, so Clarence was never far away from his mother and siblings. The big building full of people remained Mary Jane’s milieu until the early years of the 20th Century. Eventually, though, Nancy’s brood came of age and headed off to begin their independent lives, most of them doing so northward in Manteca and Stockton in San Joaquin County. Nancy went with them, settling in Manteca for the final four decades of her life. With the closing of the boarding house, Mary Jane hired herself out at nearby ranches as a cook and laundress.

Clarence and George left Merced in 1904, 1905, or early 1906, beginning to forge their independent lives in Oakland, Alameda County, CA. Bretelle joined one or both of them as soon as she graduated from Merced High School -- doing so in June, 1906 at nearly nineteen years of age because she had not been able to attend at the usual age. Mary Jane was finally “her own woman” again -- whereupon she did something she had not for the whole time she was raising her young ones. She got married again.

This second marriage is the other big mystery of Mary Jane’s life. It was not mentioned in any source available at the time this biography first went on-line in 2005. Its existence came to light in early 2010 when the marriage certificate turned up among forgotten papers in the possession of Bretelle’s daughter Esta Jane, who due to her extreme age and mental condition could not contribute any details she may have known about the revelatory piece of paper. A quick check of a county marriage book confirms the marriage did happen. On the 27th of May, 1906, Mary Jane wed Benjamin S. Wilson. The deed was accomplished at the county clerk’s office in Sacramento. The witnesses were the clerk and his wife (Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Watson Branch), an indication that it was a no-frills ceremony out of the view of any family members of either the bride or the groom.

Who was Ben Wilson? The answer to that question is vague. He was an orphan and moved around a great deal over the course of his life and various particulars about him, such as his death date and place, have yet to surface. He was Benjamin Steele Wilson, born 24 May 1857 in Woodford County, IL, a son of William Wilson and Matilda Henry Hearne. A Hearne genealogy states that he was a lawyer in Stockton, San Joaquin, CA. He turns up in early 1890s voter registers as a lawyer in Porterville, Tulare County, CA, and in the 1900 and 1902 voter registers in the town of Merced in the same voting district Mary Jane lived in. It must have been during this turn-of-the-century interval that he and Mary Jane became acquainted. As a lawyer, Ben would surely have had occasion to cross paths with Will Moore, who was a sheriff and city clerk, and that would have brought him into Mary Jane’s sphere of family and friends. By 1906 he was a resident of Tonopah, Nye County, NV, as listed on the marriage certificate itself. Anything more about Ben Wilson may be hard to ever determine. He was gone from Mary Jane’s life so fast she did not even become known by the moniker “Mrs. Wilson.” Less than five months after the clandestine event in Sacramento, Mary Jane attended the San Francisco wedding of her daughter Bretelle to Gifford Mecklenberg Fowle. She signed the guestbook as Mrs. Mary Johnson. While this might have been a slip-up due to the recent nature of her new status, she also appears with the surname Johnson in every record made thereafter, including being so named in her mother’s January, 1908 obituary, on her mother’s death certificate (for which she served as informant), and in the 1910 census. Either she and Ben Wilson realized the union was a mistake and obtained an annulment right away, or he died within weeks or at most a few months of the wedding, after which Mary Jane decided he had been part of her life for so inconsequential a time she carried on as if she had never married him at all.

It is not entirely clear what Mary Jane did during the period between mid-1906 and the end of 1907, except that she is known to have attended Bretelle and Gifford’s wedding partway through that interval. She may have lingered in Merced, with or without Ben Wilson. She may have stayed with Bretelle and Gifford, or with her son Clarence and his new bride Lillian -- it would have been only natural for her to have helped the latter couple with their baby, Ruth Martha Johnson, born in April, 1907. By late 1907, it becomes possible to track her with greater certainty. Gifford Fowle was sent by his employer, Southern Pacific, to Redlands, San Bernardino County, CA. He and Bretelle moved. Their son Gifford Benjamin Fowle was born in Redlands in November, 1907. Mary Jane was part of their household there -- or at least found lodgings not far from them. She is described as a resident of Redlands in the aforementioned obituary of Martha Jane Owsley Branson, published in January, 1908.

No doubt Mary Jane was helpful as a grandma-nanny. The arrangement was fairly brief, though. The 1910 census shows Bretelle, Gifford M., and Gifford B. Fowle living in Oakland. Mary Jane, once more a clerk in a drygoods store, had chosen to remain in Redlands, renting a home with a female roommate.

Mary Jane apparently fell in love with southern California, and chose to reside there throughout her last four decades of life. Only the first years were spent in Redlands. After that, she lived in Los Angeles. The only exception was an interval in late 1919 and early 1920 when she lived with Bretelle again when the Fowle family was in Santa Barbara County. She appears as Mary J. Johnson, “mother-in-law” of householder Gifford in the 1920 census for the town of Santa Maria, working again as a clerk in a drygoods store. That census is somewhat deceptive about Gifford, however. He had completed night courses that allowed him to get a better position with Southern Pacific Railroad, and had gone to Oakland to take that job. Mary Jane’s presence was no doubt a result of Bretelle’s need to have someone to help look after her children, now three in number. The situation was temporary -- so temporary that when surviving child Esta Jane Fowle was asked about the matter in 2006, she had no memory of her grandmother having lived with the family. Early in 1920 Bretelle and the kids moved north to rejoin Gifford, and Mary Jane went back to L.A. Family gossip hints that Bretelle may have briefly contemplated continuing to live separately, and that Mary Jane’s advice to her daughter about the difficulty of raising children on one’s own may have been timely.

What Mary Jane did for the final twenty-five years or so of her life is not well delineated, except that she remained remarkably independent for a female of her generation, living well apart from her offspring -- Clarence being based in Manteca (and then deceased as of 1932), George in Alameda, and Bretelle in Oakland/Berkeley. The 1930 L.A. census shows her, at age sixty-seven, working as a live-in housekeeper. Surviving pictures give glimpses -- she appears in several photos from the 50th wedding anniversary of Alvin and Mary Branson, an event held in at Oak Park in Stockton in July 1930. (Mary Jane had been the bridesmaid at the wedding in 1880.) She appears in a family group shot taken in the summer of 1936 at the Woodland, CA home of one of her sister Nancy’s grandsons. A late 1944/early 1945 snapshot shows her in her early eighties holding the infant daughter of her grandson George Bertrand Johnson, Jr. -- George, Jr. was the only one of Mary Jane’s children or grandchildren based in the Los Angeles area during that period. Newspaper accounts confirm Mary Jane made a habit of journeying up from L.A. in the 1930s and 1940s to participate in Native Daughters lodge activities and “children of pioneers” celebrations in Manteca or Stockton that her sisters and/or nieces were involved with. Her sister Theresa’s 1941 obituary mentions that she came to Theresa’s home in Lathrop (near Manteca) and cared for her dying sibling over the final two weeks of the latter’s decline.

From the vantage of the 21st Century and lacking any words she wrote, the greater part of what went on in Mary Jane’s mind and soul is occluded now. A bit of insight comes from a clipping she carried on her person for many years, a stanza written by G.K. Chesterton:

  • The pale leaf falls in pallor
  • But the green leaf turns to gold;
  • We who have found it good to be young
  • Shall find it good to be old
  • Mary Jane died 14 February 1949 in Los Angeles. Her grave lies at Park View Cemetery in Manteca among the resting places of her son Clarence and her sisters Nancy and Theresa.

    Mary Jane Branson Johnson circa 1895 with her children (left to right) George, Bretelle, and Clarence.

    Children of Mary Jane Branson with Alonzo Diah Johnson

    John Clarence Diah Johnson (Clarence Johnson)

    George Bertrand Johnson

    Alice Bretelle Johnson (Bretelle Johnson)

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