Nancy Anna Branson


Nancy Anna Branson, fifth child and second daughter of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 6 November 1856 at Barrett City, a large gold-mining outpost along the Merced River in Mariposa County, CA. (Barrett City no longer exists, having been covered by Lake McClure reservoir when the Exchequer Dam was built in the early 20th Century.) She was often known as Nan. Her middle name was similar to her older sister’s middle name, Ann, but this did not stop John and Martha from resorting to it, because they obviously were thinking to honor John’s mother Anna McGowan Branson. (It was rendered as Anne on this website until 2013. The error was made in the original notes gathered in the 1940s by the clan’s first genealogist, Maude Branson Chamberlin, whose material influenced her brother Ivan Thorpe Branson, who repeated the error in his book Bones of the Bransons. Because Ivan’s book and surviving papers were used as a prime source in the creation of this website, the mistake was perpetuated here. In early 2013, a close check of direct-source documents confirmed the middle name was actually Anna. The same mistake was made with the middle name of her daughter Irene Harrington.)

Nancy was born during a period when the family was still searching for a permanent base of operations. In the preceding several years her parents -- collectively or individually -- had lived in Missouri in Osage County and Gasconade County and in California in the Trinity Mountains, the Santa Clara Valley, the Livermore Valley, and locally downstream from Barrett City in the mining camps of Harte and Johnson’s Flat. It was only with a further move, this time to Phillips Flat on the eastern side of the river, that stability came. At Phillips Flat, the bench gravels were productive, and John was well situated to haul commercial loads of supplies up and down the Hornitos/Temperance Road. The family remained for about nine years, during which time Martha Jane gave birth to two more boys and two more girls.

Nancy was approaching eleven years old when her parents, having hoarded the income from the Phillips Flat years, decided that they had had enough of the rigors of the mining life. They relocated in 1867 to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where John became a farmer and rancher once again. This was an occupation he would keep for the rest of his life, but doing so in Oregon proved to be temporary. Martha found the climate too wet and the skies too grey for her taste, so back the family came in 1868 to Mariposa County. John bought a ranch east of Phillips Flat, within the low, smooth, grassy foothills. The parcel was a few miles from Hornitos, near the mining outpost of Quartzburg. There he raised cattle and feed, as well as continuing to haul loads, prospecting only occasionally as a sideline. The couple resided on the property, called Grasshopper Ranch, for the rest of their lives, completing the raising of their brood of ten offspring -- the last two children, John Jr. and Mattie, having been born there.

As the 1870s progressed, Nancy’s older brothers established their independent lives. Generally speaking, they chose to do so in Mariposa County. Nancy followed the example of her older sister Phoebe, who had married wheelwright William McDonald in 1874 and settled with him in Merced, Merced County, CA. Geographically Merced was not far from Hornitos and Quartzburg, but the cultural landscape was quite different. The character of Merced was dominated by the agricultural interests of the Central Valley and the commerce flowing along the Southern Pacific railway line, not by the mining and cattle ranching of the foothills. Phoebe and Nancy’s migration set a precedent that their next two sisters, Mary Jane and Theresa, would emulate as they came of age. In addition, her brother Thomas was co-proprietor of a tinsmith shop not far from William McDonald’s establishment. Thomas and his wife Frances and their kids treated Hornitos as their main home, but were often in Merced until 1887, when Thomas sold out to his partner.

Nancy’s wedding date is not precisely known. Her obituary states she was married at twenty-one, which if taken literally would mean she was married in late 1877 or during the first ten months of 1878. Her husband’s obituary places the event in 1876. The average is early 1877, which is a good fit all around. Nancy’s bridegroom was Peter J. Harrington, born 4 November 1852 in Cork County, Ireland. Peter appears to have been raised mainly in the United States, probably in the East, and came to Solano County, CA in the early 1870s, then on to Merced after it was founded. By the early years of the marriage, if not before, he was a saloonkeeper. (The 1880 census and the 1880-81 Merced city business directory refer to him by the more more genteel label of liquor dealer, but voter registers confirm he ran a saloon.) His enterprise, located on Front Street, was Harrington & McErlane, a partnership between Peter and another Irishman, Hugh McErlane. Hugh was a man long associated with the Branson family from their mining camp days. He was particularly well regarded by Thomas Branson. When Thomas and Frances had their second son in 1875, the couple chose to name the baby Hugh McErlane Branson.

Children blessed the union at once and kept arriving at a rate of approximately one every other year, for a total of seven. The six who lived full lives were, in order of birth, John, Josephine, Elsie, Eunice, Irene, and Nina. Nancy and Peter lost one baby, Michael, who survived only three days in the autumn of 1881. Michael was the third-born child, arriving after Josephine and before Elsie.

A memoir written in 1988 by Nancy’s grand niece Esta Jane Fowle Service states that Nancy owned and operated a boarding house in Merced with her sister Mary Jane Branson Johnson. It is not known just when this venture began. It may have originated as a sole proprietorship in the early or mid-1880s as Nancy’s response to the financial burden of having so many children. It may have been launched about 1887, the year Mary Jane’s husband Alonzo Johnson stopped coming home and she become a single mother in need of a means of support for herself and her three offspring. However, chances are excellent the two sisters arrived at the scheme after Peter Harrington fell badly ill in the summer of 1889 with some sort of -- according to his obituary -- “throat disease.” Whatever the affliction was, it was very serious, and led to him being hospitalized in San Francisco, where he died 13 January 1890.

(This is probably Peter Harrington at right. His name was not on the photograph, but there is good reason to think it is him. The print from which this was scanned came from an 1890s photo album owned by Nancy’s brother Alvin. The album includes a substantial number of photographs of Nancy and her family members from the 1870s through the 1890s. Most of that gathering of images originated at Edwards Studio in Merced, and so did this one. While it remains vaguely possible the man is not Peter, he bears such a strong resemblance to Nancy’s eldest daughter, Mary Josephine Harrington, as she appears in a photograph taken at about age ten at Edwards Studio, that it seems impossible it could be anyone else.)

Peter’s body was brought back to Merced by train for burial in Calvary Cemetery, where the remains of poor little Michael Harrington had been laid to rest a decade earlier. The loss of her husband when she was only thirty-three years old -- Peter had been only thirty-seven -- could have set Nancy adrift. This was all the more likely when Hugh McErlane died in August, 1890, taking away any back-up plan to keep the liquor business afloat. Nancy surely experienced a full share of emotional turmoil, but over time the ordeal crafted her into an anchor of her extended family. The boarding house served as a home for herself, her children, her many lodgers, and for Mary Jane and her two younger children. (Mary Jane’s oldest child, Clarence Johnson, lived nearby as the ward of Nancy and Mary Jane’s sister Theresa Branson Moore and her husband William Osborn Moore.) It may also have been a haven at times for the four motherless children of her sister Phoebe, who had died in 1887. Theresa took an active role in looking after the latter group, but the eldest, John McDonald, is shown as a lodger in the boarding house in the 1900 census, at age twenty-five, shortly before his marriage. Nancy was the business’s main operator, on site round the clock, cooking the meals and doing the housekeeping. Mary Jane worked full-time as a clerk at a drygoods store, doing the laundry for family members and lodgers in the evenings.

In spite of her burdens, Nancy remained unmarried for a long stretch after Peter’s untimely passing. Nancy was a good-looking woman, as surviving photos from the 1880s and 1890s make clear, but suitors may have been daunted by the prospect of becoming a stepfather to half a dozen children. For her part, after going through seven pregnancies in a span of a dozen years, Nancy may have deliberately opted for the most certain of contraceptive measures -- celibacy. Finally, as the seventh anniversary of her widowhood was drawing near, she married John James Napier, known as “Babe” Napier. The rites, officiated by Justice F.W. Read, took place 8 November 1896 in Merced.

Babe’s origin is murky. The only available data about the first thirty or so years of his life comes in the form of what he himself offered up on censuses and voter registers. The picture doesn’t add up. Take for example the birthplaces of his parents. In the 1900 census, he states they were born in Missouri. In the 1910 census, the answer is “unknown” in both columns. In the 1920 census, it is California. In the 1930 census, he states Nova Scotia for his father, Northern Ireland for his mother. His own birthplace is San Francisco in his 1936 obituary and is California on all censuses, but the 1892 voter register -- even while describing him as a native of California -- notes that he took his oath of citizenship 16 May 1884 in Merced. Until marrying Nancy, he reported himself as born in the mid-1860s. After becoming her husband, he usually reported himself as born in the early 1860s, making him closer to Nancy’s age. For example, according to the 1900 census, he was born in July, 1861. It certainly sounds as though he was making up things as he went along. Perhaps he was concealing a criminal past. Perhaps he was an orphan and did not have any solid information about his parentage or his precise age. Among the solid facts known about him prior to the marriage: 1) He was a ranch hand in Merced County during the 1890s in Atwater and then in the southern part of the county, and 2) He had been married at least once before. The 1930 census confirms a first marriage at age twenty-two, which means a wedding in approximately 1883, but no details are available about his earlier spouse or spouses. While associated with the Branson clan, Babe is known to have done some gold mining, which means he was sometimes off in the hills rather than at the boarding house. The most noteworthy case of absence was when he and a group of about two dozen local miners accompanied Nancy’s brother Alvin Thorpe Branson to the gold fields of Nome, Alaska in 1900. (The image of Babe shown at left is cropped from the group photo of those miners as they were about to set out on their journey.) Babe may also have been part of Alvin’s trip to the Klondike in 1898.

Nancy did not close down the boarding house until some time after the turn of the century. However, by 1902 all of her children and Mary Jane’s children were at least in their teens. Nancy’s daughters Josephine and Eunice were already married and John was off working for Southern Pacific Railroad. Her obituary states 1902 was the year she and Babe moved to the Manteca area of San Joaquin County, about forty miles northwest of Merced. For a brief period they lived in or near Lathrop on the west side of Manteca. Within a few years, i.e. about the time the last of her kids moved out, she and Babe bought and moved to a farm in Castoria Township on the eastern side of Manteca. Their home was on Castle Road in what was then outside of town, at a locality sometimes referred to during the early 20th Century as Summer Home. Nancy would live there for the rest of her life.

The reason for the move is a mystery. Nancy had been a fixture of Merced society. None of her relatives lived in San Joaquin County. Whatever provoked the change of scenery was something else. Whether the reason was good, bad, or indifferent is anyone’s guess. However, it is safe to say the move was precedent-setting. Once Nancy was in San Joaquin County, her presence drew relative after relative to the vicinity. By the beginning of 1907 none of the family members who had lived within the boarding house remained in Merced. The only members of the Branson clan who lingered in the town were her sister Phoebe’s children, John McDonald and Teresa Garibaldi, along with their father William and his second wife Agnes Dunn and Ellsworth McDonald, William’s son with Agnes. That Nancy was such a magnet says something about her matriarchal gravitas. The only two younger family members who are certain to have literally moved with her and lived with her in San Joaquin County were her two youngest daughters, Irene and Nina, who at ages sixteen and thirteen were too young to be out on their own. But in the long run, the list was huge.

Nancy did her part to draw her kinfolk to her. It began with some match-making. By mid-1905 four of her six children were married. That left only two holdouts, Elsie and Irene. Elsie was by then in her early twenties. Irene was in her late teens. Elsie was in Merced, having probably stayed there all along even as her mother and stepfather moved away. Irene had recently gone off to Los Angeles. But as Nancy became an increasingly integral part of Manteca high society, she identified two very eligible bachelors, Otis Cowell and Claude Salmon. Both were scions of pioneer families, the Cowells and the Salmons having come from Grant County, WI before the Civil War and, in no small way, put Manteca on the map.

Both Elsie and Irene were lovely, bright, and fashionable, and having been raised in a house full of lodgers, knew almost by instinct how to make a new acquaintance feel at ease. In the latter part of 1906, Nancy’s nudging paid off. Irene wed Claude in October, and Elsie wed Otis in November. Both sets of newlyweds made the Manteca area their home. Instantly others began turning up. Eunice Harrington and her husband Winfred Converse, who had spent the first five years of their marriage in Merced County, relocated by 1907 to Manteca. In 1910, Nancy’s nephew Clarence Johnson and family established themselves within the town itself, and soon his foster parents Theresa and Will Moore followed his example. By 1912, Thomas Branson and a number of his grown children did likewise. Most of the latter group were gone within a few years, but one who stayed was Alice Branson Williams and her family. Alice’s farm was close to Nancy’s, so her four kids grew up knowing their great aunt quite well. And for most of the decades Alice lived in Manteca (eventually moving to the farm of her second husband Milton Henry), her bachelor big brother Hugh McErlane Branson lodged with her.

Nancy increasingly became the queen bee of family social activities, particularly in the case of the females. One of the main avenues through which she exercised this society-matron role was the local lodge the Native Daughters of the Golden West Phoebe A. Hearst Parlor No. 214. Nancy had helped found the Native Daughters chapter in Merced. The Manteca chapter had existed prior to her involvement, but she brought new experience and ambition to the local roster. It might well have been her prompting that led to the name Phoebe A. Hearst becoming associated with the chapter. Nancy was an admirer of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst, who was a great champion of education, having made philanthropic-level donations in the 1890s that vastly boosted the prestige and size of the University of California at Berkeley. Nancy was keen to encourage more women to aspire to college-level education, and keen to see that women had more of a role in shaping educational policies. In the mid-1910s, she served as the senior vice president of the San Joaquin County chapter of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Clubs, doing so during the same period when her teacher niece, Inez Branson (daughter of Thomas) served as the corresponding secretary. Together the two Branson women were part of an effort to place a woman on the San Joaquin County board of education in 1914. Nancy was also a vocal proponent of women’s right to vote in national elections. She was also a participating member of the Summer Home-Manteca Literary Society. (The photo at left, taken in 1930, perhaps shows her doing some of her reading for the group.) This society was more than a book club. In the 1910s, there was no well-established network of public libraries in eastern San Joaquin County and so individuals stepped up and operated reading rooms and small libaries in their homes. Nancy herself did so for the Summer Home library beginning in 1918 when a neighbor across the road from her had to give it up. This interest on Nancy’s part in reading was no small thing, given that she was the child of a man who had been illiterate to his dying day.

The 1910s represented a peak in terms of her political energy, but she was a mover and shaper of the literary society, the county library system, and the lodge up into her eighties. For example, in the summer of 1933, at seventy-six years of age, she was elected (not for the first time) president of Hearst Parlor 214. She regularly enlisted the help of her female kinfolk. These included sister Theresa, daughters Elsie, Eunice, and Irene, niece Alice, nephew Clarence’s wife Lillian Brown Johnson, and granddaughters Norma Cowell, Josephine Converse, and Wanda Salmon.

In the early 1920s Nancy had one more chance to engage in some matchmaking on behalf of a daughter. Josephine’s husband Charles S. McDonald passed away in 1920. After a suitable period of mourning, she was at just a bit more than forty years of age a natural prospect for remarriage. Nancy once again thought in terms of cementing the connection to the Cowell clan. A Manteca contractor, Dan Baysinger, had done a great many construction projects for, and in tandem with, Joshua Cowell. Dan was almost sixty and perhaps a bit old for Josephine, but once Nancy conceived of the match, it was as good as halfway accomplished. Josephine and Dan were married in about 1924.

Babe’s mainstay occupation once he and Nancy had their Manteca acreage was to farm that land, which he continued to do until his last days. He was also the business manager for a local baseball team, the Manteca Maulers of the Don Pedro League in 1928, resigning in June, 1929 after one disappointing season. This, however, was probably not a paying job, or if so, did not involve much of a salary as the Don Pedro League was non-professional. (The league folded in 1930, which was a sad day for local fans in that it had been the longest-surviving non-professional baseball league of its type in the entire United States, and had at one point had an outstanding reputation for excellence. Nancy’s grandson Milton Converse was a player on the Maulers’ squad for that final season -- he had probably played during Babe’s tenure as well.) While with the team Babe capitalized on his nickname. Newspaper reporters covering the Manteca Maulers readily referred to Babe Napier, not John James Napier, because after all, major league home-run king Babe Ruth was in the prime of his career just then.

Babe died 18 April 1936 in Manteca. Nancy survived a little longer. She remained vigorous right up until literally the final day of her life. At about ten in the morning of 10 July 1939, she experienced a severe heart attack in the kitchen of her home. A doctor was summoned out to the ranch, but found her recovering well and she did not go to a hospital. She was at home that evening when she was struck by a second heart attack and died within minutes. Funeral services were held in Stockton at the chapel of Wallace & Son Funeral Home, after which her remains were interred at Park View Cemetery, Manteca.


Babe Napier in old age in a neighbor’s kitchen (or workshop). This image may have been intended for some sort of newspaper article about the Manteca Maulers as it was taken by newspaperman Edwin M. McCaffrey around the time Babe was the team’s business manager.


Below you will find a photograph that shows a great many members of the Nancy Branson clan in the summer of 1936, when Nancy was seventy-nine years old. The scene is probably outside the home of Jack and Daisy Salmon in Woodland, CA. The back of the print shows a photo-lab date of 9 July 1936. That was when the film was developed and printed, and so the scene itself is likely to have been a July Fourth get-together. Two versions of the photo, taken moments apart, were preserved among the mementoes of Mary Josephine Harrington McDonald Baysinger. This one is the over-all sharpest version; however, the shutter speed was apparently slow and some individuals here -- mostly the little kids -- are shown in blurs because they were in motion when the photographer snapped the pose. The other version shows some of those individuals better and was used as a comparison while trying to identify everyone. (This was key to tentatively identifying little Wesley Devere Salmon because in the view shown here, with his head swiveling, he looks like a girl; in the other version, it is readily apparent that he is a boy.) Unfortunately, no names were written on either of the prints. At this time, only half of the group can be firmly identified. Chances are high, though, that everyone shown here is a family member, and some reasonable guesses have been made about the remaining half. What follows is a tentative I.D. list. If the names are rendered in bold, it means a positive I.D. has been made. If rendered in normal font, the I.D. is not yet confirmed.

From left to right in the back row: Wanda May Salmon Patrie, probably Daisy Catherine Lynn Salmon, probably Jack Wesley Salmon, probably Gifford Mecklenberg Fowle, Irene Anna Harrington Salmon, possibly Winfred Converse, Eunice Lucille Harrington Converse, Nancy Anna Branson Harrington Napier (probably wearing a hair net or wig), probably Alice Bretelle Johnson Fowle, Mary Jane Branson Johnson, Daniel Webster Baysinger, possibly Theresa Branson Moore, Roy Ames Price. Middle row: The small boy is probably Harold Otis Hodson. The woman is Nina Frances Harrington Riddell. In front, sitting, left to right: Possibly Claude Salmon, Mary Josephine Harrington McDonald Baysinger, Elsie Margaret Harrington Cowell with eight-year-old Barbara Jean McDonald sitting in front of her, Nancy Margaret McDonald Price with Eunice Martha Bianchi in front of her, age five, Mildred Anna Riddell Hillard with probably Wesley Devere Salmon in her lap, boy in very front is Robert Lee Patrie, leaning against eleven-year-old Everett Stanley Hillard, probably Josephine Agnes Converse Bianchi, probably John Everett Riddell.


Children of Nancy Anna Branson with Peter J. Harrington

John Cornelius Harrington

Mary Josephine Harrington

Michael Harrington

Elsie Margaret Harrington

Eunice Lucille Harrington

Irene Anna Harrington

Nina Frances Harrington

For genealogical details, click on each of the names.


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