Phoebe Ann Branson


Phoebe Ann Branson, the fourth child and first daughter of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born in the mid-1850s, probably in the Livermore Valley where her father was temporarily trying to be a potato farmer. Family notes give her a birthdate of 8 February 1854. There is some uncertainty whether this date is correct. The family Bible was lost to a house fire in 1904, and is not available to consult, nor does any surviving record made during her lifetime pin the date down with precision. It may be 8 February 1854 was what someone reconstructed rather than something they obtained from a robust source. The date is somewhat too early to fit well into the known sequence of events. For one thing, it is not at all clear her mother had arrived in California by May, 1853, when Phoebe would had to have been conceived in order to be born by 8 February 1854. The date does align well with the 1860 census, which lists Phoebe as six years old, but censuses are notorious for inaccurate age reporting. An alternate birthdate of 7 March 1855, which is the one that appears in her obituary and on her gravemarker, seems somewhat more likely to be the right one.

Phoebe was named for her maternal grandmother Phoebe Longmire (Ousley). Regardless of what precise date she sprang from the womb, she was the first baby of the family native to California, and the only one of John and Martha’s ten offspring not born in either Missouri or the Mother Lode. She is not to be confused with her second cousin Phoebe Ellen Branson, daughter of Isaac Branson, who was over a dozen years her junior. Phoebe Ann and Phoebe Ellen lived right next door to each other in the early 1870s and their life histories share other similarities.

When Phoebe Ann was an infant, she and her parents and three older brothers moved to Mariposa County, CA, where her father resumed his career as a gold miner in the gravel beds along the Merced River. Phoebe would spend the next dozen years of her childhood immersed in the rustic life of a placer mining camp. In the first few years John tried several spots, looking for a place where the family could thrive. He worked at Harte and Johnson’s Flat during the first year or two, then moved upstream to Barrett City, a major mining center. The family lived as close as practical to his worksites, in cabins and at times in tents or in their trusty Conestoga wagon. By 1858 they settled on the east side of the river at Phillips Flat. The gravel beds here proved to be especially productive -- so productive that John and a small group of partners renewed their three-year claim when it expired, and then did so again, meaning that Phillips Flat was the household’s base of operations a total of nine years. Today it is not possible to visit Phillips Flat or Harte or Johnson’s Flat; the sites lie at the bottom of Lake McClure, a reservoir. You can still find Barrett (minus the city designation) on maps, shown as slightly offshore -- in the water.

Phoebe was on the brink of her teens when John and Martha, having hoarded the income from the Phillips Flat years, decided that they wanted a new life. They relocated in 1867 to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where John became a farmer and rancher. 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 for her taste, so back the family came in 1868 to Mariposa County to a spot not far from their previous haunts. John bought a 160-acre ranch previously owned by Daniel and Margaret Mahon along the northwest boundary of the Washington Mine parcel -- Washington Mine being one of the most active of the mining outposts of Quartzburg. In pioneer days Quartzburg had been a center of settlement, but it had soon lost out to the rise of Hornitos a few miles to the south. By the time the Bransons arrived, Hornitos was the one incorporated town in the greater area, with the clusters of population at the mines of Quartzburg being too small to be called villages. They were more along the lines of outposts amid a terrain of pasture land and widely-spaced ranch houses. Phoebe’s parents were well satisfied with their new circumstances, aside perhaps from the rattlesnakes and the daily racket of the stamping mills as the era of hardrock quartz mining reached its peak. John raised cattle and feed and hauled wagon loads commercially for his money, and prospected only occasionally as a sideline. They gave their land the affectionate name of Grasshopper Ranch. Their younger offspring spent the majority of their childhoods there -- or in the case of the two very youngest, John Jr. and Mattie, their entire childhoods.

As one of the older children, Phoebe did not call Grasshopper Ranch home for long. The Mariposa County marriage book indicates she wed William McDonald 23 February 1874 in Quartzburg. (The date is the 24th in family notes, and the locale is Merced -- this may mean the license was completed in Quartzburg on the 23rd and the actual wedding held a day later in Merced.) Justice of the Peace William Adams signed the license -- a well-established blacksmith of Hornitos, William Adams may well have been an employer of William McDonald for at least a brief time, and if so, this connection may have been how Phoebe and William became acquainted. The newlyweds settled immediately in Merced, a quickly-growing railroad town just to the west of Mariposa County in the Great Central Valley.

William had been born born 12 March 1850. (His gravemarker and obituary place his birth in 1852 -- this would appear to be the result of informant error on the part of his widow, his second wife Agnes.) He was a native of Galt, Ontario Province, Canada, where his parents had been pioneers. His mother, Allison Bell, had come from Kelso, Scotland. His father, Sweden (Suidhe) MacDonald, was also from Scotland, but was a Highlander. After arriving in Canada, for reasons no longer clear but probably to blend in among neighbors of Irish extraction, Sweden changed the family name to McDonald, and most descendants continued to use that variant. Sweden was a roadmaker in Galt, and one of its prominent citizens. After some twenty years there, the household moved on to Glenelg, Ontario, where Sweden passed away in approximately 1861. William, the second-youngest of the seven known children of Sweden and Allison, was only about eleven when that blow fell. His mother appears to have died at about the same time. William therefore depended on his older brother Robert Seafield McDonald, who had been born about 1843 and by the time of the tragedy had established himself in Hamilton, Ontario. Later in the 1860s, Robert moved to Buffalo, Erie County, NY, and so of course William went along.

The McDonald family trade in those days was blacksmithing and saddlery work. William and his younger brother Thomas Hayes McDonald learned these skills at their brother’s side. Both would launch their independent lives as teenagers. William moved on in the late 1860s, spending a brief interval in Grand Rapids, MI before coming on to San Francisco in 1869. By 1870, he was working as a blacksmith on the Robert S. Clay ranch near Snelling, Merced County, CA. It may have been while William was living on the Clay parcel that he met Phoebe, because the place lay only about ten miles from Grasshopper Ranch and was closer still to Hornitos. Chances are the pair met slightly later, though, after William’s life situation had become more settled. This happened over the next two to three years. He spent a few months in Napa, CA, then became one of the pioneer commercial proprietors of the brand-new town of Merced. His blacksmith shop on Seventeenth Street was founded when there were only five other storefront businesses in the whole municipality. Merced itself had only formally come into existence in 1872 at the instigation of Central Pacific Railroad. As William’s career went on, he became a full-fledged wheelwright who built stagecoaches for the Merced-to-Yosemite run. He was a major figure of the commercial-enterprise scene of Merced, known not only for his own work but as an employer.


The wedding portrait of Phoebe Ann Branson and William McDonald. This was no doubt taken in Merced, where so many early photos of the Branson clan originated, particularly the ones from Edwards Studio.


The move to Merced set a precedent in Phoebe’s family. Her sister Nancy came as well, marrying Peter J. Harrington in the mid-1870s. Her brother Thomas and partner Fred Barcroft established a tinsmith shop and was often in Merced even though he and wife Frances treated their house in Hornitos as their main base. While in Merced, Thomas may have boarded with Phoebe and William. Eventually Mary Jane and Theresa Branson would settle in the town. Theresa may have come initially in order to help Phoebe to care for her children, a brood that came to consist of four offspring, John, Nancy, William, and Teresa, born from 1875 to 1880. The help might have been necessary because Phoebe’s health began to fail. Even as early as 1880 she had help in the household in the form of “servant” (as described in the 1880 census) Mary Jane Geary. (Mary Jane, eighteen years old in 1880, was Phoebe’s extended sister-in-law. Mary Jane’s sister Ellen Margaret Geary had married Phoebe’s brother Joseph Branson in 1879.)

Phoebe died 9 August 1887, the event almost certainly occurring in Merced. (The death date has been mis-recorded in many sources. In Bones of the Bransons by Ivan Branson, it is shown as 10 July 1889, which is wildly off. Unfortunately even the “good” family notes still had the day wrong, i.e. as the eighteenth rather than the ninth. The eighteenth was probably the day her obituary was published. Unfortunately, the eighteenth was used even within this website biography until October, 2008, when double-checking of her obituary and her gravemarker showed that it was in fact the ninth.)

After her passing, her husband and children maintained their bond with the Branson clan. This was particularly true of the initial twenty years following Phoebe’s demise. The offspring of Nancy and Mary Jane Branson (one of the latter being taken as a ward by Theresa Branson) grew up in close association with the McDonald children. (It was not until 1900 to 1906 that this Merced-native younger generation began to disperse to other communities in order to establish their own households.) The photograph below right is William as a widower -- a photo preserved in the memorabilia of his Branson in-laws.

William McDonald went on to marry Agnes Dunn in April, 1892. Agnes had been born 19 March 1871 in Minnesota. Having such a young woman as his new bride might have been a recipe for William to quickly sire a whole second family. The pair made an attempt to do so, but fate thwarted their plans. A boy was born at the end of 1892, but lived only a month, dying 16 January 1893. The anguish of losing this baby was apparently enough to make William and Agnes content to leave things be in the short term. Finally, after all four of William and Phoebe’s children had reached adulthood, the couple must have wanted to relieve the emptiness of their home. Son Maurice Ellsworth McDonald (best known by his middle name) was born 20 September 1902.

In the late 1890s, William’s nephew Charles Sweden McDonald, son of the late Robert Seafield McDonald, came out west from his home near Buffalo. A romance sprang up between Charles and Phoebe’s niece Mary Josephine Harrington, followed by marriage, uniting the Branson and McDonald clans a second time.

William developed liver problems in his late middle-age, which led to an operation in San Francisco in 1911, a procedure he survived (no sure thing in that primitive medical era) but which did little to alleviate his condition. The fact was, he was lucky to have lasted as long as he had in relatively good health. Neither he nor his doctors knew the precise cause of his affliction, but today it is apparent that he was a carrier of the gene that causes hereditary haemochromatosis. This metabolic disorder interferes with the proper absorption of iron, leading to iron overload, which in turn can lead to liver failure, heart failure, and diabetes, among other unpleasant effects. Haemochromatosis was surely what had killed Sweden McDonald. It had also by 1911 already been the culprit in the deaths of William’s son Billy at the age of only twenty-nine, of his brother Robert Seafield McDonald in his early forties, of a nephew, William E. McDonald, in mid-childhood, and that very year would claim the life of Thomas Hayes McDonald. As the 20th Century went on, other family members would be afflicted, and even to this day McDonald-clan members carry the gene and have to take steps to prevent it from damaging their health.

Needing to slow down, William closed his blacksmith shop in favor of running a hardware sales operation, much of which involved selling farm implements. His eldest son John Sweden McDonald helped him with this venture. Despite his ill health, William was able to keep up an active involvement in the business until about a month before he died. He passed away late Sunday evening, 7 June 1914 at his home on 21st Street in Merced. Just as his father had died when he was eleven, he left his own boy Ellsworth fatherless at the same age. Knowing in his final moments this was about to occur must have been bitter for him. At least Ellsworth had a mother left to see him on to adulthood, something William had not been able to experience.

As a widow, Agnes stayed put in the family home, completing the raising of Ellsworth. Through the rest of the 1910s and into the 1920s she played grandmother and “Old Auntie” to the members of the younger generations who had sprung from Phoebe and her sisters. She took on lodgers -- sometimes over half a dozen of them -- in order to get by. Ellsworth, who over the course of his adult life was a dry-goods clerk, accountant, and salesman at a men’s clothing store, remained in the home. This was true even after his marriage in 1930 to Thelma I. Clark. Agnes passed away 20 July 1947, having dwelled in Merced over half a century. With her passing, Ellsworth, though he had been a denizen of Merced lifelong, relocated to San Francisco. (He did so on his own, Thelma having filed for divorce in late 1937.) He died there 3 April 1949 of a heart condition probably stemming from haemochromatosis. By all accounts, Ellsworth never became a father, except in the sense that for seven years or so he helped raised his stepdaughter, Anne E. Greco.

Most of the members of the William McDonald/Phoebe Branson family were interred in the McDonald plot at the Knights of Pythias Cemetery. (Today this graveyard is one of several, such as the Oddfellows Cemetery, that make up Merced Cemetery District -- look for the latter name if searching for gravemarker photos on FindaGrave.com.) The group consists of William, both his wives, and children John, Nancy, William (Billy), and Ellsworth, along with son-in-law Roy Ames Price. The remains of daughter Teresa were entombed in Evergreen Mausoleum in Merced with those of James J. Garibaldi.

From the time this website was launched in late 2005 until late 2008, Phoebe’s line of descent was described as extinct. This was because, though Phoebe was survived by four healthy children, she had only one grandchild, James Donald Garibaldi, and family records indicated Don did not have offspring. Recently it has become apparent from public sources that Don did eventually, in his forties, have one child. That individual is still alive today and is known to have produced offspring, so Phoebe’s line persists after all.


Phoebe, right, with her sister Theresa. This image was scanned directly from a tintype created in the 1880s. Perhaps you will agree that Phoebe appears unhealthy. At the time this picture was taken she may well have been suffering from the condition that led to her death.


Children of Phoebe Ann Branson with William McDonald

John Sweden McDonald

Nancy Margaret McDonald

William McDonald

Teresa McDonald

For genealogical details, click on each of the names.


To return to the Branson/Ousley Family main page, click here.