Letters from Emily

emily

Emily McCorkle Fitzgerald

Emily McCorkle Fitzgerald

Emily McCorkle Fitzgerald first came to Sitka in 1874 when her husband, Dr. Jenkins A. Fitzgerald- who she affectionately referred to simply as “Doctor”-was stationed here as a military surgeon. Emily documented her experiences in Sitka in the letters she wrote to her family in Pennsylvania. Emily’s family saved those letters, passed them down through generations, and finally donated them to the Sitka Historical Society & Museum in 1980.

When the Fitzgerald family arrived in Sitka, the United States had just purchased Alaska from the Russians a few years earlier and many Americans still considered it a foreign and largely unsettled place. Emily’s letters convey nervousness about the prospect of living in such a remote region, yet she tried to remain optimistic about the experience and wrote of the positive things she heard from others who had lived in Sitka. Recording aspects of daily life not commonly accessible in the official Territory documents from the era, Emily’s letters give readers a glimpse into what life was like in Sitka in the 1870s from a female perspective.

Although Sitka was once known as the “Paris of the Pacific”, Emily’s letters paint a very

Diagram of Fitzgerald home in Sitka as drawn by Emily McCorkle Fitzgerald, Fall 1874

Diagram of Fitzgerald home in Sitka as drawn by Emily McCorkle Fitzgerald, Fall 1874

different picture. She details the struggles of raising two children on a remote island, including food shortages and the delay of steamer ships carrying letters and much needed supplies. Emily was constantly worried about the children catching colds and how to acquire appropriate clothing for them during their stay in Sitka. Nevertheless, the fondness that Emily and her husband shared for each other and their children shine through, and she writes of holidays where a little bit of creativity and ingenuity went a long way to create warm memories for their family.

Emily’s letters also addressed social life in Sitka and the activities of the diverse local population. Her letters allude to the relations between the Tlingit, the Army officers and their families, and the Russians who chose to stay in Sitka after the transfer of Russia’s claims on Alaska to the United States. She recorded what the Native village looked like at the time, her interpretation of the activities of the Natives, and the attire worn by the local tribe members. She praised the quality of Tlingit baskets and wooden spoons, and she sent many to her relatives in the East. In her final letter from Sitka, Emily writes a detailed account of her experience as she joined the Russians for the Easter holiday.

Emily’s writing reached far beyond Sitka. They describe her journey to the American West from Pennsylvania and end with the Nez Perce War in Idaho, where her husband was stationed after Sitka. Emily’s family published her letters in a book titled “An Army Doctor’s Wife on the Frontier: The Letters of Emily McCorkle FitzGerald from Alaska and the Far West, 1874-78”. Although the Fitzgeralds lived in Sitka a short time, Emily’s personal writings allow us to the see a piece of the town’s rich past through the eyes of a young mother trying to raise her children in a new home on the American frontier.

By: Krystle Weddle & Kristy Kay Griffin
Date: August 2015