EMMA LEE FRENCH

The pioneering heritage of southern Utah is dotted with stalwart people who suffered through many trials to establish strong settlements and landmarks in this wonderful country. Many of these were outstanding women who exhibited the strongest dedications and wills.

Among these was a small, but stalwart English women by the name of Emma Louise Batchelor. Born in East Sussex, England in 1836 she immigrated to the United States and pushed a handcart 1,400 miles by herself as other Mormon converts joined in the Willy Handcart Company. This ill-fated group lost 150 members in the snows of Wyoming, but Emma became a surrogate doctor along the trail, helping many survive and make full recoveries. She also served as midwife along the trail to a pregnant woman, carrying her in the cart as the young mother was close to delivery.

She married John Doyle Lee in 1858 and faithfully followed him through difficult years, finally settling at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River at the junction of the Paria River near Glen Canyon in a location they named “Lonely Dell.”

The crossing became part of the “Honeymoon Trail” that many Arizona Mormons crossed to bring their pending brides to the St. George Temple for marriage ceremonies. In addition, many celebrities of the era stopped by the Lee’s new home, including John Wesley Powell, a Civil War major who became the first man to explore the Grand Canyon by way of the Colorado River. Years later, Powell and a group returned but their photographer, James Fennemore, became ill and was cured by Emma Lee. Fennemore would also settle in southern Utah and continue his studio photography. Powell wrote in his diary that he and his adventurers enjoy a wonderful meal topped off with freshly baked apple pie.

Because, under Mormon doctrine at the time, John D. Lee was allowed to have multiple wives, he had to travel much of the time to attend to his other families still in Utah. Emma Lee was left to attend both to the ferry and her children in a wild and desolate country. When John D. Lee was executed for his involvement in the Mountain Meadow Massacre in 1876, Emma was pregnant with her sixth baby. When her daughter was born, she had to ask her oldest son, John Jr., to help her cut the umbilical cord. The daughter was safely cared for.

She sold the ferry for 100 milk cows in 1879 and a gold prospector named Franklin French helped her settle in Snowflake, Arizona. Later she married the man, and in 1887 she and Franklin moved to Winslow, Arizona to establish a dairy ranch.

At that time the Santa Fe railroad was being built across northern Arizona. Often the railroad would send a special train to bring Emma to take care of railroad worker’s injuries along the track. She soon became known as “Dr. French” even though she had no official medical training. But, she had unique skills and understood the art of healing. She helped hundreds of women give birth: including Navajo mothers in their homelands, and prostitutes in railroad construction camps.

While fixing breakfast for her husband the morning of November 16,1897 she casually said, “I don’t feel too well” and suffered a major heart attack. A crowd of Navajos and whites kept vigil outside her home as she lay in bed dying that night.

Her funeral was one of the largest in Winslow. The Santa Fe stopped their trains as a tribute to her. Her tombstone in the old cemetery in Winslow is marked simply: “Dr. French.”

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