Emma Cameron - Toast of the Northwest or Femme Fatale?

Posted by Scott on December 15, 2017

(written by Anita Taylor Doering, Archives Staff)

Peter Cameron was an early settler in La Crosse arriving in 1843 just a year following Nathan Myrick’s arrival. He was of Yankee stock and like many young men, hoped to find his fortune out on Prairie La Crosse.  He bought a large tract of land that fronted the Mississippi River and built a log cabin. Among one of his schemes Peter hoped to make La Crescent, Minnesota, the destination and a larger city than La Crosse.  His younger brother Daniel would join him and be an avid promoter of La Crescent, much to the dismay of the citizens of La Crosse.


The first marriage in the young community of Prairie La Crosse occurred in 1846 between Peter and a woman who was called “the toast of the Northwest,” the beautiful Emma (Eastman) Kellogg  Van Sickle Cunningham.  Yes, Peter was her fourth husband and she was only 23 years old. She met Peter likely in Prairie du Chien as he returned from Utica, New York, with provisions and furs. It is unknown if Emma actually divorced her third husband before marrying Peter, but after Peter’s death in 1855, his brother Daniel was to use that murky past to obtain control of Peter’s estate and wrestled the property in court from his widow Emma. At the time of Emma’s death in 1905 she counted nine husbands, the first one she married at 13 years of age.

Exerpt_Peters_letter_home_to_brother_in_NY_Sept_8_1846_cropped_highlighted_550w.jpg"I married me a wife a short time since.  She is not here today..."

Excerpt from a letter from Peter Cameron to his brother in Oneida County, NY, Sept. 8, 1846; part of MSS 277 at the La Crosse Public Library Archives

Lumbering on the Black River was a lucrative and dangerous livelihood but was the prime industry that supported La Crosse from its inception to the turn of the 20th century. The log rafts were floated down into the Mississippi River to Cairo, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri.  In order to keep ownership straight, the logs were branded on an end with the owners name or mark because logs would often become entangled in the large log rafts.  In 1849, a dispute over ownership of some logs went sour.

John Levy and his wife Fredericka, who came to La Crosse in 1845 and 1846 respectively, operated a store and hotel out of their log house, and witnessed the turn of events as they unfolded.  In her recollections, she describes the scene:

“About the ninth of July, one day, in the forenoon, we were standing by the river bank watching two men bringing a log raft down the river. The men were gathering logs that had loosened from the raft by the wind and waves, and by striking the sandbars.  They recognized their own logs because they had their marks on them.  As they were coming down, [Peter] Cameron passed them with a skiff, not thinking of any harm at the time, intending only to go up and pick up everybody’s logs.  He wasn’t out of sight round the head of Barron’s [Pettibone] Island, when he was called back by his wife [Emma].

Mr. Ellis was the name of the log owner and he found a great many logs with his mark on them that Cameron had rafted together. He had landed his raft a little below Cameron’s.  He picked out his own logs and pushed them down by his own raft, and having finished, was going back to our store, about the time Cameron landed.  The met and quarrel began…”

“Mrs. Cameron, meanwhile, had loaded two guns and she gave her husband one of them, and lest he should miss him, she carried the other one, ready for use, and a club beside.  As Mr. Ellis was stepping on his raft, Cameron shot him and he fell into the water between the raft and the bank.”

John Levy and another man responded to the shooting and outcry and ran to the riverfront to help. When he approached the scene, Emma Cameron threatened to set the dog on them and shoot them if they interfered. They retreated but Levy spied a raft coming downriver. He hailed the raft and asked them to come ashore quickly. It turned out that the Crawford County Sheriff (La Crosse County wasn’t set apart from Crawford until 1851) John Elder and Dr. Snow were on the raft.  After hearing what happened, they immediately bound Cameron. Ellis, awaiting death, was taken to the Levy home to be examined and made as comfortable as possible. 

When it was time to push off, Cameron was tied to the raft left for the mosquitoes have their way.  Ellis was also taken on the raft with Dr. Snow along to take care of him. The goal was to reach Prairie du Chien, the county seat, but Ellis died 15 miles south of La Crosse and was buried at Brownsville, Minnesota.

Peter Cameron was charged with murder and kept in the county jail there. His beautiful wife Emma, closed up her house in La Crosse to take care of him.  Many prisoners fell victim to disease and poor food. Emma kept house for Peter and the jailer. Peter’s employees kept operations going in La Crosse while he was imprisoned.


Peter and Emma Cameron's entry in the 1850 U. S. Federal Census

In correspondence to his father in New York, Peter mentions that the jailer quit because he was offered a better job, and so Peter was hired and paid fifty cents a day to “watch over a lunatic” who was also in jail. Eventually Peter was released on bail and the final verdict came in 1853 with a charge of manslaughter and a $2500 fine. The case had gone to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Emma was a prominent character of early La Crosse social life. The local papers said that she carried a rifle as she rode horseback through town, and attended all the gatherings and celebration of La Crosse. She was easily crossed according to her neighbor Frederica Levy, but Fredericka commented that “[Emma] was one of the prettiest looking women…in the state of Wisconsin…. She had been reared a good Christian and a good church member, and she always showed great feeling for people in trouble and was kind in sickness….At first she stayed but little with her husband. Through the attentions and praise of her beauty from the gentlemen, she got wicked and didn’t think her husband was good enough for her… Because of her beauty, she wanted to be much in the company of gentlemen.  She was foolish enough to take advantage of her beauty.”  Emma was also a crack shot and could hold her own on a hunting trip or shooting at river bandits from the shoreline.


Researcher Ron Harris identifies this photo as Louisa Eastman Klotzback, her husband Jacob Klotzbach and Emma Eastman.  This image was probably taken in McGregor, Iowa, in the 1860s when Emma was married to DeWitt "Clinty" Clinton Van Sickle. Photo courtesy of Gordon Fay/McGregor Historical Society

Shortly before Peter’s unexpected death in July 1855, Peter sued for divorce citing Emma’s “eccentricities” with other men.  But conveniently, Peter died before the decree was finalized. Emma spent a number of years fighting in court with the Cameron family to gain control of Peter’s property. As a part of these legal battles, Peter’s brother Daniel came to call on Emma in La Crosse in 1859, now married to husband number 5, seeking to obtain some deeds from her. She claimed that Daniel came to harm or intimidate her, so she reached for her pistol and took shots at him – the first went through his coat and the second hit his pinky finger.

Emma claimed it was self defense and Daniel claimed it was an attempt on his life.  Emma divorced Ralph Bowles in 1859 and returned to Prairie du Chien and Elkader and McGregor, Iowa, for the remainder of her life, although she did make trips from Clayton County to La Crosse to visit friends occasionally.  A rumor that circulated in the McGregor area is that when Emma was displeased at any of her spouses, that she made them white wash the tombstones of previous husbands in her private cemetery, as though hinting that they might be next.

In all, Emma was married nine times and died a widow in 1905 in rural McGregor, Iowa.  Despite the many marriages, Emma had only two children, both from Peter.  Folks who knew her or of her nicknamed her "Virgin Em" althought it is not clear when she gained this moniker.  Emma gave birth to a son who died in infancy in 1854 and the other son, James, lived to raise a family of his own but was never acknowledged by the Cameron family as Peter’s son.

Want to learn more about Emma?  Check out Myer Katz’s book Echoes of Our Past Katz has two chapters on Emma.  Ron Harris from Wisconsin Rapids has done extensive fact finding on Emma Eastman and a simple internet search will connect you with his work.  The LPL Archives also has original handwritten Cameron Family Correspondence donated by Gordon Fay but Peter hardly mentions Emma to his family back in New York.  Biographical Information on Peter and Emma Cameron  is another small collection that was gathered by the Fay Family and Myer Katz, all available in the Archives.