Have you ever wondered what happened to your ancestors following a disaster? Do you ask yourself: Who died? Who suffered? Who survived?
My paternal grandmother always told me that she lived through the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, but she was only three years old at the time. I had to look at the documents in order to truly understand the family story.
Truth Versus Fiction
Sometimes the actual facts of a person’s life and death are even more interesting than oral history. For example, my second great grandfather, Richard Harvey Emerson, was born in 1835 in the English town of Wells- Next-the-Sea.
He eventually made his way to Sydney, Australia, married, ran a restaurant, skippered some ships, acquired some debt, and had a few run-ins with the law.
He fled Australia around 1868 to begin a new life in San Francisco.
This new life included a new wife (while still married to the first), children, an alias, and new business ventures. He owned restaurants, ran canneries in both Oregon and California, and bought tidelands in the San Francisco Bay to grow oysters from seed. Family legend says that he gained and lost five fortunes in his lifetime.
A New Name, A New Wife, A New Identity
By 1875, he legally changed his name to Emerson Corville, was divorced by his first wife (on the grounds of adultery), and lived the rest of his life as a married man with the much younger wife, Maria neé Cullom.
No marriage record has been found. The couple raised ten children together, mostly in San Francisco, though for a time the family lived in Healdsburg, California.
Emerson operated several canneries over the years. The Corville Packing Company was located on Folsom Street in San Francisco from 1901. Several family members were employed there, and the property also served as their residence.
5:12 AM – Their World Changed
When the earthquake struck in the early hours of 18 April 1906, Emerson, Maria, six of their ten children, a son-in-law, and two grandchildren were likely asleep at the Folsom Street property.
The city burned for days following the tremor. To contain the inferno, dynamite was used in an attempt to create fire breaks.
A newspaper account in the Oakland Tribune named the Corville Packing Company as one of the canneries burned in the disaster. However, according to lore, Emerson Corville chose to have his property blasted by dynamite, most likely to collect insurance money. We’ll never know for sure.
Life, Death, and Resilience – After the Quake
Following the earthquake, Emerson, Maria, and four of the younger children moved to the home of their future son-in-law at 230 Duncan street. One of those children was Kate, reportedly the “responsible” child. Supposedly Emerson pinned the family savings into the hem of her petticoat for safekeeping.
Emerson reportedly suffered from heart disease for many years. He must have known the end was near when he wrote his will on 28 May 1906. The signature shows a very shaky hand.
On 8 June, less than two months after the quake, Emerson Corville died from “acute nephritis.” His weak heart and “shock from earthquake” contributed to his demise.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire was tragic. Homes and businesses were lost. City Hall and the Hall of Records were destroyed, along with all vital records. The exact number who perished will never be known.
Though Emerson Corville succumbed less than two months after the disaster, my other ancestors survived, including Maria, my great grandparents, Tuchia and Will, and my grandmother, Ruth Margaret.
Maria collected the insurance money from the property losses and bought a large home on Diamond Street. She lived at the property with several of her children and grandchildren, until her death in 1921. She and Emerson are buried at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California.
For additional information, the “Complete Story of San Francisco’s Terrible Calamity of Earthquake and Fire” by Alexander P. Livingstone is available on Ancestry. It gives a glimpse into the challenges of survival in the days and months following the catastrophe.
What Will You Discover?
Maybe you don’t have ancestors who were in the 1906 earthquake that struck San Francisco. But you could well have family that survived other natural disasters or political and economic upheavals.
Whatever your family stories, you may be able to find additional clues that bring their stories to life.
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About the author: Linda Harms Okazaki is a fourth-generation Californian, active in the genealogy and Japanese American communities in California and beyond. She is a member of numerous Japanese American organizations, as well as the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Genealogical Speakers Guild, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Linda currently serves at the past president of the California Genealogical Society and is a board member of the Nichi Bei Foundation. This is her family story.