The Missionary on the MoveJan 01, 2023 10:44AM ● By Phil Hesser
It’s just curious. How did a woman born in Delmar Township in 1840 end up as a missionary in Alaska for fourteen years? What did she do during the chunks of time for which there is no record (not one we could find) of her whereabouts or activities? Why did her 1927 obituary list no survivors, despite the existence of nieces and nephews? Clues piling up like autumn leaves with no end in sight...
I found Anna R. Kelsey while doing biographical research on Frances H. Willard, an Alaska native who had studied in New Jersey before returning to Alaska as a missionary. I published a book about Harriet Tubman’s early life in Maryland a year or so ago and became interested in learning more about her time in Auburn, New York. That led me to a reported meeting of “three remarkable women”—Tubman, Pundita Ramabai, and an “Indian Girl” who turned out to be Frances H. Willard. Her return to the mission in Sitka, a community on the west side of Baranof Island, in 1885 was in the company of another missionary—Anna Kelsey of Wellsboro. The two took the transcontinental railroad from New York City, then boarded a steamer in San Francisco or Tacoma for the trip along the inland passage to Sitka.
A daughter of a justice of the peace, “Squire” Daniel Kelsey, and his wife, Rebecca (Merrick), Anna grew up on the Kelsey farm in Delmar Township. She had five siblings. She became an English teacher in Wellsboro, so she must have had some training somewhere, though we don’t know where, and she was actively involved in meetings of county and state teachers’ associations in the 1860s. From 1869 to 1871 she applied her teaching experience to the English program at Mansfield Normal School; one source indicates she was an assistant in mathematics, but Mansfield archives list her only as an assistant in English for two years.
In 1878, she turned up in Erie, where she established a kindergarten at the Erie Academy. She also made an appearance that year at the normal school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in a one-week course given by Emily Coe, an early advocate for the education of young children. Still teaching kindergarten at Erie in 1879, she returned home to speak at the county teachers’ institute, describing how kindergartens actively engage children.
After a decade or more on the move, she returned to Wellsboro in the 1880s, teaching high school grammar before she left once again, this time with Frances H. Willard, to become a missionary in Alaska, just twenty-two years after the United States purchased that territory from Russia. As the girls’ matron of the Sitka Industrial School, she was described as being “devoted and consecrated, as well as a successful worker in the Master’s vineyard.” She raised funds so “her” children received gifts on Christmas. Her interest and belief in the value of kindergarten was seen in her special attention to the littlest girls, to whom she taught hymns and prayers. In the Alaska of the time, Anna was “everywhere hailed as the Mother of Education.”
She became a founder and member of the executive committee of the Society of Alaskan Natural History and Ethnology in 1887, giving papers on trees, jellyfish, and the “phosphorescence of the sea.” Anna spent eight years in Sitka, five years in Fort Wrangel (also spelled Wrangell), and a final year in Sitka before leaving Alaska in 1899, having “with zeal and courage...devoted her time and strength complete.”
She was on the move again in the states, briefly sampling retirement at Port Townsend, Washington; moving on to Newton, New Jersey, at the Merriam Home for Women and Presbyterian Ministers; and then returning to Wellsboro, sharing a room with the widow Anna Gleen Creighton on Hastings Street, home to four other boarders.
By 1920, she was living in the Home for the Friendless in Williamsport. The grimly-named institution was one of several in the country for vulnerable women and children, admitting women over sixty-five exclusively by 1902. The adult residents who were willing and able helped care for the resident children, who were served by the Home until 1958. The facility was ultimately moved and rechristened the Williamsport Home.
Anna died June 12, 1927, with pneumonia listed on her death certificate as the cause. She was buried at nearby Wildwood Cemetery. Her grave can be seen on the crest of a hill between two other residents of the home—Adeline M. Wheeler from Covington and Della Johnson from south of Williamsport. According to her obituary, Anna “was a person who adhered strictly to principle, even when it was to her personal disadvantage, and was found on the right side of all questions affecting the good of the community in which she lived.” Likewise, her father, Squire Kelsey, was known for his “unbending spirit,” “marked individuality,” and “his own way of doing things.” Were they kindred spirits or did they butt heads? We don’t know.
It is interesting to speculate how and why a single woman of Anna’s era lived as she did. One clue may be found in the loss of all of her family during her lifetime: She was six when her mother and brother Daniel died, eighteen when her brother Isreal died, twenty-three at her father’s passing, thirty at her sister Letitia’s death, forty-four at her brother Benjamin’s, and sixty at her brother Robert’s. When she left on her first mission to Alaska, every member of her immediate family, save brother Robert, had died.
In her years as a matron in Sitka, “[she] nursed the girls most heroically.” In Fort Wrangel, she “spent days and nights” with seven-year-old Emily “in caring for the little sufferer” until her death. She likewise gave comfort to sixteen-year-old Lila Rice, dying of consumption, by bringing the girls to see her “so that they might sing the old familiar hymns and stay with her.”
Anna seems to have been a principled lady who perhaps had no patience for those who failed to take her seriously. It’s possible the Sitka mission and the Home for the Friendless appealed to her, in part, because both institutions were governed by women. While she seems to have thrived in Alaska, we don’t know about her social/personal life there or elsewhere—whether she was lonely or just alone. We know she comforted the girls who died in Sitka and Wrangel. We know that as a “kindergartenist” she believed in the value of educating the youngest children.
We hope she found peace in Williamsport—if not teaching songs to the children in the Home for the Friendless, then perhaps viewing the Pennsylvania countryside from Wildwood Cemetery, where her fellow residents, and later she, found a final resting place.