Tombstone Tuesday: Nellie Ross Cullens-Norwood (1859-1937) – Circle, Alaska

nellie ross_cullens-norwood markerSince the weather has turned colder (and snowy in some places) I decided to cast out to the far north where snow has been on the ground for weeks – Circle, Alaska. A small marker was placed over Nellie Ross Cullens-Norwood’s grave in this remote area of Alaska.  Only fifteen of the graves have any kind of marking on them according to Find-A-Grave, but perhaps as many as thirty-four people are buried in Circle Hot Springs hot springs_AK cemeteryI was intrigued by this one because I couldn’t locate any other Norwood’s buried in the area and Nellie was close to 80 years old when she died (noted on the marker).  So, what is an elderly lady doing way up in remote Alaska living alone – there has to be a story here!

Find-A-Grave lists her birth date as September 1859 in Maine and her death in Circle, Alaska in 1937 (no specific date) – not a whole lot of information (her children’s and spouses’ names were also listed) so the search was on!   Angealla “Nellie” Ross was born in 1859 to William and Mary Lorinda Ross.  In the 1860 Census, the Ross family was living in Shapleigh, York, Maine; Nellie’s brother, William was 4 years old.  Father William was listed as a “shoemaker” and had been born in Maine as well.  Mother Mary Lorinda was listed as a “Lady” – yes, I’m sure she was!

By 1870 the Ross family had migrated to La Harpe, Hancock, Illinois.  William was a carpenter and Lorinda kept house.   Young William was now 14 and Nellie was 10 years old.  The 1880 Census shows that William and Nellie have probably married as they are not listed; however, in or around 1872 their sister Hattie was born.  The Ross family was still residing in La Harpe.  In the next available census of 1900, William and Lorinda have moved back to Maine, I would assume to take care of William’s aging parents – an elderly couple is living with them as is their granddaughter Lela Ross (presumably William Jr.’s daughter).

Although I could not locate specific marriage records, one family tree on estimates Nellie’s marriage year as 1878, but in the 1885 Kansas Census the Cullens had three children, the oldest (Mary) was age 5.  Her first husband, Ward Cullens, was born in Illinois around 1858 and the family was residing in Saratoga, Pratt, Kansas in 1885.  According to Nellie’s Find-A-Grave page, Ward died around 1886, but I haven’t located any record of his death or its cause.  Nellie, a housewife, had three children to care for.

By 1900 Nellie had remarried and was living in Perry, Noble, Oklahoma.  Her husband, Charles Wesley Norwood, was born in June 1857 in Iowa and was employed as a carpenter.  The Census record indicates that Charles and Nellie married in 1898.  This census is the first one that lists a birth month for Nellie – September 1859.  Six children are listed – four Norwood children (presumably Charles was a widower) were listed:  Bertha (12), Frona (9), Gerald (7) and Virgil (3); Nellie’s two younger daughters Warda (17) and Ethyl[Ethel] (13).   In 1900 Oklahoma was  still a territory and being settled by “Sooners”.

In 1910 Charles Norwood was still employed as a carpenter and he and Nellie and nine year old son Ross were living in St. John, Stafford, Kansas.  Warren Ross had been born (January 10, 1900) in Oklahoma and Charles and Nellie’s children from their first marriages aren’t listed.  However, in the 1915 Kansas Census, the Norwoods are still residing in St. John, and Virgil and Ross (“W R Norwood”) were living with their parents.

On September 12, 1918, Warren Ross Norwood registered for the World War I draft.  His mother Nellie is listed as his nearest relative, Ross is a school teacher and they both live in Tonganoxie, Leavenworth, Kansas.

Just two years later in the 1920 U.S. Census Nellie is living with her son Ross W. (Warren Ross), who is employed as a teacher, in Columbus, Cherokee, Kansas.  Nellie is listed as a widow – between the Kansas Census and the 1920 U.S. Census Charles had died (unable to locate any death record for Charles).  So, now Nellie has been widowed twice and as far as the censuses over the years had recorded, she was a housewife.  Some sources seemed to think she was a teacher, but it was never listed as such on any census.

In 1922, Ross Norwood of Columbus, Cherokee, Kansas applied for a marriage license to marry Laura Brush of Missouri.  Missouri marriage records list their date of marriage as September 1, 1922 in Jackson, Missouri.  Ross and Laura had children and in 1929 he was listed as being employed as a draftsman in the Minneapolis, Minnesota city directory.  In 1940, Ross and his family were located in Queens, New York where he was employed as a drafting engineer.

Sometime between 1920 and 1930, Nellie packed her bags and moved to Circle Hot Springs, Alaska.  For some reason the date of her birth and age are incorrect on the 1930 census, listing her as being born around 1876 and being only 54.  Nellie would have actually been at least 70 by 1930, and she was not employed (occupation listed as “housework” in her own home).  More than one internet source seemed to indicate that her son had accompanied her to Alaska, and I would presume that to be her only child with Charles, Warren Ross Norwood (unless it was one of her stepsons; I found no records of any other Norwood in the area).  The sources suggested that the son resided in nearby Fort Yukon, but the records for Ross mentioned above indicate otherwise.

Circle, Alaska was a gold mining town founded in 1893.  The 1930 census lists trappers, military personnel, and proprietors of various businesses as occupations, and the majority of residents living in the area were native Alaskans (Athabascan).  Alaska was still a territory of the United States, joining the Union in 1959.

Nellie’s descendants with trees on have posted a few stories about Nellie, but no information regarding her reason for moving to Alaska:

[Illness in 1910] In a letter from Nellie Lou’s mother, Nellie Ross Norwood, to Max & Iva Herbert, reference is made to the fact that Nellie Lou “was told by a doctor that she would not live very long.”  The latter apparently gave up son, Laurence, to live with her mother when he was just 3 years old.  Nellie Lou recovered and Laurence came home to live with Nellie and her husband, George. [Note: Nellie Lou died in 1921 – cause of death was pernicious anemia and cervical cancer.]

nellie lou compIn a letter written from Ft. Yukon, Alaska to Max(well) and Iva Herbert, dated 7 January 1935, Nellie Ross Norwood (Max’s grandmother) says that she has 26 grand children and about the same number of greats.  She says that “Warda is sending me the names of them.” The letter states that they have only 2 hours of daylight daily.  The letter also talks of the “hardships and tragedies happening” to persons she knows in the community.  Included with the letter is a photo of Nellie and her pilot getting ready to board a twin seat open cockpit bi-plane to be flown from Fairbanks to the Hudson Strick Memorial Hospital, Fort Yukon, Alaska in response to an emergency.

nellie_ross_alaska_univ AK archivesMrs. Norwood died in 1937, at approximately age 80.  She was a retired teacher, appeared to be of Oriental heritage; very small, and well educated, but lived as a recluse in the smallest cabin at Circle Hot Springs.  She did a lot of writing, and her correspondence seemed to be her main contact with people.  A son survived her at Fort Yukon.  Very little was known about Mrs. Norwood. [As noted above, I believe Ross married and pursued a career as a drafting engineer.  Her daughter Warda Cullens Dover also died in 1937 in Garnett, Kansas.]

nellie_ross_circa 1933_AKIt appears that Nellie Ross Cullens-Norwood lived a long and full life, the last years spent reclusively in the Alaskan Yukon.  As noted above, she was well-educated and kept in contact with her family.  Her reasons for moving to Alaska remain a mystery (at least to me) – but it sure would be interesting to know what compelled her to radically change her life, alone, at such an advanced age.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.


  1. Nellie Norwood was my great grandmother. My mother, Nellie Pauline Dover, was the youngest daughter of Warda Cullens Dover. Mom was born in 1919 and had little memory of her grandmother but does remember reading the letters sent to them. From her memory, Nellie Norwood went to Alaska with her son Warren Ross when he decided to go to Alaska to teach ‘manual arts’. She was a widow again and thought it would be an adventure. Her son eventually returned to the midwest, but Nellie Norwood loved Alaska and stayed there. She did not have any Asian heritage but she was quite small with a very wrinkled face that made her eyes appear to be similar to those of an individual from the Asian region. From what we were told the pilot in the picture with the plane is Wiley Post who delivered mail to the region. He often took people up for quick flights and Nellie Norwood was one of them.

    • Thank you so much for stopping by and providing more information about Nellie. I was so fascinated with this little elderly lady way up in Alaska I had to write a story. I had no idea who the pilot was but that is history isn’t it?

    • Nellie is also my great great grandmother. This is amazing. From what I know She was born in Maine. Her family went west in a covered wagon to Oklahoma and then she went to Alaska.

      • Steven — thanks for stopping by and now you’ve found some more kinfolks! Nellie’s story was pretty amazing wasn’t it?


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