The Congress of Women: Pioneer Woman of Oregon

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Pioneer Woman of Oregon

Elizabeth M. Wilson is a native of South Argle, N. Y. Her parents were Rev. Jos. P. and Amanda Miller She married Joseph G. Wilson, judge of the Supreme Court of Oregon. She is a member of the Congregational Church. Her postoffice address is the Dalles, Oregon.

The early history of Oregon's settlement confirms what has been so often said, that "man cannot advance in the march of progress except by the side of woman." If he thinks to march ahead without her, lie is com- elled to halt and wait for his inevitable partner. Turkey has tried to advance without woman; witness her rank among the nations of today. The remarka- ble recuperation which was shown by France after her exhausting wars was explained by the fact that the French woman is an integral part of the nation. She is part of all that contributes to the wealth and prosperity of France: above all, she is there the gen- eral bookkeeper and accountant. She knows where the money goes. The policy of the Hudson Bay Company, the first white men who went west of the Rocky Mountains to stay, required their employes [sic] to leave the English Bessies and Jessies, the Scotch Peggies, the Irish Norahs, to pine unmated in the old home, while they attempted a travesty of home making with only such help as could be found in the savage wigwam of the native inhabitants. Not so the American settler. When he started on the long path the wife of his youth was beside him, and together they faced the trials of the new life. When in the spring of 1835 Drs. Parker and Whitnian were sent by the American Board to inquire into the feasibility of establishing missions west of the Rocky Mountains, Dr. Whitman left his coadjutor when the journcy was but half completed, being already convinced of the practicability of the scheme, and when next, in 1836, Dr. Whitman rode abroad, Mrs. Whitman rode by his side. So firmly convinced were the missionary boards of the necessity of sending their appointees thus fully complemented, they refused to appoint single men to the work but required that they should first be made whole men. Reinforcements to mission workers in the field were often followed by wedding bells.

Of the results of the work of the early mission settlers I have personally little evidence. Once while at White Salmon we all went up the mountain-side to where on a small plateau were a number of tepees, the occupants of which were going through the ceremonies of the Smohallo excitement or belief. I soon wearied of what to me was utterly meaningless, and went into a tepee where sat an old smoke-dried crone. She was glad to see me and seemed to have some burden on her heart that I must hear. After much repetition on her part, and bewilderment on mine, I gathered that in spite of her appearance she was not like them. I did not quite know at what she was aiming till I caught the name of "Jason Lee" repeated over and over again. Then she asked me to listen, and with her teeth tightly closed, she sent through them some vocal sounds, which at last I caught to be two or three measures of Greenville. I began to sing "Come ye sinners, poor and needy," she accompanying me with what sounded like singing on a comb. She enjoyed it and so did I. Her story I translate to be this: That at one time she had been in the Salem School or under the teaching of Jason Lee; that she had glimpses of a higher life than savagery had given her; that in the years following she had held on to the little she had, stoutly refusing to countenance by her Presence the Smohallo incantations. The wigwam smoke and the wild life had well-nigh obliterated the little she knew; but to the name of Jason Lee she held on as to a watchword. Most truly she seems to be one feeling for God's hand in the darkness.

In thinking of the long Past. why is it that the, more prominent happenings seem all tinged with sadness? There were bright and beautiful days then, days of long sunshine. The few holidays that frontier life afforded were, by contrast, very keenly enjoyed. Yet if I am to tell of incidents of those early times one might think there was little but doing without things, in common times, varied by the days of sickness and death. "Not all the preaching since Adam can make of death other than death." Yet to the new settler it sometimes came in a manner that, with the inevitable home- sickness, no matter how stout-hearted they were, gave an added pang to those who looked on. In September of 1851, I was riding on horseback through the then quite unsettled counties of Polk and Yamhill. Somewhere in the north part of Yamhill County we saw the cabin of a new settler. It might be miles to the next house, and uninviting as the prospect was, we thought it better to beg shelter for the night. My escort rode to the man, who was still with his plough, and I dismounted at the cabin. where two little children, perhaps two and four years of age, were looking at me through the rude fence, and said to them "Please tell your mother to come out." They did not speak but looked at me. I tried again in what might be the vernacular. "Go call mammy" but with no better results. I then went in, and, taking them by the hand, said: "Take me where mamma is." The little thing led me around the house to the other side of the inclosure, and stopped by a new-made grave!.

In February, 1833, I was going on the steamer Canemah to Oregon City. A very young couple, married that morning, were accompanied by the brides mother, a poor widow who had reached Oregon a year or so before, stripped by death and disaster of every- thing but her children. The oldest daughter, not much over sixteen, was now married to a youngster, and they were going to the Cascades, where he had work in a sawmill, and his wife was to cook for the mess. He was a promising looking fellow, and I fully believed the answer that he made to the again bereaved mother, when, with quiverinig lips, she said: "Be good to my girl" The bride had evidently felt that to be truly married she must be attired in what she supposed to be bridal array. All the cash possible had been spent in the thin Swiss dress with its bit laces and ribbons. Her appearance brought a hardly concealed smile to those who were in the cabin, but in that terrible winter rain-storm it was likely to bring worse to her. I began talking with her and when she said it was the first time she was ever on a steamboat, I could easily say, "Then you don't know what a place it is to take cold, with its hot fires and cold air rushing in when we are obliged to open the doors," and soon showed her where behind a portiere, the only retirement possible, she could change her thin, open-sleeved gown for something warmer, and at the same time in better accordance with the custum of travelers, I became very much interested in their hopes and plans, and it was with a sense of personal bereavement that, the following fall, I read the name of the young husband as being hanged by the Indians in his sawmill, having first wiitnessed the butchering of his wife.

From the Cascades' frozen gorges to where the Columbia plunges jubilant to the sea, by many a bright prairie and pleasant valley, they still live who shared in the early, if not the earliest, work of saving to our country the fair heritage of Oregon. Give them, from your older and richer civilization, a kind, sisterly thought as they sit waiting in the lengthening shadows.