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The Souvenir of Western Women/Pioneer Women of Methodism in the Northwest

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Pioneer Women of Methodism in the Northwest


THERE appeared at the frontier trading post of St. Louis in 1832, four Indians who had come from the distant shores of the Western ocean asking for the "White Man's Book of Heaven." After months of unavailing search, overpowered by hardships and disappointments, two of their number succumbed, and with saddened faces their companions turned homeward, their quest unfulfilled. Throughout our country the fruitless mission of these savage people was related. The religious world, stirred to its depths, called for volunteers to carry the message of the Lord to these longing souls. To the quiet homes of old New England the summons came, and, moved by a holy purpose, young wives turned from the shelter of their firesides to brave with their husbands the unknown perils of the wilderness. Into the schools and colleges the cry penetrated, and cultured young women, as well as stalwart young men, eagerly offered to share in the dangers and privileges of this great mission. Jason Lee, a hardy young college man, filled with deep religious fervor, was the first to respond to this appeal. In 1834, with two companions, he set forth on his perilous journey to the westward, and, in less than a year, had begun his work among the Indians. By 1840 two missionary settlements had been formed in the Oregon territory (as the whole Northwest was then called), the Presbyterian, east of the Cascade Mountains, under the direction of Dr. Marcus Whitman and Rev. H. H. Spalding, and the Methodist, on the banks of the Willamette, superintended by Jason Lee.

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The lasting influence of the Methodist mission is largely due to the courageous hearts and patient devotion of the women, who gave their youth and strength to the establishment of this work. These women, who dared the long ocean voyage, or braved the sufferings and privations of the overland trail, were either the youthful wives of the missionary workers, or young women teachers. Among their number were Puritan daughters of New England, who had inherited the daring spirit of their forefathers, and in whose veins flowed the blood of revolutionary heroes. They possessed the characteristics of the true pioneer. To them belonged an unfaltering courage which brought them through many a peril on their toilsome way, which led them undismayed by hostile tribes and left them unafraid to meet death in the wilderness. Endurance was theirs. In all the records there is no murmuring about their difficulties, no regret that they had undertaken so hazardous a. mission; but steadfast in hope and unswerving in purpose, they made their journey to a strange land. Above all they had the spirit of self-sacrifice. They had not sought to explore new scenes nor, like the early settlers of California, were they lured of gold; but for the glory of their religion and the love of humanity they sought in the isolation of the Oregon forests two thousand miles from the nearest church bell to become a civilizing power. In the homes and in the settlements not only among those of their own race, but upon those they had come to teach, their presence made for all that is permanent in the social and moral life.

Indians eager for the light were not awaiting them, but a degraded tribe, weakened by disease, listened indifferently to their teachings. The mission work was doomed. In 1848 it had to be abandoned, but not before a little had been accomplished in the betterment of the race for which the sacrifice had been made. Although the work was given up, there had come to these young settlers a love for the snow-covered peaks and grass-grown valleys of the land of their adoption, and there was no thought of returning to the East. Here they had suffered and sorrowed; here they had toiled,, and here they would cast their fortunes. They remained loyal to the great church, under whose auspices they had come, and the influential position of the Methodist denomination in the Northwest to-day is due not alone to the sterling qualities of the men who pioneered the work, but to the cultured Christian character of the women as well. Not only the church, but the state owes a debt of gratitude to these women who helped lay the foundations for the social structure that is our heritage to-day.

It was one of these pioneer women. Miss Chloe A. Clark, who opened the first school for higher education in Oregon, the Oregon Institute, and many of the sons and daughters of the settlers received from her and her associates the inspiration of higher ideals. This school, almost entirely supported by the early missionaries, was the leading educational institution of the state.

The missionary women sowed the seeds of righteous living. In the midst of the wilderness they set up their homes. It was one of their number (Anna Maria Pittman Lee, wife of Jason Lee) who was the first American wife and the first American mother in Oregon's boundaries, and it was this wife and mother who was the first white woman to be laid beneath Oregon's soil. They helped to rear the bulwarks for the future state in moulding the characters of their children. The lessons they had learned in battling against hardships and surmounting difficulties led them to instill these principles of courage and endurance into the minds of their sons and daughters. The part they had played in planting in the Willamette Valley a colony, American in thought and purpose, inspired their children and their children's children with a patriotic love of their country and a desire to defend and preserve it. To their children they have left the rich heritage of an honored name and lives well spent.