On July 16, 1837 a triple wedding took place in a grove of fir trees, perhaps like this one, near the mission settlement. Two of these couples are well-known in Oregon history, the other largely ignored. Jason Lee conducted the first ceremony uniting Susan Downing and Cyrus Shepherd, the most gifted of the mission teachers. They had become engaged to marry before the expeditions to Oregon. The second ceremony of marriage that day, for Jason Lee and Anna Maria Pittman, a teacher, was more of a surprise: although she was informed before she left New York that she was a “suitable” prospect as his wife, he had expressed reservations.
Susan and Anna Maria had voyaged together to Hawaii on the ship Hamilton, then waited several months for the Diana to complete their landing at Fort Vancouver. They were still together in the canoes paddling upriver to Champoeg the next three days. At that landing, Babtiste Desporte McKay presented a letter from Daniel Lee, reporting twelve sick persons at the mission and urging Dr White and the party to hasten in relief. They found the dirt floor of the mission structure covered with the sick, covered with blankets. Susan, dressed carefully for her reunion with Cyrus, found him unkept, busy with housework and caring for the ill. Soon he, too, became sick and Susan found her duties, which continued after their marriage, would be in nursing the sick and caring for the mission children.
Susan’s daughter, born in August 1838, was named Anna Maria Lee Shepherd. Unfortunately, Susan’s friend for whom the infant was named, had died a few days after her son was born in the previous June. The Lee son died as well.
“I have taken my pen in hand to address you for the last time. The time is drawing nigh when I must bid a long farewell to all I love. I quit the scene of my youth, the land of my birth, and in a far and distant land among strangers I expect to dwell. Soon the rolling billows of the tempestuous ocean, and the towering mountain’s rugged steep, will intervene between us, and perhaps we see each others faces no more. As the hour approaches for my departure, I still remain firm and undaunted; I have nothing to fear, God has promised to be with me even to the end of the world. Dear brother, farewell, may Heaven bless you, and oh remember your sister who goes not to seek the honors and pleasures of the world, but lays her life a willing sacrifice upon the altar of God.”
Jason Lee in his diary recorded his second meeting with Anna Maria Pittman: “In our first reinforcement in the summer of 1837 there were three single ladies, one of which was not engaged. I had seen her before in N.Y. City, but was not at all favorably impressed with her personal appearance, and least of all, did I think she would ever become my wife; even when I was informed by letter that she was coming to Oregon, and on my first interview with her there, my prejudices remained the same. I was told that she was sent out on purpose for me, and that she had come with expectation that I would marry her. After the marriage, Jason Lee wrote
“Thus I commenced a new era in my life and began an experimental acquaintance with the state of marriage, the happiness of which I had long been favorably impressed. The most perfect harmony and unanimity subsisted between us, and we were always happy in the enjoyment of each others society.”
The Lees and Shepherds took a honeymoon camping trip the coast (each way was four days by horseback) where the ministers preached to Indians and, we hope, the ladies indulged in salmon and enjoyed the dramatic Oregon coast views. Early in the next year, Jason Lee was on his way back to the east to gain more financial support for the mission effort. Although pregnant and ill, Anna Maria accompanied him to the ship in Vancouver (again by horseback, being helped on and off by their companions). Her friends felt at that time that she would not recover. Indeed, she and the new born son died in June of 1839 and were buried together in a hastily constructed casket. Flooding caused damage to the mission grave site. Her casket was later moved to Lee Mission Cemetery in Salem.
In 1840, Cyrus, always in ill health due to tuberculosis, died after the amputation of a leg. Susan must have left the mission at that time. In 1841, Susan married Joseph Whitcomb in Washington and returned east the next year. He died soon after. A grandchild, Clara Shepherd Newell Traxler wrote “Stories my Grandmother Told Me”, including memories of Susan’s tragic four years Oregon.
The third couple was Nancy McKay, daughter of Captain Thomas McKay and his Indian wife, Timmee T’ikul Tchinouk, to Charles Roe, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The mission community festivities included a “love feast” with sermons on the joys of married life, singing, and conversions of Indian attendees. Charles Roe also joined the church that day.
Nancy was as close to northwest aristocracy as any young lady of that day. Her father, Thomas McKay was the respected explorer, trapper and trader who acted as guide for the party that brought Jason Lee to Oregon. McKay was the step-son of John McLoughlin, the leading representative of Britain in the northwest. Nancy’s mother has been described as a daughter of a Chinook chief. With this family background, it is not surprising to find a record that Nancy and her brothers were among the “Indian” children who attended the mission school where Cyrus Shepard was teacher. However, Nancy and Charles were not a part of the mission community. They lived in the French Prairie area, among the retired French-Canadians and their families. Her home, later described as a “hut” by Gustavus Hines who found it unoccupied, was a modest one. The only recorded sighting of Nancy herself after her marriage was in 1843, near Walla Walla. Hines wrote the following:
“An Indian woman and her daughter joined our party, of whom mention has been made in another part of this narrative. The old woman lived many years with Thomas McKay, but he finally cast her off, and she is now the wife of an old half-breed Iroquois, by the name of Jo Gray. Her daughter is the wife of Charles Roe. They both live in the lower country, but were up on a visit to their relatives among the Indians. Their dresses were an imitation of the Boston fashions, but were much defiled by the smoke, dirt, and grease of wigwams. They were both astride their horses, the younger carrying her little son before her.”
And so Nancy and her son disappear from the records of that time. Nancy’s birth date is unknown, but she died before 1856. Charles Roe remarried in that year and in 1859 was hanged in Salem for the murder of this second wife.
Marion County photograph by TN Green, Jr.