Photograph from Oregon Historical Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library

Just consider the word History: his story. That’s true, isn’t it? The heroes, adventurers and destiny-changers are most often the men of the past. But women have played the same dramatic roles. In nineteenth century Oregon, women transplanted to this western wilderness from comfortable homes in the civilization of the eastern “States”, lived in considerable physical hardship: death in childbirth being frequent.  But an amazing number survived, nurturing their families, sometimes outliving their husbands.  Later generations of women led the way in promoting social justice and establishing the cultural community of the new city. They were torchbearers for women now pursuing professional careers.

Pioneer women endured long sea voyages to come to the primitive Willamette Methodist Mission in 1837 and 1840. A few came already married and with their small children, others married at the mission either to a man to whom they had become engaged before leaving home or, after a hasty courtship, to one met at the mission. By 1841, the survivors had left that first unhealthy location, and their goal of “civilizing” the Indian population.

This small colony of American families moved up-river a few miles to Chemeketa Plains where the town of Salem was established. The next generation of women lived the traditional lives of small town housekeeping and nurturing their children. Many names were forgotten to all but their descendants. Those whose husbands became prosperous businessmen and civic leaders were remembered with long obituaries in the newspaper, extolling their piety and success in cultivating local cultural institutions. It would be another generation before women left their traditional roles to pursue careers of their own.
We look back on all these lives, honoring the courage that was required of women when marriage was their only respectable future, every childbirth a risk of life and when as many of their young children died as survived. Women, even in town, helped tend the animals and grow crops that became their meals. After the tedium of spinning wheel and hand-sewing, they welcomed a treadle sewing machine to assemble clothing for the family. Women who lived in the Salem of 1876, seen above in an artist’s vision, were also teachers, or worked in the mill, were servants in other homes, or clerked in a shop. They cared for neighbors when problems threatened other families.
With the generational changes in educational opportunities, the right to own property and vote, the evolution of what is accepted by our society, women’s lives today have a freedom that would have been impossible for the earliest Salem women. We must not forget them: their family and community accomplishments established the foundation for the lives we enjoy in the Salem of today.

All the profiles in this series are based on research compiled by Virginia Green from a variety of sources. Additional information and corrections are welcome. Use Comment section that follows each article.