On the Trail of Narcissa: 

Women in the Walla Walla Valley from Settlement Times to the Mid-Nineteen Hundreds

By Betsy Miller

Walla Walla:  An Old West Town

Until 1861, Fort Walla Walla and the Whitman Mission comprised the entire white settlement of the Walla Walla Valley.  The well-documented arrival of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and her friend Eliza Spalding with their missionary-doctor husbands has overshadowed the presence of the other early European women who inhabited Walla Walla.  The area at that time served to fulfill the safety and economic needs of trappers, immigrants, and the first white settlers. 

As Walla Walla grew from an outpost to an “old West” town, other women came to the Valley, though many were of a less respectable social class.  One surviving anecdote involved Kitty West, the owner of a well-known prostitution house.  Ms. West was given orders to leave town after an employee, Amelia Moran, was accused of “persistent robbery of persons who visited the resort.”  It was not a general outcry against the type of establishment itself, however, that caused the action; rather, “[the] fact that Kitty West allowed her [Amelia] to stay in her house is what brought the trouble on….” 

In 1861, stories began to circulate regarding the rich gold fields in Idaho, and great numbers of would-be miners from the east and south stopped in Walla Walla before continuing their journey to Lewiston.  The influx of travelers brought commerce to the area, and many returned at the end of the gold rush to settle with their modest fortunes.  The West itself was becoming a less distant frontier, and soon wagons rolling over the plains would hasten its integration into Europeanized America.    

Oregon Fever

When Oregon Fever struck in the mid-eighteen hundreds, thousands of immigrant families began the arduous trek across the plains towards the promise of the West.  The Oregon Trail passed through Walla Walla, and Fort Walla Walla became an important location for restocking supplies exhausted during the long journey.  

The diaries of pioneer women who followed their husbands, often unwillingly, into the great unknown provide some of the best records of these times.  The journals speak of every manner of uncomfortable and heartbreaking situation.  While men purchased supplies, the great burden of preparation fell with the women:            

Now, I will begin to work and plan to make everything with an eye to starting out on a six-month trip.  The first thing is to lay plans and then work up to the program so the first thing is to make a piece of linen for a wagon cover and some sacks; will spin mostly evening while my husband reads to me.[1]

Six months later, the same woman pens the following:

            I have worked almost day and night this winter, have the sewing about all done….[1] 

Leaving their well-established connections in the community–extended family, friends, and church members—was extremely difficult.

…that last separating word Farewell! sinks deeply into the heart.  It may be the last we ever hear from some or all of them, and to those who start…[West] there can be no more solemn scene of parting—only at death.[2]

The work did not cease once the trek began.

Done some washing and I baked bread and pumpkin and apple pies cooked beans and meat stewed apples and baked sockeyes in quantities sufficient to last some time—Besides making Dutch cheese and took everything out of the wagon to air….[3]

Although there is not much to cook, the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it amounts to a great deal—so by the time one has squatted around the fire and cooked bread and bacon, and made several dozen trips to and from the water—washed the dishes (with no place to drain them)…and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on.[4]

It seems that troubles accumulated with each passing step.  Journals tell of fatal fights among the men, domestic violence, dust storms, rain soaking through the canvas wagon covers, hail, buffalo stampedes, frostbitten feet and fingers, sickness, poison alkali water, leaving behind family members with broken wagons, drowning at river crossings, and sympathy for the weak and weary oxen.  Many women gave birth along the trail, or buried a loved one, or both.

Upon arriving in Oregon country, the women confronted even more primitive conditions.  Mrs. James McAllister set up housekeeping in a burned-out stump while her husband constructed their log home.[5]  Reports of Indian raids frightened the children and hard winters brought cold and hunger.  Many of the men were not yet ready to “settle down” and moved their families again and again.  Some of them even left for newly reported gold fields in Idaho and California.  By the late 1800s, however, the Walla Walla Valley was beginning to take on a “civilized” appearance. 

The Pioneer’s Daughters

When Nellie Gilliam Day immigrated with her parents to the Walla Walla Valley in 1859, she remembers being “very much pleased with the new home and surroundings.”  However, the house in which they passed their first winter left something to be desired: 

The roof was of canvas.  During the rain almost as much water came into the house as fell on the ground outside, and when the wind blew the breeze was almost as strong in the house as out of it. 

During the first winter, the ground froze with only part of the chimney constructed:

…[it was] a most undesirable condition for the chimney could not be finished, nor was it of sufficient height to be used.  Cold, weather, the house built entirely of unseasoned material, and no heat except from a very small cook-stove, an eight-month old baby and two small children in the family were the conditions my father and mother faced when the first winter weather arrived.

She also recalls that “…there was one advantage that the pioneer girls had over the girls of the present day; there were at least five marriageable young men to each young lady.”

Miss Gilliam attended Union School on Dry Creek, and then the Whitman Seminary before she transferred to a normal school in Salem, Massachusetts.  She returned to the Walla Walla Valley and assumed a position in the academic department of the new Whitman College.  After three years she “was elected country school superintendent, being the first woman to have this distinction.”  At the close of her term as superintendent, Mill Gilliam married Mr. Jessie Day and moved to Dayton.  Upon Mr. Day’s death three years later, Mrs. Day was hired the by the Walla Walla Union “which seemed to surprise the staff members as no woman had ever held a position on the city papers.”


View of Walla Walla down South Main from the top of the newly constructed Drumheller Building, 1910.

Daughters who had been raised in sod houses or log cabins bore their own children in well-appointed, Victorian-style homes.  These children of the pioneers grew up to take advantage of the better life their parents had sought.  Wheat became the mainstay of the Walla Walla Valley, and many of the farmers became rich men.  With their surplus, they dabbled in banking, hotels, construction firms, and transportation routes, which strengthened the region socially and financially.  Women in conservative Walla Walla enjoyed the fruits of this labor, and were among the first in the nation to utilize modern conveniences such as the washing machine and the sewing machine. 

Women also drove automobiles, which were quickly integrated into Walla Wallan life.  Mrs. J.L. Elam had the dubious honor of the town’s first auto accident on May 28, 1903, as reported in the Walla Walla Union.  The “electric machine ran into the curb and was stopped” whereupon Mrs. Elam secured the assistance of a gentleman to push it back into the road.  This tactic failed, and as she endeavored to shut the power off “the lever was accidentally thrown wide open.  The automobile shot backward, knocking Mrs. Elam to the ground, the wheels running over here and scratching her face.  She immediately arose and started after the runaway machine, catching it before it had gone twenty-five feet.”  Mrs. Elam was then able to shut the power off, and her minor injuries were nursed at a nearby house. 

A total of seven women’s clubs were chartered in Walla Walla between 1897-1901.  The Pioneers of the Pacific, active until the mid-nineteen hundreds, required its members to be bona fide pioneers; that is, they had to have crossed the continent from the East to colonize the Inland Empire.  This club sponsored a Pioneers’ Day parade as part of the town’s annual Frontier Days, and the Pioneer Pageant, a gala event held on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Whitman massacre.  Women of Woodcraft, Rathbone Sisters, Ladies of the Maccabees, and the Degree of Pochontas were women’s clubs corresponding to popular fraternal clubs at the turn of the century.  Among other activities, the Women’s Reading Club played a large role in the sponsorship of the Walla Walla Public Library. 

Although a relative latecomer, the Women’s Park Club offers a keen example of feminine civic duty in Walla Walla in 1908.  Councilman John Fm. McLean saved forty acres in the center of town from development on account of needing a city park.  His idea struck, but the area was a park in name only until the newly formed Park Commission decided upon improvements.  It was determined that the first necessity was an irrigation pipe, but the four thousand dollar price tag discouraged the council--that is, until the Women’s Park Club presented its members with a fourteen-foot long list of names in favor of the park.  When further funds were needed to complete the park, the Club organized a “high pressure sales campaign” of one-dollar park buttons.  Apparently, it was social suicide to be seen in the streets of Walla Walla in 1908 without a dollar park button.  The park was officially opened on September 6, 1908, and by the following year a small zoo, playground equipment, and boats for the lake rounded out the park’s effects.   

Whitman College, organized in 1859 as the Whitman Seminary, had two female principals in its early days, and a number of female assistants.  The first graduating class of the College, in 1886, included two women, the daughters of local businessmen.  Nine years later, Whitman memorialized is first women’s basketball team with a photograph.  The players are shown in uniform: below-the-knee black dresses, high-collared and sporting a decorative sash, with hair collected in buns and bangs carefully curled.  The shoes, however, seem to be sensible. 


The first women’s basketball team at Whitman College, 1895

Within a few years of Walla Walla College’s charter in 1892, women served as professors in the art, Bible, history, and preparatory departments, as well as in accounting, secretarial, and dean positions.

Still, relatively few women worked outside the home in turn-of-the-century Walla Walla.  An interesting article in a 1908 copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stated why:  “Walla Walla being the third richest city per capita in the United States, the burden of self-support does not fall upon a large percent of its women….”  The article reported that only three women in the city were employed in jobs normally associated with men, compared to the much higher numbers in other cities of the time.

Mrs. Molly Gillian Johnson, a widow, was one of those three.  She was born near Portland, Oregon, in 1864, and raised her younger brothers and sister following the death of their mother.  At age 22, she married but was soon widowed with two children less than six years of age.  Molly took up teaching to support her family, beginning in a one-room schoolhouse that, with one corner partitioned, also served as her home.  She apparently excelled at teaching, and was promoted to a local high school where she worked until relocating to Walla Walla proper.  With her father’s approval and monetary support, she rented an office in downtown Walla Walla, above Barrett’s Shoe Store, and entered the real estate business.  After only four months, her father took sick and died, leaving her alone and without funding.  She determined to remain in the business in spite of well-meant pressure from friends and family to return to teaching.  The early times were hard, but within a few years Molly became one of the town’s leading real estate dealers.  She was also known for her relief efforts for the needy of the valley, and, it is said, never turned a hungry person away from her door. 

Historical Highlights

  Mrs. Lettice Reynolds

Only six women have their own entries in the voluminous Histories of Walla Walla County, and five of these are widows.  This does not imply that that other women were unimportant in the town’s history, but rather reflect the times in which they lived.  Wives an daughters are mentioned in laudatory entries alongside their male family members, but little else is listed besides that pertaining to business or financial assets.

Mrs. Annie Mix

Mrs. Annie Mix was one of Walla Walla’s grand old widows in the early 20th century.  She was a New Orleans lady, taught in the private schools of the day, and later married to Mr. James Mix, a lawyer.  The couple moved to San Francisco, California, a few years after the California gold rush, and in due time relocated to Walla Walla.  The Mixes were known for their gracious residence and hospitality, where Mrs. Mix, always dressed to the hilt, “presided with grace and dignity.”  She managed their substantial property holdings in Walla Walla until the time of her death, and gave liberally to needs around the city. 

Another woman who profoundly influenced the growth of Walla Walla in its early days was Mrs. George Drumheller.  Although active in many city projects, she is best remembered for the campaign that brought a Y.M.C.A. to Walla Walla.  Construction of the Y.M.C.A. had been started with a grand following, but this support had fizzled out, and $45,000 was needed to complete the building.  Mrs. Drumheller’s campaign in 1911 brought in $47406.60 through banquets, “parades, and a lot of friendly arm twisting.”  This brought the project to completion and set the Y.M.C.A. on a sound financial basis.    




More information on the European colonization of the Walla Walla Valley can be found in Rober Bennett’s books Walla Walla:  Portrait of a Frontier Town; Walla Walla:  A Town Built to be a City; and Walla Walla:  A Nice Place to Raise a Family.  Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla Country contains more detailed information.


[1] Keturah Belknap, 1848-1849

[2] Lodisa Frizzell, 1852

[3] Cecelia Adams, 1852

[4] Helen Carpender, 1857

[5] Bennet, Robert.  A Small World of Our Own.  “Mrs. James Hartman” p. 9-19.