Time traveling to the secrets of our past: Part 2

It’s time to get back to those other stories. You may have read Time traveling to the secrets of our past: Part 1? which was mostly a story about furniture; not a secret. Might it be that some stories are less secretive but merely details that, for one reason or another, were not talked about? Perhaps there was too much else that our forebears felt important. Maybe the details weren’t remembered because whoever heard them at the time did not find them of interest. Or, maybe, they were details some would much rather have forgotten. In this post I share some of our lesser known family stories: you be the judge of whether the final one I share was a secret.

As I wrote in Part 1, I do wish I could travel back in time to ask my great great greats a few questions. Readers of My Music Man may recall reading stories about Chloe Clark (Willson) and William Willson in Nisqually, the Falls and Salem. (Relevant chapters are 5. Heartstrings, 6. The Falls, 15. Chemeketa, and 16. Books). Don’t want to read the whole book or acquire yet another volume for your shelf? Check it out from your local library.

As with other missionaries of the time, the Jason Lee Missionaries –whom William sailed to the Oregon Country with in 1837 as carpenter, as did Chloe in 1840 as teacher –failed to acknowledge the societies created in the area for thousands of years by Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Although they had hoped to start a mission school to educate Native American children, they failed largely because of their lack of cultural understanding with Indians finding little value in this educational offering. When the Methodist Mission Board closed the mission, the building that had previously housed the Manual Labor School was sold to the trustees of the Oregon Institute: Chloe was first teacher to educate missionary and settler children.

The Oregon Institute

Chloe was the first teacher, and began with only five students, mostly children of the missionaries. Eventually, she added a few “young ladies from the Falls” as borders to her class roster: the girls would catch steamers at the Falls and arrive at Salem’s Wheatland Landing. This same building was used to house the first session of the legislature to meet in Salem along with the first United States court. At a mission meeting, it was determined to use Feb. 1, 1842, as the founding date for Willamette University, creating some contention as to whether it was the first university in the West, west of the Rockies, or west of the Missouri. Regardless, Willamette University was one of the first coed universities in the United States, and its first graduate, Emily York, a woman.

In its earliest years, Willamette University designed the selling of “perpetual scholarships”—$500 cash or cash plus livestock or other resources to assist financing this school. Both Chloe and William purchased perpetual scholarships, imagining that their heirs for generations would have tuition prepaid….”

My Music Man, Chapter 15: Chemeketa

Notice in the image below, that Mrs. C.A. Wilson (misspelled) was attributed as giving $1,000 for two perpetual scholarships. From Oregon and Its Institutions: Comprising a Full History of the Willamette University, the First Established on the Pacific Coast,” Gustavus Hines, Carlton & Porter, 1868.

When our daughters Erin and Emily were young, Mom brought my attention back to this bit about perpetual scholarships: it seemed to me to be family legend, then. I’m not certain any of us knew about it when I was growing up or making college decisions, arising later thanks to research done by distant relative Katie Barker. (We share Chloe/William and J.K./Georgia Gill roots but are offspring from different Gill daughters.) Back in those days of the 1970s, our parents helped us partially with college and we were fortunate that the cost of tuition in those days was more affordable for many than now. But it still felt like a stretch to our parents and I believe we would have investigated “perpetual scholarships” at Willamette had we known.

Flash forward to my pursuit shortly after 2000, as a parent nervous about costs of education for our kids, I began to investigate this story. Thanks to Katie I had in my hands the receipt of the payment made by Chloe way back then: nobody still alive in our family knew if the funds had been donated back to the University, as the school foundation had requested. I still remember driving to Willamette with Mom to try to meet with Dr. Lee Pelton, only to learn from other staff that they couldn’t help us much due to a long ago fire in the library destroying old records. Hmm, that all sounded a bit of a stretch to me, though what did I know? I do remember “breaking the case” not long after when I found a 1934 Oregonian article (see below) asking families to “give back” any existing perpetual scholarships; reality had set in as the costs to the University from perpetual scholarships. A quote from the article (see below) states, “Legal documents, signed, sealed and attested, that provide free tuition to the bearer, his heirs and assignees forever are dangerous things for a university.” Was it that family decided to “give back” these scholarships in support of the University? Or was it all simply lost or forgotten about over elapsed time?

What I do know is the existence of lingering remembrances of this time period and the work of Chloe and William, other missionaries, and their time in what we know today as Salem. Almost hidden on site at the Willamette Heritage Center are three of the oldest frame houses still standing in the Pacific Northwest, including The Lee House and the Methodist Parsonage. These were both built in 1841 to house the Methodist Missionaries from 1834-1844, including Chloe and William after making their move from The Falls and prior to acquiring their own home nearby. Later, Chloe’s home, after William’s death, was eventually moved from the corner of Salem’s Capitol and Court streets to the western edge of the school from 1880-1881. In 1919 it was demolished and rebuilt into the three-story brick building that is today’s Lausanne Hall. (Want to know more about this? Check out my recorded talk as part of Oregon Capitol Foundation Speaker Series, Oregon’s Birthday, February 14, 2019.)

Have you visited the Willamette Heritage Center?

Changing course, finally, I conclude with a story that must have hit the gossip channels back in those days of 1840, about William and the woman most thought he intended to marry in those old Oregon days, Margaret Jewett Smith. Yes, this might be the one that fell into the secret or not to talk about bucket of stories. I don’t mention this story in My Music Man because when I wrote my memoir I hadn’t yet heard about it: there is no mention of it in any of our family records. Instead, I include one written by Chloe’s granddaughter (Chloe Dusts Her Mantel, Frances Gill, 1935), certainly fictionalized, of Chloe pushing back against her father’s matchmaking to “George Latham” back before sailing voyage with the Jason Lee Missionaries against the wishes of her parents. No family records or stories claim Chloe and William to have been in contact before she set journey, although that appears to be the true story. Instead, Chloe’s own diary only mentions first meeting William upon her 1840 arrival at the Nisqually Mission, shortly after traveling from Fort Vancouver via canoe and cart. She writes about her love for him and her marriage a mere 37 days after that. (See Chloe’s diary online thanks to Willamette University.)

More recently I have learned about Margaret Jewett Smith Bailey, how William had proposed to her, and when she said she didn’t want his hand, he insinuated that they had in fact already been intimate. The Oregon Encyclopedia gives us a view into a closer to true story than the omission existing in my own family lore. One of my historian friends suggested that Margaret might have in fact been at Nisqually when Chloe first arrived. None of this do I pretend to know, though I am sad to learn of yet another woman whose reputation is ruined because of actions of a man, this my own GGG grandfather. While Bailey’s book The Grains is on my “to read soon” list, I was told by another historian that this account also is a bit biased and fictionalized. Perhaps we all write with our own biases which changes our stories as they move between us, or influences whether they are passed on at all.

Oh, so many questions to ask if I were to travel back. But instead, like you with your family stories, I am left with the things I know, others I may imagine, and the life I live each day. Ah, the joy and sadness we all hold in shared stories. What are yours and which will you pass on?

Chloe and William’s grave at Salem Pioneer Cemetery.

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