On September 3, 1838, the wives of six pioneer missionaries meet at the Whitman mission at Waiilatpu (near present-day Walla Walla) and organize the Columbia Maternal Association, the first women’s club in the Northwest. It is the first and only time the charter members — assigned to widely separated missions — are able to gather together in person. Instead, the women (and seven others who join later) hold “virtual meetings.” They set aside an appointed hour, twice a month, for club activities, sometimes in the company of one or two other women but often alone. The association continues to function in this manner until 1847, when an Indian attack on the Whitman mission leads to the closure of all Protestant missions in the Northwest.
“In Heathen Lands”
Only two of the founders of the Columbia Maternal Association were actually mothers at the time — Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) and Eliza Spalding (1807-1851) — but two others were pregnant, and they were all concerned about “the right performance of our Maternal duties” (Constitution of the Columbia Maternal Association, reprinted in McKee, 1). Far from family and friends, living in what Whitman described as “heathen lands, among savages,” the women turned to each other for emotional support (Whitman letter, May 3, 1837).
Maternal associations were common in the church circles the women had known in their home towns in upstate New York and New England. Establishing an association of their own represented an attempt to recreate the familiar, while adapting to the unique circumstances they encountered in the West.
Whitman and Spalding were the first to make the journey to what was then called Oregon Country. They arrived in the fall of 1836 with their respective husbands, Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and Henry H. Spalding (1803-1874). The Spaldings established a mission in Nez Perce territory at Lapwai, on the Clearwater River in what is now Idaho. The Whitmans settled among the Cayuse at Waiilatpu. Their first (and only) child, Alice Clarissa, was born there on March 14, 1837. Eliza Spalding gave birth to her first daughter, also named Eliza, at Lapwai eight months later.
“Mothers Need Help”
Eliza Spalding left no record of her feelings about motherhood, but Narcissa Whitman often expressed anxiety and insecurity. “O, the responsibilities of a mother!” she wrote in one letter to her family, when her daughter was seven weeks old. “I feel utterly incompetent for the place, and were it not for the strong arm of the Lord I should sink under the responsibilities resting upon me” (May 3, 1837). A year later, thanking a sister for sending several issues of a Protestant publication called Mother’s Magazine, she wrote: “If mothers need help in training up their children in Christian lands, surely we do here, in the midst of heathen, without one savory example before our eyes” (April 11, 1838). Writing to another sister, she mentioned that Alice Clarissa was sick, and added “you know not what it is to be a mother in heathen lands, so full of anxiety and constant care, and no kind sister to lend a helping hand” (September 25, 1838).
Whitman and Spalding had already discussed the possibility of organizing a maternal association of sorts, consisting only of themselves, when four additional missionary women arrived in Oregon Country with their husbands. All six couples gathered at Waiilatpu for a general mission meeting in early September 1838. On September 3, the women met privately and drew up a preamble, adopted a constitution, and elected officers for the Columbia Maternal Association.
Spalding was elected president; Whitman, corresponding secretary. Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1897, wife of Rev. Elkanah Walker) and Mary Augusta Gray (1810-1881, wife of William Henry Gray) were elected vice president and recording secretary, respectively. The other two members were Myra F. Eells (1805-1878, wife of Rev. Cushing Eells), and Sarah G. Smith (1813-1855, wife of Rev. Asa Bowen Smith).
The women agreed to spend one hour, beginning at 9 a.m., on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month in prayer, meditation, shared reading, and, if circumstances permitted any of the women to meet in person, conversation. The group’s main objective was to bring children “into the fold of Christ” at an early age,” in order to “fit them for usefulness here & glory hereafter.” Every member was obligated “to qualify herself by prayer, by readings and by all appropriate means, for performing the arduous duties of a Christian mother” (Constitution of the Columbia Maternal Association, reprinted in McKee, 1).
The day of the annual meeting was to be spent in fasting and prayer. It was recommended that members of the association also spend the anniversary of the birth of each of her children in fasting and prayer with that child.
The Spaldings soon returned to Lapwai, accompanied by the Grays, but the remaining four couples spent the winter of 1838-1839 in very close quarters at the Whitman mission. The women at Waiilatpu continued to conduct “Maternal meetings” twice a month despite growing tensions. The overcrowded conditions exacerbated underlying differences in personality and temperament. Myra Eells used snuff, a habit that drove Mary Walker to distraction. Eells resented the time Whitman spent writing. Whitman, who was alternately demanding and withdrawn, offended nearly everyone. At one point, Walker confided to her diary that she would boycott the next meeting if Whitman “wears as much of Cain’s countenance as usual” (November 17, 1838).
Still, the women carried on. They wrote papers on selected topics and circulated them from mission to mission. They subscribed to Mother‘s Magazine and avidly read and re-read every issue. They corresponded with Maternal Associations in Prattsburg, New York (Whitman’s home town); Holden, Massachusetts (where Eells’s family lived), and in mission outposts around the world, including Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey; Cape Palmas, Liberia; and Singapore.
Tensions eased in March 1839, when the Walkers and the Eellses left Waiilatpu to establish a mission of their own, at Tshimakain, near present-day Spokane. The following September, another general meeting of all the Oregon missionaries was held at Lapwai. Myra Eells was ill and unable to travel, and the Walkers remained with her and her husband at Tshimakain. The other four charter members of the Columbia Maternal Association reconvened on September 3, 1839, for their first (and only) annual meeting.
Narcissa Whitman was almost deranged with grief at that time because of the death of her daughter, who had drowned in the Walla Walla River at Waiilatpu on June 23, 1839. Nonetheless, she agreed to serve with Eliza Spalding as a committee of two to select topics for each of the association members to write upon during the coming year. Tellingly, one of the topics selected was the “importance of the aid and cooperation of our husbands in training our children in the way they should go.” Another was “the influence of domestics on the minds and morals of our children.”
In her report on the annual meeting, recording secretary Mary Gray noted that even though the women were separated by distance, “our hearts are united in this great work & that no one has at the hour for United Maternal prayer forgotten to present her petition before the mercy seat” (First Annual Report of the Columbia Maternal Association, quoted in McKee, p 3).
The association continued to serve as a long-distance study circle for nearly a decade. Five other missionary women eventually joined the group. The wives of Hudson’s Bay Company officials at Fort Colvile and Fort Walla Walla (both women of mixed Indian-European heritage) also became members. “There is now quite a large Maternal Association,” Myra Eells wrote to a sister in 1844. “I am President. I have never seen half the members and probably never shall” (quoted in McKee, 4).
Three years later, Cayuse Indians attacked the mission at Waiilatpu, killing the Whitmans and 11 others. All Protestant missions in Oregon Country (which then included Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) were closed. Some of the missionary families settled in the Willamette Valley; others returned to their homes in the East; and the first women’s club in the Northwest disbanded.