Judson, Phoebe (1831-1926)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/17/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8389
Phoebe Judson was the first non-Indian woman to settle in the Lynden area (in northern Whatcom County) and became known as the "Mother of Lynden" during the half century that she lived there. Born in Ontario in 1831, she moved to Washington Territory in 1853 and to Lynden in 1870. A strong, dedicated woman, known as a "doer of good deeds," she was actively involved in many of Lynden's affairs in its earliest years and provided a solid anchor to the town's citizens until her death in 1926.

North by Northwest 

Phoebe Newton Goodell was born October 25, 1831, in Ancaster, Ontario, the daughter of Jotham Weeks Goodell (an American citizen who had moved to Canada in the 1820s) and Anna B. Goodell.  She was named after Jotham’s oldest sister, Phebe, who had raised him from infancy. About 1837 the family left Canada and moved to Vermilion, Ohio, on the southern shore of Lake Erie west of Cleveland.  Jotham was a minister, and officiated when Phoebe married Holden Allen Judson (1826-1899) on June 20, 1849. 

In 1850 Jotham and Anna Goddell moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon Territory, but later moved across the Columbia River to Grand Mound, Washington Territory. Three years later Phoebe and Holden also decided to make the move west and join her parents. On March 1, 1853, they left Ohio and, traveling on the Overland Trail once they passed Kansas City, made their way west with a small party of others.  The journey in and of itself was an adventure given the primitive conditions and threat of an Indian attack (which did not happen). But late in June the party did pause for a day at La Bonta Creek in southeastern Wyoming when Phoebe gave birth to a son, Charles LaBonta Judson. 

Pioneering in Washington Territory 

The Judsons arrived at their new home in Grand Mound (Thurston County) in October 1853.  About 1856 they moved to near Claquato (Lewis County) and late in 1858 moved to Olympia when Holden was elected to the territorial legislature on the Democratic ticket.  They would remain in Olympia for nearly eight years. Holden served at least two terms in the legislature, and subsequently operated a store in Olympia. 

In 1866 the Judsons moved to Whidbey Island, where Holden may have operated another store.  By the end of the 1860s, their biological family was complete. They had four children: Annie (1850-1937), Charles (1853-1933), George (1859-1891), and Mary “Mollie” (1862-1894). (A fifth child, Carrie, died of whooping cough one month and one day after birth in 1869.) But note the distinction “biological family,” because the Judsons would subsequently adopt an additional 11 children. 

On March 1, 1870, the Judsons left Whidbey Island, bound for Lynden. They traveled by the steamer Mary Woodruff to Whatcom (now part of Bellingham), then obtained three canoes, with two Indians apiece, to paddle, pole, and portage them up the Nooksack River to Lynden.  

The Judsons moved into a rough log cabin that they had acquired in an unusual trade with Colonel James Alexander Patterson, the first white settler in Lynden. Patterson had built the cabin in 1860, and he and his Native American wife had lived there for most of the decade. But at some point in the late 1860s his wife left him, and he began to search for a foster home for his two young daughters.  By this time he was a frequent visitor to the Judson’s home on Whidbey Island. Patterson made an offer to the Judsons that he would swap his home and land in what was then known among the settlers as “Nooksack” or “Nootsack” if the Judsons would care for his two daughters, Dollie (age 7 in March 1870) and Nellie (age 4 in March 1870) until they came of age. The Judsons agreed, and Patterson executed a quitclaim deed to his land in favor of Phoebe Judson in March 1870. 

The Judsons settled into what Phoebe Judson would famously refer to as her “ideal home.” It was located just south of 6th and Front streets, near the southwestern edge of today’s Judson Street Alley, and had a view of the Nooksack River, which at the time ran farther north than it does today. Holden became postmaster of Lynden in 1873, and Phoebe was asked to select the name of the new town. She chose a name that she had heard from a poem, Hohenlinden, written by Thomas Campbell, which begins “On Linden, when the sun was low ...” But she changed the “i” in Linden to “y” because she felt it looked prettier. 

Aunt Phoebe, the Mother of Lynden 

Since Phoebe Judson was the first white woman in Lynden, she became known as the “Mother of Lynden,” and her presence in the community was established. Almost from the beginning she was called “Aunt Phoebe,” someone you went to when you needed something, be it a pail of buttermilk or help during childbirth. She also became known for writing letters to the Bellingham Bay Mail during the 1870s, describing the joys of life as a “Pioneer’s Wife,” as she usually signed her letters. 

But she was more that that.  She took a considerably more active role in the community than did many women of the day.  During the 1870s log jams plagued the Nooksack River, preventing steamers from making their way upriver to Lynden.  One of the biggest jams was downriver from Lynden, near what is today Ferndale.  In March 1876 Phoebe began to solicit funds for the removal of the jam. Aided by a $50 donation from Holden, $200 was raised by the end of April from settlers in Sehome and Whatcom (both now part of Bellingham) as well as from settlers along the river.  Phoebe also suggested that the man who donated the most work on the jam be given votes for a county office. History doesn’t record whether or not this happened, but work on the jam began, and it was gone by early 1877. 

Phoebe’s son George Judson platted Lynden in 1884, and as the town site developed, the Judsons donated parts of their land for churches, schools, a printing office, a blacksmith shop, and for various private purposes. They also built the Judson Opera House in the late 1880s, and when it was completed in 1889 it became the community nexus for lectures, entertainment, and celebrations. 

Phoebe has been described as a gregarious crusader for many causes.  Known as religious, she took an active role in her opposition to saloons in early-day Lynden. But she is also known for taking an active role in the early development of its churches and schools. She arguably became more well-known than her husband, Holden, perhaps because she outlived him by 26 years and had the opportunity to accomplish more, and perhaps also because of her book of her life, A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home, which was first published in 1925, the year before her death.

 During the 1880s the Judsons moved to a new two-story frame home on the north side of Front Street, midway between 5th and 6th streets.  Holden died there on October 26, 1899, and Phoebe peacefully passed away there on January 16, 1926, having remained physically active and mentally alert until the time of her death.  Services were held two days later, and the entire city of Lynden shut down to mark the occasion:  Stores were closed, schools were dismissed, and hundreds of people from miles around made the pilgrimage to pay final tribute to the “Mother of Lynden.” 

Sources: P.R. Jeffcott, Nooksack Tales and Trails (Ferndale: P. R. Jeffcott, 1949), 127;  Phoebe Judson, A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home (Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press, 1984), foreword, 10, 39, 85-86, 130, 178, 197-200, 220, 234; Dorothy Koert, The Wilderness Days: Lynden, 1858-1904 (Lynden: Dorothy Koert, 1989),13;  Mary Michaelson, Memory Book: Friends of Aunt Phoebe Reunion (Lynden:  Lynden Pioneer Museum, 2006), 25, 51-52, 63; “All Lynden Mourns Passing of Mrs. Judson,” Lynden Tribune, January 21, 1926, p. 1;  Phil Dougherty interview of Mary Michaelson of Lynden Pioneer Museum, July 7, 2007, Lynden, Washington.
Note: This essay was corrected on July 4, 2008, and again on May 23, 2011.

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