Columbia Maternal Association

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 1/27/2010
  • Essay 9272

The Columbia Maternal Association -- the first women’s club in what is now Washington state -- was organized in 1838 by the wives of six pioneer missionaries. Only two of the women were mothers at the time, but two others were pregnant, and they all expected that motherhood would be among their primary roles in life. Isolated in what they considered a "heathen land," far from family and friends, they turned to each other for help in "the right performance of our Maternal duties" (Constitution of the Columbia Maternal Association). The women had been familiar with such groups through Protestant church circles in their home towns in New England and upstate New York. By creating an association of their own, they connected not only with each other but with the worlds they had left behind.

In many ways, the Columbia Maternal Association mirrored its predecessors. The founders drew upon East Coast models in defining their goal, as reflected in their constitution: "to bring [our children] early into the fold of Christ and fit them for usefulness here & glory hereafter." They put similar emphasis on the importance of bible study, family worship, parental discipline, and prayer in "training up" Christian children. Yet their organization also reflected the unique circumstances that they encountered in the West.

The six charter members lived on remote missions in what was then called Oregon Country (including present day Washington, Idaho, and Oregon). They had no access to the ministers, churches, and social scaffolding that supported their Eastern counterparts. They were able to meet as a group, in person, only one time. Instead, they held the equivalent of virtual meetings. They set aside a certain hour, twice a month, to pray, read selected texts, write letters to be circulated among themselves, and reflect -- sometimes in the company of one or two other women but often alone. Nine other women eventually joined the group, but it continued to function along these lines until 1847, when an Indian attack on the Whitman mission near Walla Walla led to the closure of all the Protestant missions in the Northwest.

"Training Up Children"

Maternal associations were products of the religious revivalism that swept across the Northeast in the early nineteenth century. The first was established in Portland, Maine, in 1815. There were hundreds by the 1830s. Sponsored by evangelical Protestant churches, they were less concerned with the practical aspects of childrearing than with the salvation of young souls. The same impulse fired the campaign to send missionaries to the West, in hopes of saving souls by converting the Indians to Christianity.

The voice of the movement was The Mother’s Magazine, a monthly published by the Maternal Association of Utica, New York. The magazine was an important influence on the founders of the Columbia Maternal Association. "I thank Sister Jane very much for those numbers of the Mothers’ Magazine," a grateful Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) wrote to her family in Prattsburg, New York. "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).

Whitman and her colleague, Eliza Spalding (1807-1851) arrived in Oregon Country in the fall of 1836 with their respective husbands, Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and Henry Spalding (1803-1874). The Whitmans established a mission among the Cayuse at Waiilatpu, on the Walla Walla River. The Spaldings settled in Nez Perce territory at Lapwai, on the Clearwater River in what is now Idaho. The Whitmans’ only child, Alice Clarissa, was born at Waiilatpu on March 14, 1837. Eliza Spalding gave birth to the first of her four children, a daughter named Eliza, eight months later.

Narcissa Whitman, the first of the women to become a mother, was also the first to suggest the organization of a maternal association. Lonely, anxious, and insecure, she admitted that she felt "utterly incompetent" to the task of raising a Christian child without the social and religious networks that had shaped her own childhood. "O, the responsibilities of a mother!" she wrote in one letter to her family. "To be a mother in heathen lands, among savages, gives feeling that can be known only to those who are such" (May 3, 1837). She begged for prayers from members of maternal associations back home; read and re-read her cherished copies of The Mother’s Magazine; and eventually wrote to Spalding, 120 miles away in Lapwai, proposing that they create a two-person mothers’ group of their own.

Spalding readily agreed. "The smallness of our number and our remote situation from each other seems to be a barrier in the way of our forming ourselves into an association," she wrote. Nonetheless, it was "not only our duty but a blessed privilege to unite," both "for the purpose of strengthning [sic] each others hands" and to set a good example for "heathen mothers." After an exchange of letters, the two women selected nine o’clock every morning as a time to read the same scriptures and pray "in unison," seeking "divine assistance in discharging the responsible duties of mothers" (Diary of Eliza Spalding, March 19, 29, 1838, in First White Women).


The Oregon Mission was unexpectedly expanded in August 1838 with the arrival of four additional missionary couples from the East. The reinforcements were led by William Henry Gray, who, as a single man, had accompanied the Whitmans and the Spaldings to Oregon Country two years earlier. Gray had returned to upstate New York; found a wife; recruited three other couples; and convinced the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to send them all to Oregon. The party, which also included Cornelius Rogers, an unmarried 23-year-old from Ohio, reached Waiilatpu at the end of August. The Spaldings had arrived for a visit two weeks earlier. They stayed on for what became the first and only meeting of all 13 members of the Oregon Mission.

The men gathered for a business session on September 1, 1838 (women were not allowed to participate). The next day was a Sunday, devoted to rest and to prayer. On September 3, the six wives crowded into a room by themselves and organized the Columbia Maternal Association.

Spalding was elected president; Whitman, corresponding secretary. Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1897, wife of Reverend 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 Reverend Cushing Eells), and Sarah G. Smith (1813-1855, wife of Rev. Asa Bowen Smith).

There were no dues, no treasurer, and no central meeting place. The constitution, dutifully copied into a Record Book by Mary Gray, stipulated that each member "qualify herself by prayer, by readings and by all appropriate means, for performing the arduous duties of a Christian mother." The women agreed to set aside an hour on the second and last Wednesdays of every month, "at their respective homes," for prayer, meditation, conversation if possible, writing papers, and reading "such works as relate to the great objects for which we associate." The day of the annual meeting was to be spent in fasting and prayer. It was recommended that members celebrate the birthdays of their children by spending the day fasting and praying with that child.

Whitman, as corresponding secretary, was asked to coordinate contact with "Sister Associations" and arrange for a subscription to The Mother’s Magazine. "While the sisters were all here we formed a Maternal Association," she reported in a letter to her father. "I am its corresponding secretary, and of course have more letters to write than usual" (September 28, 1838).

Winter of Discontent

The Spaldings soon returned to Lapwai, accompanied by the Grays and by Cornelius Rogers. The remaining four couples bickered their way through a long winter in very close quarters at the Whitman mission.

Conditions were already crowded at the mission before the reinforcements arrived. The only housing consisted of an adobe building, 30 feet wide and 36 feet long, partitioned into five small rooms; and a 12-by-36-foot lean-to. According to historian Clifford M. Drury, 13 people were sharing this space (1,500 square feet in all) before the newcomers settled in: the Whitmans, their toddler daughter, people working for the Whitmans, and their families. The addition of six other adults, one of whom -- Mary Walker -- was imminently pregnant -- seemed to bring out the worst in everyone.

Petty grievances flared into major ones under the stress of overcrowding and incompatible personalities. Elkanah Walker chewed tobacco, much to Narcissa Whitman’s disgust. Myra Eells resented the time Narcissa spent writing. The Walkers used wine for medicinal purposes and all the newcomers drank wine with communion, offending the tee-totaling Whitmans. The Smiths were shocked that Mary Walker gave birth to a son exactly nine months and two days after being married, a demonstration, they thought, of unseemly carnality.

Mary Walker was driven to distraction by Myra Eells’ "habit of snuffing." Cushing Eells objected to Mary Walker’s habit of staying up late. Narcissa Whitman was at times preemptory and demanding with her guests ("cross at everybody," by one account); at other times she retreated to her room and let them fend for themselves. None of the women felt that the others were doing their share of the household chores. Sarah Smith irritated nearly everyone by weeping almost constantly. "Clearly, the house was too small for all the missionaries to be in it together," wrote historian Julie Roy Jeffrey (135).

Carrying On

Still, the women set aside their quarrels at least twice a month for meetings of the Columbia Maternal Association. Mary Walker, who kept the most complete diary of all the Oregon missionaries, faithfully recorded each session. Most of the entries were cryptic: "Our Maternal Association was observed," or even simply "Maternal Association," on the second and fourth Wednesdays. "My turn to lead the Maternal Association," she noted, a week before giving birth to her firstborn, a son named Cyrus (November 28, 1838). The meetings continued even as tempers frayed. Walker threatened at one point to boycott the next gathering if Whitman "wears as much of Cain’s countenance as usual," but she relented (Mary Walker to Elkanah Walker, February 12, 1839).

Eliza Spalding and Mary Gary, the only two missionary women at Lapwai, also carried on with their "Maternal meetings," despite what were in some ways even more challenging circumstances. The Spaldings had abandoned the site of their first mission house, in mosquito-infested lowlands along the Clearwater River, and moved to higher ground shortly before the reinforcements arrived. Their new dwelling, a 32-by-22-foot cabin with a loft, was only half finished when the Grays and Rogers moved in. In addition to the Spaldings and their infant daughter, the cabin also housed several Nez Perce children and various hired hands.

The cabin had a dirt floor, only one working fireplace, an incomplete roof, and unchinked walls. It was "almost impossible to keep warm in our open house," Mary Gray (who was six months pregnant) wrote to the "Sisters" at Waiilatpu, "and now my fingers are nearly stiff with cold." Still, she was encouraged by "the sound of the saw, the plane and the hammer" and hoped "that a few days will find us comfortably settled in our new home." Meanwhile, there was little comfort and no privacy. She and Eliza Spalding at least once retreated to an Indian graveyard in order to find a meeting place "sufficiently retired from public gaze" (September 29, 1838, reprinted in Drury, Where Wagons Could Go).

"Hearts United"

Tensions at Waiilatpu eased in March 1839, when the Walkers and the Eells left to establish a new mission at Tshimakain ("Place of Springs"), near present day Spokane, about midway between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Colvile. The Smiths left at the end of April, en route for a station of their own, at Kamiah (about 60 miles southeast of Lapwai).

Archibald McDonald (1790-1853), Hudson’s Bay Company factor at Fort Colvile, invited Mary Walker (with her infant son) and Myra Eells to stay at the fort while their husbands finished building cabins for them at Tshimakain. McDonald’s wife, Jane Klyne McDonald (1810-1870), the daughter of a Cree mother and a French-Canadian father, was a devout convert to Christianity. Literate, intelligent, and gracious, she accepted the missionary women’s invitation to join the Columbia Maternal Association. "Had our maternal meeting," Mary Walker reported in her diary. "Mrs. M. & her children attended, quite an interesting meeting" (April 10, 1839).

Four of the charter members of the Maternal Association convened at Lapwai on September 3, 1839, for their first (and only) annual meeting, held in conjunction with the general meeting of the Oregon missionaries. Myra Eells, who had suffered a recent miscarriage, was unable to travel; the Walkers remained with her and her husband at Tshimakain. The meeting was clouded by the death of the Whitmans’ two-year-old daughter, Alice Clarissa, who had drowned in the river behind their home just 10 weeks earlier. "We feel deeply to sympathize with her afflicted parents in the loss they sustain by the death of this their dear child," Mary Gray noted, in her Record Book (11).

Summing up the year, Gray reported that only a few of the scheduled semi-monthly meetings had been cancelled, and then only because of illness. "We have found those to be precious seasons," she wrote, "and although there have seldom been more than two or three of us still we have felt the efficacy of the promise of our Savior. ‘That where two or three are met together in my name there am I to bless them.’ " The completion of new missions at Tshimakain and Kamiah "have scattered our number," she added, "but notwithstanding we are thus separated I trust our hearts are united in this great work" (Record Book, 12, 15)

Despite her grief, Narcissa Whitman agreed to serve with Eliza Spalding as a committee of two to choose topics for each of the members to write upon during the coming year. Among their selections was the "importance of the aid and cooperation of our husbands in training our children in the way they should go" and the "influence of domestics on the minds and morals of our children" (Record Book, 17-18).

All the women agreed to correspond regularly with members of other Maternal Associations, including those 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.

Ebb and Flow

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent no more missionaries to Oregon Country, but two "unaffiliated" couples arrived in late September 1839, followed by three others the following fall. The wives all became members of the Columbia Maternal Association. By 1841, however, all but one of the couples had moved on to settlements in the Willamette Valley.

Asa and Sarah Smith also moved on. The youngest of the six founders of the association and the only one to have no children of her own, Sarah suffered from myriad health problems, physical and psychological, from the beginning to the end of her time in the West. The Nez Perce at Kamiah christened her "the weeping one." Her husband made repeated references to her poor health in letters to the mission board in Boston. "Being feeble & able to do but little, her mind is left to prey upon itself, her spirits sink & she often feels that our lonely situation is more than she is able to endure," Asa Smith wrote at one point (Asa Smith to David Greene, February 22, 1841, in Drury, Where Wagons Could Go).

The couple abandoned their mission at Kamiah in the spring of 1841. They made their way to Vancouver and sailed for the American Board's mission in Hawaii, where they stayed for four years. They eventually returned to Massachusetts.

The Grays spent two years with the Spaldings at Lapwai, followed by two with the Whitmans at Waiilatpu, and then, in the fall of 1842, left the mission field to homestead in the Willamette Valley. Mary Gray remained diligent in her duties as recording secretary of the Maternal Association throughout her four-year tenure and beyond. In addition to maintaining the Record Book, which included a roster of members and other documents, she noted details of some of the meetings in her personal diary. "We observed the meeting of the Maternal Association this afternoon in Mrs. Spaldings room," she wrote in a typical entry. "No one present but Mrs. S. & myself & Hannah [a Hawaiian servant] ... The 11th Chap. Of Eccl. was read, also a piece from the Mothers Magazine showing the importance of educating our children exclusively for the Service of God ..." (May 27, 1840, in Drury, First White Women).

Mary Gray took the Record Book with her to the Willamette, and continued to update it over the years. The book, a 40-page, hand-bound volume now in the archives at Whitman College in Walla Walla, includes what historian Clifford Drury calls the first vital statistics recorded in Old Oregon: a list of births (27) and deaths (five) of children born to members of the association.


The association continued to function as a long-distance study circle for the next five years. The wives of two Methodist missionaries stationed at The Dalles participated for a while, as did Sarah Julia Ogden McKinlay, the mixed race wife of Archibald McKinlay, chief factor at Fort Walla Walla. "There is now quite a large Maternal Association," Myra Eells wrote to a sister from Tshimakain in 1844. "I am President. I have never seen half the members and probably never shall" (quoted in McKee, 4). Jane McDonald and her family moved to Canada in 1845; the McKinlays left Fort Walla Walla a year after that, and the membership dwindled down to four.

At least three orders for subscriptions reached The Mother’s Magazine in Utica from Oregon Country, all sent in by Narcissa Whitman. The last, dated April 16, 1846, included a payment of $18 and a letter to Abigail G. Whittelsey, editor of the magazine, summarizing the history and current status of the association. The membership had at one time reached 15, Whitman wrote, although "At present our numbers are much reduced." Furthermore: "Owing to the distance of our stations from each other, we have not been as regular in our annual meetings as would have been desirable." Even so, she counted 46 children associated either by birth or adoption with the Columbia Maternal Association. "The Indians are well pleased to see so many white children, and look with interest upon them growing up in their midst," she concluded. "The influence upon them we hope is salutary" (reprinted in Drury, Maternal Association, 21-24).

What turned out to be the final annual meeting of the Oregon Mission was held at Tshimakain in early June 1847. All the members were present except Eliza Spalding, who was ill. The mood was tense, partly because of a suggestion by Marcus Whitman that the Walkers relocate to The Dalles; neither Mary nor Elkanah wanted to go. "We had our Maternal meeting," Mary Walker noted in her diary. "Mrs. W. seemed not to feel pleasantly. I began to be somewhat excited" (June 2, 1847).

Five months later, on November 29, 1847, Cayuse Indians attacked the mission at Waiilatpu, killing the Whitmans and 11 others. All the Protestant missions in Oregon Country were closed. The remaining missionaries dispersed, and the first women’s club in the Northwest disbanded.

Sources: Record Book of the Columbia Maternal Association, 1839-1850 (Constitution, Names of Members, First Annual Report, etc.), Whitman College Digital Collections website accessed January 2010 (; Narcissa Whitman, The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, 1836-1847 (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1986); First White Women Over the Rockies: Diaries, Letters, and Biographical Sketches of the Six Women of the Oregon Mission, ed. by Clifford M. Drury (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1963); Julie Roy Jeffrey, Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991); Where Wagons Could Go, ed. by Clifford M. Drury (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books Edition, 1997); Ruth Karr McKee, Columbia Maternal Association: Pictures, Sketches, Incidents, Compiled from the Diary of Mary R. Walker by Mrs. Ruth (Karr) McKee (Walla Walla, 1938); Clifford M. Drury, "The Columbia Maternal Association," reprinted from Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1938.

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