By: Chris Enss
On March 22, 1851, the steamship the Empire City arrived at the Isthmus of Panama. The sun was hanging low below a bank of clouds and the busy seaport lay in purplish twilight. Five ambitious school teachers stood on the deck of the vessel watching the crewmen weigh anchor. Elizabeth Miller, Sarah Smith, Elizabeth Lincoln, Margaret Woods, and Mary Gray were wide-eyed by the feverish activity. A crowd of hundreds blackened the pier in the middle distance. The curious bystanders were like ants on a jelly sandwich. Canons firing from the ship’s bows to alert the harbor master that the Empire City was safely moored, rattled Mary, but a word from a deck-mate assuring her that it was routine procedure helped calm her down.
Like the other educators on board, Mary had never encountered anything quite as grand and foreign.
Having been born and raised in the Green Mountains of Southern Vermont, her experiences were limited to the family farm and a nearby town. At the age of 25 she consented to the journey to the wild west to develop and teach schools in remote areas of the frontier. Mary Almira Gray had already been teaching students to read and write at a one room school house in the village of Grafton, not far from her home. As the oldest of four children she naturally took to helping her siblings learn and when she was old enough she decided to parlay her talent into a profession.
In the winter of 1850, Vermont Governor William Slade, recruited young women from all over New England to travel to the Oregon territory to establish schools. Slade was also an agent with the National Board of Popular Education. The association was created to train and sponsor teachers and encourage them to go west. After learning that her aunt and uncle were going to be moving to Oregon, Mary agreed to go. They made the trip via wagon train, but Mary choose to sail. Traveling over the ocean was considered by many to be less hazardous than overland trips were, but it was still difficult. During the five thousand mile excursion passengers faced exposure to deadly tropical diseases such as dysentery, yellow-fever, and cholera. Scurvy, storms, starvation and lack of water took a toll as well.
Samuel R. Thurston, a delegate to Congress from the Oregon Territory accompanied Mary and the four other teachers on their journey. The National Board of Popular Education supplied the ladies with the three hundred and fifty dollars they needed to pay for their fare. The cost included the price of a ticket to cross the Isthmus and a new saddle for use after they reached the coast. With the exception of a mild storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras and strong winds entering the Caribbean Sea, the trip was relatively uneventful with regards to the weather.
Once the women arrived at the Isthmus and disembarked, they traveled by mule over the mountains to Panama where they boarded another ship to take them on to San Francisco. Congressman Thurston contracted a fever somewhere along the way and in spite of multiple doses of quinine, did not improve. “Mr. Thurston seemed to grow worse speedily and lost much of his accustomed cheerfulness,” Mary recalled years later. “We little thought, however, how dark a cloud was so soon to overshadow us. On Thursday night Mr. Thurston went to his stateroom sick, and some young men in his care watched over him. Sunday morning he was assisted to the captain’s stateroom on deck, which the latter had kindly offered for the sick man’s use, it being commodious and airy.
The disease (Isthmus of Panama fever, I suppose) was making rapid progress. Most of the time Mr. Thurston was conscious except during the last few hours. His death occurred early, not later than one o’clock, Wednesday morning, April 9th. Had he not been a public man, burial would have taken place at sea; but as it was, enshrouded or covered with the Stars and Stripes, our Country’s flag, he was taken along on our course till Thursday morning, about nine o’clock, when our ship anchored near Acapulco. A coffin had been prepared on shipboard and he was laid to rest in the cemetery of that place.”
Two politicians, Judge Thomas Nelson and Surveyor-General John B. Preston, consented to chaperone the women to their final destination. Neither were familiar with Oregon, but were eager to lend their assistance. After more than a month at sea, the teachers landed in San Francisco on April 23, 1851. Mary found the city to be “considerably busy and expensive.” She and the others stayed overnight at a posh hotel in town before heading out the next morning. She commented in her reminiscences about the cost and conditions of the accommodations. “The table (in the room) extending the length of the dining room, perhaps thirty feet, was good, and the viands delicious. Perhaps it was in honor of some sort of dress occasion.
I only remember Mrs. Gwin, who sat opposite me at supper, appeared costumed in black silk, with a large white lace cape and light kid gloves, ribbons, jewelry, etc.. At night the teachers and Miss Hyde occupied one large, unfinished room, on the door of which was posted a printed notice of prices. I only remember that board was $5.00 per day; lodging, $3.00 per night.”
On April 24, 1851, a steamer carried the teachers up the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon. The population there was sparse – only 14 thousand people resided in a territory that not only included Oregon, but Washington and Idaho as well. Six days later Mary and her fellow teachers boarded a flatboat covered with an awning and started for Oregon City. En route the vessel ran into trouble. “The best laid plans of mice and men aft gang aglee.” Mary wrote. “When at the foot of Clackamas rapids, the boat ran aground. After a few ineffectual attempts to get it afloat, the craft was made fast to a tree on the shore. It was now getting dusk. The crew kindled a fire and began preparations for their supper, while the passengers were in the dark and supperless, notwithstanding that they could see lights into the houses at Oregon City.
General Preston unrolled two mattresses he had purchased in San Francisco, and arranged them for the ladies of the company so that they might get all the rest they could.
Early in the morning baskets of provisions were sent down, and thus refreshed, we walked through a stumpy bushy pasture to Oregon City, which seemed to be much pleasanter and much more of a place than Portland. Reverend Mr. Atkinson, to whose care the teachers were assigned, met us and took us to his home.”
In Oregon City, a town of less than 700 people, the women received their individual assignments and were dispatched to various locals. Sarah Smith remained in Oregon City, Elizabeth Miller west to Forest Grove, Elizabeth Lincoln and Margaret Woods went to Durham. Mary Gray began her school in Tualatin, a town 13 miles south of Portland.
Prior to making the long trip over the plains, Mary had planned to return and live out her life close to her parents in Townshend, Vermont. Her strong desire to go back to the east coast ended when she met Benjamin McLench. After five terms of teaching the two married in the fall of 1852 and decided to stay in Oregon and become farmers.
The couple acquired 160 acres of land in the Willamette River Valley through the Oregon Land Donation Act and built a cabin on the spot.
Seven years and four children later, Mary and Benjamin were successfully raising their family and growing several acres of wheat, apples, onions and potatoes. They also raised bees to make honey and honey butter. “The highest price received for wheat sold from our farm was $4 a bushel, onions for $3, and potatoes for $4,” Mary remembered. “Our best price for butte was $.50 a pound. Bee swarms went for $150 in a good year to $40 in other times.”
Mary Gray McLench’s memoirs were published in the spring of 1900, 50 years after she came west to teach. In addition to the recollections of her life with her husband and children, Frank, Lizzie, and Alice, (their fourth child died of pneumonia) Mary included information about the other women who made the journey to Oregon with her. “In later years they all married and settled down in Oregon,” she wrote. “Miss Smith became the wife of Alanson Beers, and stepmother to six children. After his death she married a Mr. Kline of Albany, I think, and the number of her step children increased in equal ratio. She became a widow the second time and died at the home of one of her daughters about twenty-five years ago.
Miss Woods became the second wife of Governor John P. Gaines, whose large family of children by the first wife returned to their Kentucky home, with the exception of two
grown sons, who remained in Oregon. Governor Gaines died within a few years, and not many years afterwards Mrs. Gaines with one little daughter, returned to her friends in New York. Since then I know nothing in regard to her.
Miss Lincoln married Judge Alonza A. Skinner. He died many years ago, and she lived to an advanced age in Eugene, and died five or six years since.
Miss Miller married Joseph G. Wilson, and accompanied him to Washington after he was elected a member of Congress from Oregon. Before taking his seat they visited his old college town, Marietta, Ohio, where he became seriously ill and died suddenly. Mrs. Wilson returned to The Dalles and is still living there. She has three married daughters and one son, and lost three or four children in infancy. She was Postmistress at The Dalles for a number of years.”
Mary Gray McLench passed away in 1907. She was 81 years old.