Artifacts, diaries reveal pioneer woman’s life


Walker exhibit
opens March 5

To coincide with Women’s History Month, an exhibit of items from the life of 19th-century mission wife Mary Richardson Walker will open Friday, March 5, in Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections in Holland/Terrell Library. It will remain on display into the summer.

Look for a video in WSU Today of some exhibit artifacts during the week before the opening.

Included in the exhibit will be diaries, Elkanah Walker’s seminary books, Bibles and a recipe book of elixirs. Mary Walker, who early in life wanted to be a doctor, was the closest thing to a western physician in her Spokane-area mission community. Otherwise, missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman was sent for from Walla Walla.

The exhibit also will include:

* Mary Walker’s portable writing desk, on which she undoubtedly wrote most of her diary entries.
* Baskets that are being rehydrated and reshaped by Mary Collins, associate director of the Museum of Anthropology.
* Paintings and drawings of flowers and butterflies done by Walker.
* A missionary passport – issued by the U.S. war department for travel through Indian territory.
* An autograph book – signed by Walker’s school friends in Maine and, out West, by members of the Hudson’s Bay Company and visiting eastern and European artists and botanists.
* Books written in the 1930s and 1940s about the Walkers.
* A display of plant specimens by Larry Hufford, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences and director of the Marion Ownbey Herbarium.

“We hope to tease out the extent to which Mary integrates plants she finds in the West,” Thigpen said. “We want to investigate whether or not her personal and medicinal gardens changed. There is some evidence she adapted to the area and adopted local growing practices.”

Discussion is yet to occur as to where the items on exhibit might end up when the show is done.

“For now,” Bond said, “it’s just wonderful to see these collections coming to life again.”

Mary Richardson Walker was intrepid. Jennifer Thigpen, an assistant professor of history, found Walker interesting but was busy with another project and couldn’t pursue an acquaintance … until Walker also became mysterious.

The mystery? Walker’s baby moccasins were missing – and her bread paddle, and her pincushion (made of material from a Revolutionary War uniform). And – what perhaps has since become most meaningful to Thigpen – Walker’s portable lap-size writing desk was nowhere to be found.


Empathetic treasure hunt


Trevor Bond, interim head for Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC) in WSU Libraries, first introduced the two women when Thigpen interviewed at WSU. Walker was a mid-19th century missionary to Indian people living near today’s Spokane, and Thigpen had done research on women missionaries in Hawaii.

MASC has seven boxes of letters, diaries and photographs and some 200 books from Elkanah and Mary Walker and their descendents.
“It’s a dream of any librarian to have collections relevant to the research and teaching on campus,” Bond said. “When I meet new history faculty, I often try to float something in MASC that might be of interest to them.”

Thigpen was working on other research, so didn’t immediately take to Mary Walker. But while working with Bond to prepare for her class about women in the West, Thigpen was shown a memo from December 1975 cataloguing Walker items given to WSU over the years – including items that could not be found.

“These were a vital part of the collection,” Thigpen said. “These were Mary Walker’s domestic items. They were important to recover.”

The historian, and woman, was intrigued, and hooked.


Riches in a shoebox

While MASC harbors books and papers from the Walker collection, it isn’t a repository for objects. So where to hunt for Mary Walker’s things?

Their search first took Thigpen and Bond to the Northwest history museum that used to be part of WSU. Dissolved some 60 years ago, the museum’s collections had since landed in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) in Spokane.

But the Walker items weren’t there.

With help from history graduate student Rachael Johnson, the search continued to the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences – former home of the home economics disciplines – and to the anthropology department in the College of Liberal Arts.

Still nothing.

Finally, the history sleuths got in touch with Linda Arthur, professor in the Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles. She knew of a green wool cloak and bonnets belonging to Walker that were in her department’s collection. But a dress and parasol on the “missing list” were not to be found.

Eventually, Arthur opened every box in storage. Inside one marked “ethnic shoes,” she struck paydirt.

The box held baskets, baby moccasins and a pincushion – all tucked within a portable writing desk.

Diaries reveal curiosity, hard work
While this search was ongoing, Thigpen had been reading about Mary Walker – in her own words. Like many missionaries of her era, Walker kept diaries.

“The missionaries I’ve studied fancied themselves cultural anthropologists,” Thigpen said. “They focused on describing the people.”

In contrast, Walker also described her feelings. Not like a journal keeper or Facebook sharer would today, of course, but to a notable extent for her time and situation.

And, Walker seemed to have more curiosity about her world: Her physical surroundings, her garden, her work – lots of work.

“Work permeates the diaries,” Thigpen said. “Words like ‘scrubbed, ironed, planted’ – it’s a pattern of labor rather than details of particular chores.”

“She was left alone so much with so much to do,” Bond said. “The family was crushed just to survive. They had less time to learn the local languages and trade with the people and convert them.”

“It was a major regret expressed in her diaries,” Thigpen said.

Tumultuous beginnings
Most 19th century missionaries also seemed somewhat aware that their diaries and letters later would be read as historically important documents. And they were encouraged by the mission board to adhere to careful communication guidelines so as not to put off donors and potential donors.

While Mary Walker tries to live within these boundaries, her diaries also reveal her conflict with and testing of them.


“She was incapable of keeping it all to herself,” Thigpen said. “We would call her opinionated.”

Walker questions her decision to marry a man she hardly knew. The couple got engaged two days after they met, then carried on long-distance correspondence only before wedding the day before they headed west. She records squabbles with her new husband and their co-workers.

“It makes for tense relations for these new missionaries,” Thigpen said.

Perhaps most unusual, Walker at one point addresses her husband directly in her diaries – after she discovered he had been reading them.

“Hawaiian diarists did not confront their husbands,” Thigpen said. “That Mary was so forthcoming was unusual.”

Despite their tumultuous beginning, Mary and Elkanah Walker became very attached to each other.

“It became a very close relationship,” Thigpen said. “Eventually she wrote that they felt incomplete without each other.”

The couple finished out their days participating in church and school communities in Forest Grove, Ore.

In touch with the past

The poignancy of the love, work and hardship of the Walkers revealed in Mary’s diaries is not lost on Thigpen and Bond.

“Mary writes of a letter arriving telling of her mother’s death – and it arrives months after her mother died,” Thigpen said.

“It’s one thing to read newspaper accounts about people on microfilm,” said Bond. “It’s quite another to hold a 19th century diary that someone has written in your hands.”