The Portland Oregonian March 31, 2002
by JOHN TERRY
It was a journey that challenged, and in many cases defeated, women half her age, a fourth again her size and lacking her physical disability.
But Tabitha Brown was a women of great resourcefulness, greater determination and faith sufficient to face down the worst the West had to offer. She not only survived her ordeal but went on to help establish a college and, more than a century later, to be championed as the official "Mother Symbol of Oregon."
Born Tabitha Moffatt on May 1, 1780, in Brimfield, Mass., the daughter of a doctor and his wife, she was educated as a teacher and married the Rev. Clark Brown on Dec. 1, 1799. He died in 1817, and she resorted to teaching to support their three children.
"Grandma" Brown was nearly 66 when she left Missouri bound for Oregon in April 1846. With her were son Orus, his wife, Lavina, and their eight children; daughter Pherne Pringle, her husband, Virgil, and their five children; and 77-year-old brother-in-law John Brown.
Orus had visited Oregon in 1843, returned singing the praises of the new land and was determined to take his family there. But it was not a trip recommended for a woman of Tabitha's age, size (108 pounds) and physical limits -- she had a bad hip and walked with a cane -- and Orus tried mightily to talk her out of the idea.
John Brown was a former sea captain, and it was under his influence the family had moved to Missouri some years before. "Captain Brown's stories of life on the high seas captivated Tabitha's boys," says biographer Pat Wells. One more adventure to round out his life appealed to him, and both he and Tabitha refused to be left behind.
"I provided for myself a good ox wagon-team, a good supply of what was requisite for the comfort of myself, Captain Brown and my driver," Tabitha recounted in an 1854 letter to relatives. ". . . Our journey, with little exception, was pleasing and prosperous until after we passed Fort Hall."
Orus continued along the well-established trail to The Dalles and the Willamette Valley.
But Tabitha, the captain and her daughter's family took up with "a rascally fellow who came out from the settlement in Oregon assuring us that he had found a new cut-off, that if we would follow him we would be in the settlement long before those who had gone down the Columbia."
The "rascally fellow" was probably Levi Scott or Jesse Applegate, who were promoting what came to be variously known as the Scott-Applegate Trail, the Applegate Trail or the South Road. Their first attempt to lead a party -- 98 men, 50 women and a number of children -- across the parched deserts of northern Utah and Nevada, and the frigid mountains of Southern Oregon, culminated in disaster and destitution.
"I rode through (the Umpqua Mountains) in three days at the risk of my life, on horseback, having lost my wagon and all that I had but the horse I was on," Tabitha reported.
At one point, the captain "had a swimming in his head and a pain in his stomach" and "became delirious and fell from his horse." Tabitha made a makeshift camp and waited out the night, fearing he "would be a corpse before morning."
But both survived, and help arrived in the form of Orus and others who had heard of their plight. They and the others still alive struggled on to safety. Tabitha found shelter with a Methodist missionary in Salem, "the first house I had set my feet in for nine months."
She had little left in the way of possessions, but in the fingertip of a glove found a coin -- "I supposed to be a button" -- worth 61/4 cents. She bought three needles, traded some old clothes to native women in return for buckskin and "worked them into gloves for the Oregon ladies and gentlemen, which cleared me upwards of $30."
Harvey Clark, a missionary at Tualatin Plains, and his wife invited Tabitha to spend the winter. She told Clark of her desire to "establish myself in a comfortable house and receive all poor children and be a mother to them," her 1854 letter says.
"He fixed his keen eyes on me to see if I was in earnest. 'Yes I am,' said I. 'If so, I will try,' said he, 'to help you.'
"He proposed to . . . establish a school in the plains. I should go into the log meeting house and receive all the children, rich and poor. Those parents who were able were to pay $1 a week for board, tuition, washing and all. I agreed to labor for one year for nothing, while Mr. Clark and others were to assist as far as they were able in furnishing provisions.
"The time fixed upon to begin was March, 1848, when I found everything prepared for me to go into the old meeting house and cluck up my chickens."
At the time of her letter she had "30 boarders of both sexes, and of all ages, from four years old to twenty-one."
On Sept. 26, 1849, the territorial government chartered her "Orphan Asylum" as Tualatin Academy. On Jan. 10, 1854, the charter was amended to make it Tualatin Academy and Pacific University. The academy closed after its 1915 class graduated.
Captain Brown recovered sufficiently to deliver a temperance speech in Salem on July 4, 1847, visit friends in San Francisco the following year and return to Salem, where he died.
Tabitha died May 4, 1858, in Salem and is buried in Pioneer Cemetery there. The Legislature awarded its official recognition in 1987. Questions, comments or suggestions about Oregon history? Call Inside Line, 503-225-5555, and enter 4815. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Unpublished questions cannot be answered individually.
Copyright 2002 Oregon Live. All Rights Reserved.
Used by permission
1 Clark Brown b: 25 JAN
1771 d: 12 JAN 1817
+ Tabitha Moffatt b: 1 MAY 1780 d: 4 MAY 1858
2 Pherne Tabitha Brown b: 22 MAR 1805 d: 21 MAY 1891
+ Virgil Kellogg Pringle b: 29 JUL 1804 d: 24 MAR 1887
3 Clark Spencer Pringle b: 17 APR 1830 d: 19 OCT 1914
+ Catherine Carney Sager b: 15 APR 1835 d: 8 AUG 1910
4 Sanford Stanley Pringle b: 29 DEC 1866 d: 20 SEP 1904
+ Mary Elizabeth "Lizzy" Houk b: 5 MAY 1866 d: 12 NOV 1929
1 Jacob Houk Jr b: 25
FEB 1835 d: 15 APR 1903
+ Sarah Jane Courtney b: 23 NOV 1841 d: 29 MAY 1912
2 William Ellsworth "Alec" Houk b: 20 OCT 1868 d: 22 APR 1939
+ Nora May Montgomery b: 5 FEB 1875 d: 4 FEB 1953
3 George Douglas Houk b: 4 JUN 1909 d: 6 NOV 1966
+ Helen Edna Rulaford b: 23 JAN 1908 d: 11 JUL 1997
4 Cecil Charles Houk b: 1939
+ Rachel Ellen Fisher b: 1947
2 Baxter Franklin Houk b: 28 JAN 1860 d: 18 AUG 1925
+ Ella Clyde Mitchell b: 28 NOV 1869 d: 23 APR 1921
2 Mary Elizabeth "Lizzy" Houk b: 5 MAY 1866 d: 12 NOV 1929
+ Sanford Stanley Pringle b: 29 DEC 1866 d: 20 SEP 1904
2 Margaret Lovena "Maggie" Houk b: 30 JUL 1873 d: 1 AUG 1951
+ Asa S. Baker b: 30 JUL 1873 d: 25 JUL 1968