An intimate insight into the struggles, passions, and very dailiness of family life lived under duress a century and a half ago: this is the incomparable gift of these diaries, yielded by personal archives lovingly preserved. These two women, Mary Richardson Walker and her less voluble friend and colleague Myra Fairbanks Eells, offer a view from inside the Protestant mission to the Northwest Indians in the 1840s. Written primarily for family members, these reflections on their experiences as women, wives, tourists, mothers, teachers, and missionaries create a larger sympathetic audience, even among those today who recognize the ambiguous and often destructive cultural legacy of Euro-American religious enthusiasts on American Indian communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Several things distinguish the overland journey of the Walker and Eells families from the 350,000 similar stories over the next decade. First, these couples were among the very first white Americans to undertake this arduous journey with the intention of settling on the West Coast and raising families. In the mid-1830s, the white presence in the Oregon Territory consisted largely of men connected with the fur trade. (In fact, the small band of missionary wives to which Mary Richardson Walker and Myra Eells belonged was cited by at least one emigration promoter as proof that women could not only survive but flourish on the overland trail.)1
Secondly, these emigrants went out as Protestant missionaries. They saw the American Indians primarily as subjects for religious conversion rather than primarily as impediments to appropriating and developing the rich resources of the Northwest. As many of us read these intimate documents today, we sometimes wince at the missionaries' assumptions of cultural superiority and their presumptuous intervention in the Indians' habits and traditions of living. We recognize, too, the unique, if labored, closeness and familiarity these white families cultivated with their indigenous neighbors, as well as their raw dependence on the Indians' knowledge of the area and continued good will toward these interlopers. The massacre of the Whitmans and their cohorts at the Waiilatpu mission--the Walkers' sister mission--in 1848 brought this era to an end as it offered bloody testimony