Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943) was a landscape painter, social activist, and prolific writer with an insatiable love of travel and learning. She produced a remarkable collection of landscape paintings showcasing the grandeur of the American West, as well as a vast archive of letters and journals addressing issues of continuing social and historical interest including African-American and Native-American rights, early childhood education, the plight of tuberculosis patients, and the preservation of our national parks.
Born to one of the founding families of Grinnell, Iowa, Hill taught and exhibited her artwork locally before moving to New York to study under William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League. In 1889, she and her husband Frank, a physician, moved to Tacoma. The Pacific Northwest offered Hill a plenitude of scenes for her continued artistic creation. From expeditions to Mount Rainier and the Hood Canal to summer-long camping trips on Vashon Island, Hill was inspired daily by the nature that surrounded her. She often said, “I was cut out for the wilds”. She preferred hiking with her four children, being outdoors, and wearing comfortable men’s clothing to the typical female duties and fashions of the day.
Between 1903 and 1906, Hill accepted four commissions from the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways to paint the spectacular vistas of the Pacific Northwest and Yellowstone National Park. The commissions allowed for extended stays in the wilderness, often in the company of her four children. Her paintings for the railroads were used in promotional materials and exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, the 1907 Jamestown Tricentennial Exposition, and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle.
In addition to her work as an artist, Hill was the founder and first president of the Washington state chapter of the Congress of Mothers, the forerunner of today’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA). In her work for the congress she advocated on behalf of immigrant and disadvantaged families. She also advocated for equal education for African-Americans and visited Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in 1902, writing extensively about her life changing experiences there.
Later in her life, Hill became concerned with the threat that commercial and tourist interests posed to the natural environment. She noted that several of the landscapes that she had painted earlier in her career no longer existed in the state in which she had observed them. In response she embarked on a series of paintings of the western national parks, which she considered her legacy to future generations.
The Abby Williams Hill Collection was donated to the University of Puget Sound in the decades following Hill's death in 1943. Many of her paintings are on display on campus. Abby Hill’s personal papers, including correspondence, diaries, news clippings, ephemera, family photographs, and artifacts, reside in the Archives & Special Collections in the Collins Memorial Library and are available for viewing by appointment only.