Abby Williams Hill Journals

In 2019, the Archives & Special Collections was awarded a Washington Digital Heritage Grant from the Washington State Library with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to digitize, transcribe, and make available nine of Abby Williams Hill’s journals. The journals focus on Hill’s travels throughout the United States with her four children between 1895 and 1906 and provide a unique female perspective on significant issues affecting the nation at that time, including education, tourism, and the rights of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and the working class. Her detailed observations of daily events coupled with her unique life experiences create a rich and varied resource for scholars of all ages.

Puget Sound professor Tiffany Aldrich MacBain, who has worked extensively with the Abby Williams Hill collection in her research, offers the following essay about the significance of Hill’s journals:

Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943) was an artist by profession, but in my view she held a twin vocation as a writer. During her life, and especially at the turn of the twentieth century, she produced letters, daybooks, and diaries numbering in the hundreds, even thousands, of pages. Now, in the twenty-first century, these documents join Hill’s visual artistry in digital form, available for our study and enjoyment beyond the archives door.

Hill was a woman of strong opinions and uncommon enterprises. Born and raised in Grinnell, Iowa, she moved with her husband, Frank, to Tacoma, Washington in 1889. There the couple had their first child, Romayne, and several years later adopted a second, Eulalie. Soon after, daughters Ione and Ina were integrated into the Hill family, and the children joined in their mother’s uncommon personal and professional enterprises. Even in the fledgling town of Tacoma, Hill chafed at many of the expectations placed upon her by white, middle-class society. An en-plein-air painter, she looked to the outdoors for the social liberation required to pursue art and parenting according to her philosophies. Sometimes Frank Hill traveled with his family, but more often mother and children took to the roads and rails on their own, powered by gumption and encumbered by little but trunks of clothing and art supplies.

As these details suggest, Hill was an unusual and complex person - something of an iconoclast, though her writing contains a vein of conservatism and reveals prejudices shared by many white Americans of the era who were otherwise progressive. Readers can weigh these characteristics against Hill’s awareness of the possibilities and problems invited by the industrial age, and her investment in the work of social “uplift.” During her tour of the United States in 1901 and 1902, she visited more factories, social settlements, and schools than historical sites. She dedicated dozens of pages to detailed descriptions of the labor performed at these locations, among them Jane Addams’s Hull House and, in Chicago, the Armour meat-packing plant. Hill was earnest in her desire to see positive social change, particularly in relation to the welfare of mothers and children, and she took action toward that end. She was a founding member and the first president of the Washington State chapter of the Congress of Mothers, the organization that would become the Parent-Teacher Association. A proponent of racial equality, Hill spent a week in 1902 at the Tuskegee Institute as a guest of Booker T. Washington and documented the Annual Farmers Conference in great detail. In the autumns of 1905 and 1906, she resided on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, where she made the acquaintance of the Bitterroot Salish head chief, Charlo, and painted his and other indigenous people’s portraits. Her deep appreciation for the outdoors yielded an equally rich record of Hill’s impressions of natural spaces no longer as remote or rural as she knew them to be. She and the children were at Yellowstone National Park when the Army Corps of Engineers were cutting trails; they outran a mountain lion in the Sierra Nevada; closer to home, they spent summers on the beach of Vashon Island in Commencement Bay of the Puget Sound.

The visual record that Hill left for us provides snapshots and vistas from her life and adventures. The written record renders that vision more complete, giving substance to Hill and capturing her voice. Through the diaries, day books, and letters, we travel with her and the children; we experience her triumphs and disappointments; we appreciate her perspective or flinch at her views. Though we may get to know her from the comfort of our living rooms, we almost hear the scratch of her pencil and smell a hint of campfire on the page.

Tiffany Aldrich MacBain
Professor, Department of English
University of Puget Sound