Notes From the Road
Abby Williams Hill is best known for painting landscapes of the American West in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Now, more than a century later, her writings reveal a more complicated picture of what she saw.
The tourists at Yellowstone National Park on that September day in 1905 gaped at Abby Williams Hill. The artist was a sight: her hands caked with dirt, her face studded with gnat bites, a worn dress soiled by another day of painting and tromping with her four children through the wilds. Hill didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a proper lady. She didn’t act like one, either, taking her kids out on adventures, one nomadic day after another for months on end, while her husband stayed home back in Tacoma.
At her campsite later that evening, Hill dipped her pen into an inkwell to document the encounter in a diary entry.
They took a long look at me... Just then an addition to the party arrived and to her all was explained that I was an artist and these my children and they always went with me.
She exclaimed in horror, “[And] do you take these children way off like this? Suppose they got sick or something happened to them.”
Hill was a well-known painter in her day—her iconic western landscapes were exhibited at four different world’s fairs, among other locations—and today her voluminous collection of landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of Native Americans belongs to University of Puget Sound. Lesser known is Hill the writer. Prolific under the most rustic circumstances, she scribbled thousands of pages while resting in tents, in boarding houses, on trains—whenever she could catch a moment after hiking all day with four young adolescents in tow. Often, she reflected on the spectacular beauty around her, as in this 1895 entry from a Mount Rainier trip:
Narada Falls are fine beyond description. They spring from a rock hundreds of feet high and break into spray through which when the sun shines can be seen a beautiful rainbow.
The Park is a gradually ascending series of demi level plateaus, bedded with gay colored flowers and with beautiful groups of trees about. Across the Paradise and Nisqually rivers towers the Tatoosh Range, grand and imposing. From the time we entered the park, the trail was fringed with flowers. Blue bells, mountain ash, buttercups, boyanthus, adder tongue in such masses as no florist ever attained. Clumps of painted cup, only the paint was rose color. We pitched tent on an elevated place where the thunder of the avalanches on the Nisqually glacier came from the left and that of the Sluiskin Falls from the right.
The night was bitter cold. All were quite ready to go home in the morning but me. I felt I could endure much for a few days of such grandeur.
Her daughter, Ina, donated Hill’s artwork and papers—diaries, letters, and notebooks containing recollections of her travels—to the university in the years following Hill’s death in 1943. Over the past year, Laura Edgar, who is archivist for the university’s Abby Williams Hill Collection, and three students have digitized and transcribed 2,000 pages of Hill’s writings from the period 1895–1906, and have made them available online at pugetsound.edu/awhjournals. (The work was supported by the Washington State Library with funding from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.) With numbered pages and slanted cursive written on both sides of fragile yellowed sheets, Hill takes readers through treks up snow-capped mountains, onto Native American reservations, and into factories and slums. As the family of intrepid travelers survived disease, a close call with a mountain lion, and caustic remarks from society women, Hill opined about everything from women’s rights to the plight of workers to injustice against African Americans.
In some ways, Hill the writer was the subversive voice behind Hill the artist, says Puget Sound Professor of English Tiffany Aldrich MacBain, who has been analyzing the documents from a scholarly perspective. Hill, commissioned by various railroads to paint landscapes in order to promote westward travel, painted idyllic scenes of Yellowstone National Park, Montana’s Hellgate Canyon, and the North Cascades, among other locations.
To MacBain, they were scenes that captured the myth of the American West—the West of rugged individualism, populated by white men who set out to conquer the land. But Hill’s writing crackled with a rebellious spirit and told the real stories behind the myth.