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 kept a diary during her travels, which included painting western scenes for railroad companies wanting to promote tourism. The oil painting of Yellowstone Falls, shown here, was done in 1905 for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.

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.

Hill was born in 1861 in Grinnell, Iowa, and moved west to Tacoma with her husband, Frank, in 1889—the same year that Washington became the 42nd state. Within a year, the couple gave birth to a son named Romayne.Unable to have more children, the Hills adopted a little girl named Eulalie, who had lost her mother and was about Romayne’s age. Then Hill adopted two older girls, Ione and Ina.

A larger family did nothing to deter Hill’s wanderlust. The opposite of a helicopter mother, she adjusted her kids’ schedules to her traveling lifestyle, the trails and open road the only path where she could escape the social constraints of the white middle class.

A scan of a handwritten page from Abby Williams Hill's journal
English professor Tiffany Aldrich MacBain has spent six years scrutinizing Hill's diaries and letters to understand the cultural significance of Hill as a writer and a woman. READ ANALYZING ABBY.

I was cut out for the wilds, I am not at home in the world of fashion and I can not reconcile my self to spending on the stylish at the expense of the practical and good. I should like to wear cloth like men do, made simply and of styles that change but little.

She wore plain, high-collared dresses—a contrast to the elaborate fashions of women she called “peacocks.” She also refused to wear a corset, even after Frank and his mother pressured her to reconsider. Hill won that argument after she told her husband to wear a corset for a day. He did, and after that, dropped the matter.

Hill received criticism not only for her own unstylish ways but how she dressed her daughters. On Feb. 14, 1907, she wrote:

I speak so often to E. [Eulalie] about her dress[.] She is very careless—Of course every one blames me—they like to find something of which they do not approve and probably with as plain tastes as I have ... Considering that the world seems to appreciate a well dressed woman more than any other I should not be considered competent to bring up girls and should not have taken them.

The unconventional mother had an even more unconventional marriage. Frank, a naturopathic physician, didn’t share her adventurous spirit. He usually stayed home, making occasional attempts to join the family that were often cut short. “He wasn’t outdoorsy,” MacBain says, “and he was preoccupied with earning a living through his medical practice and investment ventures.” Yet, despite their different temperaments and Hill’s absences that would stretch to a year, their letters to each other revealed great affection, says Edgar. “She thought very highly of Frank,” Edgar says, “and often wrote about how much she and the children loved and missed him, and wished he could be with the family.”

She signed some of her letters, “With tenderest love from us all. Your loving wife, Abby.” 

In 1901 and 1902, she took her children on a tour of the United States. While they stopped to see a few famous landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty, the trip hardly followed the typical tourist itinerary. Jane Addams’ Hull House and the Armour meat-packing plant in Chicago were stops, part of the factory tourism that was common at the turn of the century as the United States became more industrialized. “It was a way for the middle-class traveler to affirm their own place in society and feel good about middle-class values,” MacBain says. “By touring the factories, people even got a good feeling about progress. A lot of the factory tours took great care to make sure that the tourists did not look into the eye of the laborers who were suffering.” 

Though her writing was often sprightly and engaging, Hill would sometimes drone on for pages about the minutiae of, say, a rubber-manufacturing plant. “Some passages are a slog,” MacBain says. “But some parts are just beautifully rendered and really rich and fascinating.” 

She also took her children to New York City’s Five Points neighborhood, known as “the most crowded block in the United States” and considered a “slum” at the time. Three days later, Romayne came down with a potentially deadly disease: 

Romayne, poor child, has taken the measles. After contending with mumps, scarlet fever, whooping cough for over a year it would seem as if our trip might remain undisturbed. 

Abby Williams Hill
Abby Williams Hill

Racial injustice against African Americans was another topic in her notebooks. In 1902, she attended and reported on the Farmers Conference at the Tuskegee Institute, and wrote to Booker T. Washington, asking if she and her children could stay at the school. They did, and she greatly admired his championing of racial equality—and shared many of his views. Her concern for social justice led her to become a founding member and the first president of the Washington state chapter of the Congress of Mothers, which would become the Parent Teacher Association. When some members wanted to prevent Black families from joining, Hill insisted the organization be open to everyone. 

But she was a complex person whose progressive views were sometimes tempered by conservatism. For example, she disapproved of women drinking alcohol and did not condone divorce. 

The family’s next adventure took them throughout the North Cascades in 1903, after the Great Northern Railway commissioned Hill to do landscape paintings to drum up ridership. Other railroad commissions followed, taking Hill and her children throughout Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Weighed down only by a trunk, satchels, and art supplies, the group would go on long hikes through national parks and up mountains. During the fall of 1905 and again in 1906, mother and children lived in Montana, on the reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, known at the time as the Flathead Reservation. 

Hill befriended and painted the portrait of Charlo, the Bitterroot Salish chief, during a time when he was fighting to hang onto his tribal land.

Sometimes this traveling mother and children were viewed as an oddity, followed by tourists who would hide in the bushes and snap their photos. Others praised the outdoorsy way she was raising her brood. On June 8, 1902, Hill ran into an admiring woman in Dunkirk, N.Y.

I talked to her some time and finally when the 4 came up dripping wet, with glowing cheeks and sparkling eyes–she said “How are you going to dry them?”
“They will dry walking,” I replied.
“Well—you are a wonderful mother and this is a most interesting family –I’ve never known of anything like this–Why do not more mothers do as you do! How fine for these children to go about like this!”

Living in a tent also led to some madcap moments when the kids were scrambling to look presentable before going to town for an ice cream social or another invitation. After weeks on the road, they would mend their tattered clothes and try to smooth over their trail-worn appearances. 

On Aug. 5, 1902, in Trout Lake, Wash., she wrote in her diary:

I let down Eulalie’s dress and mended it, hastily looked over the other girls and gave directions. Ione scrubbed R’s face and hands, sewed on missing buttons. “Where’s my shoe?” said Ina.
“Oh! It’s out there with dough in it” said E....
“Your hair has a daub of pitch in it.” 
“There is a patch of blood from a mosquito bite on your nose” 
“You have a great hole under your arm” 
“You have forgotten to put on your stockings”
“There is lots of sand in the part of your hair” 
“I have only part of one shoe string, what shall I do?” 
“May I wear my bloomers, I hate skirts!” 
At last we were ready–(It had taken us 2 hours) and the procession filed off through the sunny fields arriving clean and whole.... 

Hill continued to paint—and travel—into her 60s. She and her husband took their Hudson touring car to national parks and other sites in the West and Southwest throughout the 1920s. They eventually retired from traveling and moved to San Diego.
Hill continued to paint—and travel—into her 60s. She and her husband took their Hudson touring car to national parks and other sites in the West and Southwest throughout the 1920s. They eventually retired from traveling and moved to San Diego.

Hill didn’t know it, but a trip to Europe in 1908 would be her last grand adventure with her children. They rode bicycles through Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and France; took trains through England; and walked and walked. By then, Hill had come into her own, admired as a painter, prolific as a writer, each day a new adventure. She had succeeded on her own terms as a westerner, an artist, a mother. 

But that trip was cut short by the effects of typhoid fever on Ina and Eulalie and by Frank’s nervous exhaustion back home. The letters between husband and wife show little evidence of his growing depression, but eventually he disclosed to Hill the mounting effects of his overwork and financial worries. Abby Williams Hill, the intrepid traveler, clipped her own wings and came home to tend to him, reentering the society she had fled. During the 1910s and the early 1920s, she cared for him—first in Tacoma, then in Southern California—while he went in and out of mental institutions. 

In 1924, after her husband recovered, the 63-year-old painter Hill— still itching for the great outdoors—bought a Hudson touring car. For seven years, they spent winters camping in Arizona and summers in western and southern national parks. She continued to paint the national parks, which were now more crowded with tourists and marred by roads bringing them there. Upset at how much the parks had changed from the pristine condition she had seen 20 years before, she wrote a letter to Horace Albright, superintendent of the National Park Service, decrying the damage she saw in Sequoia National Park—she called it “nothing short of a crime” that several of the giant trees had been “blasted out to make way for the road,” and she noted that campsites cluttered the area and campfires were being allowed dangerously close to the ancient trees. 

The Hills eventually retired from traveling and lived out their days in San Diego. Frank died in 1938, and Abby died five years later. 

Abby Williams Hill left behind paintings that showed the grandeur of the West, as well as a trove of journals and letters that expressed her private thoughts about the inequalities of the patriarchal society of her time. In her journals, she often reflected on the meaning of genius and talent in a society where so many people were silenced by rigid roles. As MacBain puts it, “She paid careful attention to the fact that not many people are remembered for what they’ve produced, and that a great number of people with talent are not in circumstances that allow them to develop that talent.” 

Through her sheer will, wanderlust, and insatiable curiosity, she forged a path that let her not only express her artistic talent but also voice her thoughts on paper and, in so doing, process the world around her. Says MacBain: “I think in her heart of hearts, she was a writer.” 

 

By Cristina Rouvalis
Images courtesy of the Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library
Published Feb. 7, 2021