Starlight

It feels counter-intuitive that pioneer era women might enjoy camping. Hadn’t they had enough rough living? Or was it a kind of nostalgia or romanticism for the adventures of their youth trudging the Oregon Trail? But there are enough examples extant to accept the practice as not uncommon and experienced as a delightful vacation. (Perhaps no one attempted laundry while tenting.)

A charming memoir of a mid-nineteenth century woman traveler, Caroline Leighton, is outstandingly cheerful. She kept a diary while touring much of the Pacific Northwest with her husband who had been appointed Collector of Customs for Washington Territory and Oregon State, and later California, in the years 1865-1879. She writes of her enthralled voyages by Indian canoe, tramps through trackless forests, and other adventures trekking to far-off corners of the map. For instance, this is how she recounted one such experience:

The journey from Walla Walla to Fort Colville occupied eleven days and nights, during which we did not take a meal in a house, nor sleep in a bed. It was cold, rainy, and windy, a good deal of the time, but we enjoyed it notwithstanding. To wake up in the clear air, with the bright sky above us, when it was pleasant; and to reach at night the little oases of willows and birches and running streams where we camped—it was enough to repay us for a good deal of discomfort. At one of the camping-grounds—Cow Creek—a beautiful bird sang all night; it sounded like bubbling water.

[West Coast Journeys 1865-1879: The Travelogue of a Remarkable Woman, by Caroline C. Leighton, Sasquatch Books, 1995, page 34]

Olympia women enjoyed a good camping adventure too, but took their time away a little closer to home and, no doubt, with a few more creature comforts. Still, it was camping in the pre-Gortex era. Families took boats down the bay and made their way to the old missionary grounds outside of the town for picnics and walks in the woods. Some even swam in the calm waters off the wooded shore or clammed and fished for dinner. On the other side of the bay, in a place known as Butler’s Cove, families found spots suitable for setting up camp near their friends. It was the site of an old Donation Land Claim which later was opened to the town for summertime get-aways, community gatherings, and clam-bakes until it’s transformation into a golf course in 1926.


A Presbyterian church hosts a picnic at Butler Cove in 1884. Photo courtesy: Washington State Historical Society.

Margaret’s family was among the ones camping near the lapping waters of the bay under the trees and stars. Even after Margaret’s father passed away in 1899, she and her mother continued to camp on the grounds. There is a mention in the social section of a local paper, The Daily Recorder, that they were among some of the last to break camp in 1907, “hav[ing] spent a number of weeks at the cove and were delighted with the summer’s outing.”  And we know from other sources that Margaret was an excellent swimmer. The family, like others, used the bay as their accustomed place near the old missionary grounds, now a city park called Priest Point Park. These small bits of information help create a picture of her early formative years and the kind of person she became.

She camped whenever she could get away to the mountains or woods. One of her favorite places was up in the Olympic Mountains. She writes to a friend:

“I just returned from a trip to Hurricane Ridge. I slept under the stars at Idaho Shelter. There is no more magnificent scenery in America. I know you agree.”

A little pencil work on the side confirms that yes, as this letter was written in 1955, she was seventy years old then and still sleeping outside, not in a tent, “under the stars.” And loving every minute. She and Caroline would have been kindred spirits.

Credit and thanks for background material for this post to Emmett O’Connell’s essay, “Butler Cove: Tension Sparked at Historic Olympia Landmark” posted here: https://www.thurstontalk.com/2016/04/21/butler-cove-olympia-history/

And to Ed Echtle for his essay on Priest Point Park history posted here: https://olympiahistory.org/historypriestpointpark/. Additional information on Butler Cover was found on the Olympia Historical Society website, “Butler Cover/The Firs” in “Where Are We?”  https://olympiahistory.org/butler-cove/

3 thoughts on “Starlight

  1. Interesting post about women camping. Check out two recent Tacoma Art Museum shows: “Captive Light” (2018) on Ella McBride, and “Abby Williams Hill and the Railroads” (2017). That Abby sounds like a wild thing! I liked her art, too. Jan

    On Sun, Aug 18, 2019, 6:55 AM Afield with Margaret McKenny wrote:

    > annekilgannon posted: ” It feels counter-intuitive that pioneer era women > might enjoy camping. Hadn’t they had enough rough living? Or was it a kind > of nostalgia or romanticism for the adventures of their youth trudging the > Oregon Trail? But there are enough examples extant to ” >

    Like

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