By Kirsten Thomas, WCM Archival Volunteer
Tabitha Moffat Brown, sexagenarian pioneer and founder of the school which would become Pacific University, is sometimes called “The Mother of Oregon.” In 1846, at the age of 66, the widowed Tabitha joined her son, daughter, their families, and her brother on the long journey from Missouri to Oregon. The journey did not go smoothly; three hundred miles from their destination, they were persuaded to take the Applegate Trail, purported to be a shortcut, with only the family of her son Orus continuing along the traditional trail. One of the Applegate brothers offered to guide them along the route, but once the wagon train was well underway (and Applegate had received his payment) their guide disappeared, leaving the travelers to continue alone on a little used trail. The wagon train found itself in troubling straits, as the route was dangerously rough and longer than anticipated. The oxen weakened as the year waned, and provisions dwindled. In a letter to her sister, written in 1854, Tabitha recalled, “Our sufferings from this time no tongue could tell.”
Winter had arrived by the time Tabitha’s wagon train arrived in Umpqua Valley. She and fellow pioneer, Captain Brown, who had suffered an illness, were chosen to ride ahead because it was unlikely that they would survive in the isolated valley. She described in her letters the great tribulations which overtook them as they rode, with her companion so ill that he fainted from his horse several times – “[I] seated myself with my feet behind him, expecting he would be a corpse before morning.” Captain Brown did in fact recover, after which they met up with wagons further along the trail, but the trail was now choked with snow and passage became slow. The train which they had left had caught up with them, and they progressed along the trail at no more than two miles per day. Even as the wagons faced starvation, Orus Brown, who had arrived in Oregon City in September, came with supplies and led the travelers out. Tabitha arrived in the settlements on Christmas Day, 1846.
In later years, Tabitha recounted that when she came to Oregon she had little, but found in the finger of a glove a single picayune, a coin worth six and one quarter cents. With this she bought sewing needles, and bartered a set of clothes with the local Kalapuya for buckskin. This was turned into gloves, the sale of which soon earned her thirty dollars – equivalent to 924 dollars in today’s money. A highly industrious lady, Tabitha traveled the region caring for children, and with the help of missionaries Harvey L Clark and George H. Atkinson, she sought to open a school. In 1848, just two years after she had arrived in Oregon, she founded the Oregon Orphans’ Asylum and School at Tualatin Plains. In the first year thirty students, boys and girls alike, came to board, with Tabitha managing the affairs of the school. This school would be chartered in 1849, becoming Tualatin Academy, and would extend to higher education in 1854 with the addition of Pacific University.
With the great hardships Tabitha Brown endured to come to Oregon, one could be excused for thinking that the experience had soured her on the new territory. In truth, however, she dearly loved Oregon and rhapsodized about in her letters. She wrote to a young relative saying, “[…] the earth has been carpeted all winter with green, and beautiful flowers of every hue and color rise above, dancing in the breeze and glittering in the sun-beams.” To her sister she wrote, “The whole of Oregon is delightful, especially the plains, of which there are so many, but this West Tualatin is the most beautiful of all others.” Tabitha lived in Oregon until the end of her life in 1858, having lived long enough to see the construction of the college hall of Pacific University begin. In 1987 the Oregon Legislature honored her, saying that by her ingenuity, spirit and compassion she embodied the heritage and nature of Oregon’s people.