Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The First Poet in Oregon-Anna Marie Pittman Lee

Anna Maria Pittman Lee was born in 1803 and died at the age of thirty-five.  She was born in New York City, the thirteenth child of George W. and Mary (Spies) Pittman. The family was financially secure and deeply religious.
Anna was twenty-five when was “converted to God” and declared to remain celibate. At this time she became interested in the Indians and applied to the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. When there were no openings in Canada, she applied for the Oregon mission and was accepted in 1836.
In 1833 the Methodist Missionary Society voted to carry their work to the Indians of America. This came about after a group of Flathead and Nez Perce traveled to St. Louis in 1831 and asked about conversion. Jason Lee an ordained deacon and elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church was selected to travel to the Oregon Country and set up a mission.
The mission was established in the fall of 1834 sixty miles from the mouth of the Willamette River.  In less than a year the Society sent a farmer and his family, a married minister, and teachers to the mission. Anna Marie Pittman was chosen as one of the young women teachers. Thirteen people in all left by ship from New York in July of 1836 and arrived in May off 1837 at Fort Vancouver.
Anna arrived in Oregon a celibate missionary, but after meeting Jason Lee she was married within two months of her arrival. They honeymooned at the Pacific Ocean then returned to their duties at the mission. Anna, along with physician Elijah White's wife, dealt with the domestic affairs of cooking, baking, making butter, teaching a Sabbath School, and sewing clothes for the thirty Indian children who lived at the Mission House.
Eight months after their marriage, Jason traveled East to gain assistance from the Board of Managers of the Methodist Missionary Society. At his departure, Anna was six months pregnant.  Knowing he would be gone for eighteen months, she had to steel herself to bringing their child into the world without him.
Here is the first stanza of a poem she wrote for her husband before he left on his trip.
Must my dear Companion leave me,
Sad and lonely here to dwell?
If ‘tis duty thus that calls thee,
Shall I keep thee? No, farewell;
Though my heart aches
While I bid they thus farewell.

June 21, 1838 Anna became ill and Dr. Elijah White came to help her. After several days of difficult labor a baby boy was born with the help of instruments. The baby lived two days and Anna Marie Pittman Lee died the next day. They were buried together near the mission in a grove of fir trees.  She was thirty-five years old.
During the marriage Anna wrote many letters and poems to her husband. This collection of writing shows her belief in religious and marital bonds, her faith in God and the comfort and passion she found in her loving relationship with her husband, Jason Lee.   You can find her writings in Life and Letters of Mrs. Jason Lee by Theressa Gay. The letters are proof that contradicts the stereotype of missionary women. She wrote of romance, passion, and child birth with her husband.
Besides being one of Oregon’s first poets, Anna was also the first white woman to marry, die, and be buried in the Oregon Country.  

Source: Pacific Northwest Women 1815-1925


  1. What an interesting post, Paty, but sad that she died so young. Hers was a hard life, but one she chose and apparently enjoyed except for being apart from her husband.

  2. Caroline, She believed in what she was doing and did indeed love her husband. It is sad that she died so young but her letters and poems are a great insight into the life for a women in the west at that time.

  3. Ahhh, Paty, what a sweet, but tragic story. I see that it does disprove our normal view of a missionary. She was passionate, loving, and cared deeply for a man. It's terrible the baby died and she did, too.
    Thanks...I've not heard of her, but now I'm glad I did.

  4. It always breaks my heart when I learn of another woman who died in childbirth. I always try to imagine the joy they felt those months before upon learning they were pregnant...and for Jason to lose both her and his son, wow. Anna Marie is a new historical character to me, too, and I'm so glad you shared her, Paty. All of her "firsts" are very impressive.

  5. Celia and Tanya, there are a handful of "missionary" women who came to the Pacific Northwest before the families crossed in covered wagons to populate the territory. The first historical romance I wrote had Narcissa Whitman as a secondary character. She was one tough but fragile woman. I have a book of her letters to her family back East. I'll talk about her next month.

  6. Paty--Narcissa Whitman appeared in my post this month about the Sager Orphans. Narcissa and her husband were Presbyterian missionaries who had a compound--house, school, church, etc.--for themselves and the NA children they taught. She and her husband took in the Sager orphans, and in my post I explained that the Whitmans were killed in a massacre.
    I also stated that The Whitman Massacre and Narcissa Whitman was a story of their own--so I'll look forward to more about this courageous, generous woman in your post next month.
    Very intriguing stories all around.

  7. What a heartbreaking story. I admire the pure courage and love that Anna had and her dedication to God. I know her husband must have been brought to his knees when he learned his wife had died, but her poetry must have eased his loss to some degree.
    Great blog, Paty.


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