Monday, November 12, 2018

Margaret Jewett Bailey

by Rain Trueax

As a writer of romances, often based in the historic West, learning about the 'real' people of that time has been part of writing about my fictional people. A lot of times, I think many, who aren't so fond of history, don't realize how much diversity there was in women's lives in the 1800s. 

Some years back, I got what was a nice review for one of my romances (Arizona Sunset back then but currently retitled as Outlaw Way). She dinged me rating points for believing what my heroine was doing was not realistic to women of that time.
'This story starts easy and seems to follow the traditional lines of a historical romance. The tale takes an innovative turn, when Abby rides to an isolated area for stolen mail bags, asks a rustler to take her along with him, and then gets married to the rustler she knows nothing about. The improbability of those events taking place in that era are far-fetched and unrealistic, although the interactions between the protagonists are heartwarming. Sam’s sensitivity and gentleness with Abby makes his character endearing and has the reader overlooking the fact that he’s a rustler and a man who lives by the gun. The character development is good and the plot moves smoothly.  Ultimately, “Arizona Sunset” is a story of second chances, destiny, and true love. A romance that will have the reader believing in improbabilities and cheering for happily ever after!'
I knew she was wrong. Many women did follow cultural norms, as many do today. Even then, there were those renegades though, ones who chose a different path. When we write a romance, our nontraditional women will have a happy ending. It is a requirement of the genre. Real life has no such rules. Being unconventional was even tougher for women in the Old West where there weren't so many options for a woman who broke society's rules. To be an independent thinker had a price attached, and so it was with Margaret Jewett Bailey, Oregon's first female novelist. 

Margaret Smith was born about 1812 in Massachusetts. Although her family did not approve, she had strong spiritual beliefs and attended Wesleyan Academy. She then secured a position allowing her to come to Oregon as a mission teacher. In 1837, she sailed from Boston with the Reverend David Leslie, his family, and H.K.W. Perkins. For disobeying her father, she was disowned.

Traveling via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii today), the missionary party arrived in the Salem, Oregon area to be part of the Oregon Mission, which had been established in 1834 by the Reverend Jason Lee as a missionary arm of the Methodist/Episcopal Church.

As a single woman, possibly attractive, although there are no pictures I could find of Margaret, she was under pressure to marry. Complicating her situation, Rev. Leslie had told the Mission that she was a family servant. She didn't have a true position though she did teach. Outspoken and someone who thought for herself, Margaret found other pressures from the man with whose family she had traveled to Oregon, Reverend Leslie, as she fought with him. 

The elders in the church wanted her to marry William H. Willson, a single man, with whom she had boarded. While she had at one time thought she would marry him, she then decided he wasn't spiritual enough. To pressure her, Willson claimed they had been intimate. She at first denied it; but then said, yes they had. She evidently hoped they'd not expel her from the mission if she confessed. When it was made public, she was finished as a teacher there.  

She would have been 25 with no family behind her. What were her options? Marriage was often the only way for single women of that time.

At the time, she was being courted by Dr. William J. Bailey. He had had quite the history coming over from the British Isles with some question as to from where exactly, but he'd had some education as a doctor. Coming to America, he'd done some Indian fighting and killing, ended up with a face damaged by a hatchet from one battle. At the mission, he had been encouraged to resume his medical studies and became a skilled physician.

Despite this career and rather dramatic history, Margaret's friends objected to her marrying him as he had a reputation as a drinker and carouser. She went her own way, and March 4, 1839, they married in a very simple ceremony without so much as a wedding gown. They left on horseback immediately for the cabin he had purchased in French Prairie, close to Champoeg. 

Her first disillusionment came when, though he had earlier converted to Methodism, he said he'd no longer read the Bible or attend church. As a very spiritual woman, this was a huge disappointment; however, she set about making a home, taking care of cows, horses, pigs, and a garden. At some point, she learned she'd married a violent man-- especially when he was drinking. Although some felt their marriage was a good one, others weren't there the times she claimed it turned otherwise. 

Margaret wrote both poetry and articles before and during her marriage. In 1838, she had published letters in church papers, and poetry signed MJB appeared in the Oregon Spectator. One of her poems had been published February 5, 1846, making her the first poet to be published west of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1854, two big things happened in  Margaret's life. Using the pseudonym, Ruth Rover, she found a publisher for her novel-- supposedly fictional but using her own life-- The Grains. In April of the same year, she divorced William. Perhaps she thought she'd get a new start as a published author. 

Reviewers had a hard time putting the book in a genre. It can be seen today as the first example of a Pacific Northwest woman trying to empower herself by telling her story.
As historian Edwin Bingham observed in his foreword to the 1986 edition, The Grains is unusual because it is "part autobiography, part religious testimonial, part history and travelogue" and might even be called "a novel, the first novel written and published on the Pacific Coast." 
Following her divorce, even though her husband was a successful man, Margaret was left with $100, her clothing, and a piano. She had edited six columns for the Ladies Department in the Oregon Spectator and hoped to edit a newspaper of her own for women. But now she was a divorced woman and the Willamette Mission had all that gossip about her. She never published another book and once again found herself on her own with nothing to support her.  
In the persona of Ruth Rover, she confessed in Chapter One of The Grains: "I am avoided and shunned, and slighted, and regarded with suspicions in every place till my life is more burdensome than death would be. I have, therefore, … been impelled by a sense of justice due to myself and a wish that my future life should not be overshadowed by the gloom of the present.” 
Was she too honest in her telling of her life or did she fictionalize what she thought wouldn't make her seem sympathetic? The anonymous Squills of the Oregonian noted this was not the biography of a Napoleon or a Byron, but the story of a mere woman: "[W]ho the dickens cares, about the existence of a fly, or in whose pan of molasses the insect disappeared" (Oregonian, August 5, 1854). 

Squills added: "The immorality, not to say indecency of the work, is far too much in advance even for the fast ideas and morals of young Oregon" (Oregonian, September 9, 1854). Criticisms of "immorality" and "indecency," whether aimed at her writing or her character, continued to follow Bailey throughout her life.

Margaret didn't give up on a happy life, but for women of that time, even more than today, choosing wisely in a mate made the difference in terms of  quality life, especially without family behind them. For an outspoken woman, a woman who thought for herself, she never found her own happily ever after. 

Margaret Bailey's second marriage was to Francis Waddle, in Polk County, in 1855. They were divorced three years later. She then moved to Washington Territory and married a Mr. Crane (no information on him). Her third marriage may have ended no better because, she died destitute in Seattle on May 17, 1882. In my research, I could not find anything about where she was buried, but as a pauper, there was unlikely to be a marker.

Despite being the first novelist in Oregon, she's not a well-known northwestern pioneer. I learned of her from my daughter, who had given a paper on her while studying historical archaeology for her Master's in Anthropology. 

Champoeg is where Oregon Territory first formed its government. William Bailey was a part of that forming. The town site was mostly wiped out by the flood of 1861. My daughter was involved in archaeological digs in Champoeg and French Prairie where they plotted where homes had been and unsuccessfully tried to find Bailey's French Prairie home, which had burned sometime after his divorce. 

My daughter had told me of Margaret's story when we were discussing unconventional women of the Old West. She had read The Grains and said it wasn't an easy book to read. She said it was sensual, which likely explains why, though it was also spiritual, it didn't find popularity in its own time. She said Margaret made it clear she was a woman who liked men, but it also didn't make her feel like a person someone would like to know. While blaming others for her miseries and disappointments, they may have been mostly due to her own personality, but one has to also take into account the time in which she lived.

As, is this book about that time in Oregon's history and more on Margaret and William Bailey

And my own book with a woman who fought against the traditions of her time but found a much happier ending thanks to the old adage that a woman's life, especially then, was mostly happy or not due to the man she chose.


  1. Thank you for adding to the balance of stories about real people in the Old West, especially the women. What a person Margaret seens to be. Doris

  2. Our life's partner still makes a huge difference in whether or not we are happy, regardless of the strength of our personality. Thankfully, I am married to a wonderful man. I feel sympathy for Margaret and her quest for happiness and acceptance.

  3. Margaret was certainly a one-of-a-kind woman. If she had found the right man, her life might have been very different. Sad and yet also inspiring that she did fight for her own path

  4. What a story and so sad. I think we tend to glorify the west and people in it. In several of my stories, I will admit that these people married not out of love but survival. If they got lucky the guy was decent and if he was lucky she was nice and maybe even pretty or at least average and knew how to cook and skin a mule deer.

  5. So true and why we enjoyed writing and reading romances-- a happy ending life doesn't always deliver


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