Writing Home: Commentary

3. Phoebe Goodell Judson, "A Pioneer's Search for an Ideal Home"

Phoebe Goodell Judson (1832-1926), like Arthur Denny, wrote long after she and her family had migrated along the overland trail in 1853 and homesteaded in Washington Territory. It is not clear whether Judson had kept a pioneer journal on which she drew when drafting her memoir during the first decade of the 20th century. The trip itself seemed to have been eventful, but Judson, remembering it 50 years later, depicted it mainly in general terms, and eschewed for the most part the nitty-gritty details of the kind that Patterson and Michael Luark recorded. Moreover, Judson remained relatively reticent about things that strike readers as quite momentous. For example, when she goes into uncharacteristic detail about one particular day, readers are in for a jolt: “The Sabbath dawned most serenely upon us, a bright, lovely morning, the twenty-sixth of June. I am certain of the date, for the day was made memorable to me by the birth of a son. Monday morning our party were so considerate of my welfare, and that of the ‘new emigrant,’ that they proposed remaining in camp for a day or two. I assured them that we were both very comfortable, and, though reluctant to leave this most beautiful spot (the romantic birthplace of our baby boy) I urged them to proceed with the journey” (Judson 1984:39). With her overland party just west of Fort Laramie, Judson revealed that she had been 7-9 months pregnant for the first part of the journey. She spent another two paragraphs discussing the baby boy’s name, then moved on. No doubt because of her Victorian upbringing, but also because she was recalling events years and years later, there was no mention of labor pains, of fears of the dangers of childbirth, of the absence of privacy. The baby appeared, and the overland party moved on.

Once in Washington Territory, Phoebe Judson and her husband Holden had difficult times. They moved around quite a bit, trying to raise crops and livestock but never truly flourishing. The family finally homesteaded in a relatively remote region along the Nooksack River near what became the town of Lynden, Washington. Judson recalled the experience in mostly positive terms, even though the privations and isolation from other family members must have weighed heavily. Much of the story was quite consciously framed to relate the pioneering experience and to heighten the reputation of the pioneers themselves. Repeatedly, Phoebe Judson explains that she and her husband helped to “develop the resources of the country.”  They may not have become wealthy themselves, she seemed to say, but they deserved credit for laying the groundwork for the successful society and economy that later generations enjoyed.

Thus Judson’s autobiography aimed to draw lessons from the pioneering experience, but the lessons differed from most of the ones that Arthur Denny drew. Judson’s account was framed in large part by her gender. At times she made pointedly feminist remarks. For example, she described her participation in political life between 1883 and 1887, when Washington Territory granted limited rights to women, and she identified the oppression of women as one of society’s fundamental problems: “When all the inhuman treatment and indignities that have been heaped upon the female sex are done away with, we may look for the millennium, and not before” (Judson 1984:277,67). Most of the time, however, Judson focused primarily on the experiences of her immediate and extended family, not political matters. Whereas Denny emphasized economic and urban development, Judson stressed the pursuit of the “ideal home.”  She spoke at considerable length about her husband, her children (natural and adopted), her extended family, those pioneer neighbors (including Indian people) who often became like family to her, and household conditions.  As her life neared its end, Judson increasingly identified the ideal home with heaven. The material attainments that had loomed so large in the 1850s no longer seemed so important half a century later.

Judson begins A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home by saying that she and her husband were attracted to the Northwest by the federal government’s offer of dozens of acres to settlers, and over the course of the narrative the Judsons move from one homestead to another in search of a suitable parcel of land for themselves and their children. Like most overland migrants who headed to the Northwest before 1870 or so, the Judsons wanted a farm or a ranch, believing that such a property would bestow a sort of independence on them. Paradoxically, however, the family seemed happier during respites in town than it did living on remote farmsteads. Judson described a brief stay in Olympia, while Holden served in the territorial legislature, in quite favorable terms, for she appreciated the neighbors, the schools, the churches, and the other aspects of town life that made her feel that she had returned to “civilization.” Indeed, towns were places where eastern influences were strongest. Lancaster Pollard explained, “Fifteen years from the time of which Mrs. Judson wrote [1853] . . . the comforts of living were no longer missing from towns—croquet, buggy rides, ‘sociables,’ spelling bees and singing circles kept all but the most isolated amused. The problems of the day—prohibition, women's suffrage, the change in moral-religious standards—were discussed in Puget Sound and in Walla Walla as much as they were in Baltimore” (Pollard 1937:388-89). Unfortunately, perhaps, for Phoebe Judson, her husband apparently insisted on settling on unclaimed acreage in fairly remote spots, so most of the time she was unable to enjoy the benefits of town living.

Two excerpts from A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home are included here. The first is the initial section of the book that explains how it came into being and recalls the departure of the Judson family for the Northwest. The second depicts homesteading life in the vicinity Judson called Grand Mound, somewhat to the south of Olympia. This selection depicts the obstacles to making money at farming, describes relations with Indians, and mentions the household’s few literary landmarks—the Bible, a dictionary, and James Fenimore Cooper—imported as cultural baggage from the East.

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