A missionary and educator, the first white woman to cross the Continental Divide of the Americas, considered as the founding mother of the state of Idaho.
Eliza Hart Spalding was born in Kensington, CT. When she was 13 years old, she moved with her family to Oneida County, NY, where they had a farm. A mutual friend introduced between Eliza and Henry Harmon Spalding, and they got married when she was 26 years old. Soon after their marriage, the Spaldings joined the Whitman party, who traveled along the Oregon Trail with the purpose of serving as Presbyterian missionaries. They were among the first white settlers to travel across the western plains, and Eliza and Narcissa Whitman were the only two women in the party. The journey through the Rocky Mountains was not easy; it was a long trip that included steamboats, horseback, and wagon train.
The Spalding family decided to leave the party and to settle in Lapwei, Idaho, the land of the Nez Perce. They were the first American settlers in the area, and they brought with them a printing press, the first one in the Northwest. Their house was more than a home; it contained a church and a school, where Eliza, who learned the local language, taught both in English and the Nez Perce language. As opposed to her husband, she sought to understand the Nez Perce people and not vice versa. The natives liked her, especially the women who followed her around and watched the “white woman” cooking, cleaning, and caring for her children. In addition to teaching languages, Hart Spalding taught sewing and knitting, and how to make “civilized” clothing.
After the Whitman Massacre in 1847 at Waiilatpu, Washington, the Spaldings had to leave their mission. They moved to Oregon City, Oregon, where Eliza was the first teacher at Tualatin Academy, which later became the Pacific University. 60 years after she has passed away, her body was re-interred in the Lapwei Mission Cemetery. Though the mission didn’t succeed as planned, her impact was tremendous. Not only she left behind her two schools, a spinning and weaving shop, and two print-shops, she also paved the way for other women to migrate by land and to settle over the Rocky Mountains.
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She and her future husband were pen pals for a year before they met face to face.
- She adopted 8 Nez Perce children.