Biography of Mrs. Hannah J. Olmstead

MRS. HANNAH J. OLMSTEAD. – Life upon the Pacific coast brings out the heroic qualities in women as well as in men. It is a social and conventional form which keeps them in the shadow of their husbands’ names. But everybody knows that the greater part of the incentive which a man has to win a position or a fortune comes from his wife. It has long been remarked that the women in the immigrant trains showed more pluck than the men; and many a dispirited husband was cheered up and almost carried through by his brave better half. Delicate women, not used to severe work, would wield the axe or the ox-whip when it fell from stronger hands, and in case of the loss of their companions could take care of their children.

Mrs. Olmstead is one of these women, – a lady who can run a farm, transact her own business, and provide for and educate her children. She lives at Walla Walla, Washington, and owns her home. She is a native of South Salem, New York, was born in 1835, and is the daughter of Lewis and Eliza Keeler, well-to-do farmers, who, by the way, are still living, and are now eighty-one and seventy-six years old, respectively. In 1851 Miss Hannah was married to Daniel H. Olmstead, of Port Huron. Soon after their nuptials he was led to the Pacific coast by the California gold excitement. Like the most of the gold-hunters, Mr. Olmstead expected to make his fortune in a few months, – in a year at the longest, – and then go home to enjoy it. Fortune-making was not, however, so speedy a process; and the beginnings of his competency were destroyed by the fire which devastated Sacramento in 1853. His property was the Empire Flour Mills. Meeting this loss with characteristic fortitude, he began again to pick up the ends of a living, if not a fortune, by working with a dray at San Francisco two years, then a short time at Crescent City, and soon at Portland. At the last place he found employment with Colonel Ruckle, of the Cascades, in sailing a schooner between the two points last-named.

In 1859 he was able to return East and bring his young wife to the home which he had made at the Cascades, within sight of the most stupendous scenery of the coast. He had become a Western man. His return was in 1861. The first winter passed at that place was terribly severe. Snow fell to a depth of eighteen feet, – one of those phenomenal avalanches which occasionally burst upon the Cascade Mountains. The thermometer was frequently below zero. In addition to their own hardships, they were beset by half-starved, frost-bitten wretches from above, trying their best to get through to some milder clime than that east of the mountains. Although the Columbia was blockaded with ice fully three months, and there was no telling when their household provisions might give out, no one passed their door without being well warmed and fed.

In 1864 the Olmsteads moved to Walla Walla county and purchased a farm near the Oregon line, but met with little encouragement. The climate and soil were not so well understood then as now. After twelve years of hard labor, and the endurance of the privations of a new and sparsely-settled country, Mr. Olmstead was taken with a severe sickness, under which he sank and died. Mrs. Olmstead, thus bereaved, was left with her four children, and only a farm which had not yet proved productive, from which to gain a support. But, with great spirit and courage, she herself undertook the management, and was rewarded with a large crop of oats and hay, and with increasing stock. For a number of years she conducted the place with equally good success. In 1880 she moved to Walla Walla, buying a home for the sake of educating her family.

There are no failures on this coast, either among men or women, where hearts are so true and brave as Mrs. Olmstead’s.


Biography, Women,

History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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