Oregon Pioneer Biographies - Mary Dix Gray

Oregon Pioneer Biographies


"Souvenir of Western Women," edited by Mary Osborn Douthit, Portland, Oregon, 1905, pg. 38.

Life of Mrs. W. H. Gray

Mary Augusta Dix was born at Ballston Springs, New York, January 2, 1810, of English ancestry, and of the same family tree as Dorothy A. Dix, the philanthropist. She was one of seven daughters who grew up in a Christian home amid refined associations. Her parents took an active interest in church work, especially the singing. It was no unusual thing to see them and their seven daughters seated in the church choir, the mother and daughters all dressed in white. This happy home circle was destined to be broken, for in February, 1838, Mr. W. H. Gray, of Utica, N. Y., who had lately returned from the Oregon county, where he had gone in 1836 with Dr. Marcus Whitman and Rev. H. H. Spalding, as secular agent of the missions they went to establish, sought the hand of the oldest daughter, Mary, in marriage. Not a wife alone did he seek, but a co-laborer in this missionary field. Esteeming it a privilege to do the work of the Lord, she seemed to hear in this offer the voice of the Master calling her to His service. She accepted Mr. Gray, and within a month married him, bidding adieu to home and kindred.

Traveling by steamer and stage coach, Mr. and Mrs. Gray arrived at Independence, Mo., where they were joined by their fellow-missionaries, Rev. Cushing Eells, Rev. Elkanah Walker, Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Smith and a Mr. Rogers. There were more dangers and hardships than had been anticipated. Horseback riding in imagination and in reality they found to be two very different things. They spoke of this journey as going to sea on land. Perils beset them on every hand. Swift streams were to be forded, and deep ravines to be crossed. Indians often surrounded their camp, standing around like great dogs, and sometimes even followed them all day. Their tents were their houses, the bed and bedding a buffalo robe, a piece of oil cloth and blankets. Often they slept in their blankets when saturated from the rain, and upon rising in the morning put on their clothes as wet as when they took them off the night before. When they halted for the night the tents were pitched, the robes spread upon the ground within, then the piece of oil cloth. The saddles and loose baggage were arranged neatly about the walls inside; the blankets were rolled up and placed around the center for seats, and within the space the tablecloth was spread for the evening meal. Half-past three in the morning all were astir. Animals were turned out to feed, breakfast prepared and eaten, dishes washed, repacking done, morning prayers, and they were ready for the journey of another day.

One hundred and twenty-nine days after leaving Independence, Mo., they reached Whitman Mission, August 29, 1838. Dr. and Mrs. Whitman and Rev. and Mrs. Spalding were anxiously awaiting their arrival, and joyously received these weary voyagers.

Mr. and Mrs. Spalding having established a mission to Lapwai, Mr. and Mrs. Gray went there to assist them.

Mrs. Gray entered heartily into the work of teaching the Indian women and children. Immediately she began her labors with fifty or more natives, whom she taught under a pine tree until a log schoolhouse could be built. This is described as a puncheon-seated, earth-floored building. Here she taught till November, 1842.

Mrs. Gray had a remarkably sweet and finely trained voice. When she first joined in the singing at family prayers, Mr. Spalding realized that her singing would be a power in their Sunday worship, and requested her to conduct that part of the service. When the Indians heard her sing they were visibly impressed, and spoke of her as "Christ's sister," long after related by the old Indians and Hudson's Bay men. No doubt the awakening powers of her voice (coupled with her rare sweetness of character) had much to do with bringing about the great revival among the Nez Perce Indians. Several hundred made confession of religion, which was, in a measure, lasting, for years after Mr. Spalding left his field the Indians in many of the lodges continued to read the Bible, sing hymns, pray and at their meals return thanks.

November, 1842, Mr. Gray, having severed his connection with the missions, and accepted the appointment as secular agent for the Oregon Institute, the family moved to the Willamette Valley. With her husband, son and two daughters, she made a journey which would now seem most novel. The Columbia being the great highway of travel, the party embarked upon its waters in a Hudson's Bay Company batteau, and went as far as Celilo. From this point to the cascades they were conveyed in an Indian canoe. Here Mr. Gray decided to take the trail, believing it safer than the turbulent waters of the Columbia. Mrs. Gray and her little ones quit the swift-gliding canoe to take passage on the backs of some jogging Indian ponies. When they were deep in the mountain fastness, they encountered a heavy snow storm, which made further traveling in any direction impossible. Mr. Gray dispatched some of his Indian guides to Fort Vancouver for help. At the Columbia, they found a canoe, in which they made their way down the river. As soon as Dr. McLoughlin heard that a woman and little children were in the mountains snowbound, he at once sent to their relief a batteau, manned by Hudson's Bay Company men. In this dismal situation strongest hearts were tried, but Mrs. Gray, ever equal to the emergency, calmed their fears, and dispelled the gloom. She sent out over woodland and mountain peak the sounds of her voice as she sang hymns of devotion and praise. The oarsmen, wending their way up the Columbia, caught the strains of her song wafted over the waters, and were thus directed to the spot where the members of the little party were imprisoned. The kind-hearted boatsmen soon conveyed them to the river bank, where they gladly embarked for Fort Vancouver.

In the after years Mr. and Mrs. Gray resided in various places, always laboring to advance the cause of Christ. They exerted a decided influence in the interest of temperance and of education. Their home was the center from which radiated all social and reform movements. In 1846 they assisted in founding on Clatsop Plains the first Presbyterian church in the Northwest.

Mrs. Gray's presence was gentle and dignified. Many there are yet who bear testimony to the nobility of her character. She possessed a pure spirit and a strong soul, and was so pacific in her disposition that under the severest tests she remained calm and self-possessed. When in her last moments her husband asked her, "Mother, are you going to leave us? Are you ready?" she replied, "Yes, if it is the Lord's will. I have endeavored to serve Him and He will not forsake me now." Her last words were a prayer that her husband, children and friends might join her in the Father's house not made with hands. With this prayer upon her lips she passed away, December 8, 1881, at her country home, the Clatskanie farm, aged nearly seventy-two years. Nine children were born to this divinely appointed mother, seven of whom survive her.

In 1870 Mr. and Mrs. Gray returned on a visit to their old home in the State of New York, going to San Francisco by steamer, and then across the continent by rail. Whisked along on the fast-moving train was in sharp contrast to their first journey over these plains on horseback thirty-two years before.

In closing this recital of some of the events in this noble, consecrated life, we relate the following as proof that the motive power in it all was a deep and abiding submission to what she believed to be the will of God. Not long before her death her daughter, Mrs. Kamm, said to her: "Mother, I have often wondered how, with your education and surroundings, the refinements of life you were accustomed to, and your personal habits, you could possibly have made up your mind to marry a man to whom you were a total stranger so short a time before, and go with him on such a terrible journey thousands of miles from civilization into an unknown wilderness, exposed to countless dangers. Mother, how did you do it?" After a few moments' pause her mother replied with great earnestness and solemnity: "Carrie, I dared not refuse. Ever since the day I gave myself to Jesus, it had been my daily prayer, 'Lord, what will thou have me to do?' When this question, 'Will you go to Oregon as one of a little band of missionaries to teach the poor Indians of their Savior?' was suddenly proposed to me, I felt that it was the call of the Lord, and I could not do otherwise."

Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Gray

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