|In her journal entry of January 24, 1853, Charlotte
Dickinson wrote of a shipboard encounter with an African-America
cook, "He is a Christian and I felt that he was truly a
child of Our Heavenly Father. (Oh,) it did my heart good to
hear him talk while the tears streamed down his dark face. And
how earnestly he did plead to be remembered in our prayers as
he took our hand and clung to it long." It would be ten
years before Charlotte was able to put her concern for African-Americans,
especially their education, into action.
Charlotte and Obed Dickinson had been newlyweds in November
of 1852 when they embarked on the long voyage around the Horn
to Obed's assignment as a Congregational minister in frontier
Oregon. Landing in Portland the following April, they had
personal baggage and simple furnishings for their home: a
stove, table, chairs, and bedding. It took them eighteen days
to transport their belongings and themselves by boat and cart
to Salem, a village of 500 people, ten dry goods stores, four
physicians, a flouring mill, various mechanics - and five
other ministers, all Methodist.
His church was an abandoned schoolhouse at Commercial and
Marion Streets described as "dirty as a pig sty, its
floor covered with mud." Boarding was too expensive,
so Obed purchased a half acre of land, deep in the brush between
Front Street and the river, for a small 16 by 26 feet home.
As the young minister was building his house, he planted apple
trees and a garden. He and Charlotte were broke, living on
little or no income. "Not a crust of bread nor a baked
potato has been lost," he wrote. "Everything has
been cooked in some way for our food." He wrote letters
urging the Missionary Society to send him help, "I am
now so much in debt that I almost feel ashamed to meet a man
in the street." Their poverty would continue as long
as his ministry.
Charlotte was not in good health, suffering from a "spinal
problem". Obed ordered her medicine, bottled petroleum,
to be used as a salve. "Many of our friends feel they
are indebted to it for their lives and present health,"
he reported. "Several are suffering from the same diseases
from which it has freed her."
Motherhood brought Charlotte additional problems. The second
of their two daughters, Alice Amelia, lived only a year. Of
four children, only Edna, the eldest, survived. They also
adopted a daughter.
The greatest professional conflict the Dickinsons faced was
their continuing interest in Salem's African-American residents,
a group not accepted by the other churches. This concern was
translated into action at the worst possible time, that is,
while they were building a new church and trying to expand
church membership. As Obed preached against the sins of slavery
and the mistreatment of the local African-American population,
he actively encouraged members of this community to join his
church. In response, church supporters requested separate
services and a New Years party which African-Americans attended
was a cause of malicious gossip. Funds dried up and church
membership declined. An African-American wedding conducted
by Dickinson was considered a scandal.
As African-Americans were not allowed to go to school, Charlotte
undertook their instruction in her home. Her husband wrote,
"Daily, at evening, a company of four (with a fifth as
often as her mistress will allow) may be seen for two hours,
as intent and earnest over their books as any White children
you can find. And, what is better, my wife who has taught
school for fifteen years, says she has never seen such rapid
improvement. They labor under great disadvantages for one
is a wife, and has all the cares of a family, and two others
are servant girls, yet they are all beginning to read intelligibly.
Three have learned their figures and are going on well in
the first questions of mental arithmetic. All this in five
The church did get built, although Dickinson continued to
preach against the sins he found around him including what
he called the "liquor interests." He refused to
be censored, and paid the price of idealism in the practical
community of Salem. He resigned his pastorate in 1867, devoting
his energy to farming. He developed a seed business and a
nursery. His business prospered and for the next fifteen years
he built respect for his character and business integrity
. Obed Dickinson died June 15, 1892. Charlottes grave
in Pioneer Cemetery is beside his, dated October 15, 1893.
Compiled by Virginia Green
Oliver, Egbert S. Obed Dickinson's War against Sin in
Salem 1853-67. Hopi Press, 512 SW Maplecrest Dr., Portland,