"I feel the weight of responsibility which rests upon me
in giving character to this infant institution," wrote Chloe
Clark Willson on August 13, 1844, the first day of classes
at the Oregon Institute. Chloe was the first teacher
at the school, founded by Methodist missionaries, which would
grow under her guidance to become Willamette University.
Chloe devoted her life to bringing religion and education
to Oregon, and particularly to educating the young women of
Chloe Aurelia Clark was born on April 16, 1818, in Connecticut.
She was educated at the Wilbraham Academy, the seminary that
trained a number of the missionaries who came to Oregon, including
Jason Lee. Many of Chloe's friends were astounded that,
with the advantages of her education and social position,
she would want to leave the civilization of the east coast
to become a missionary in the wilderness of Oregon, but that
was exactly what she did. In 1839, twenty-one-year-old
Chloe sailed out of New York on the ship Lausanne, as one
of about fifty new recruits for the Jason Lee's Willamette
Mission, known later as the "Great Reinforcement."
Chloe recorded her experiences and reflections in a diary,
covering the 13,000 mile voyage on the Lausanne, her experiences
as a missionary teacher, and the last period of her life.
Her diary records not only her day-to-day experiences but
also her deep religious faith, with constant prayers for God's
guidance and assistance. Historians today are fortunate to
have Chloe's diary, which was donated to Willamette University
in 1935 by Joseph Gill, the husband of Chloe's daughter Frances.
Soon after the Great Reinforcement arrived at the Willamette
Mission in May 1840, Chloe was sent to a new mission station
at Nisqually on Puget Sound, which had been established by
Reverend David Leslie and Dr. William H. Willson the year
before. Chloe was busy as she applied herself to the
difficult job of learning enough of her students' language
to communicate, but she apparently had time for a brief courtship.
She and William became acquainted and were married only a
month later, on August 16, 1840. Her diary during this period
reflects her introspection concerning her religious faith,
her happiness with her "dear companion," her health concerns
after losing her first child, and her efforts as a teacher.
The next spring, Chloe and William were moved to another
mission station at Willamette Falls (Oregon City). These were
discouraging times: Chloe felt unable to change the way of
life she found among native children, William's health did
not seem sturdy enough for the heavy carpentry work, and serious
differences arose between the missionaries and laymen. During
the three years William and Chloe remained in Oregon City,
they remained active in missionary activities, but became
increasingly involved in the life and growth of the settlement.
By late spring of 1844, Chloe and William had been asked
to move to the settlement at Chemeketa Plains where Chloe
had been chosen to open the Oregon Institute, a school for
white children which would replace the failed Indian Manual
Training School. When the Institute opened in August
1844, Chloe was both the teacher and housemother for the five
primary grade students. She remained the only teacher
for the school's first two years, in which time it grew to
twenty students. Mrs. Willson conducted classes on the
first floor of the three-story Oregon Institute building;
the girls' dormitories were on the second floor, and boys
on the third floor.
In 1846, the board of the Institute decided to lay out a
town on the school's land and sell lots in order to attract
settlers to the area and raise funds for the school.
Dr. Willson was chosen as business agent for the board and
took charge of its landholdings, which included what is now
downtown Salem, for "safekeeping." He drew
up the first plat of the town and gave it the name Salem.
After the Donation Land Claim Law of 1850 passed, conflicts
arose between the Willsons and the Oregon Institute board
over the title to the land. Under the 1850 law, the
640 acre property belonged jointly to both William and Chloe.
Although Dr. Willson was bound to the trustees to administer
the land for the University, Chloe was not, and insisted that
her legal right to the land be recognized. The dispute
was resolved in 1854, when the Willsons and the trustees reached
a compromise. A line was drawn splitting the property in half
along State Street; the 320 acres to the south would belong
to the Institute, and the 320 to the north would belong to
Chloe. Throughout the disagreement, Dr. Willson apparently
remained a member of the board of trustees, and Chloe continued
teaching at the Oregon Institute, and later at Willamette
In 1848, as Oregon was transformed into a U.S. Territory,
Chloe wrote in her diary, "My heavenly father has increased
my responsibilities by committing to my charge a lovely daughter,"
who she named Frances. Two other daughters, Laurabelle and
Kate Augusta Lee, were born in 1851 and 1855. Before
the last daughter was born, William built an Elizabethan-style
cottage on the northeast corner of Court and Capitol streets,
not far from the new Territorial Capitol building, itself
built on land donated by the Willsons out of Chloe's 320 acres.
Meanwhile, the board of the Oregon Institute chartered "Wallamet
University" in 1853, offering higher education in addition
to the primary schooling available at the Institute.
In 1856, William Willson died suddenly while working at the
drugstore he ran in downtown Salem. Chloe was a widow after
only 16 years of marriage. She returned to the east after
his death in order to put her daughters in school, and for
some years opened her home to students. Chloe returned
to Salem in 1863, where she served as Governess of the Ladies
Department at Willamette University, a position similar to
dean of Women. She lived in a large house near the Willamette
campus, where female students boarded with her. The 1864
W. U. Catalogue stated that, "Young ladies will find
a home in the family of the Governess, Mrs. C. A. Willson,
who has consented to open her large and pleasant residence
for this purpose. Pupils under Mrs. Willson's care will
enjoy special advantages in Music and Painting, Board $4.00
per week." In 1880, Chloe's former home was moved two
blocks to the Willamette campus and became the home of the
Willamette Women's College, later named Lausanne Hall.
During her second year as Governess, Chloe gave a lecture
on the purpose of education for women, entitled "The
Sphere of Woman." Like many other influential Victorian
women, she defined this sphere as, "Surely not the halls
of Legislation, the Bar or the Pulpit--but in the sweet Paradise
of home--The refined social circle. Do you inquire of
her mission? It is to mold character... The training
which you here receive is not to elevate you above your sphere,
or to remove you from it, but to qualify you to move in it
with ease, grace, and dignity," she reminded her students.
These conservative sentiments, advocating traditional, domestic
roles for women and the "sweet Paradise of home"
seem somewhat strange coming from Chloe Willson, an independent
woman who traveled 13,000 miles to an unknown wilderness at
age 21, fought for her right to own land in her own name in
1850, and spent much of her life employed as a teacher--a
woman who was once called "four feet of greatness"
because of her strong character and short stature. there
is one thing that we can be sure of, though; Chloe was wholly
devoted to "her mission... to mold character."
In her years at the Willamette Mission, the Oregon Institute,
and Willamette University, she not only molded the character
of her students but of the Salem community.
Lucy Anna Lee Grubbs succeeded Chloe as head of the Women's
Department in 1866. In 1871
Chloe moved to the Portland home of her daughter and
son-in-law, Frances and Joseph Gill, where she died three
years later, on July 2, 1874, at age 56. Her
body was returned to Salem where she was buried in the old
Oddfellows cemetery (now Pioneer Cemetery) where a marble
Obelisk marks the gravesite she shares with William.
In 1935, Chloe's daughter Frances published a novel based
on her mother's life, dramatizing her experiences as a missionary
Written by Virginia Green and Katherine Wallig
"Bits for breakfast: The Chloe A. Willson Diary goes
to Willamette." Oregon Statesman. 29 May
1935, p. 4. Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet
"Chloe Aurelia Willson." Salem Pioneer Cemetery
website. March 3, 2004. <http://www.open.org/~pioneerc/pg48.html#WillChlo7317>
June 8, 2004.
Jones, Alfred C. "Chloe Willson helped bring education
to Salem mission." Statesman Journal.
[undated clipping] Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow
Gatke, Robert Moulton. Chronicles of Willamette,
the Pioneer University of the West. Portland:
Binford & Mort, 1943.
Gill, Frances. Chloe Dusts Her Mantle: A Pioneer
Woman's Idyl. New York: Press of the Pioneers,
Krebbs Smith, Helen, ed. With Her Own Wings:
Historical Sketches, Reminiscences, and Anecdotes of Pioneer
Women. Portland: Beattie and Co., 1948.
Westenhouse, Sybil. "The Willsons in Salem."
Marion County History. Volume XV, pp.13-49.