With so much in the history books and in popular culture, about rough-hewn men settling the American West with guns blazing, it is refreshing to be reminded of the women of that era who took a gentler and kinder approach. Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943) was one such woman, an accomplished painter and social activist with an insatiable love for travel, learning and people, a love that took her across the country on many adventures starting from her home base in Tacoma.
Hill was also a prolific writer. While her paintings give viewers today great visions of the natural wonders found in places like the North Cascades and Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the century, the pages from her diaries and her extensive correspondence provide a deeper and more personal look into her life as a wife, mother and extraordinarily sensitive woman who made many friends among the Indian peoples she encountered. “Cut Out for the Wilds: The Collected Papers of Artist and Activist Abby Williams Hill” is on view now in the Collins Memorial Library at University of Puget Sound (UPS), where viewers can read for themselves about Hill’s remarkably rich life.
Included in the exhibit are numerous display cases full of Hill’s written words, photographs, newspaper clippings and memorabilia - even her well-used paint box is on display with tubes and brushes still inside. In two of the display cases are masterfully beaded Iroquois and Crow moccasins from the early 1900s, along with Plains Indian arrows and quiver. Hill had a strong affinity for Indians and their culture; she is said to have approached tribal peoples with humility and gentility, far different from the prevailing attitudes toward Indians then. She greatly respected tribal customs and joined in on dances, pow wows, funerals and other exclusive activities. She made extensive visits to the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, and the library’s collection includes a Hill portrait of tribal member Agnes in traditional dress. Viewers will also see a portrait Hill painted of her closest friend among the Indians, Sioux Chief White Bull (Ta-Tan-Ka-Sha).
Hill was born to one of the founding families of Grinnell, Iowa. She married physician Frank Hill in 1889 and the couple moved to Tacoma, the same year that Washington achieved statehood. Her first commission as an artist came in 1903 from the Great Northern Railway. She was to paint 20 canvases displaying the breathtaking scenes from along the company’s routes in Washington state. These landscapes would then be displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis and printed in pamphlets about the event. More commissions followed over the next three years, including from Northern Pacific Railway. The commissions provided her the opportunity to spend much time in the wilderness, often with her four young children.
A concerned activist, Hill worked for the social causes of her time like women’s suffrage. She led the Congress of Mothers branch in Washington state (today’s Parent/Teacher Association) and in her diaries and letters she recorded her observations of prejudice directed at immigrant families, African Americans and Indians throughout the United States.
Hill died in 1943. The Abby Williams Hill Collection was donated to UPS by the Hill family in the decades following her death. It includes nearly all of Hill’s paintings and drawings, her daybook, diaries and letters and those of her husband and children. Many of her paintings are on display at Jones Hall on the UPS campus and in the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia. The Hill papers reside in the archives room at Collins Memorial Library.
On Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. at the library, storyteller, musician, historian and living history performer Karen Haas, widely noted for her portrayals of Thea Foss and other pioneering heroines, will give a performance titled “No Woman Has Ventured as Far: The Art and Adventures of Abby Williams Hill.” Admission to this, and the exhibit, are free.