Abby Rhoda Williams Hill was an artist and progressive activist from the Midwest who relocated to Tacoma in 1889 and, through her drawing and painting, captured scenes from across the Pacific Northwest, Yellowstone, and much of the Southwest from the 1890s through the 1920s. At the height of her career, she worked on a series of commissions from the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads, producing landscapes they used to promote tourism and regional development. She kept extensive notes on her life and work, and her letters, daybooks, and diaries provide a window into the life of a compelling and accomplished woman.
A Northwest Artist
Abby Rhoda Williams was born on September 25, 1861 in Grinnell, Iowa to Harriet Hubbard (1833-1877) and Henry Williams (1830-1906). She displayed an aptitude for art from a young age, and her family, including her stepmother Mary Verbeck (1842-1889), encouraged and nurtured her interest. In particular, her Aunt Ruth Hubbard (1831-1917) gave her pointers and assured her that it was proper for her to earn money through her work. In 1882, she began studies under H. F. Spread, one of the founders of the Chicago Art Institute. She reconsidered plans to stay with extended family in Chicago and instead taught music lessons to the children of a German minister in exchange for lodging. She learned the German language while staying with them and, two years later, had the opportunity to study French after obtaining a position teaching art to young women in Berthier-en-haut, Quebec.
Displays of her art garnered positive reviews back in Grinnell. “Miss Williams has given the citizens of Grinnell a treat in the large display of pictures she has made,” a local paper reported. “She is very industrious and a quick worker and she has brought back from the lakes, the mountains of Vermont and the sea coast near Boston many good examples of her work” (Fields, 10). Her work in and around Grinnell was similarly praised and convinced the faculty at Grinnell College to take her on as an instructor.
She did not stay at Grinnell for long, joined the Art Students League of New York in 1888, and there worked under the impressionist William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). At one point in her studies, she overheard him lament that few of his students would amount to “anything more than a decorative artist!” Insulted, she confronted him. He reassured her, saying, “I did not mean you, Miss Williams … You can go to the top if you want to. You have talent and you have a genius for work; they go together” (Fields, 11). In another moment, he expressed the idea that “artists make the world more beautiful for others because they see more of its beauties and so teach others to see them” (Fields, 12). She took his words to heart and saw that purpose in her own endeavors.
Abby married Dr. Frank Riley Hill (1857-1938), a medical doctor, in December 1888, and the following year the couple moved to Tacoma. It is not certain why they chose Tacoma, but stories passed down within her family suggest they were attracted by the natural environment and the opportunities it provided for her art. They took up residence in the Chamber of Commerce Building, and their son Romayne Bradford (1889-1970) was born in November. Because he had limited use of his left arm and leg and was developmentally delayed, he required significant care as a young child. During this period, in addition to mothering, Abby devoted herself to civic and social causes. She joined the Tacoma Art League, the Ladies’ Musical Club, and organized volunteers, known as Mrs. Hill’s Angels, to visit the sick in the hospital where Frank worked. Additionally, she promoted education and helped establish a mission for sailors. While her painting in this era was limited, she was chosen to replicate a portrait of George Washington that was displayed at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Painting the Northwest
Hill seized her first significant opportunity to travel, draw, and paint in the Northwest in 1895. In that year, she inherited $30,000 from her mother’s father, and the sizable sum allowed the Hillses to invest in real estate and travel extensively within the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Before departing on such a trip in September, she set out on a 26-day excursion to Mount Rainier.
Hill apparently had little previous experience camping, but reveled in both her art and the time in nature. She left Tacoma in late July and spent the first night battling wind at Chamber’s Prairie. “Wind came up, we’re not used to pitching tent,” she noted, and it “flapped its wings and alighted on 7 sleepers twice” (Mount Rainier and Hood Canal Journal, 1). The journey took them through Glennis, a socialist commune near Eatonville, where she met a self-proclaimed anarchist and read the literature he gave her “with great interest” (Mount Rainier and Hood Canal Journal, 3). Her party continued through Longmire to Camp of the Clouds, where they endured cold nights. “All were quite ready to go home in the morning but me,” she remarked, but she felt she “could endure much for a few days of such grandeur” (Fields, 17).
Abby spent a little over two weeks hiking and working, took pride in her willingness to take risks, and found deep meaning in her experiences. In one daybook entry, she described a party headed for the summit, deeming it “strange how people risk their lives” but “sketched all the afternoon, sitting on a precipice, just about a foot wide … and perhaps three hundred down.” She drew the attention of passing men who said they “would not dare sit there” and wryly commented, “women are supposed to be more clinging than men” (Mount Rainier and Hood Canal Journal, 17). Later, she recounted a hike across “a large snow field, bordered with yellow, white and pink blossoms” and lamented how often they had “blossomed and faded unseen” despite “the countless thousands of souls down below starving for beauty” (Fields, 17). In a contemplative moment, she concluded, “I think we all felt very near to God for being so surrounded by his beautiful works” (Mount Rainier and Hood Canal Journal, 15).
After a brief return to Tacoma in August, Hill sailed out on a trip to Hood Canal and delighted in views of the Olympics. They were “beautiful,” with “tier after tier of mountains … looming above the rest in sublime grandeur” (Mount Rainier and Hood Canal Journal, 34). One hike passed through the “wildest scenery and the most severe climbing” until she found a place “to sketch in a place where the roar was so great I could not make my companion on the next rock hear my voice.” With apparent pride, she noted, “It is thought no woman had ventured as far as I did today” (Mount Rainier and Hood Canal Journal, 37). She left with “regret, consoled by the thought that I may go again” (Mount Rainier and Hood Canal Journal, 39).
Just a few days later, the Hillses left on a two-year trip to Europe. They first visited family in the Midwest and placed Romayne in the care of relatives. Both used the opportunity to study. During a six-month stay in Hamburg, Dr. Hill continued his education in medicine, while Abby persuaded the illustrator Hermann Haase, who “did not care to teach ladies” to take her on as a student working in black ink (Fields, 20). Additionally, she visited museums, took a keen interest in German kindergartens, and signed up for a university class in political economy in Bonn. After leaving Hamburg, the couple traveled through much of western Europe before returning to the U.S. in the fall of 1897. Dr. Hill returned immediately to Tacoma, but Abby spent time painting, visiting with family, and caring for a back injury in the Midwest until the spring of 1898.
Once home, the Hills made the decision to expand their family. As Abby could not have more children, they adopted Eulalie DeRosia (1891-1978) in 1898. Ten-year old Ione joined the family in 1899, and they fully, but informally, took on Ina (1889-1987), Eulalie’s older sister, in 1901 but did not officially adopt her until she was 50.
From 1898 to 1901, Hill spent much of her time on Vashon Island near Burton. She had worked on the island previously and started camping there for extended periods in 1899 before taking up residence in a beach house. There, she painted and provided her children with an education herself. Progressives like Hill often subscribed to the idea that people are a product of their environment, and she likely felt that life in nature would be best, morally and physically, for her children. She, herself, felt more at home in “the wilds” and rejected social norms concerning fashion (Sudar, 19). “People are ashamed of my looks when I have on a gown of the best material … but dating two or three years back,” she noted, but she did not feel comfortable “in the world of fashion” and could not accept the idea of “spending on the stylish at the expense of the practical and good” (Fields, 23). In a humorous anecdote, Ina recalled many years later how Frank urged Abby to wear a corset. She agreed but demanded that he wear one for a day to see how it felt. He did and dropped the request.
In the fall of 1901, Frank, Abby, Ione, and Romayne embarked on a tour of the country, while Ina and Eulalie stayed in Burton. As with previous trips, Frank went to continue his studies, and it provided opportunities for Romayne to be seen by more specialized physicians. Along the way, the family visited numerous cultural institutions, and Abby was particularly interested in American industry and progressive era efforts to ameliorate social ills. Notably, she visited several missions in Chicago, including Hull House, along with similar institutions in New York. While Frank returned to Tacoma partway through the trip, Abby, Ione, and Romayne continued with a tour of the South. There, Abby objected to segregation and challenged Southern whites in conversation but was thoroughly impressed by the work of Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) at Tuskegee. The journey continued through the Southwest with a stop at the Grand Canyon before they were reunited with Eulalie and Ina in Los Angeles. From there, they traveled up the coast with stops for painting and camping in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Before returning to Tacoma, they spent the summer of 1902 camped outside of Trout Lake in the vicinity of Mount Adams. Work on a particularly difficult piece depicting “falls and moss-covered lava” inspired her to write, “This scenery fills me with enthusiasm. I praise gratefully in my heart the maker of it all, but I cannot talk about it” (Fields, 31). She was also keenly interested as Native Americans from unspecified tribes passed through the area on their way to pick huckleberries.
Abby’s writings on Natives should be read carefully. To start with, she romanticized their cultures and wrote in nostalgic tones about pre-contact traditions. For instance, she commented how “after the berries are gone” they would “go to the Columbia for salmon then later to the hills for a grand hunt after which they return to their respective reservations. It is the season where they are Indians again” (United States Tour Journal, 810). Additionally, she periodically appropriated her perceptions of Native cultures to critique what she saw as wrong in American culture. At the same time, she advocated for their rights, albeit in a paternalistic fashion, and eventually forged some trusting relationships. She struggled, however, to do that at Trout Lake. At one point she felt she was “on pretty good terms” with a woman and asked “if I might sketch her … but she persistently refused” (United States Tour Journal, 807-808). One young man gave permission, but a leading woman passed by and angrily demanded that Abby make a drawing of herself and exchange it with him to even things out. She longed to go to the berry fields “and sketch them,” but reluctantly stated that “a woman must be accompanied by a man” (United States Tour Journal, 817-818).
Great Northern Railway Commission
In 1903, the Great Northern Railway commissioned Hill to paint a series of landscapes for advertising and display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In compensation, she received four rail tickets good for up to 1,000 miles each and kept ownership of her work. From June through September, she and her children, in various combinations, made five trips to the North Cascades. Conditions were often challenging, as she had to navigate bad weather, gruff railroad workers, temperatures so hot that she could not hold her tubes of paint after leaving them in the sun, mosquitoes, and at one point had to spend an hour picking cinders out of her still-wet painting. In the end, she finished 21 pieces, including paintings of Tumwater Canyon, Mt. Index, Mt. Perseus, Lake Chelan, the Chelan Gorge, Horseshoe Basin, several forest scenes, and one unnamed mountain. She inquired about the mountain with the U.S. Geological Survey, was granted the honor of choosing a name, and settled on Mount Booker in honor of Booker T. Washington.
Her work for the railway drew praise from across the region. Miners working near her in Horseshoe Basin stopped to look and exclaimed, “that’s the real stuff, boys, no need to come to see the Basin if one can see those.” Her guide was less enthusiastic and thought the “trees on mountains” did “not show plain enough,” but local newspapers were effusive in their praise (Fields, 42). The Tacoma New Herald enthusiastically proclaimed the decision to commission her as “a veritable stroke of genius on the railroad’s part” as the paintings would surpass all “cold black and white photographs” and “stand alone as the only thing of its kind at the fair” (Fields, 43). In addition to showings in Tacoma and at the St. Louis fair, the Great Northern also printed and circulated 30,000 copies of a brochure titled Scenic Washington Along the Line (of the) Great Northern Railway featuring her work. The pamphlet explained how the region’s beauty could be observed from car windows and extolled mountains unsurpassed by Yellowstone and Yosemite. At the same time, its description of Washington’s forest boasted of them as a “wonder of the tourist” yet more pragmatically claimed the “gigantic firs, cedars, and spruce” would “furnish an inexhaustible supply of lumber for years to come” (Scenic Washington, 20).
Northern Pacific Commissions
In late July 1904, the Northern Pacific Railroad issued Hill a commission to paint 10 landscapes. In exchange, she again received rail passes and made an agreement that her work would be returned to her after a five-year period. She quickly set out and spent August painting in the northeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park. From there, she went to the North Cascades around Monte Cristo. The ride was “very beautiful,” but forest “fires still burned” and she “could not paint the beautiful range” (Fields, 54). Efforts to paint in northern Idaho were similarly foiled as “one disappointment followed another” and the sight of “smoke and more smoke … miles of sad, black forest, burned to a cinder” made her feel as if she “could have cried” (Fields, 54). In addition to the work from Mount Rainier, she completed works depicting Cabinet Gorge in Idaho and the scenery around Eddy, Montana. There, in one wry moment, she suggested that Northern Pacific officials might prefer to call her painting, Morning in an Aisle of a Tamarack Cathedral, as Northern Pacific Timber in the Rough instead (Fields, 53). She completed the commission with “touching up” in Tacoma before presenting her work to the Northern Pacific for display at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland (Fields, 57). Once finished, she left for St. Louis, viewed her previous year’s work at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and then went to D.C., where she spent six months at the Corcoran Gallery taking life classes. She was determined to study “until I can make easily and with deftness, a creditable life drawing” and “paint figure pieces to my satisfaction” (Fields, 60).
She had ideas for additional study but placed them on hold when the Northern Pacific, aiming to bolster tourism, presented her with a second commission in 1905 for work in Yellowstone National Park. After spending the first part of the summer traveling with family back east, Hill and her children arrived in the park in August and set up camp near Yellowstone Falls. Painting the falls and canyon was exceptionally challenging as she battled the elements, sunburns, and interruptions from tourists who came to gawk and take photos of her and her children. In one dramatic moment, what she described as a big twister hit as she was painting the falls from a small ledge “not over three feet wide.” Abby and Eulalie dropped to the ground and held fast, but the wind ripped “the picture from its fastening, jerking it under the poles and away down the canyon.” Park workers set up a rope system, and one climbed to retrieve it. “It was terrible to watch,” but, in the end, “the poor picture, spotted all over, wet, covered with sand and dust” was recovered (Fields, 66). While she was able to paint other scenes from safer vantage points, temperatures dropped so low by the end of the season that she filled a bottle “with boiling water from the little geyser” and placed it at her feet to stay warm (Northern Pacific Railway Commission Journal, 124).
Hill spent October and November with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana painting the surrounding area and a series of portraits. She had long “wished to paint” Natives and commented on how those on the reservation dressed “principally in their own costumes which is so picturesque: in contrast to those who dressed in “so called civilized toggery, wrappers, dressing jackets and look anything but interesting” (Northern Pacific Railway Commission Journal, 182-183). Bitterroot Salish Chief Charlo (1830-1910) allowed her to paint two portraits of him once she developed a sufficient rapport, and she also established a friendship with, and painted, Lakota leader White Bull (1849-1947). He taught her some dances, but she was unsure of herself and hesitated to dance with him in a large public ceremony. Realizing the offense she caused, she danced with him at the next public opportunity and “vindicated” herself. That night was bitter cold, and as they left “White Bull took a blanket from the saddle and wrapped Romayne with it … We were facing the wind and he offered me one end of his blanket to keep it off as courteously as a White man would” (Northern Pacific Railway Commission Journal, 261-262).
While she earned a fair degree of trust and painted several other portraits, there were limits. In 1904, Congress passed the Flathead Allotment Act, opening the reservation to outside development. In her journal, Hill recounted how she had been told in D.C. that there was no treaty and “that was why the Reservation was to be opened.” Charlo showed a copy of the treaty to her, and, in outrage, she exclaimed, “What a shame the Government does not keep the treaty!” In an effort to support them, she started to “make a copy of it” with Charlo watching, but he became fearful that she “would take away their rights” and worried that Abby might be “a schemer.” She acquiesced and left the copy with him in an effort “to restore his confidence” (Fields, 75).
The Northern Pacific granted her a third commission in 1906. This time she focused on the Upper Geyser Basin but first toured the park with Frank and Romayne. The girls stayed behind on the reservation as there were concerns about a measles outbreak, and they had never had the disease. She struggled in her work due to the even greater number of tourists in the basin, and she was not often allowed to use tents and awnings to shield herself from the elements. “It is hard painting under such conditions,” she wrote, and she did not attempt any larger pieces due to the trying circumstances (Fields, 80). Despite the hardships, as in the previous year, she delighted in the park, its wildlife, and the time with her children. By the end of the season, she produced some 15 pieces “some poor, some good” and went on to paint landscapes and what she described as her “best Indian pictures” in Montana (Fields, 88).
In the years following her third commission, Hill devoted much of her time to progressive era causes and travel in the U.S. and Europe. In particular, her passion for childhood education led her to establish the Washington State Congress of Mothers in 1906, the predecessor of the Parent-Teacher Association, and she served as the group’s president until 1911.
During this time, Frank led efforts to build the Hillcrest Apartment building in Tacoma, and, after a series of bad investments, suffered a nervous breakdown that required periodic hospitalization and significant care from 1909 until 1924. The Hills relocated to Laguna Beach, and Abby mostly painted the surrounding area with the exception of a two-month trip to Yosemite in 1921.
In 1924, his health had recovered to an extent that allowed travel across the country by car. They spent two years in the South, followed by a series of summers camping in national parks. Among other places, Hill painted in Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Tetons during this period. Frank’s health collapsed again in 1931, and he was institutionalized in Southern California until his death in 1938. Abby relocated to San Diego and remained there until her death in 1943 after a long illness.
An Enduring Legacy
From roughly the 1870s through the 1920s, railroad companies flooded the rest of the nation with agents, brochures, paintings, and other advertisements to promote the beauty and opportunities available in the American West. Hill’s landscapes, which did not feature people or signs of human activity, along with the work of contemporaries such as John Fery (1859-1934) and Thomas Moran (1837-1926) added to that popular image. For the companies, it was simply a matter of economic interest. Increased population growth, industrial development, and tourism meant more revenue. Western migrants inspired by advertisements like the ones featuring her art, however, often came out with high hopes for a better life. Many failed to find it, and the gap between “unrealistic expectations and harsh realities,” in the words of historian Carlos Schwantes, “gave rise to radical crusades, militant unions, and violence” as the region developed (Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest, 328).
Hill herself was dismayed by the pace and effects of industrialization. In 1929, she gave an interview to the Tucson Daily Citizen urging its residents to “wake up” and preserve scenic treasures before it was too late. She explained how Tacoma “did not have the foresight to reserve forested parks” except for Point Defiance, and she lamented how she had been “sent out by the Great Northern Railway to paint some of the finest scenery in Washington state,” but that the scenery had “since been spoiled.” She explained that she had recently visited the Northwest to paint once again but left as “the forests that had been her inspiration had vanished” (“Artist Says Tucson Should ‘Wake Up'”).
There is no question, however, that she left behind a powerful body of art and a rich collection of letters, diaries, and other archival materials. Her daughter, Ina, inherited and donated much of the collection to the University of Puget Sound in the decades after Abby’s death. The collection has been curated and made available for research both in person and online.