In 1799 in Brimfield, MA, Tabitha Moffatt married the Reverend Clark Brown at the age of 19; the couple had three sons and a daughter. When her husband passed, she supported her family by teaching school until age 63, at which point her extended family decided to move west. So, in Spring 1846, three generations of family loaded up five wagons and began the long journey to Oregon.
Months later in August, with several hundred miles left to travel, the family was persuaded to take the Applegate Trail as a shortcut through to Oregon. However, soon after receiving his payment, their trail guide disappeared. The family also lost their cattle in a creek washout and Tabitha herself lost her wagon and many supplies during a difficult water crossing, leaving her with just one horse and some clothing.
Despite this and other harrowing episodes of hardship, Tabitha and her family reached the Oregon settlements on Christmas Day 1846. Of their group of 22 relatives, aged 2 to 77, not a single person died on the trip.
With her meager supplies but a very strong will, Brown began making leather gloves for loggers and fellow pioneers. She quickly earned $30, a very large sum at the time and was able to support herself.
When she arrived in Forest Grove, near where one of her sons had settled in West Tualatin, she described it this way:
The whole of Oregon is delightful, especially the plains, of which there are many, but this is the most beautiful of all others. The outskirts of the plain are circled around with hills, a few miles distant, covering their summits with fine bunch grass, fir and oak timber. Near to the edge, the plain is circled clear around with beautiful fir trees, green all the year, standing three hundred feet high. In front of them, in contrast with the green, there are large spreading oaks casting their shade over the farmers’ white houses, as there are many in full view. Grass is green here all winter, and cattle get their living without being fed.
Along with missionaries Reverend Harvey Clark and his wife Emmeline, Tabitha Brown decided to establish an orphanage for children who had lost their parents during the trip West. As the orphanage grew, they also took in children whose parents had left to find fortune during the California Gold Rush.
Their Orphan Asylum soon expanded to include an Indian training school and eventually evolved into the Tualatin Academy, a secondary school for local children. By 1848 at age 68, Brown had become a driving force behind the school. The Academy received its charter from the territorial government of Oregon on September 26, 1849, the first such charter granted.
Brown and other leaders then proposed a collegiate department to train teachers. In January 1854, the original charter was changed to create Tualatin Academy and Pacific University, which awarded its first baccalaureate degree in 1863, the first in the region.
Below is an excerpt from the Statesman-Journal of Salem, Oregon:
Due to the guidance of Grandma Brown, which is what her students called her, the academy and the university thrived side by side. But they weren’t financially blessed. In 1854, Grandma Brown thought about going back East to see if “the rich nabobs and charitable Christian people in the cities” could be talked into making contributions to the struggling Oregon schools. But she ultimately decided that such a trip would be too much for a 74-year old woman to tackle. When she retired she told her brother: “I have labored hard for myself and the public and the rising generation. I now have quit hard work and live at my ease.”
Tabitha Moffatt Brown died in May 1858, following an adventurous life well lived. She is buried in Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery. In 1987, the state legislature voted her Mother of Oregon, stating that she “represents the distinctive pioneer heritage and the charitable and compassionate nature of Oregon’s people.”
The original Tualatin Academy building, constructed in 1850, today houses the museum at Pacific University.