From the Archives & Special Collections: The Abby Williams Hill Journals

In August 2019, the Archives & Special Collections received a Washington Digital Heritage grant to digitize, transcribe, and make available online nine journals written by the artist Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943). These journals focus on Hill’s travels throughout the United States between 1895 and 1906 and provide a unique female perspective on significant issues affecting the nation at that time, including education, tourism, and the rights of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and the working class. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be using the blog series to highlight each of the journals and their significance for researchers. Abstracts for all of the journals can be found here.

Last week we discussed Hill’s journal from an 1895 trip to Mt. Rainier and the Hood Canal. The second journal in our digital collection contains Hill’s writings about a summer spent on Vashon Island, Washington, in 1900. Vashon Island is just across Commencement Bay from Tacoma where the Hill family lived. Hill and her children would row their boats – the Minerva and the Madrone – from Tacoma to Vashon Island regularly throughout the summer months, camping in a tent on the beach near the town of Burton. Hill’s husband Frank joined them when he was able, but like many of Hill’s other adventures, she was frequently on her own with the children.

Hill writes about the family’s daily activities on the island, which included swimming, boating, gathering berries and picking vegetables, collecting “specimens” from the beach, observing wildlife, having bonfires, and enjoying meals and excursions with friends who were also camping on the island or came to visit from Tacoma. Hill writes: “A little sketching, some sleeping, some eating, a bit of work, what a useless sort of day! It was beautiful though and sometimes such days stay long in the memory.” I think most of us have felt the same way about a beach vacation!

One of the things that I enjoy most about this journal are Hill’s descriptions of sea life. She writes: “A sportive whale has filled the air with booming and frightened pleasure seekers, so very few row boats venture across. His antics are interesting to watch. Sometimes after he has blown a great mass of water into the air he makes a spring, throwing his huge tail into the air then pounds on the surface producing a tremendous roar as of guns…For nearly two weeks he has performed to the dire distress of those on the water and entertainment of those ashore.”

Another day, while rowing after dark, Hill writes that she saw “balls of phosphorescent light an inch in diameter on the surface of the water and jellyfish glowed here and there.” And several days later, a report of more whales, which “came by in great numbers last night.”

One interesting note about this journal is that it contains a single entry from seven years later, written on February 14, 1907. In this entry, Hill touches upon her feelings about women’s fashion. She mentions harsh criticism by other women about the way she and her three adopted daughters dress. Hill writes, “I speak to Eulalie so often about her dress. She is very careless. Of course every one blames me…probably with as plain tastes as I have, considering that the world seems to appreciate a well-dressed woman more than any other, I should not be considered competent to bring up girls and should not have taken them… I was cut out for the wilds. I am not at home in the world of fashion and I cannot reconcile myself to spending on the stylish at the expense of the practical and good.” This is a recurring theme throughout Hill’s journals and correspondence.

Hill’s journals provide a rich and varied resource for scholars of all ages. Check back next week for the next installment in our series…Hill’s journal and daybook from a trip around the United States in 1901 and 1902.

This project was supported by a grant from the Washington State Library with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Archives & Special Collections is currently unable to host in-person researchers. If you need assistance or would like to set up a virtual appointment, please email us at

By Laura Edgar, Assistant Archivist & Archivist for the Abby Williams Hill Collection

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