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Mary Charlotte Foster traveled from Maine to Oregon with husband and family members

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: PHILIP FOSTER FARM - Mary Charlotte Foster is pictured in the only known photograph of her. Mary Charlotte, wife of Philip Foster, welcomed many settlers to Oregon at the Eagle Creek farm she and her husband ran.

After long and often tumultuous journeys west, a freshly-cooked meal at Philip Foster Farm was a welcome sight to numerous Oregon pioneers.

But who was the person who cooked all of that food?

Mary Charlotte Foster, born in Maine, traveled across the continent with her husband and family to eventually settle in Eagle Creek, where she would cook for settlers staying on the farm.

Volunteers at Philip Foster Farm will honor Mary Charlotte and other women of the pioneer era during their annual garden party, scheduled from 1-4 p.m. Saturday, July 21, at the National Historic Site, 22725 S.E. Eagle Creek Road. Admission is $5 per person, and attendees of the farm's finishing school camp will act as hosts for the day.

In 1834, Mary Charlotte married Philip Foster, the business partner of her brother Francis Pettygrove. Pettygrove would eventually become one of the founders of Portland.

Philip Foster Farm historian Elaine Butler noted that there wasn't a long courtship between Mary Charlotte and Philip, and it isn't known if they met in-person prior to their wedding.

"Mr. Foster Sir you have put a question to me verry unexpected," Mary Charlotte wrote in a letter after receiving his proposal. "I have considered on the subject allow having a short time to answer your question not withstanding I consir you a gentleman there four I shall agree with you request."

Philip had been previously married to Fannie Cummins for one year, until her death. The couple's son, James, was raised by Fannie's parents after she died.

"Her parents probably took one look at (Philip) and said, 'You're not raising this kid. Your head is all in your business and you would have no clue what to do with a kid,'" Butler said. "If he was going to have a life, he had to get cracking on a wife."

While living in Maine after their wedding, Mary Charlotte and Philip had four children: George, Lucy, Frances and Philip Jr.

Journeying west

Philip and his brother-in-law were drawn to Oregon because of additional business opportunities. Specifically, they were interested in opening a store with items for new settlers.

"The thought was 'The wagons are going to come. We need to get out there ahead of them," Butler said.

In 1842, the family began their yearlong journey from Maine to Oregon. With goods for the store in tow, they boarded a ship on the east coast. They stopped for two months in Peru, stayed in Hawaii for the winter to make business contacts and then boarded another ship that took them to Fort Vancouver in Washington. From there, they traveled to Oregon City, and one week later their store was open.

The family made the majority of the journey by ship because many wagon trails had not yet been fully established.

"In that era, the trails wouldn't have been tested if you were bringing a lot of wagons, especially if you were bringing store goods with you," Butler said.

She added that the journey was likely stressful for Mary Charlotte.

"It wasn't a cruise line. It was just a ship," she continued. "She had to figure out how to keep her children clean and fed."

After four years in Oregon City, the Fosters moved to a 640-acre farm in Eagle Creek and provided lodging and a store for numerous settlers who had journeyed along the Barlow Road.

Travelers could pay 50 cents to sleep on the floor or $2 for their own cabin. Some stayed in their own wagons on the property.

When wagon trains would arrive on the farm, Philip would often kill a cow to ensure there was enough food for everyone. Mary Charlotte's job was to cook the meat.

"Meals here were something everyone looked forward to," Butler said. "Foster acted like the host, and she was with the kids in the kitchen doing work."

After arriving in Oregon, the Fosters had four more children: Mary, Martha, Isaac and Rose. In letters, the couple's older children would often write that "Mother is feeling better," and Butler said this potentially meant she was no longer pregnant.

"Pregnancy wasn't something that was ever directly addressed," she noted.

A lack of documentation

Though Philip eventually became the second treasurer of Oregon's Provisional Government, not much is known about Mary Charlotte's day-to-day life.

"The family letters say 'Give our love to mother,' but there's no news about what mother's doing," Butler said, adding that Philip's business correspondence rarely mentions her.

For Butler, this is indicative of a larger issue.

"This is the historical problem we have with acknowledging women's contributions," she said. "It was assumed that they were going to do what they did, and they didn't need to tell anyone because they knew. But our lives are so different now, we don't know."

Though the details of Mary Charlotte's daily activities were not always documented, Butler said it's easy to infer that she had no shortage of work with her children and guests at the farm.

"(Philip) had a lot of partnerships because if he was your partner, you had a good shot at success because he had connections, but his most important partnership was with Mary Charlotte," Butler said. "He couldn't have been productive at all without a base of operations that was stable."

Though Mary Charlotte's daily life was busy, a garden party was a chance for respite.

"A garden party was special. It was an opportunity for women of that era to say 'Today's not a day for working, let's appreciate the beauty around us,'" Butler said, noting that the Eagle Creek area also had a strong tradition of community dances.

During the parties, neighbors celebrated the beauty of their surroundings and showcased skills such as baking, sewing, needlework and artistic activities.

Philip Foster Farm's upcoming gathering will feature a fashion show, a talk by art teacher Mary Cooper about her collection of dolls and numerous hand-sewn quilts on display.

Butler said the garden party's namesake is "an example of faithfulness."

"She made the choice to do what needed to be done every day so the family could be stable," she added.

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