The doctor and the slave: Profiles of 2 Mid-Valley women pioneers


Mary P. Avery Sawtelle, shown here in 1891, is one of the first women in Oregon to earn a medical degree. / Jean M. Ward / Willamette Heritage Collection

Statesman Journal
By Jennifer Ross and Keni Sturgeon

The Willamette Heritage Center is collecting stories in preparation for installing new exhibits in the historic 1841 Methodist Parsonage. We will install exhibits about Kalapuya history and culture, Salem history and we will open three hands-on rooms — one looking at historic preservation, one about the lives of Valley children in the late 1800s and the third about women’s lives and work in the 1870s-1890s. Toward these ends, several interns have conducted research and compiled various stories for the interpretation that will fill the galleries. The following are stories of two Mid-Valley women who are part of our history.

Mary Priscilla Avery Sawtelle
Mary Sawtelle, one of the first women in Oregon to earn a medical degree, was born in New York in 1835, the daughter of Benjamin and Lucretia Avery. After the death of her father, a Methodist minister, her mother married John Stipp, a Baptist minister.In 1848, the family traveled to the Oregon Territory, where they settled on a land claim in Marion County. On Oct. 7, 1849, at age 14, Mary Avery married Carsena A. Huntley. Twenty-one years older than

Mary, Huntley had returned from the California gold fields and consulted with John Stipp about marrying his stepdaughter. Under the Donation Land Act of 1850, marriage would allow Huntley to
file for another 320 acres under his wife’s name. The Averys apparently gave Huntley their consent on two conditions: 1) that Mary remained with them until she was 17, and 2) that she had no children until she was 25. Before long, however, Huntley persuaded his new wife to live with him, and she bore her first child before she was 15 years old.Nine years later, while living in Douglas County, frightened by her “violent and threatening” husband, Mary Huntley took their three children and filed for divorce. In November 1858, she was granted a
divorce but exclusive custody of the children was awarded to Huntley, who had falsely charged Mary with adultery. Denied access to her children, she moved to Salem and attended Wallamet (today spelled Willamette) University, where she met Cheston M. Sawtelle. The two married in December 1861 and eventually had three children.

In the summer of 1869, Mary Sawtelle enrolled as Willamette University’s first female medical student. She went on to attend the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women, graduating in 1872.
The next year, while her husband completed his medical degree at Willamette, she worked as a physician in Salem. The Sawtelles moved to San Francisco in 1876. Cheston Sawtelle was admitted to the California Medical Association in 1879, and Mary Sawtelle was accepted in 1880. She helped form the Woman Suffrage Association of California in 1879 and organized the Women’s Medical College of the Pacific Coast in 1881.

Dr. Mary Sawtelle divorced Cheston Sawtelle in 1883 and was living in Los Angeles by 1888. In April 1894, she died at age 59 in New York City.

Rachel Belden Brooks
In 1844, Oregon’s provisional government outlawed slavery in the Oregon Country. This was closely followed by a ban on the settling of free blacks in the region. Despite these decrees, many families brought slaves to the Northwest and few, if any, were set free upon entering. Rachel Belden was one of these, and is the first known black woman of Marion County.Born in Tennessee in 1829, Rachel was raised a slave, working in the fields and the home of her owners. Like many slaves, she was given the last name of her first master, becoming Rachel Belden. Around 1840, she became the property of Daniel Delaney Sr. In preparation for staking his claim in the West, Delaney sold his plantation and his slaves. However, Mrs. Elizabeth Delaney was very ill and in need of care.
To secure a caretaker for his wife, Delaney bought Rachel Belden for $1,000. Shortly thereafter, the Delaney family headed West over the Oregon Trail, traveling with other notable trailblazers such as Daniel Waldo and Peter Burnett, and families such as the Nesmiths and Applegates, with Marcus
Whitman serving as their guide. Mr. and Mrs. Delaney, Rachel, and three of their five sons, settled in what became Marion County in 1843.

It is possible that Rachel was unaware of the law that declared her a free woman in the Oregon Country and that may be why she stayed with the Delaney family for the next two decades. Besides taking care of
Mrs. Delaney, she did the housework and took care of the garden. Moreover, she worked with the Delaney boys in the orchards and fields. Different writers have given varied accounts of Mr. Delaney — on one hand, he was a caring man, hospitable to everyone, including his slaves. Another suggests that he did little work himself and “seemed to read his Bible chiefly to find … support for his dominion over … his female slave.” Whatever sort of man he was, Rachel lived with him and the family until he set her free during the Civil War. During this time, Rachel bore two sons: Newman in 1847 (also referred to as Noah), and Jack (also known as Jackson or Jack De Wolf). It is suspected that Mr. Delaney fathered these two boys.

In 1864, Rachel married widower Nathan Brooks, moved onto Daniel Waldo’s farm and later moved to Salem. Nathan and Rachel raised two sons of their own, Samuel and Mansfield, along with Jack. Her
oldest son, Newman, lived and worked with the Stanley family in East Salem.

Nathan Brooks died in 1874. After his passing, Rachel worked hard to support her family, and the 1877 tax records show that she “owned 144 homestead acres on the west side of the Willamette River near
the bend in the river across from Keizer.” From 1902 on, she is included in the Salem and Marion County Directory, showing her acceptance as part of the community. She resided near “Commercial (and) Mill Creek” for several years, and then is listed in the 1909-1910 directory as boarding at the corner of Miller and Fir Streets. Rachel died Oct. 12, 1910, and is buried in an unmarked grave in the Delaney plot at
Pioneer Cemetery.

Jennifer Ross is a student at Western Oregon University and Keni Sturgeon is the curator at Willamette Heritage Center.

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