Monday, January 23, 2017

Church Leader, Suffragette, and Temperance Advocate Rebecca Mitchell [otd 01/23]

Activist Mitchell.
J. H. Hawley photo.
Mrs. Rebecca Mitchell was born January 23, 1834, in Macoupin County, Illinois, 30-50 miles south of Springfield. Little is known of her early life. After she was widowed, she completed her education, first in local schools (which she attended with her own children) and then at the Baptist Missionary Training School in Chicago. For a time, she served as a missionary and church worker in Illinois.

However, the settled cities and towns of Illinois apparently offered too little scope for Mitchell’s missionary zeal. With limited resources, she looked to the “Wild West,” where gunfights were still common, “Judge Lynch” sometimes dispensed frontier justice, and churches were few and far between. In June 1882, she landed in Idaho Falls, then still called Eagle Rock.

Being almost destitute when she arrived, Mitchell made do with quarters in a weathered “board shanty.” She quickly set out to visit every family dwelling in the little settlement. For many years, the area had grown slowly, but the arrival of the railroad three years earlier had caused a surge. Rebecca’s enthusiasm matched perfectly with a genuinely-felt need among the locals.

On the Sunday after her arrival, she conducted the first Sunday school classes at her rude home. Organized schools were just getting started in the region when she arrived, often as the effort of a few families. Mrs. Mitchell sparked progress along those lines, organizing a day school.

Aside from occasional small remittances from family, she was entirely self-supporting, and found that costs were unexpectedly high in the little frontier town. Still, in a memoir published many years later (Idaho Falls Times, October 13, 1908), she offered proof that “the Lord will provide.” She had, she said, just spent her last nickel, when the father of a day school pupil called to pay his son’s tuition … well before the due date.
Eagle Rock Baptist Church.
Bonneville County Historical Society.

Mitchell’s efforts to promote a church had begun as soon as she arrived. She sought funds locally and also wrote to Baptist organizations in the East. Donors in the New England states were particularly generous. The Anderson brothers – among the earliest Eagle Rock pioneers – donated the necessary land. Locals dedicated a new Baptist Church in November 1884.

For a time, the church provided space for a larger school as well as a library.  Mitchell continued to teach until other schools and teachers became well established. After that, she concentrated more on her church and social work.

Mrs. Mitchell strongly supported the temperance movement, organizing the first local Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She also lectured all over the state and at national conventions, being known as an effective and entertaining speaker. Thus, the Idaho Falls Times reprinted (February 22, 1894) an item from the Weiser Signal about Mrs. Mitchell’s presentations in the Weiser area: “Her lectures are interesting and she always has a well attended house.”

Mitchell even spent one winter in Boise pushing for various reform laws and aiding in the advocacy for women’s suffrage. She also served as the chaplain of the Idaho House of Representatives … through 1934, the only women to have ever held that position.

Naturally, she also supported many causes in Eagle Rock, being “a prominent member of the Village Improvement Society.” Upon her passing, on September 30, 1908, several communities around the state held memorial services and promulgated resolutions of remembrance and honor.
                                                                                 
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
Mary Jane Fritzen, Eagle Rock, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1991).
“Golden Jubilee Edition, 1884-1934,” Idaho Falls Post-Register (September 10, 1934).

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the writeup. I am seeking to track down everything there is to know about this lady.

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  2. The J. H. Hawley reference, which had the portrait photo, has a full biography for her -- through about 1919-1920.

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  3. Rebecca Mitchell is my great-great Grandmother and I appreciate all that I learn about her.

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