A Cultured Blossom Sown in Pioneer Soils

By Steven Branting

Adapted from Augusta Bunker: Eastern’s First Eagle Lands (2016)

Since 2000, many of this country’s leading history, geography and preservation organizations — including the American Association for State and Local History, The History Channel and the Society for American Archaeology — have honored Branting for the depth, scope and variety of his research and field work. In 2009, he was nominated by the Western Historical Association for the William Gilbert Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the teaching of history through the publication of journal articles.

The Idaho State Historical Society conferred upon him the 2011 Esto Perpetua Award, its highest honor, citing his leadership in “some of the most significant preservation and interpretation projects undertaken in Idaho,” whose governor awarded him that year’s Outstanding Cultural Tourism Award for showcasing Idaho’s heritage. In 2013, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution awarded Branting its coveted Historic Preservation Medal, the first and only one to date given to an Idaho scholar. In 2015, Lewis-Clark State College selected him for the Shinn Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2016 awarded him the President’s Medallion for “outstanding leadership and enduring service” to the community and the institution.

Find Steven Branting’s books at Barnes & Noble online, or at and Books, too! in Lewiston, Idaho.

Pictured above, Augusta Bunker, circa 1877. Courtesy of the Bridgewater State University Alumni Archives, and the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy, circa 1888. Photo courtesy of the Eastern Washington University Archives.

A blue-blooded Nantucket scion, Augusta Bunker espoused many a nineteenth century woman’s career dream – being a teacher, a role that would take her to the prairies of the Washington Territory to lay the foundations for Eastern Washington University and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and then to the Idaho Territory to find a caring husband, an all-too-brief motherhood and untimely death.

Born on March 21, 1855, Bunker descended from George and Jane Bunker, who came to Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1659 with the first white settlers who fled Europe escaping persecution for their Huguenot faith. Her father James graduated from Yale and the Cambridge Law School and would become a probate judge. Her mother Sarah was described as “a true Christian, whose life was adorned by every domestic virtue, and who, as wife, mother and friend, was faithful and devoted, possessing the ornament of a meek and peaceful spirit, kind, affectionate, unostentatious.” Sarah died before Augusta reached her third birthday.

James remarried, and his new wife Lucretia exerted a profound effect on the girl, encouraging her to excel in school and introducing her to the temperance movement. In the spring of 1873, Augusta graduated from Nantucket High School, which offered twelve years of education at a time when few western towns could muster the funds to keep a schoolhouse open for more than three months a year.

Nantucket Island was a unique place for a teenage girl. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the Nation of Nantucket.” Its isolation and insulated culture fostered a special individualism. In December 1880, Louise Baker became the first female minister of the island’s Congregational Church. In 1868, island native Phebe Hannaford was the first woman in New England to be ordained as a Universalist minister.

Augusta enrolled at Bridgewater State Normal, thirty miles south of Boston, for the 1873-1874 term. It was a stressful semester. Her beloved father died on November 19. Augusta may have entertained withdrawing to help raise her younger siblings, but Lucretia stood firm. Augusta stayed the course, and her name appears in a local newspaper for the first time, listed as a “junior” among Bridgewater’s 145-member student body.

Normal Hall, Bridgewater State Normal, circa 1890-1895. Courtesy of the Clement C. Maxwell Library, Bridgewater State University.

She completed her teacher training in the summer of 1875. However, Bridgewater had begun to offer an extended, “advanced” curriculum. Augusta took full advantage of it and remained at the school for an additional two years. The Boston Journal observed:

“Miss Bunker of the advanced class passed a splendid examination, telling the auditors how to teach grammar and how to apply the knowledge in teaching any foreign language, using the German by way of illustration. In the afternoon three essays were read; Miss Bunker’s subject was ‘Formation of Character,’ and it was admirably treated.”

Augusta immediately embarked on her career path and did not have to travel far to find a position. In September 1878, the school board in Randolph, Massachusetts, hired her, based on “high recommendations,” to join the faculty at Stetson High School, which still stands. The board was not disappointed. Her $800 salary seems meager until one sees its 2016 equivalent in purchasing power — $137,000. In early 1882, the school board reported that “the superiority of Miss Bunker’s labors with us having attracted favorable attention, she has been induced, by a most advantageous proposition, to enter elsewhere, much to our regret, and tendered her declination to serve another year.” How much that “most advantageous proposition” would pay is not known, but the March 2, 1882 issue of the Journal of Education provided more details:

“Mr. Daniel H. Felch of Boston, and Miss Augusta Bunker, assistant in the Randolph High School, have been engaged as prin. and asst. in the new acad. in Cheney, Washington Territory, near the junction of the Snake and Columbia rivers. They will start about the middle of March, and begin their labors the first of April.”

The Boston editors underestimated the enormity of the undertaking. Cheney is more than 125 miles from the junction of the Snake and Columbia. The trip west took Bunker on a long train ride through the deserts of Arizona to Los Angeles, where she boarded the S. S. Newhall for San Francisco. In Portland, Oregon, Augusta caught a riverboat to reach the Northern Pacific railhead at Texas Ferry, about eighty miles downstream on the Snake from Lewiston, Idaho Territory, her home in two years’ time.

Main Street, Lewiston, Idaho Territory, December 1885. Photo courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society.

Above, Lewis Collegiate Institute (Methodist-Episcopal Church) and former college dormitory, circa 1895. Photo courtesy of the Lewiston Tribune.

Investors had been promoting the development of the rich farmland southeast of Spokane Falls (now Spokane). In 1880, the first county seat election was held for Spokane County, the creation of which was the subject of heated debate. The balloting added to the controversy. Cheney received a majority of the votes, but skullduggery was afoot. Polling place irregularities swung the vote for Spokane Falls. A circuit court judge agreed to a recount, which never came.

The citizens of Cheney were an unconventional bunch and waited for a night when the residents of Spokane Falls were busy enjoying a special celebration. An armed group took over the county auditor’s office, scooped up the county records and did their own recount right then and there. Not surprisingly, Spokane Falls came up short, and off the party went to their homes, the county seal safely in their possession. In 1881 a court decision affirmed the actions of the “delegation,” and Cheney remained the county seat until 1886.

Promoters had campaigned to be on the proposed route for a new Northern Pacific rail service to Spokane. They had sweetened their request by changing the name of the new town from Depot Springs to Cheney, after one of the most influential directors on the railroad’s managing board, Benjamin P. Cheney, who had amassed an immense fortune with the United States and Canada Express Company and Wells-Fargo, founding American Express in 1850. His ego stroked, Cheney donated $10,000 ($250,000 in today’s currency) to erect a new school, also to be named for him. Northern Pacific donated eight acres of land for the campus, established a depot in the new town in June 1881 and transported all of the construction materials for the new building free-of-charge from Portland. Construction of the academy began in September under the leadership of John Sprague, a Medal of Honor recipient and co-founder of Tacoma, Washington.

Augusta arrived in late March 1882 to find a new thirty-six-by-sixty-six-foot wooden building, in which a cathedral hallway divided both the first and second floors into two rooms each. Said to be “anything but an architectural beauty,” the building was certainly a step down from Randolph. School opened on April 3 with her as “preceptress,” a female principal.

Reverend Frederick Hoyt, headmaster in 1883-1884, wrote that “the work of the academy in those days was that of an ordinary public school up to the eighth or ninth grade. The academy was employed by the Cheney school district to do its teaching work,” which was divided into twelve-week terms. Within weeks of its opening, newspaper reports of the academy began to appear:

“The Academy at Cheney is now educating nearly 100 children and is well kept. There are 40 seats in four rooms, and the arrangements appear to be perfect. Professor D. H. Fetch [sic] and Miss Augusta Bunker are the principals, and are eminently qualified for the responsible positions they hold.”

Ensconced in a position promising job security, Augusta joined three local women in the purchase of 160 acres under the pre-emption act. Her friends and family on Nantucket Island may well have thought the venture foolish, but Augusta wrote with pride of the acquisition. Today that tract of land can be found just northwest of Cheney, abutting Clear Lake. It would not prove to be the long-term investment for which she hoped.

Each new term brought improvements at the Academy. Sprague donated a new bell to adorn the building’s empty cupola. However, all was not as peaceful in town as the grassy playground would lead one to believe. Cheney was still a frontier community. During the winter of 1883, the town experienced its first lynching. A Chinese man murdered a Chinese woman, escaped and was finally caught in nearby Sprague. Upon his return to the Cheney jail, a mob broke in and promptly hanged him from a pine tree near the courthouse on what is now known as College Avenue. Incidences involving “Indian excitement” occurred from time to time. Amidst this turmoil, the summer of 1883 proved to be personally eventful and fortuitous for Augusta, as she would establish a social network that would come to her aid in less than a year.

In June, Augusta traveled to Spokane Falls and met Isaac Libby, a Methodist minister and president of Spokane College. In December 1881, the Columbia Conference of the Methodist-Episcopal Church convened a meeting of local officials in Colfax, Washington, to determine a suitable location for a new college north of the Snake River. The church was already in the process of establishing Lewis Collegiate Institute in Lewiston. Two members of that selection committee were Judge Norman Buck of Lewiston and Rev. William S. Turner from Colfax. Both men would play important roles in Augusta’s future. Spokane College finally opened in October 1882 with a demanding three-year preparatory high school program leading to the four-year curriculum. The college was a glimpse into Cheney Academy’s future.

Augusta’s temperance heritage now bore fruit. In June 1883, famed prohibitionist Frances Willard met with women drawn from around Seattle and formed the first chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) in the Washington Territory. In early July, Willard made her way up the Columbia River to Walla Walla, where she was refused use of the county courthouse for a meeting and concluded that “as nature had divided the territory by the Cascade Mountains, it was thought best to have two separate state organizations.” Willard’s target site was Cheney for the organization of a chapter to serve the territory’s eastern counties.

The two-day convention drew women from Walla Walla, Colfax, Spokane Falls, Medical Lake and other nearby communities. Bunker’s attendance confirmed her to be “as an active worker in the church and the temperance cause.” Well-satisfied with the meeting’s results, Willard exclaimed “All hail, bright young stars of the new Northwest!”

Augusta’s work at the Academy gained the respect of her teaching peers. By late July, the office of the territorial superintendent of schools had finalized its plans for teacher institutes. New certification laws had been enacted. Previously, institutes required teachers across the territory to travel to Olympia. Railroads provided free transportation as an incentive, but food and housing posed real issues for teachers from small, one-room schools without the backing of a man like Benjamin Cheney. As a result, many districts had sponsored their own programs, but this had led to training inconsistencies. Regional institutes were the answer. Augusta was the secretary to the August 1883 meeting in Walla Walla.

The 1883-1884 school year began with promise and ended with disappointment. The school’s benefactor, Benjamin Cheney, along with his wife and various officials of the Northern Pacific, arrived on September 18 to great fanfare. In his remarks to the gathered throng, Cheney renewed his support for the school, adding that he would fund an expansion of the building if necessary.

After the euphoria of September, unspecified issues began to arise. In November, “trouble of some sort arose,” and Daniel Felch resigned as principal. When the new administrator, James Dow, finally arrived on April 7, all was not well, although a measure of relief must have been felt when, in late February, two large boxes arrived at the academy, filled with “about 500 volumes of choice books suitable for all of students of the Cheney Academy.” Cheney had followed up on his pledge of continued support.

In a letter to her sister, dated March 21, 1884, Augusta revealed that she had not been rehired for the next twelve-week term. By May she had secured a temporary position at Spokane College but was soon looking for work, and things seemed a little bleak. On May 24, she sold her interest in the homestead she had purchased. Were Felch and Bunker the victims of a purge by the trustees? Congregational Church politics? Someone knew, but no one talked.

With her options running out, Augusta received an invitation from Lewiston: come spend the winter. The identity of her host remains unknown, but a few people seem likely. Amanda Tarr was the wife of the president of Lewis Collegiate Institute and an official in the Lewiston W.C.T.U. chapter. Her daughters Corabel and Ella were instructors at the college. Annie and Ruth Turner were also faculty members and were the daughters of Rev. William Turner. Whether Augusta briefly joined the Institute’s faculty is uncertain.

Her sister Phebe opened Augusta’s letter dated November 5, 1884, and learned that she was engaged to marry a local rancher, Walter Monteith Fee, who had come to Idaho with his family in the 1870s. His father was a teacher and minister on the nearby Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Walter owned large tracts south of Lewiston in an area called Waha. The couple married in Lewiston on December 24 in a ceremony conducted by Walter’s father at his home on the corner of Main Street at Public Lane (now Delsol). Her letters soon began to focus on her ranching and spiritual life. Teaching was in the past.

By the early fall of 1885, Augusta confirmed that she was with child, likely not her first pregnancy. Entering her third trimester, she sought out a local physician, presaging possible complications. The image of a mother dying in childbirth was very vivid in the minds of Victorians. Oliver Twist’s mother dies giving birth to him. In A Christmas Carol, the death of Scrooge’s sister Fran is central to the plot. Catherine Earnshaw dies after giving birth to her daughter in Wuthering Heights. Stillbirths accounted for as many as sixty deaths for every 1,000 live births. Today that number is three in the United States.

When Augusta’s labor commenced in April, Walter brought her from the ranch to his father’s Lewiston home, as the city had no hospital. He would take no chances with his young wife. A previous failed pregnancy would have mellowed even a hardened rancher’s suspicious view of doctors.

People awoke on Monday, April 19, to “a little of Jack Frost’s extracts.” Residents worried for their fruit crops. Augusta’s delivery was proving to be very difficult. A second physician was summoned, as the child had shown no signs of life for several hours. No newborn’s cries would be heard. The baby was beautiful, perfect, and stillborn.

Augusta weathered the delivery, assisted by a “first-class experienced nurse,” likely Judge Buck’s wife Francena, who had served in the Civil War as a “Christian Commissioner” and was cited in dispatches for her exemplary role at Nashville’s military hospital.

Within hours of delivery, Augusta developed a persistent fever unaffected by the customary treatments — quinine, chlorodyne and even arsenic. She vomited repeatedly and became delirious at times. On Saturday, April 24, she died with her husband, his family and her many friends at her side. Her physicians knew the cause of her decline but had not the resources nor the skills to save her. Augusta’s mother-in-law Isabella would write: “We have since learned that her case was hopeless from the first. The afterbirth had grown so fast to the womb that taking it away was a very severe operation.”

Hers was a case of placenta accreta, in which the placenta grows too deeply into the inner walls of the uterus and does not properly separate after delivery. Common in women who have scarring from previous pregnancies, accreta causes extensive bleeding staunched only by a hysterectomy, a relatively new procedure in 1885. Augusta’s Lewiston doctors were out of their element.

Reverend Fee’s residence was quickly festooned with black and white crepe hung on the front door, and all of the Victorian obsequies commenced. The funeral would take place the next day. William Turner, who had hastened from Colfax when he learned of Augusta’s rapidly declining condition, delivered the eulogy, which read in part:

“The church of Christ has been bereaved of an earnest worker and the community of an accomplished and an intelligent lady. We are here to pay a last and humble tribute to her memory, and to offer consolation to the bereaved as we may.”

After undertaker John Menomy completed his preparations, a lengthy cortege traversed Main Street and up a steep wagon road to the unkempt cemetery atop the bluff overlooking Lewiston.

As Lewiston had no cutters to produce gravestones in the 1880s, Walter ordered a marker out of a catalog from the American White Bronze Company in Chicago. Hollow and cast from zinc, the markers were less expensive than stone and took on a deep bluish hue caused by the formation of zinc carbonate on the surface. Sadly, Augusta’s grave marker makes no mention of her stillborn child. If the baby was given a name, it does not appear in any letters to her family, and no post-mortem images have survived, if any were captured.

In December 1888, the city closed the old graveyard where Augusta and her child lay, and exhumations began the next spring. Whether Walter immediately arranged for Augusta and their child to be moved was unreported; the pair may well have remained undisturbed until May 1893, when a committee was formed to “devise ways and take necessary steps” to remove those still buried at the old graveyard. Today Augusta’s unique marker stands in Normal Hill Cemetery, but what of her remains?

A 2004 ground-penetrating radar scan under markers moved from the original cemetery yielded a startling result: more than one-half of the gravesites exhibited no soil disturbances. The markers had simply been moved, leaving the dead where they were originally interred. Walter ensured that did not happen, especially as his father had also died in the interim.

Walter remarried, was widowed a second time in 1929 and died in North Carolina in March 1941. The Academy passed through several incarnations to become Eastern Washington University. Lewis Collegiate Institute folded, but Lewiston continued to be a nexus of women’s issues. Millicent Pope rented a room in the old Institute quarters and opened Idaho’s first public kindergarten in the fall of 1893. In October 1895, the first woman to be admitted to the bar in Idaho was duly sworn in Lewiston. A group of Lewiston coeds formed Idaho’s first YWCA in the fall of 1899. In June 1900, Susan West was one of the first two women in the United States to be a voting delegate at a presidential nominating convention.

Augusta would have relished seeing women aspiring to such lengths. An “eastern eagle” had come to the frontier, found a new identity among its pioneers and gave up her young and promising life seeking to nourish her new home with a new life.


Find Steven Branting’s books at Barnes & Noble online, or at and Books, too! in Lewiston, Idaho.

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