Frontier Healer: The Life of Lucinda Boyce
- Written by Julia Vouri
Lucinda Stewart Boyce was not only the first Euro-American woman to live permanently on San Juan Island, she also served as a community leader and role model for hundreds of women who braved the primitive conditions of the island's early settlement years. She crossed the Great Plains by ox cart with her family at age 12 as part of the Mormon migration to Utah, then moved on to the California gold rush country where, as a teenager, she was twice married and widowed, having a child from each union. She then met her husband of 53 years, Stephen Boyce (ca. 1827-1909), and with him followed another gold rush to Victoria, B.C., before arriving on San Juan Island in 1860, a dozen years before the San Juan Islands became Washington's San Juan County. Along the way Lucinda Boyce became a compassionate nurse and midwife, delivering more than 500 babies -- while bearing nine more of her own -- and venturing out in any weather and to outer islands to care for the sick and injured.
Crossing the Plains by Covered Wagon
Lucinda Elizabeth Stewart was born November 2, 1836, in Overton County, Tennessee, to Riley and Jane Gentry Stewart. Two years later, she and her family relocated to Missouri after her father and his brothers embraced the Mormon faith and become followers of Joseph Smith (1805-1844), founder of the Latter Day Saints.
The religion had grown out of the "Second Great Awakening," a Protestant revival movement that swept the young United States, particularly upstate New York where Smith was raised. The religion's unique practices -- including polygamy, which Lucinda's father embraced -- led to alienation and violence wherever Smith established a church. In 1838 Riley Stewart was nearly beaten to death and forced to flee Missouri following a voting riot in Gallatin. The extended Stewart family, including Lucinda's famous uncle, Levi Stewart (1812-1878), relocated to Illinois, where Smith had reestablished his church in Nauvoo.
When the Mormons were driven out of Nauvoo starting in 1846, Riley packed up his two wives and Lucinda and her three brothers (one was a half brother, the son of Riley's second wife, Martha Jane Boyce), and followed Levi by ox cart on the Mormon Trail to Utah, likely stopping along the way at what was called the "Winter Quarters" near today's Omaha, Nebraska. After a brief stint in Utah, the family pushed on to California in 1848.
Lucinda's legendary strength and endurance was no doubt honed during this difficult journey. The family rationed an inadequate water supply while crossing desert country, abandoned wagons and property along the trail, and climbed the Sierra Nevada over 7,168-foot Donner Pass to finally follow the American River to El Dorado County, east of Sacramento. One account of passage through this area reports excessive snowfall:
"Fifty miles of the route they had traversed over snow, which lay to the depth of ten and fifteen feet, and part of the time sinking, at every step, up to their arm-pits in it. Two or three of their number had given out and died on the way" ("Mrs. D.B. Bates").
Cholera also took the lives of hundreds of people on the trail and, although cause of death is not known, Lucinda lost her mother around this time, leaving her to care for her two younger brothers. Following the gold strike in Coloma, El Dorado County was swarming with miners. One of them was Jacob Warwick, whom Lucinda married in 1851 at the age of 15. After he died, she married Edwin Philey in 1855. She had one son from each marriage. How she managed to raise sons Frank and Orrin in mining camps among "round tents, square tents, plank hovels, log cabins, etc.," ("Dame Shirley"), and where a pound of flour cost $1.50 and a pound of ham 80 cents, remains a mystery.
It was surely the lack of decent medical care in the camps that spurred Lucinda to learn the medical arts, combining Native American, folk, and formal medicine. By the time she left, her skills were prodigious, and she would become well known for her healing abilities.
About a year after her second husband died, two events changed Lucinda's life. Her father returned to Utah, where he remarried Martha Jane Boyce (he had divorced her sometime before), fathered four more children, and settled in Goshen. And Lucinda met and married another miner, Stephen Van Buren Boyce (no relation to Martha) from New York. Lucinda had nine more children with Stephen. They were married for 53 years.
San Juan Island
Two years after they married, Stephen and Lucinda Boyce had built up enough of a stake to travel by steamer to Victoria, B.C., on Vancouver Island, following the next big gold strike. This one was up the Fraser River on what is now the mainland of British Columbia (then called New Caledonia). Victoria by mid-1858 was swarming with miners and camp followers arriving at the rate of some 1,400 per week, according to Captain George Richards of the surveying ship HMS Plumper.
"A little more than a month ago, Victoria was a quiet village. I can only compare it now with Greenwich Fair. Whole streets of Canvas Houses have sprung up. Booths Restaurants & every description of public houses have been called into existence within a few days. Hundreds of people are entirely without shelter, and this is merely the commencement of the thing" (Richards to Washington).
The Boyces were lucky enough to find a tent, and when Stephen left for the Cariboo country to hunt for gold for two years, Lucinda stayed behind with her two boys. On January 1, 1859, she gave birth to the couple's first son, John Henry Boyce.
Again Lucinda Boyce found it necessary to fall back on her own resources. It is not known how she managed to support her growing family during these two years. More than a century later, a San Juan Island reporter wrote that it was "under these primitive living conditions that Lucinda showed the fortitude and strength of character that had already brought her through grief, hardship and heavy responsibility" (Garrett).
The Fraser River strike did not live up to its promise and, like many prospectors, Stephen Boyce moved his young family from Victoria seven miles across Haro Strait to San Juan Island in the spring of 1860. He and Lucinda staked a claim on lands giving on to Griffin Bay adjacent to the Hudson's Bay Company dock and the village of San Juan on the Cattle Point peninsula at the south end of the island. Having already experienced California gold rush towns, the village scene was familiar to Lucinda.
"...the main street, which runs westwardly, consists of some twenty odd buildings and huts. Some of these were floated down from Whatcom, Bellingham Bay, and other localities, and give the embryo town quite a stable appearance. The town possesses a bakery, butchery, three or four barrooms, one aristocratic "two-bit" house, a fruit stand, grocery etc., all of which are liberally patronized" ("Trip to San Juan").
By then San Juan Island was jointly occupied by the Royal Marines and the United States Army as the result of an agreement between the United States and Great Britain to hold the island in dispute until an international boundary through the San Juan archipelago could be agreed upon. Fortunately the two garrisons occupied the island without incident until the dispute was settled in 1872 and the islands became United States territory.
Shortly after the Boyces arrived, Stephen opened a small store, thinking he would trade with the Indians. But the village, which had become notorious for bad liquor and prostitution, was no place to raise a family. Stephen and Lucinda consequently took up a new claim a few miles northwest overlooking False Bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Meanwhile, the family expanded as Lucinda gave birth to eight more children from 1860 to 1874. Some of the deliveries were made in Victoria -- it was not uncommon to hire local Native Americans to paddle to the big island. The Boyces moved together to Victoria for a time during the joint occupation so their children could attend the common schools that had been established there in 1865. Stephen spent more time on San Juan Island establishing himself as a farmer, founding the first island school and, after the joint military occupation was over, becoming the newly minted San Juan County's first sheriff.
In 1880 the family moved into a house Stephen built near a spring by False Bay. According to granddaughter Beryl Wade, "You can still find wooden pins he used to peg the timbers together" ("San Juan County's First Sheriff"). It was there that this formidable couple began to join with other hardy pioneers to shape the future of San Juan Island.
Doctor, Nurse, and Midwife
Endurance, ingenuity, and a rugged physical and mental disposition were necessary for pioneer women to survive in the early days. But Lucinda Boyce didn't just endure. She thrived. While Stephen was called Hyas Tyee (great and powerful) by local Indians, Lucinda was referred to as First Lady of the San Juans. While Stephen conducted legal hearings in front of their fireplace, Lucinda might be paddling a cedar canoe to an outer island to deliver an Indian baby.
During these years when doctors were at a premium (even the U.S. Army camp went without), Lucinda stepped up and took on the roles of doctor, nurse, and midwife. As midwife she brought more than 500 babies into the world, and "never lost a case in childbirth" according to Mary Jane Fleming Fraser, a pioneer contemporary on San Juan Island ("Mary Jane Fraser"). Lucinda administered care to all who needed it -- Native Americans as well as settlers. She learned the Chinook trade language and cared for those who camped or fished at False and Kanaka bays. In gratitude, they brought her fish, clams, and handmade items.
In addition to local Coast Salish peoples she also treated groups from the Northwest Coast of British Columbia and southeast Alaska, including Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit. In the early days of Fort Victoria, these groups often came to raid, but Lucinda showed no fear of the Indians. One report states that when confronted with danger, Lucinda "would stand her ground and converse with them without harm" (Clayton Francis Boyce). After the joint occupation was established, the same Indians came mainly to fish, trade, or find work on local farms.
Lucinda responded to medical calls any time of the night or day, regardless of the distance or weather. Snapping up her medicine kit, she would ride horseback or drive a buggy over harsh terrain, paddle a canoe or take a rowboat to Orcas, Shaw, Stewart, or Waldron islands. This was no mean feat. To get to Shaw Island, she had to cross San Juan Channel, which can be especially treacherous due to fast currents and shifting tides. Fraser recalled:
"She would never bother about her appearance or her home beyond assuring herself her family was all right ... When father [Thomas Fleming, who farmed in San Juan Valley] was kicked by a horse and considerably hurt, Mrs. Boyce was called, and used her favorite aid, a bread and milk poultice" ("Mary Jane Fraser"). [These common ingredients combine to reduce swelling and infection.]
Lucinda learned many healing remedies from neighboring Native American women, and her home preparations were legendary. Her granddaughter Beryl Wade remembered:
"Grandma had the most awful tasting potions you can ever imagine ... For colds, there was always goose grease and turpentine ... . They rubbed it on your chest for congestion. For coughs, they put a few drops of kerosene on sugar ... . If there was danger of pneumonia, they slapped a mustard plaster on you ... . For measles there was sassafras tea if you could hold it down. That was awful stuff. I remember pouring mine in the sewing machine drawer when no one was looking" ("Lucinda Boyce: Mother to All").
The Boyce household was always lively, because Lucinda turned no one away. When a part-Hawaiian hunchback named Charlie McCarty was abandoned as a child she took him in, and until her death she took care of a man named W. H. LaForge. She also fostered numerous homeless Indian children. One Indian woman, Mrs. Little Man of False Bay, was so fond of Lucinda that she asked that Lucinda have her treasured carved dresser when she died.
Lucinda was known for her kindness and compassion to all creatures. One story involved a piglet that was left behind on the beach at False Bay when the tide rolled in. The sow gathered up all the other piglets, but had to leave one behind because it was caught behind a log. Children playing on the beach found and brought this half-drowned animal to Lucinda. At the time, she was nursing a small child, so she fed it her own milk until it recovered. Her granddaughter Beryl said, "This describes Lucinda more than anything else. She was not going to let that little animal die. Needless to say, the children were delighted" (Clayton Francis Boyce).
Lucinda was beloved by her grandchildren and great grandchildren, who numbered 73 at the time of her death. When she knitted, they would gather around and wait "for some little trinket to pop out of her ball of yarn. She wore a large apron with deep pockets, which [one] remembered as being 'big as a tent'" (Clayton Francis Boyce). The children would wait patiently until she reached into one of those pockets for a piece of candy. She told stories and sang to them while she knitted. Islanders of all ages loved Lucinda Boyce. One story, retold in a San Juan Island newspaper more than six decades after it occurred, is about her arrival at a big island picnic. She was in her late seventies at the time:
"The word went around, 'The old Grandma Boyce is here!' in the same tones that might have been used to say, 'The Queen Mother has arrived!' Grandma Boyce held court in a chair brought from the house, a stately old lady in black, a shawl (probably her own handwork) draped over her shoulders. I remember her twinkling brown eyes, her hair in a knot on top of her head with wisps falling softly about her face, her face beaming with pleasure. She laughed and talked with animation, radiating the warmth and happiness which characterized her" (Garrett).
The same article pointed out that "[h]er photographs show the fortitude, determination and indomitable spirit which characterized the pioneer woman, but no picture could ever catch the warmth, the joy of living, the love of all creatures, that emanated from her" (Garrett). Boyce Descendants Populate the Island
Lucinda Boyce died at 79 on May 12, 1916. Her funeral was one of the largest ever held in the islands. Many of the people who attended had been cared for by Lucinda at some point in their lives, and the local paper reported that "they joined with the bereaved family in mourning for one whose cheery disposition and aim was to smooth out the rough places in the lives of those with whom she came in contact with the passing years" ("Mrs. S. V. Boyce").
She left behind 10 children, 45 grandchildren, and 28 great-grandchildren. All of Lucinda and Stephen Boyce's children save their first child, John, were born on San Juan Island. Most remained there all their lives. One 1979 report stated that the Boyce descendants numbered more than 500 -- many still living on San Juan Island.
[Re-posted through the kind permission of Historylink.org, and in fond memory of Katherine Wade “Kitty” Roberts.]
Sources: H. K. Hines, An Illustrated History of the State of Washington (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1894), p. 381; Jo Bailey and Al Cummings, San Juan: The Powder Keg Island (Friday Harbor: Beach Combers, 1987), p. 60; Julia Vouri telephone interview with Hugh Roberts, great-grandnephew of Lucinda Boyce, October 28, 2013.; Clayton Francis Boyce, "Stephen Van Buren Boyce and Lucinda Elizabeth Stewart ... an adaptation from the book Four Generations: A Family History" Buijs, Buys, Boice, & Boyce Families Genealogy website accessed November 9, 2013 (http://www.michaelboyce.com/boyceweb/SandL.html); "Trip to San Juan," Daily Alta California, November 23, 1859, p. 1; "'Dame Shirley' Describes Life at a California Gold Mining Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1851," History Matters website accessed November 9, 2013 (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6516); Mona Meecher interview with E. Beryl Wade, November 14, 1994, Friday Harbor, Washington, video copy in possession of San Juan Historical Museum; "An Account of Stephen Boyce's Life, Written at the Time of His Death, Friday Harbor Journal, November 18, 1909, p. 1; "Mrs. S. V. Boyce: Pioneer Lady of County," Ibid., May 18, 1916, p. 1; Anita Garrett, "Grandma Boyce: First Lady of the San Juans," Ibid., November 14, 1979, Section C, p. 1; Lucinda S. McDonald, "Boyce Home Holds Memories of Early Years," Journal of the San Juan Islands, May 27, 1987, Section B, page 4; George Richards to John Washington, Admiralty, June 28, 1858, (NA) 8800, CO 6/25, National Archives of Great Britain, Kew Gardens, London; Julia Vouri interview with Katherine Wade “Kitty” Roberts, September 21, 2013, Friday Harbor, Washington; Boyce Family Journals, in possession of Katherine Wade Roberts, San Juan Island; "Mrs. D. B. Bates, from Incidents on Land and Water, or Four Years on the Pacific Coast," Snowy Range Reflections: Journal of Sierra Nevada History & Biography, Spring 2012, v. 4, no. 2 (http://www.sierracollege.edu/eJournals/jsnhb/v4n2/bates.html); "Lucinda Boyce: Mother to All," The Shopper, April 15-22, 1987, p. 8; "San Juan County's First Sheriff," The Seattle Sunday Times Magazine, October 23, 1960, p. 2; "Mary Jane Fraser, San Juan Island," in Told by the Pioneers, v. 3, ed. F. H. Loutzenhiser and J. R. Loutzenhiser (Olympia: Washington Pioneer Project, Works Progress Administration, 1938), pp. 168-69; Mike Vouri, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, 2nd ed. (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest/University of Washington Press, 2013); Mike Vouri and Julia J. Vouri, Images of America: San Juan Island (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010); Mike Vouri and Julia J. Vouri, Images of America: Friday Harbor (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009).