Looking out across the prairie toward Admiralty Inlet, it’s not hard to imagine why the first settlers here thought they’d found paradise.
Storyteller Jill Johnson takes us on a journey back to the first settlement on Whidbey Island with her one-woman show, “Rebecca: The Story of Rebecca Ebey” at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5 at the historic Crockett Barn in Coupeville.
“The Crockett Barn is the perfect venue because the Ebeys knew the Crocketts and were at one time on the same land we will be on for the show,” said Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Historical Museum.
“Rebecca” is sponsored by the Island County Historical Society, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and the Friends of the Coupeville Library.
Johnson was browsing through pioneer archives at the Island County Historical Museum when she came across Rebecca Ebey’s diary.
After becoming engrossed in Rebecca’s detailed, well-written journal, Johnson received a grant from the National Storytelling Network to support her continued research into Ebey family records and letters at the Special Collections Library at the University of Washington.
Johnson learned that Isaac Ebey came to Whidbey Island in 1850 and staked his claim to verdant prairie land that stretched to the sea, and wrote to his wife and extended family that he’d found a wonderful place for them.
Isaac Ebey was the first white settler to prove a claim at what is now known as Ebey’s Landing in Coupeville.
“Isaac wrote rhapsodic letters to Rebecca about the land he’d claimed,” Johnson said. “But it wasn’t until her friend Susan Crockett and her family decided to make the journey that Rebecca decided to join him on Whidbey.”
Rebecca Davis Ebey was 29 years old when she left Missouri with her two sons to travel the Oregon Trail to meet her husband.
The first part of Johnson’s presentation tells of the seven months Rebecca and her sons Eason and Ellison spent on the Oregon Trail. Johnson drew from the writings of other pioneers to re-create the 2,000-mile journey from Missouri to Whidbey Island.
Johnson weaves her story of the pioneer trail around music played by Peter Keating on the banjo, his son Harrison, 8, on the fiddle, and daughter Megan, 12, on the mandolin accompanying vocals by 17-year-old Emily Curran.
Isaac Ebey met his family at Fort Boise and first took them to Olympia in October 1851, where Rebecca was pleasantly surprised by the mild Washington climate.
“This is the most beautiful place. I can sit in a room without a fire and write and be warm,” she wrote in her journal.
Finally, they set out for Whidbey Island and the small cabin that was their first home here.
Rebecca Ebey’s diary described in great detail her experiences as one of the first settlers on Whidbey. The second part of Johnson’s presentation is based on her diary.
“Rebecca wrote of social events like births and weddings, and also was very sensitive to the natural beauty here,” Johnson said. “She was an educated woman of great faith and she paints a clear picture of what life was like for the early settlers.”
Like all pioneer women, Rebecca did her share of hard work, and she never quite recovered from the difficult birth of her daughter Hetty in 1853.
“The family disease – consumption – surfaced in her then and she died a few months after Hetty was born,” Johnson said. “Not long before she died, she wrote that ‘though this is a healthy climate, my constitution appears to be very much injured. Life, and health is uncertain.’”
Through her research and the retelling of the story, Johnson grew to have enormous respect for Rebecca Ebey and for all the early settlers of Whidbey Island.
“The Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is an incredible legacy left to us by courageous people who worked so hard to create this community,” she said.
“I hope Rebecca’s story will help people understand why we have preserved this beautiful land.”