3 Women Who Blazed Their Own Trails

Tombstone engraved with "Whitman" at Whitman Missions National Historic Site
— National Park Service

As we celebrate Women's History Month in March 2016, the National Park Foundation is proud to commemorate some of our nation's most remarkable women. These historic sites across the country are dedicated to their lives and accomplishments.

Maggie L. Walker

Black and white photo of Maggie Walker and 3 other women at the St. Luke Herald newspaper office

Maggie Walker at the St. Luke Herald newspaper office

National Park Service

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864, Maggie Lena Walker grew up knowing firsthand the difficulties of life in the post-Civil War South. Walker was raised by her mother, a former slave, and at a young age, she developed an interest in improving life for African Americans and women. She joined the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke as a teenager, and went on to serve on the board of trustees for the National Association of Colored Women and the Virginia Industrial School for Girls.

In 1902, Walker founded the St. Luke Herald, and she established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank the following year, making her the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States. The house at 110 1/2 East Leigh Street in Richmond, where Walker spent much of her life, was purchased from the Walker family by the National Park Service in 1979 to be preserved as the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. The home and its adjoining exhibit hall are open to the public for guided tours.

Narcissa Whitman

Watercolor portrait of Narcissa Whitman
National Park Service

In 1804, Narcissa Whitman was born Narcissa Prentice in Prattsburg, New York — a tiny rural community where her father operated a gristmill, distillery, and sawmill. With the encouragement of her soon-to be-husband Marcus Whitman, with whom she shared a strong religious conviction, she applied to the American Board in 1834 for a missionary appointment in the West.

On Feb. 19, 1836, just one day after their wedding, Narcissa and Marcus Whitman began their journey to a new life in the Oregon Country. Narcissa became one of the first two white women to make the trek across the country on foot.

In her new home near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, Narcissa Whitman founded the Whitman Mission, taught school lessons to Native American children, and adopted several half-Indian children. Though the Whitmans had honorable intentions in establishing the mission, their arrival to the Oregon Country had widespread impacts throughout the region.

Whitman Mission National Historic Site interprets the story the early immigrants to the Columbia Plateau, their effects on the Native Americans, and the clash of cultures that resulted in the tragic attacks at the mission. The site includes the original mission location, the Whitman Memorial Shaft, a small museum, a visitor center, and the mass grave where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman are buried.

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte

Front of the Susan La Flesche Picotte Center building
Joelwnelson/Wikimedia Commons

It was rare for a woman to attend medical school in the 19th century, and unheard of for a Native American woman, but Susan LaFlesche Picotte was not one to do what was expected of her. Born on the Omaha reservation to Mary (One Woman) and Chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eye), she was raised to be independent, well-educated, and adaptable.

Black and white portrait of Susan La Flesche Picotte
National Institute of Health

La Flesche Picotte graduated at the top of her class from Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889, and accepted a position as a physician at the Omaha reservation's government boarding school the following year. She was the first Native American woman to practice medicine in the United States. Dr. LaFlesche Picotte achieved her lifelong dream of operating a hospital for her own people in 1913, and while she only lived long enough to practice medicine there for two years, the Picotte Memorial Hospital remains a landmark achievement.

As you celebrate Women's History Month this March, include a visit to a historic site near you. The National Park Service supports locations across the country that commemorate the immeasurable ways in which extraordinary women have shaped American history.

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