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Elvira Johnson Perkins

· Fine Book Collecting,Halifax,Elvira Johnson,Perkins,Poetry

I have been a book collector since 1974 and a book seller since 2017. There is one huge difference between the two occupations. As a book collector, you know a great deal about the books you buy. As a book dealer, you find books from an author or in a topic on which you know nothing about – except that you think it might be a good item to have in inventory, and so you buy it. Example – yesterday, we got an order for a US$200 book over the internet titled The Laws of Scientific Hand Reading: A Practical Treatise on the Art Commonly called Palmistry; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1903. I found it two years ago in a thrift store and bought it for C$4. When I showed the book yesterday to Glenda, she said, “Why did you buy this book, anyway?” and I replied, “because it was different!”. You go with your intuition.

The big plus for me, as a book dealer, is the knowledge acquired researching the newfound acquisitions. This never ceases to amaze me. And it delights me. I am constantly learning. I wish this upon everyone.

To get to the book on hand for this musing. Again, in a thrift store, I picked up a small volume that was published in 1858, in Boston. It was called Harp of the Willows by Elvira. I don’t know about you but the only Elvira I know about is the contemporary horror hostess character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I bought the book for C$4 and took it home. What an adventure and what a person was Elvira Johnson Perkins!

Earlier today, I put this book up on Abebooks for sale at US$2,000. Here are photos of the book and the somewhat lengthy description. I hope that you will find it interesting!

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Harp of the Willows; by Elvira – To Him who formed the willow, Shall be this offering made, From humble harp bedewed with tears, Beneath the willow shade; printed for the author, by Geo. C. Rand & Avery, Boston, 1858. Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1858, by Mrs. Perkins, in the clerk’s office of the District Court of Massachusetts.

Elvira Johnson and her future husband Henry Kirke White Perkins were Methodist missionaries from the state of Maine. Elvira was the first to answer the call of the Methodist Missionary Society for volunteers to join what became known as the First Reinforcement to the Oregon Mission. Together with missionary companion Anna Maria Pittman, they travelled by way of Boston, South America, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) before arriving in the Pacific Northwest in May 1837. Henry followed, arriving four months later in September.

Elvira’s job at the Willamette Mission was to teach between twenty and thirty Native American children in the log house which served as headquarters for the missionaries. Elvira and Henry were married November 21, 1837, at the Willamette Mission. In the spring of 1838, the Perkins established a new mission, Wascopam, up the Columbia River near the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon. This mission would prove invaluable in the coming years as the Oregon Trail ended at this site, as many of the travellers needed rest, medical attention, food, and supplies.

In 1844, the young son of a local Native American leader was struck down by a fatal disease. The grief-stricken father insisted that the boy’s friend and inseparable companion, another Native American child captured in a raid on a neighboring tribe, be buried with him so that he would not be alone on his journey to the spirit world. Both boys were taken to the tribe’s burial tomb located on a long rock in the center of the Columbia River. The living companion was tied as closely as possible to his dead companion and sealed within the tomb. Elvira and Henry received news of the situation late at night and had no choice but to wait until daylight before attempting the boy’s rescue. After a sleepless night, the missionary couple fought the river current for three miles, reaching the rock just after sunrise. Reverend Perkins forced open the tomb and the couple waited anxiously for some of the incredible stench of death to escape. They then entered to search for the boy and found him unconscious and scarcely breathing. After being carried out into the fresh air, the boy slowly began to regain his senses and when fully conscious he threw his arms around Mrs. Perkins and covered her with kisses. Her tears fell upon his brow as she held him in her arms, his head pressed against her cheek. They took him home and gave him the name Ransom, after they had compensated the Native American leader for his loss.

This event was the subject of this book of poems major poem – Ransom, The Indian Captive – becoming one of the earliest literary works from the Oregon Territory. The Perkins returned to Maine later in 1844, and in 1848 they moved to Boston. Elvira passed away in 1884.

Harp of the Willows contains 55 poems, covering a wide variety of topics. The introductory poem pays homage to the willows on the poet’s beloved Kennebec River. Immediately following Ransom, the Indian Captive is the anti-racist poem – Appeal for the Indian – containing the following stanza, “Many a noble soul is covered by a black or tawny skin, View him as thy friend and brother, White as thou, perchance, within.” The stormy ocean shores are covered in two poems about Minot’s Rock Light-House. The California gold rush covered in the poem Gold! Gold! Gold! The poem Sebastopol starts with the line – “Sebastopol is Taken!” and includes the line – “Proud Russia now is conquered in the fight.” She also mentions Florence Nightingale and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Temperance is covered in the poem Lines, written on learning there were two thousand places where liquors are sold in our city. The travails of immigration covered in The Emigrant’s Farewell. An incredible book of poetry by an incredible woman.

This small format book, 144 pages measuring 157mm X 97mm is in very-good condition, indeed, solid and very appealing. Extremely rare as well as being extremely important.