Friday, May 20, 2016


…the lies I told my students

Early in my teaching career, I came up with the idea of using read-aloud time with students to prepare them for whatever the next social studies unit of instruction might be about.  So, while I was teaching California geography to my fourth graders, I’d be reading Scott O’Dell’s classic Island of the Blue Dolphins to surreptitiously provide a little background knowledge for the upcoming unit on California Indians.

In preparation for my unit on the westward movement, while teaching about California Indians, I read a compelling novel called Oregon At Last! by a Dutch author named A.Rutgers Van Der Loeff.  It tells the remarkable tale of the seven children of the Sager family.  It seems the family, like so many others during the 1840s, decided to leave Illinois and migrate to the fertile prospects of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  Tragically along the way, mother died shortly after giving birth, then a few weeks later, father died.  Alone in a foreign and hostile environment, oldest boy, John, led his brothers and sisters through floods, fires, blizzards and threats of bears and wolves to finally arrive at Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s outpost on the banks of the Walla Walla River. 

The book was a great read, with the savvy reader – me – learning that if I closed the volume about two sentences before the end of each chapter, just before each crisis was resolved, my students would clamor for me to not stop, sometimes even disturbing the class next door with their protestations.  They loved the book and many were in tears at the end when Narcissa Whitman, clutching the eight-week-old infant declares: “Where did you come from?  I cannot believe that I’ve ever seen a child so beautiful as you.”  Or something to that effect.

We used the themes of the book to write our own stories about bravery, perseverance and luck.  All good stuff.  Except…

Long on my list of things to do has been a visit to the grounds of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s outpost near the Columbia River.  The story of their care for the Sager children long drove this desire in me. 

In the 1835, prompted by an evangelical movement known as “the Second Great Awakening,” easterners Reverend Samuel Parker and a young Dr. Marcus Whitman traveled to Oregon country to assess the prospects of establishing Presbyterian Missions in order to save the “heathen natives” who’d long settled in the area. 

Parker remained west while, in 1836, Whitman returned with his new bride, Narcissa – one of the history’s first two white women to venture west of the Rockies – and a group of evangelical volunteers along what was soon to become the Oregon Trail.

Painting of Whitman Mission as imagined by William Henry Jackson based on written descriptions.
The mission was established and relations developed between the Whitmans and native Cayuse.  Whitman taught the native population farming and irrigation techniques – and religion – and ultimately built a gristmill, blacksmith shop and a large adobe house.

With the influx of immigrants, the mission of the mission changed from that of civilizing the Indians to providing aid and rest to the newcomers who’d suffered immeasurable privations on their journey west.  Among these were the seven Sager children.

But the kids hadn’t roughed it alone as Van Der Loeff (and later, Disney: recall the film “Seven Alone”) would have us believe.  The practice of the times was that if a parent died, others within the traveling company would pitch in – and if both parents passed, offspring would be divvied up amongst other families and cared for.  Such was the case with John and his siblings.  Tragic, but not quite so compelling a tale.

National Park Service
In 1847, a measles plague swept through this section of the Columbia Plateau.  Dr. Whitman’s medicine appeared only to work on immigrant children.  The children of Cayuse died, sometimes several per day.  Believing that the Whitmans were responsible, the Cayuse determined that in order to save their people, the white people needed to die. 

A monument is erected atop a nearby hill with a sweeping view of the area the Whitmans hoped to tame.  The plaque thereon lists the names of those killed in the assault including John Sager and a brother, both of whom had stayed at the mission.

The story of the short existence of the Whitman Mission provides fascinating insights into our movement west, our penchant for believing our religion is somehow superior, the tragedies that befell both the whites who first ventured onto the Columbia Plateau and the natives they encountered.  Remains of the outpost include only the foundation locations of some of the original buildings, a restored pond that had provided irrigation water, a resurrected orchard, and a pleasant interpretive center. 

National Park Service
After a visit to this spot, one cannot but be moved by the enormity of what events here precipitated. Citizens moving west established the Oregon Trail, which might not have taken its soon-to-be-established route, had it not been for the mission.  Word of the tragedy prompted Washington to deploy personnel to protect citizens moving west.  Treaties were written, signed and ignored.  And many brave and beautiful cultures were ultimately trodden to dust as one people overtook another.

You may find yourself driving away consumed in reflective silence.



The Whitman Mission is a National Historic Site maintained by the National Park Service.  Details:

The Park Service has provided an excellent video exploring both the Native American’s and the immigrant’s perspective on the Whitman Mission and the tragic events that unfolded.  It is well worth 25 minutes of your time and may be accessed at

Related: A fine Oregon Trail Interpretive Center has been established by the Bureau of Land Management in Baker City, Oregon another worthy stop while on the Open Road.  Details:

For one man’s contemporary view of the Oregon Trail, check out my little review of this recent book, in which, in the end, the author pays his respects to Mrs. Whitman:

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Wow, thank you for the information. Having been born in Oregon but raised in British Columbia between the ages of 5 to 29, I never did learn a lot about the history of our great state. I am still learning now.

    Whenever we ride east we try and stop at the roadside plaques along the way to learn a little more.

    1. I'm guilty of not stopping frequently enough I think because it is sometimes a bit of a hassle to dismount, disrobe from gear, and take those few minutes to explore such sites. The latest trip involved the Subaru and included not only the Whitman Mission, but the High Desert Museum outside of Bend - another must see.

  2. ttp://

    I love the history of Marcus Whitman. How he brought the settlers to the Great Northwest. Other nations, and powerful people had tried to gain the Northwest - but God used one young Christian doctor to do a miracle. Today the history of Marcus Whitman has all but vanished- but Lord willing, I desire to meet him in the heaven that God has prepared for all his saints and angels.

    1. Brave man and true, to be sure, but the Hudson's Bay Company had preceded Whitman and had established an encampment only a few miles away from Whitman's, though no women accompanied the fur trappers...

    2. Yes- England, Spain, Russia all had their eyes on the Northwest- and it was a miracle indeed that Marcus Whitman made the treacherous journey to the East Coast- and then received permission from the President to take pioneers by wagon train! Never had been done- I believe there were 700 wagons that went to the West. The Nez Pierce, who wanted the White Mans Book to be revealed to them -also had made the trip to the East Coast- before Whitman. They were disappointed - because they were not given an understanding of the Scriptures.
      But the Indians trip was not in vain ! In Idaho, the oldest Presbyt. Church is still in standing, and still in operation - so the Book did come to their nation.
      I live in the Northwest, close to the Whitman Mission. I am grateful that this land was not originally given to England? Russia? But, as it is standing - Washington State, Idaho, Oregon are part of the United States.


    Chick tract - The Attack - explains bible history

    The history of the word of God and how Satan has from the beginning tried to deceive mankind even from the beginning- is evident and stark in reality. But Gods word is forever settled in heaven. From the school of Antioch (book of Acts)- ( and its counter- Alexandrian
    school) History reveals people down through the ages who have kept the word of God- such as the Waldensees- and the Reformation heroes- Tyndall, Luther, and those Christians before them. It is an awesome privilege to have the King James bible in our hands. The war against the word of God is a battle that someday will end- but has been fought almost continually. (See Jesuit/Indian war against the United States of Israel). Abraham Lincoln told the author of 50 years in Rome- that he feared the Jesuits more than any.