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The Mission Children

On her 29th birthday, March 14, 1837, Narcissa Whitman gave birth to her only child, a baby girl who was named Alice Clarissa after her two grandmothers. Alice was the first child born of United States citizens in the Pacific Northwest. Her arrival was a great joy not only to her parents but to the Cayuse as well. The Indians had been aware of the baby's coming, and after her birth all the chiefs and elders of the tribe visited the house to see the temi or "Cayuse girl," as they promptly named her because she was born on their lands.

That autumn the Whitmans took 8-month-old Alice Clarissa on a visit to the Spaldings at Lapwai. It was time for Eliza Spalding's first confinement, and Dr. Whitman had come to officiate. On November 15, the baby arrived. The Spaldings named their daughter Eliza, after her mother. Back home again, little Alice Clarissa provided her parents with untold happiness. But that happiness was to be tragically short lived. On a fine Sunday afternoon, June 23, 1839, Alice Clarissa Whitman met death by drowning. Unattended for a few minutes, she had wandered down to the steep bank of the nearby Walla Walla River and had fallen in. Though her body was found but a short time later, all attempts to revive her failed. Her heartbroken parents tried to console themselves with the thought that her demise was the will of God. Yet their loneliness was immense. Before long, however, the Whitmans once again had children in their home to care for and to raise.

The first of these was Helen Mar, the half-breed daughter of the famous mountain man, Joe Meek. Helen Mar's Nez Percé mother had deserted Meek, and when he journeyed to Waiilatpu in 1840, he persuaded Mrs. Whitman to accept the care of the child. The next year, another little part-Indian girl was added to the Whitman household when another famous mountain man, Jim Bridger, sent his 6-year-old Mary Ann to the Whitmans.

In 1842 two Indian women brought a "miserable-looking child, a boy between three and four years old," to Narcissa and asked her to take him in. This boy was also half-Indian; his Spanish father had once been an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. Narcissa tried to decline the responsibility, but her pity was too great. Taking the child, she named him after an old friend back home, David Malin. Then, when Marcus returned to Oregon in 1843 from his trip East, he brought with him his 13-year-old nephew, Perrin Whitman. Thus the Whitmans acquired their fourth youngster.

The next seven children to be added to the household were all of one family. In 1844 Henry and Naomi Sager left Missouri with six children. On the trail to Oregon, Mrs. Sager gave birth to her seventh child. But tragedy rode with the Sagers. Henry died when the family reached the Green River; a month later, Mrs. Sager died near what is now Twin Falls, Idaho. The children, benumbed by the loss of both parents, were brought on by the wagon train. The women of the train took turns caring for the baby, while Dr. Dagan, a German immigrant, drove the Sager cart with the other six children toward the Whitmans' mission.

For many days, the emigrants' wagons had been passing through Waiilatpu. Just before the seven orphans came, Narcissa had written home: "Here we are, one family alone, a way mark, as it were, or center post, about which multitudes will or must gather this winter." On the morning the children arrived Mrs. Whitman was called to the yard to greet them. There she witnessed a poignant scene.

Before the cart stood the four barefoot girls in their tattered dresses. Afraid of the unknown, they huddled speechlessly, first looking at Mrs. Whitman then at one another, not knowing what to expect. John, the older boy, still sat in the cart. Exhausted but relieved, he bent his head to his knees and sobbed aloud. His brother, Francis, leaned on a wheel and also began to cry. Dr. Dagan, who had been both father and mother to the orphans, stood to one side and, filled with emotion, watched Narcissa murmur a compassionate welcome. She then took the children into the mission house.

At that time Narcissa's health was not good, and she and Marcus debated that evening whether or not to take all seven orphans into their family. But the plight of the children resolved all doubts. The Whitmans now found themselves directly responsible for a family of 11 children.

In addition to this family, the children of the emigrant families stopped at the mission each autumn and often stayed for the winter. Also present were the children whom the Whitmans took into their school as boarders—such as the young lady whom Dr. Whitman had brought into the world, Eliza Spalding—and the two Manson boys, the half-breed sons of a Hudson's Bay employee at Fort Walla Walla. Thus, following the death of Alice Clarissa, there was always a large number of youthful voices at Waiilatpu, as indeed there was, to a lesser degree, at the other missions.

An Indian woman made this doll for young Elizabeth Sager.


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Last Modified: Sat, Sep 28 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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