An Unexpected Encounter

by Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
February 2009

Restrooms, gasoline, and flat tires are concerns for modern travelers. Fodder, broken axles, steep terrain and swollen rivers would have made the list in 1836. As much as we plan to make our trips go flawlessly, something always seems to go astray. Sometimes it is something very small.

In 1836, Narcissa Whitman and her missionary colleagues were making the arduous trip across the continent in order to establish a new mission in the Oregon Country. They had traveled with a caravan to the fur-trappers’ Rendezvous in the Rocky Mountains. They were now going even farther west, traveling to Fort Vancouver with members of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The final leg of the journey was by boat. At The Dalles the missionaries debarked because the boat had to be portaged around the rapids. Narcissa shared what happened next with her mother:

“Now Mother If I was with you by the fireside, I would relate a scene that would amuse you, & at the same time call forth your sympathies. It may [not] appear well on paper, or worth mentioning but for my own gratification I will write it let the consequences be what they may. After we landed curiosity would lead us up to the top of that rock to see the course of the river through its narrow channel. But as I expected to walk this portage Husband thought it would be giving me to much fatigue to do both. I went with him to its base to remain there untill his return. Took with me a handful of hazle nuts, thought I would divert myself with cracking & eating them, had just seated myself in the shade of the rock, ready to commence work, when feeling something unusual on my neck, put my hand under my cape & took from thence two insects, which I soon descovered to be fleas. Immediately I cast my eyes upon my dress before me, & to my astonishment found it was black with these creatures making all possible speed to lay siege to my neck & ears. This sight made me almost frantic. What to do I knew not. Husband was away Sister S [Spalding] had gone past hearing To stand still I could not. I climbed up the rock in pursuit of my Husband, who soon saw & came to me. I could not tell him but showed him the cause of my distress. On opening the gathers in my dress arround my waist, every plait was lined with them. Thus they had already laid themselves in ambush against a fresh attach. We brushed & shook & brushed for an hour, not stopping to kill for that would have been impossible. By this time they were reduced considerably & I prepared to go to the boat. . . . found the confinement of the boat distressing on account of my miserable companions who would [not] let me rest for a moment in any one position I was not the only sufferer, everyone in the boat was alike troubled both crew & passengers. As soon as I was able to make a change in my appearal I found relief.”

Their journey west was nearly over. The missionaries had worked very hard to get to the Oregon Country.


This is Part 6 of "A Missionary Saga"

Next: A Brief Respite



Whitman, Narcissa. Letter to Marcus's Family. Started June 27, 1836. From The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, Narcissa Whitman. Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington. 1986.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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