Elvira Johnson had been engaged to Rev. Henry Kirk Perkins before she sailed to Oregon. In November of 1837, they were married by Rev. Leslie. She was described as “a willing worker, amiable, well-thought-of, and a person who made every effort to be useful”. By March, Rev. Perkins left the Willamette mission with Daniel Lee, leaving his wife while a new mission was organized at the Dalles (Wascopan). She joined him six weeks later, traveling by canoe the 70 miles on the Willamette and then 95 more miles on the Columbia. Considering currents and weather, how would you like to undertake that canoe trip today?
A Fatal Rescue ~ Elvira Perkins & Serepta White
By August, Elvira Perkins was ill. This might have been a difficult pregnancy as that “delicate condition” was often referred to as an “illness”. David Leslie and Serepta White (with her infant son, Jason Lee White) boarded a canoe at Willamette mission to go to her aid. Mrs. White was an accomplished member of the mission company: a teacher and a medical assistant, trained by her physician husband. The trip to The Dalles was successful and Elvira was recovering as they left for the return trip. Along the way home, the canoe overturned, dumping the passengers into the water. As she later recalled, Serepta found herself under the canoe, struggling for breath, thinking, “I have done with my labors for these poor Indians ~ well, all will be over in a moment, but how will my mother feel when she learns my fate?” Then she felt someone grasp her dress and she was brought to the surface. Her first remark was, “Oh, Mr. Leslie, I lost lost my child!”. Indians rescue them both and find the body of the child under the canoe. The small body was then wrapped in a blanket and the mother held it as they continued back to the mission, arriving the next day. This tragedy was compounded later that year when the White’s adopted son George, age 14, became entangled in his saddle equipment and drowned while crossing the Willamette River.
Dr. Elijah White had conflicts with Jason Lee about the direction of the mission activities, the change in focus from aid to the Indian population to colonizing for American settlers. Dr. White and family left the mission in 1840. He became an Indian agent and then, ironically, led immigrants into Oregon. While Serepta was living in New York during his expeditions, she lost another child, afterwards adopting several children. Dr. White returned to Oregon to promote the community of Pacific City. He died in California in 1879. Nothing more is known of Serepta except that they wrote “Travels of Dr. E. White and Lady”. We may assume she returned to the west with him.
The Perkins returned to the mission where she was a teacher as well as caring for her own children, a son, Henry, and a daughter born in 1841. The Perkins and Leslie families shared a house, the one that burned, causing them to lose all their possessions ~ a household tragedy in these frontier circumstances. In 1844 when the mission efforts transformed into creating the community of Salem, Elvira and her family left Oregon to return to Massachusetts. Her husband’s place was taken by Rev. Alvan Waller. Like the White couple, the Perkins kept a journal of their years in Oregon, 1838-1844. The date of Elvira’s death is also unknown.
Thanks to Google for this image of a typical canoe accident in river rapids.