This story by Enid Davis, lower school librarian, originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Harker News
The women who put the “Harker” in The Harker School came from strong pioneer stock. Catherine and Sarah Harker, who founded and ran Miss Harker’s School for several decades, must have taken great pride in their maternal grandmother Otelia. She was a pioneer who joined the Oregon Trail in 1847 and was elected “first Mother Queen” of the Oregon Pioneer Association in 1909 when she was 95 years old.
Our school’s archives contain an obituary, probably written by her daughter, Sarah Ellen Harker, and published in a San Francisco newspaper. Otelia died in 1911, and we have the original news item.
According to the obituary, Otelia Winchel (sic) was born on January 14, 1814, in Brookville, Indiana. She married John Cullen in 1835
and produced a boy, John W. Cullen, the following year. John Sr. died shortly after. In 1842 she married Adam Guthrie Polk.
Otelia and Adam had two daughters, Caroline and Sarah Ellen. Both sisters eventually moved from Indiana to Portland, traveling along the famous Oregon Trail, and then to Palo Alto, where they joined the staff at Miss Harker’s School. Sarah Ellen was the mother of Catherine and Sara Harker.
In 1847, Otelia Polk and her family crossed the plains to Oregon. The head of their wagon train was Samuel Markham. Samuel’s wife, Elizabeth, was Otelia’s cousin. (My source for this is Linda Markham Curry, a living descendant of Elizabeth Winchell.) In her email to me, Ms. Curry writes: “You may be interested to know that Otelia Winchell-Cullen-Polk-DeWitt was cousin to Elizabeth Winchell Markham, who was the mother of Edwin Markham the poet. Edwin has a history in San Jose too.”
The pioneers made a brief stop at the doomed Whitman Station. This was a missionary compound led by Dr. Marcus Whitman. According to the obituary, Dr. Whitman wanted the family to stay there for the winter, but Otelia “seemed to have a presentiment that forbade, and they pushed on toward the Willamette Valley.”
This premonition avoided tragedy for the Polk family as the famous Whitman massacre occurred about one month later on Nov. 29, 1847. (See the website noted below for more information on the massacre.)
Adam Polk died while crossing the Columbia River, leaving his widow and children to survive the harsh winter alone. They arrived at Oregon City, Ore., sometime in November or December 1847. Upon their arrival, they moved into a cabin on First and Morrison streets. Later, they moved into the first frame house in Portland, built by a Captain Crosby.
Otelia married Francis G. De Witt, an officer on a cargo ship in 1848. They had three children together: Marie B., Francis M. and Otelia V.
Mrs. De Witt died on March 21, 1911, in Portland. She was 98 years old.
If you’d like to see the ribbons she was awarded by the Oregon Pioneer Association, we happen to have them.