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On to Oregon by Honore Morrow

February 23, 2010

Book review of On to Oregon

First published in 1926, this is an account of the true story of the Sager family’s pioneer experience. It is the story of 12 year old John Sager as he travels the Oregon Trail with his parents and 6 younger siblings in 1844.  John is a self-centered boy who resents his father’s discipline. At one point John runs away from the wagon train and gets robbed and left to die without food or clothes. The famous Kit Carson rescues John in his failed attempt at striking out on his own.

The hardships of the pioneer life are realistically portrayed without being gruesome. Death on the trail from dysentery and cholera were factual elements of the pioneer trails, and indeed both of the Sager parents die on the trail. John’s mother leaves him in charge of the family, including a six week old infant. Against his aunt and uncle’s advice, John decides to honor his dying mother’s request to keep the family together, and strikes out on his own. He plans to meet up with the rest of his party when he is sure they realize he is serious about leading his family.

John makes a lot of mistakes (as did many on the trail), but as he faces hardship and near disaster he realizes that growing up means accepting responsibility and willingness to sacrifice for others. He realizes that his former rebellion has caused people to not trust him. In his new found position as the head of the family he strives to change his ways and make his parents proud of him.

Through an amazing string of mishaps, miscalculations, bad weather and getting lost, the family is on the edge of starvation and death. Their animals have long since perished, their clothes are rags and winter is in full swing. The children’s final push to safety at the mission station of Dr. and Narcissa Whitman, is accompanied by the death of their Indian guide at the hands of a rival tribe. John finds his body in the snow, and for the first time he is truly afraid they may die in the wilderness.

Miraculously, the Sager children make it to the mission, and Mrs. Whitman nurses the baby back from the brink of death, and offers to adopt the children, keeping them together and offering John a way to develop a stake for his future.


John’s attitude at the beginning of the book is arrogant and rebellious. He is mean and intimidating to his siblings. His bad behavior is chastised by the grown men on the wagon train. As the story continues he comes to realize he must change.

Death is common on the trail, it is not glossed over, but neither is it embellished or gruesome.

At one point after the Sager parents deaths, John disobeys his aunt and uncle and sneaks the family off during the night. He chooses to honor his dead parents’ wishes to keep the family  together and to realize his father’s dream of making it to Oregon.

Native Americans are not always described in a favorable manner, reflecting the attitudes of many pioneers who feared the tribes along the way. The term ‘half-breed’ is used referring to a Spanish-Indian man. At other times natives met along the way are described as ‘filthy’ (although the white travelers became the same after months on the trail.)

The health of the infant may be frightening for younger readers, as the baby’s health deteriorates through the ordeal, but she is nursed back to health by Narcissa Whitman.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Renee permalink
    January 22, 2011 9:59 AM

    My daughter is reading this book. Thanks for posting your review; I found it very helpful as a starting point to discuss it with her. It helped me not to have to read the book myself and while I desire to read what my children are reading, I appreciate the savings to my time. Thanks too for making it fairly in depth and for the “flags” section–again helpful!

    • January 22, 2011 7:03 PM

      Hi Renee,

      I’m glad you found the review helpful. I know how hard it is to keep up with what the kids are reading.

      On to Oregon is one of those fascinating accounts of pioneer life that is both sobering and inspiring.

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