The Secret of Opal Whiteley’s Uncle Henry


Was he Whiteley’s “Angel Father” written about in her fabled diary?

December 29 - In the parade of people in Opal Whiteley’s life, there are few who are more important or little known than her maternal great-uncle Henry David Pearson. Pearson has become almost forgotten in the Opal Whiteley story, but he may be the most important person in her early life. He may even be Opal’s secret “Angel Father.”

Opal believed her biological father was a French Prince, Henri d. Orleans, who died in 1901. But Henry D. Pearson does everything that the prince is alleged to have done. Pearson travels to “far lands” as Orleans did. Both men know the Latin names of plants and insects. Uncle Henry even has light colored eyes like Angel Father and their names are similar.

Pearson was a pioneer gold miner. News articles frequently credit him with making an early, major discovery on Bohemia Mountain, near Cottage Grove, in November 1891. He also traveled widely from Alaska to the Southern Hemisphere mining gold, making and losing fortunes.

Pearson was well educated, knowing both a good deal of natural science and literature. Several witnesses said he was the one in the family who was closest to young Opal; they had birthday’s 10 days apart in December. He also supported her nature studies. Whiteley’s early writings in her self-published 1918 book, “The Fairyland Around Us,” are full of praise for Uncle Henry.

Yet in 1920, after years of praising Pearson since his death in 1914, Opal turned her back on him and denied he had much influence on her education. Instead, crediting the French prince for her knowledge of nature. Meanwhile, she wipes Pearson out of her life. Whiteley’s publisher, the Atlantic Monthly, even changed his name in her childhood diary’s first edition from Uncle Henry to Uncle Caleb. He becomes almost forgotten in her story.

Biographers of Opal Whiteley have paid little attention to Henry Pearson. Apparently, they did not read “The Fairyland Around Us” nor speak to people who knew him. Her publishers in Boston could not believe that a “rough miner,” to quote Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick, could have had any influence on Opal’s genius. But he did.

Having an uncle in Oregon who had a similar name as the alleged French “Angel Father” that taught her similar things would surely cast doubt on Whiteley’s story. Opal and the Atlantic Monthly had to write Pearson out. There could not be two Angel Fathers.

Early Cottage Grove Sentinel editor Elbert Bede saw young Opal’s talents. He wrote about her during her teenage years leading the Oregon Youth Christian Endeavor organization starting in April 1912. 

But, after impressing University of Oregon professors in early March 1915 and reportedly leaving them “gasping for breath” during an impromptu visit to the campus arranged by a relative, Bede began giving her continuous press for her extraordinary knowledge of geology and nature.

In a March 21, 1915, article in the Sunday Oregonian, Bede wrote “She attributes much of her interest in nature to an uncle, Henry Pearson, a pioneer miner known all along the Pacific Coast, who died last year.” Whiteley then acknowledges in the article, "He [Pearson] used to tell me of nature and now, though he's dead, his thoughts can live on because I'm learning those things he wanted me to know," she said.

However, in April 1920, when the Story of Opal was published, Whiteley changed her story, writing to her Oregon father, Ed Whiteley, that the article “was a make-up of the reporter.” She now claimed the uncle, while kind-hearted, told her that frogs gave warts, and horsehairs turned into snakes!

“Henry cared nothing for learning — and the names he suggested for my pets were Mike and Tom and Jerry instead of the funny ones I gave them. He always said the names I gave to my pets were queer ones that didn’t have any sense in them. Of course, he said it in a kindly way.” Opal continued. “And also Mr. Bede spoke of Henry Pearson’s interesting me in the natural science studies. But, Papa, he never told me the name of a flower, nor a bird, nor a tree. He liked the out-of-doors, but it didn’t make a difference to him whether a bird was a sparrow or a wren. He just liked the out-of-doors. I early learned I could not learn from him the things I wanted to find out about natural science,” Opal wrote to father.

It is hard to believe she wrote this shortly after writing glowing tributes to him in “The Fairyland Around Us.”

Whiteley’s book is partly composed of her diary entries from about age nine to age 17. Uncle Henry is mentioned at least 13 times. Opal writes that he teaches her geology, biology, botany, Latin, poetry and lessons in life. Whiteley’s view of her Oregon family is very different and more favorable than in the 1920 diary. On page 94, Opal says her uncle has “much sympathy” with her nature studies.

And on page 160 of “Fairyland, her Uncle teaches Opal which mushrooms are good and which are poisonous. “August 11th — In Grandpa's pasture we found many Mushroom fairies, they who are called the Common Mushrooms, they whose scientific name is Agaricus campestris. And Uncle went out and gathered some for supper, for these are good to eat. But this Uncle says — ‘You children must never taste the mushrooms you find for some mushrooms are poison — and lest it be a poison one you taste 'tis best to taste them not at all.’ And we won't because Uncle, he knows what is best.”

In what may be the strangest and funniest part of her “Fairyland” book, Uncle Henry sends her a desert lizard which ate all the other pets Opal kept in a large cage she called “Heaven on Earth.” Henry suggests that she name the lizard Salome and the cage the House of Salome. This comes from a Bible story in Matthew and Mark. Salome, King Herod’s niece/stepdaughter, dances for him and Herod had John the Baptist’s head cut off.

On page 105 in “The Fairyland Around Us,” Opal writes: “August 21 — Troubles, troubles, and in our own Flower Room, whose synonym is ‘Heaven on Earth’; but now Salome has ruined his reputation. Salome, the collared lizard, whom Uncle Henry sent to me from California, the other day, was a thing of beauty in the flower room, but alas, not a joy forever.”

Whiteley continues, “First she ate little bits of Clover blossoms; then bigger bits of the crickets; thirdly, all the bits of Hadrian (the pet Swift who is nearly as large as she is); fourthly, every bit of Moses (the baby Grass Snake); fifthly, and last of all, all of Aristotle (the pet Horned Toad). And then, as though she thought ‘Our Flower Room’ an ideal place for her children and her children's children, she deposited sixteen eggs therein. The prospect of the possibility of their being seventeen Salomes in our beloved ‘Heaven on Earth’ room was overwhelming and I was sorely puzzled until Uncle's letter came with its suggestion for ‘The House of Salome.’ If that letter had only arrived with Salome, as it was meant that it should. Four of the Camp Children are going to help me — together we shall build of bits of board and screen, a goodly sized house, with much sand,” Whiteley wrote.

One of the most intriguing parts of “The Fairyland Around Us” is Opal’s alter-ego, Liloriole (little oriole) on page 216. She is a small human-like fairy who is also taught nature by her Uncle. Liloriole flies all over Fairyland seeking ways to teach children about nature. It is a good chapter with much detail about wildlife. But what is curious is that her name, Liloriole, is an ear rhyme with “Little Orleans.” When “Orleans” is pronounced in French it is “Or-Lee-Owns” — an ear rhyme with Liloriole. Did she know about the rhyme? Opal wrote about word games her family played.

While Uncle Henry is all through the 1918 “The Fairyland Around Us,” he appears by name only once — and only in the first 1920 printing of her famous childhood diary, “The Story of Opal. Journey of an Understanding Heart. The diary entry was possibly written in August or September 1904. He gives Opal a nice blue ribbon for her hair, but Opal then gets spanked by “the mamma” for giving the ribbon to a pig she named Aphrodite! This is the only time he is mentioned by name in the diary.

In later editions Henry’s name was changed to Uncle Caleb. The name Caleb comes from the Bible (Numbers 14:24). Caleb finds the Promised Land for the Hebrews — much like Henry’s work exploring for gold. He was the first of Opal’s family to come to Cottage Grove and frequently traveled. Maybe he is where Opal’s love of “explores” comes from?

Opal believed she had been adopted. Is it possible that Henry Pearson is Opal’s biological father? Perhaps. Henry often stayed with the Whiteley’s when he was in town, and he really dotes on Opal. Some of the quotes Opal says about Pearson’s “soul and thoughts” coming to live within her and how she is now “learning the things he wanted her to” could sound much more like a father-daughter relationship than an uncle and niece.

There are several photos of Henry D. Pearson in a family album of relatives with the surname Scott, taken in Fossil, Ore., in the late 1800s. What is interesting is that some family members have an olive-brown complexion — and one looks hauntingly like Opal. Unfortunately, the cousin of Opal’s who showed the photos to me did not know their names.

Opal was closer to Uncle Henry than anyone else in the family, yet he left his estate to another, older niece in a 1911 handwritten will. Perhaps Pearson did not realize the influence he had on Opal’s writing — or what she may have hoped for from him. When he died in April 1914, Opal was not yet as widely recognized for her nature teachings and Christian Endeavor work as she would be only a year later. While Pearson was thought to be rich, he died with little money and property.

Pearson is also said to have died without telling the location of a lost gold mine. In 2005, Germaine Cross, a member of Opal’s maternal Scott family wrote a biography called “Play of Colors.” It is filled with details only a family member would know. On page 19 Cross writes about him dying without disclosing the location of a rich gold vein.

“In fact, legend has it that Uncle Henry struck gold in the Bohemia Mountains outside Cottage Grove. He took the location of the mother lode to his grave, dying in 1914, as a bachelor in Bakersfield,” he wrote.

Henry was always described as a bachelor, yet a 1906 Bohemia Nugget says he is going south with his wife. This is the only mention I have found of Henry David Pearson being married, but I have not found documentation for it. In notices written after his death of tuberculosis after 15 years, only his brothers and sisters were listed as survivors. Whether the article was a misprint or a prank, it’s unknown. Pearson passed away only a month after his mother. In a “weakened” state with his brother in-law Richard Scott, he left Cottage Grove for Bakersfield with hope his health would improve.

Perhaps she turned against Uncle Henry so she could promote the French Prince Henri as her “Angel Father.”It’s my belief that she simply could not have two Angel Fathers who were so similar. Maybe it was ambition that drove Opal to write him out of her life; dying without leaving her any money for her education may have hurt her. There are many questions still left unanswered about their relationship and the role he played in her life and in her writing.

This article is part of a series on Opal Whiteley that Sentinel Managing Editor Gerald Santana and I are collaborating on. Readers will get many new discoveries about Opal and her life. A future article will go in depth into the French prince and if Opal really could have been his child! You are invited to “go on explores” with us.

You can also find much more information about Uncle Henry and Opal Whiteley at www.opalnet.org.

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