159 years later, 'Josephine's Rose' still watches over children's grave

159 years later, 'Josephine's Rose' still watches over children's grave
Don Wright, a volunteer tour guide at Mountain View Cemetery in Oregon City, looks over the graves of Josephine and Horton Hunsaker on Tuesday, August 14, 2012. The rose bush that their mother planted there in 1853 (directly in front of him) remains there to this day. It's not in bloom right now but Wright brought a few of his own roses to place in front of the headstone. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com Producer/Reporter.

OREGON CITY, Ore. - For over 150 years, a single rose bush has watched over the graves of a young girl and her brother, who fell very ill around the same time and died just a month apart.

Although the children are long gone, 'Josephine's Rose' at Mountain View Cemetery in Oregon City is a living memorial for 12-year-old Josephine Hunsaker and her 14-year-old brother, Horton.

Their story is like many from the pioneer days - untimely deaths brought on by illnesses that swept through communities.

The Hunsakers were among the early settlers in Oregon City. They arrived in 1846 and did well for themselves. And they helped others who were struggling to make it in the West.

"These people who came over in the wagon trains, or however they came, they needed help," said Don Wright, a tour guide at the cemetery who knows the Hunsaker story well. "Josephine, Horton and a lot of the other people would take food (to them), what medicine they had, and clothing to try to help these people out."

But in January of 1853, the Hunsaker family needed help of their own when their eldest daughter, Josephine, became very sick.

"She contracted either diphtheria or typhoid - the stories conflict," Wright said.

In those times, though, there wasn't much that could be done.

Cemetery Celebrities

The story of Josephine's Rose is the third in an ongoing 'Cemetery Celebrity' series from the Mountain View Cemetery. Here are the two others:

  • Clarence Chesterfield Howerton (a.k.a. Major Mite) - famous for his role in the 1939 film Wizard of Oz
  • William Livingston Holmes - the first sheriff of Clackamas County. His family also deeded land to Oregon City for a public cemetery - which is today Mountain View Cemetery.
When Dr. John McLoughlin, a family friend (and notable name in our state's history - he's known as the 'Father of Oregon'), heard about Josephine, he brought her something special.

"When John McLoughlin heard that Josephine was sick, he cut a rose out of his garden - dug it up, put it in a pot and brought it down and planted it outside the window of her house so that she could see the little rose," Wright said. "I don't know if it was blooming - probably not in January. But she died in March."

Josephine never made it to her 13th birthday in April and her brother died not long after she did. The family buried their two children next to each other and their mother then took the rose from outside her daughter's window and planted it at the grave site.

Since then, the rose that McLoughlin gave to Josephine has been there - blooming during the spring and summer months and dying off in the fall and winter.

And at one point, it was almost wiped out. You see for years, the rose bush was mowed over before anyone realized the significance of the plant.

"Then a historian came along and all of a sudden discovered that 'hey that is the bush - that is the sacred bush,' " Wright said.

If You Go

Mountain View Cemetery is located at 500 Hilda Street in Oregon City. The childrens' grave site is on the left as you enter the grounds (in the pioneer section of the cemetery).

Look for the black fence that surrounds the grave site. There are also many other notable grave sites at Mountain View Cemetery - ask someone there to point them out.

A fence now protects the childrens' grave site and the rose bush that their mother planted for them. Right now, even in the heat of summer, the plant is healthy but its blooms are dried and the once vibrant petals are nearly gone.

Although Wright brought a few of his own roses for the children this week, there is a certain amount of sadness in seeing a withering Josephine's Rose at their grave.

But come spring, those roses will certainly bloom once again - a lasting reminder of a mother's love for the children she lost.