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In The Oregon Territory
        A restored wagon stands silent . . .
          but speaks volumes at the front door of what was the Whitman Mission.
In 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established a Christian mission at the Cayuse Indian campsite of Waiilatpu, near present day Walla Walla, Washington.  Their close associates, Henry and Eliza Spalding, established another mission among the related Nez Perce at Lapwai, near present day Lewiston, Idaho.  Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, traveling together with their husbands, had become the very first women to cross the continent overland.

On October 6 & 7, 2003, Mary and I enjoyed the orientation films and the well-done galleries of the National Park Service Interpretive Centers at both of these mission sites.
Find Waiilatpu and Lapwai on the map.
Here, the Whitman's are depicted befriending the Cayuse Indians.
The placard quotes Narcissa:
  Missionary Goal
The Whitmans' "purpose was to
bring the Gospel to the Indians
and to teach them the arts of
civilization ...  particularly
agriculture and horticulture."

"How can we think it, that if they
once succeed in getting good crops
of corn and potatoes that they will
leave them for the scanty and
laborious system of root digging."
"...  it would not be long before we
should see them located around us,
with houses, fields, gardens, hogs
& cows & their children enjoying
the benefits of constant instruction."


Quotations are from    
the writings    
of Narcissa Whitman.    

 

Today, as we stroll the Whitman Mission grounds, we are afforded a bucolic but well-groomed setting, probably a bit beyond what the Whitmans could have achieved in their few years here.  We see lush, manicured lawns, a beautiful small orchard and a clean, peaceful, millpond with park benches around it.  But the purpose of the Whitmans was not to groom a park; theirs was to groom souls in a time when disturbing changes were surrounding them. 

We walked a self-guided discovery trail with stations equipped to provide recorded sound narratives of various aspects of the Whitman experience.  It is indeed a fine place to relax and ponder what these generous and genuinely caring missionaries attempted here at Waiilatpu, "The Place of Rye Grass,"  almost 170 years ago.
The groundwork for these and other missions had been laid the previous year, 1835, by Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman.  That summer, Parker and Whitman, working for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston, joined the annual fur trappers' rendezvous at Daniel, Wyoming on the Green River.

Indian delegations who came to this event from surrounding tribes, including the Nez Perce, were awestruck as they witnessed Dr. Whitman removing a 3-inch iron arrow-head from the back of mountain man, Jim Bridger.  But by what we otherwise know of Marcus Whitman, this was not a glad handed demonstration.  It was probably much more than this surgery that attracted the Indians to him.  Indians there became very receptive to the prospect of Whitman and other missionaries establishing missions in their homelands.

While Parker continued west with the Nez Perce Indians to gather information about mission sites, Whitman began his return journey east toward New York but sent correspondence ahead to Rev. David Greene of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, certifying that the Nez Perce and neighboring tribes were indeed very interested in having missionaries come to them.

At home, there was much to do as Dr. Whitman arranged with the American Board to send a missionary party with him to Oregon.  His fiancee, Narcissa Prentiss, had for some time been interested in going to the mission field but the Board would not permit a single woman to go.  Eventually they were willing to allow married couples to go.  At this news, Whitman quickly persuaded his friends, the Spaldings to go with him to Oregon, then arranged with Miss Prentiss for their wedding.  The wedding turned out to be a heart-rending affair, complete with the singing hymns of missionary commitment and sobbing.  Friends and family knew of their vague, far away destination.
In the spring of 1836, the Spaldings, the newlywed Whitmans, and the handyman William Gray, put their lives in order and set out for The Oregon Country arriving at Fort Vancouver on September 12, 1836.

The ladies stayed at the fort for the better part of three months.  They wrote letters, sang with the children and generally enjoyed the company of the people at this busy place.  Whitman, Spalding and Gray went on to select their mission sites and build shelters.  Winter was just around the corner.

Dr. Whitman selected Waiilatpu on the lands of the Cayuse.  It was only 22 miles up the Walla Walla River from Ft. Walla Walla on the Columbia River.  Rev. Spalding selected Lapwai among the Nez Perce.  This was 110 miles east of Waiilatpu, on Lapwai Creek just 2 miles from its confluence with the Clearwater River.

Narcissa arrived at her new home on December 10.  It was a simple shelter with no windows, but had a kitchen and two bedrooms, not very nice conditions to greet this pregnant woman.

But she bravely persevered, knowing the situation could only improve.

After a little time, improvements were made to the house including some simple furnishings and amenities.  Much of what they needed to set up the mission was available from Ft. Vancouver. 

On March 14, 1837, her 29th birthday, Narcissa Whitman gave birth to Alice Clarissa, her first and only child.  The child was a joy not only to the Whitmans, but also to many of the Cayuse who dubbed her "Temi," meaning "Cayuse Girl."  But on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, 2-year-old Alice Clarissa managed to elude the adults and tumbled down the steep bank into the Walla Walla River.  She was found...  too late.  It was one of the terribly hard days endured at the mission.

From the early days of the mission, the Cayuse Indians responded generously to their missionary friends, helping around the mission and providing horses for food until cattle were available for slaughter.  The Indians were taught the Christian Gospel.  They were taught how to plant potatoes and corn and they were given good medical care.  A lot of very good things happened here.
But, as time went on, The American Board, believed that the missions were not succeeding.  From reports they were reading, they learned of disputes among the missionaries.  So they issued an order to close the missions at Lapwai and Waiilatpu.  Dr. Whitman was to take charge of the mission at Tshimakain (near Spokane, WA). 
Find the Tshimakain and Kamiah missions on the map.
This spoke well for Whitman, but from his perspective the board did not really understand what was happening.  He believed that the problem was overblown in their eyes and knew that some differences had already been resolved.  Indeed, he saw the mission work as making good, albeit slow, progress.  Granted, the Cayuse at Waiilaput were friendly and helpful but still indifferent to the Christian way.  Meanwhile the Nez Perce at Lapwai and Kamiah were responding to the gospel.  Whitman knew the missions could use more help and had requested it.  The requests were being denied.

So in October 1842, even as winter was approaching, Dr. Whitman suggested to his fellow missionaries that he should immediately go to Boston.  They agreed.  He was accompanied partway by an Oregon emigrant and an Indian guide.  From Fort Hall, (near Pocatello, Idaho) detouring around warring Indians, they rode south through the Uinta Mountains (Utah) and eventually joined a Santa Fe Trail caravan heading east out of Taos (New Mexico) to St. Louis, Missouri.  There's a big gap in the record of his travel from there, but we know he made a brief stop at Washington D.C. before he arrived at Boston by ship on March 30, 1843.  On this cross-country journey, despite snow storms and getting lost at least once, he averaged more than an amazing 60 miles per day for 150 days.

In Boston, he was reproved for leaving his post.  But he was able to persuade the board to rescind their order to close missions.  They even agreed to send more help if qualified candidates could be found.
That June, at Independence, Missouri, Marcus joined the Burnett-Nesmith-Applegate Party bound for Oregon.  This was the largest caravan yet, with more than 800 people heading for Oregon.  At Fort Hall he became their guide leading them as far as the mission at Waiilatpu.  For the next four years, the mission was a regular stopping place for Oregon bound travelers.
Find The Oregon trail at Waiilatpu on the map.
The following year (1844) seven orphaned children were delivered by a weary caravan stopping at the mission.  One was an infant, born on the trail.  Their father, Henry Sager, had died in Wyoming and their mother had died in Idaho.  Already, the Whitmans were boarding four half-breed youngsters brought here by their mountain men fathers.  Now the Whitmans had 11 children in their care, and there would be more.  It became common for some of these emigrants to leave their children at the mission for the winter while they established a homestead.

The Cayuse women participated in caring for the white children at the mission.  We know that one of the Indian women crafted a doll for Elizabeth Sager.
But  with increasing  attention  given at the mission to emigrants, the Cayuse became uneasy at the prospect that their lands would be taken away.
Then when the wagon caravan of 1847 arrived, bringing measles, a "knell," as it were, was sounded.  Many Indians, having no immunity to this disease, became ill.  Despite the desperate efforts of Dr. Whitman, the Cayuse began dying in alarming numbers. 

The Indians noticed that the white emigrants were recovering from the disease, and even though the Indians were receiving treatment they were not recovering.  Rumors arose among them that Dr. Whitman was poisoning the tribe.  Some, still believing that the doctor knew the cure, began thinking that he was withholding it from them.  So the Cayuse, now desperate, began implementing their own prescription that failed: a sweat bath followed by a plunge into the river.

Dr. Whitman knew the Cayuse believed that when a patient died under a medicine man's care, the medicine man could be justly killed.  But Dr. Whitman did not shrink from his efforts to care for them because he thought only he was in jeopardy.

Finally, on Monday morning November 19, 1847, when the mission was full to capacity with mostly emigrants, two Cayuse chiefs feigned entry to the premises and a deadly melee began, joined by other Indians when a signal shot was fired.  Seventeen men and older boys, including Dr. Whitman, were killed.  Narcissa Whitman was the only woman killed.  Three emigrants were allowed to leave but 53 survivors were held by the Indians.  The captives were later ransomed and taken to Fort Walla Walla about 20 miles west.  But two additional young girls had died, possibly of measles, while being held by the Indians.

Within two years, the remaining missions, Lapwai, Kamiah and Tshimakain, were closed, their missionaries moving to the Willamette Valley.

Twelve years after the massacre at Waiilatpu, Rev. Cushing Eells, who had served at Tshimakain, made a claim on the mission site at Waiilatpu and it became his home until 1872 when the house was destroyed by fire.

When he chose Waiilatpu, as his mission site, Whitman probably anticipated that there soon would be a stream of Oregon emigrants passing nearby.  Indeed, he soon had the opportunity to lead the first large caravan destined to Oregon directly to the front door of the Mission, establishing Waiilatpu as a regular stop on the Oregon Trail. 

Though this arrangement created the conditions that eventually ended in tragedy, Whitman was demonstrating his great passion to serve His God and his brothers, both red and white, with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. [Mark 12:28-31] He and his visionary wife wanted to help them all as they assembled together on this new frontier, already being changed forever.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. [John 15:13] Undoubtedly, this Bible verse was well known by all those who died on that November morning in 1847 at Waiilatpu.  It's not difficult to imagine that some or all of them brought it to mind even as they took their last breath.




The following web sites are sources for some of the historic data used here.  They contain much more detail of the Whitman experience than what we've provided here.

They all have good content.
The first is from the U.S.  National Park Service and includes careful detail which feels very believable.

The second is from "The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center" and features a written description of the events on the day of the massacre as recalled by Elizabeth Sager, who was 10 years old at the time.

The third comes from The Public Broadcasting System.  Though brief, it seems predisposed to interpret the actions of the missionaries in a judgmental way.
NPS Historical Handbook -

End of Trail Intrepretive Center - Whitman Mission

PBS - The West - Marcus & Narcissa Whitman

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