The Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla, Washington represents the early settlement of the Oregon Territory and the role Christian missionaries played in our nation’s westward expansion, but perhaps more than anything else, it tells the story of what happens when two very different cultures clash, and when one of those cultures tries to impose their way of life on the other.
Explorers and fur traders had whetted the appetites of missionaries to venture into the vast West for years, but the very remoteness of the region discouraged them until an article in a New York Methodist publication in 1833 told the mostly fictional story of Indians from the west coming to St. Louis seeking teachers and the “Book of Heaven.” A call went out for missionaries to undertake the long and arduous journey west to explore potential mission sites. Marcus Whitman, a New York physician and missionary, was among the first to respond.
In 1835, Whitman and Reverend Samuel Parker made the trek west. Convinced of the viability of establishing missions in the territory, Whitman returned in 1836 with his new bride Narcissa, and a small group that included Reverend Henry Spalding and his wife, Eliza. Narcissa and Eliza would be the first two white women to travel so far west. Spalding established his mission among the Nez Pearce at Lapwai, while the Whitmans settled in the Cayuse territory at Waiilatpu, near the Walla Walla River.
At first, the Indians were skeptical of these newcomers, but the Whitmans were able to win them over for a time. Marcus Whitman learned the Cayuse language, and the Indians appreciated his medical skills. For several years they lived in harmony, and the Whitman Mission became an important stop along the Oregon Trail. It included a large adobe house, a gristmill, a blacksmith shop, and a separate house where emigrants making their way further west could stay to rest up and prepare themselves for the rest of their trip.
The Whitmans were gracious and generous hosts who made welcome all who showed up at their door. Their only child, Alice Clarissa, was born in 1837, the first Anglo-American child born in Oregon Country. Unfortunately, she drowned when she was two, but the missionaries took in a number of orphaned children and treated them like their own, including the seven Sager children, whose parents died along the Oregon Trail. Their story has been told in at least one movie and several books, including The Stout-Hearted Seven: Orphaned on the Oregon Trail.
Over time, the Whitman’s relationship with the Cayuse began to deteriorate for a number of reasons, some real and some imagined. While Whitman wanted the Indians to accept the white man’s lifestyle and settle into farming, the Cayuse were accustomed to leaving to go pick berries when they were in season or to catch salmon when the fish made their annual migrations upriver. This frustrated the missionary, and he began to berate the Cayuse for not giving up their traditional way of life to adapt to his vision of their future.
Meanwhile, the Indians were growing concerned about the ever-increasing number of white settlers coming into their homelands. They had heard from other tribes what happened when these newcomers came and stole their lands away from them.
The turning point in relations between the two very different groups was a measles outbreak in 1847. While the people at the mission were able to survive, the Indians, who had no natural immunity to the white man’s diseases, suffered greatly. At least half of the Cayuse died in the epidemic. Many became suspicious of Whitman and wondered why the whites he treated got well while their people died, believing that he had poisoned them.
On November 29, 1847, a group of Cayuse led by Chief Tomahas attacked the mission, killing the Whitmans and eleven others, including the two Sager boys, John and Francis. 47 others, mostly women and children, were taken hostage and later ransomed. Several of the prisoners died while in Indian captivity, including Louisa Sager.
The incident became known as the Whitman Massacre and touched off the Cayuse War, which ended with most of the tribe dead and their lands confiscated. Two other results of the incident were the closing of the rest of the Protestant missions in the region, and the United States Congress officially creating the Oregon Territory, the first formal territorial government west of the Rocky Mountains.
Today visitors to Whitman Mission National Historic Site can watch a video about the Whitmans and tour a small museum with artifacts from the mission days, including a toy cradleboard and doll that belonged to Elizabeth Sager and Marcus Whitman’s Bible.
A life-sized diorama shows the first meeting between the Whitmans and their Cayuse neighbors.
Outside, a comfortable walking path takes visitors through the mission grounds, where signs point out the location of the various buildings during mission days. On a hill above the mission, a 27-foot high obelisk overlooks the Walla Walla Valley. Built in 1897, on the 50th anniversary of the massacre, the monument honors the Whitmans and others killed during the attack. The victims of the massacre are buried in a common grave near the memorial. The mission grounds also include a picnic area with grills for fires. No overnight camping is allowed.
The 98-acre Whitman Mission National Historic Site is located just west of Walla Walla, Washington, at 328 Whitman Mission Road, just a mile or two off U.S. Highway 12. The site is open daily except for holidays, and the parking lot easily accommodated our 40-foot motorhome and toad. For more information, call (509) 522-6360.
Thought For The Day – It’s probably my age that tricks people into thinking I’m an adult.