Washington: Whitman Mission Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mount St. Helens exploded violently in May, 1980, causing the worst volcanic disaster in the recorded history of the United States. The cataclysmic eruption and related events rank among the most significant geologic events in the United States during the twentieth century.

Site Office

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

328 Whitman Mission Road

Walla Walla, WA 99362-9699

ph.: (509) 522-6360

fax: (509) 522-6355

Web site: www.nps.gov/whmi/

Marcus Whitman was born in Rushville, New York, in 1802. In his teens, he attended a Congregational school taught by Moses Hallock in Plainfield, Massachusetts. He had decided by 1820 to become a minister, but it was not until 1834 that he was able to realize this ambition. Between 1820 and 1824, he worked in his stepfather’s tannery and served a medical apprenticeship to a Rushville doctor, enrolling in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Fairfield, New York, in 1825. Whitman received an M.D. in 1831 and worked as a physician in Wheeler, New York, until 1835. In 1834, a Rushville, New York, clergy member recommended him to the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a combined agency of the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, located in Boston.

From this agency Whitman received an appointment in January, 1835, as a missionary doctor to the native population of the American West. Before setting forth with fellow missionary Samuel Parker, he became engaged to Narcissa Prentiss of Angelica, New York. In 1836 he established a mission to the Cayuse near Fort Walla Walla in the Oregon Territory and returned to New York to marry Narcissa. On their trip west to the mission, they met Henry and Eliza Spalding, who were planning to set up a mission among the Osages, but the Whitmans persuaded them to continue to Oregon with them. Narcissa Whitman was the first white woman to cross the Blue Mountains, and the cart in which she rode was the first wheeled vehicle to enter the Oregon territory from the East.

The Establishment of the Missions

The Whitmans and Spaldings were responding to what the missionary Protestant sects of the 1830’s regarded as a call for spiritual help from Native Americans living in the West. In March, 1833, the Christian Advocate published a letter attributed to a group of Flathead Indians from Clark’s Fork of the Columbia River, requesting “The White Man’s Book of Heaven.” This letter, reportedly brought to the home of General William Clark in St. Louis in the fall of 1832, was widely reprinted and discussed in the eastern Protestant press. Missionaries were sent to the Indian tribes in the Columbia Plateau by both Catholics and Protestants. The latter counted among the goals of Christianization the establishment of Indian agricultural communities centered on the missions. The missions of both the Whitmans among the Cayuse at Waiilatpu near Walla Walla and the Spaldings at Lapwai, Idaho, were of this type. At Waiilatpu (“place of the rye grass”) the mission included medical services, a school, and a gristmill as well as a church.

The Oregon Trail and the Settlement of the Pacific Northwest

In February, 1842, Marcus Whitman was informed that the ABCFM, disappointed by the small number of Indian converts, was planning to close the missions at Waiilatpu and Lapwai. The following fall, he set out for Boston with two objectives: to change the ABCFM’s mind in favor of continuing both missions and to bring back with him a group of new immigrants whose presence would help to establish a permanent Caucasian settlement in the Oregon Territory. A few later historians, including Oliver Nixon, created a century-long controversy by arguing that this action on Whitman’s part prevented the federal government from ceding the Oregon Territory to Great Britain, and that this too was one of Whitman’s objectives.

It is clear, at any rate, that the settlers who returned with Whitman in the spring of 1843 were significant as a vanguard for additional settlement along the Columbia River Valley. They made it clear to the federal government that it was possible to settle the inland Northwest, and to maintain trade and communications with it. During the 1840’s, the Whitman Mission became an important stop on the Oregon Trail, with increasing numbers of settlers coming across the mountains by wagon to look for farmland in the Territory. The Cayuse and other Columbia Plateau tribes looked on this trend with considerable disquiet, especially when white colonists brought diseases such as measles, which decimated the tribes. Dr. Whitman’s medical efforts helped many whites recover from the measles epidemic, but he was unable to alleviate the suffering of the Indians, to whom this was a new disease. The Cayuse and some of their neighbors began to regard the mission as a source of trouble and danger.

The Whitman Tragedy

On November 29 and 30, 1847, Cayuse tribe members led by Tiloukaikt attacked and killed thirteen persons at the Whitman Mission: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Andrew Rogers, Jr., Lucien Saunders, Nathan Kimball, Crockett A. Bewley, Isaac Gilliland, John Sager, Francis Sager, Jacob Hoffman, Amos Sales, Peter D. Hall, and a man named Marsh. All are buried in the Great Grave at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, on the spot where the bodies were interred by the Oregon Volunteers militia in 1848. The Indians alleged to have been involved in the assault were tried in Oregon City in 1850. Many of the witnesses were survivors of the 1847 tragedy. Whitman Seminary, now Marcus Whitman College in Walla Walla, was originally built by fellow missionary Cushing Eells as a memorial to the Whitmans on the site of the mission. There is a statue of Marcus Whitman in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

For Further Information
  • Bell, James Christy. Opening a Highway to the Pacific, 1838-1846. New York: Columbia University Press, 1921. Describes the opening of the Oregon Trail and the role of the missionary colonists in European settlement of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1973. Two-volume illustrated work with detailed discussions of the relations between Christian missionaries and the Indian tribes in Old Oregon.
  • Lansing, Ronald B. Juggernaut: the Whitman Massacre Trial, 1850. Pasadena, Calif.: Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, 1993. Account of the trial of the Cayuse tribe members accused of the Whitman killings.
  • Nixon, Oliver W. How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon: A True Romance of Patriotic Heroism, Christian Devotion, and Final Martyrdom. Chicago: Star, 1895. Controversial tribute to Whitman’s memory which argues that the missionary was responsible for saving what is now the Pacific Northwest for the United States.
  • Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss. Where Wagons Could Go: Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Letters and journal accounts edited, and with an introduction by, Clifford Merrill Drury.
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