By Judy Rickard, author, Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law, Findhorn Press, 2011
A trek north to Washington was next because my Everest ancestors had done this, Karin and I learned from Everest family history. The Whitmans, missionaries, had preceded my ancestors’ wagon train and had set up Waiilatpu Mission. Since the Everests, like many others, needed help, they went there. By the time the pioneers reached this far west, they were exhausted and often ill. If they survived this long, they had traveled nearly 2,000 miles – most of them on foot. Animals needed rest too. Ox teams that pulled the wagons had to carry nearly 2,000 pounds of supplies – at least at the outset. Though oxen could eat the prairie grass and survive without lots of food for lengthy periods, they suffered from the weather and irregular water supplies. Horses, mules and cattle suffered too on the long overland trek.
I was still – and constantly – marvelling at how this family with nine kids had left England by ship, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, lived in New York, then Ohio, then Iowa, then joined the Oregon Trail pioneers and crossed the plains. It made me exhausted just to think of it!
We learned that this site was originally known as the Waiilatpu Mission, which served from 1836-1847, the second Protestant mission in Oregon Country. It was an early outpost settled by brave pioneers who respnded when explorers and traders brought tales of the western lands to the developed eastern United States. As early as the 1820’s, missionaries began to think about moving west to set up programs. Individuals and the interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions began to consider a program in Oregon Country, but were discouraged by its remoteness. After traveling west to explore options with Rev. Samuel Parker, Dr. Marcus Whitman returned east to recruit missionaries while Rev. Parker spent time at Fort Vancouver (in today’s Washington state) before returning east by ship.
In 1836, a small group of Presbyterian missionaries traveled with the annual fur trapper’s caravan into what was known as Oregon Country. They helped blaze what would become known as The Oregon Trail. Among the group, Narcissa Whitman was one of the two first white women to travel across the continent. Rev. Henry and Elliza Spalding also journeyed west to establish the mission. After they set up their mission, differences in cultures led to growing tensions between them and the native Cayuse people.
My ancestors went to the mission to recuperate, rest their stock and buy supplies before continuing west to the end of The Oregon Trail. Fortunately for me, my ancestors survived and were successful in reaching their destination. The Whitmans were not as lucky.
When their Waiilatpu Mission became an important stop along the Oregon Trail, an increase in passing immigrants added to the tension. In 1847, a measles outbreak killed half the local Cayuse. Some of them blamed these deaths on Dr. Whitman. He and his wife were killed along with 11 others. Forty-seven other mission residents were taken hostage. The deaths of the Whitmans shocked the country, prompting Congress to make Oregon a U.S. territory, and precipitating the Cayuse War. The November 29,1847 Whitman “Massacre” horrified Americans and impacted the lives of the peoples of the Columbia Plateau for decades afterwards, per the National Park Service. Was killing the Whitmans justified legal retribution, an act of revenge, or some combination of both they wonder on their website. The circumstances that surround this tragic event resonate with modern issues of cultural interaction and differing perspectives, creating questions we may never had good or complete answers for.
Karin and I enjoyed the displays in the interpretive center, the grasslands surrounding it, showing what the pioneers faced step by step, the covered wagon on the grounds and the monument to the Whitmans. I stood in the tall grass for several minutes and pondered the journey before returning inside to see more exhibits. The site has an interesting history, beyond its original story.
On June 29, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation that established Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu as a unit of the National Park Service, a public national memorial to Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, who here established their Indian mission and school, and ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the Indians until massacred with others in 1847.
On May 31, 1962, the name of the park was changed to Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The change in designation from a monument to a national historic site emphasized its historic significance and the need to address the entire historic setting as well as the existing memorials to the Whitmans.
In 1968, the National Trail System Act was passed. Ten years later, the Oregon National Historic Trail was established. In 1981, Whitman Mission was officially recognized as a historic site along the Oregon Trail, and recognized in the comprehensive management plan as follows:
Whitman Mission National Historic Site includes the original mission site, a mass grave where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman are buried, the Whitman memorial shaft, and a Visitor Center with a small museum. The park is open all year, 7 days a week, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The grounds are open until dark; Visitor Center hours vary by season. The park is located in southeastern Washington, 7 miles west of Walla Walla off of Highway 12. Other sites of interest are located in Walla Walla and the surrounding area.
To learn more about Whitman Mission National Park, go to:
To find out about your ancestors on the Oregon Trail, check out the names database site at:
For an interactive map of the Oregon Trail route, go to:
For information on The Oregon National Historic Trail, go to:
For information on finding people or documents related to The Oregon Trail, try the new Emigrant Name Search site at:
You can follow me on my Torn Apart Facebook page at:
And follow me on twitter @tornapartbook