At Whitman Mission National Historic Site I left with a fairly important piece of information; never force your ideas on other people.
In 1836 Doctor Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, Reverend Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza, along with William Gray headed west along what would soon become the Oregon Trail. Fueled by an article in the New York Methodist about western tribes being interested in learning about the Bible the group set off to the West to help spread the word of God to the Native Americans.
Early in the fall of 1836 Dr Whitman, Reverend Spalding along with Gray, left the woman behind at Fort Vancouver. They were in search of new mission stations. Whitman found land at Waiilatpu among the Cayuse tribe and Spalding found a spot at Lapwai among the Nez Perce.
Narcissa joined Marcus and Gray at the Waiilatpu mission, where they began teaching the Cayuse tribe about the ways of God. Marcus learned the Cayuse language and correlated their words to English words. Things seemed to be going well with the teachings however Marcus felt that the tribe was not fully committed to learning the ways of God.
The Cayuse, continued to carry on with their traditional lifestyles, collecting berries and fishing, just as they would have prior to the arrival of the Whitmans. Whitman felt that the mission would not be successful unless the Cayuse started living their lives like the white man, setting up farms and settling. Unfortunately for Whitman, the Cayuse tribe was disinterested in changing their lifestyle. Due to this disinterest both the Waiilatpu and Lapwai missions were threatened with closure. Whitman set off October 3rd 1842 and arrived to St Louis on March 9th 1843 to plead his case to keep the missions open. He also made stops in Boston, Washington DC and New York which resulted in preventing the closures.
At this point the Oregon Trail was in full swing and people were finding their way to the West Coast. Whitman returned to Waiilatpu with a wagon train in 1843. It was clear to the Cayuse that more people were coming and their way of life was being threatened.
As more white people came so did foreign diseases. An outbreak of measles happened in the fall of 1847 and spread rapidly throughout the mission. Dr Whitman treated both the infected white people and Cayuse people but it appeared that only the white people were getting better. It was most likely because they had built up resistance to the disease whereas the Cayuse did not have any resistance.
The Cayuse were convinced that the Whitmans were poisoning the tribe in order to make way for the emigrants. On November 29th, 1847 a group of Cayuse attacked the mission killing Marcus, Narcissa and 11 others. 50 people, mostly women and children, were taken captive by the tribe and held for ransom for about a month. They were later released after Peter Skene Odgen of the Hudson’s Bay Company paid the ransom.
In the spring of 1848 news had gotten to Washington DC. By August of 1848 Congress created the Oregon Territory, giving the settlers territorial status.
I had very little knowledge about what had happened at the mission prior to my arrival other than I knew there had been a “massacre”. As I had mentioned in my first paragraph, I believe to never push your ideas on others. This seemed to be the general consensus that I took away from visiting this site. It is always interesting to me that people can look at someone’s way of life and decide for them that they should be living it a different way.
Whitman did not understand the Cayuse’s way of life. He wanted them to change, become farmers and live the life Whitman had created for himself. That lifestyle may have been suitable for Whitman but was it really his place to tell others that they must live as he did? I don’t think so. It was apparent that the Natives were in agreement with not being told how to live either.
There is not a whole lot to this site, mostly foundation outlines from the mission buildings and a trail leading around the site. The trails are dog friendly, so I brought Boomer along with me as I learned about the Whitman Mission. You can even walk along part of the historic Oregon Trail, which of course we did!
We also walked up the hillside to the Great Grave, the mass grave site where the Whitmans are buried. Also located at the site is a small informative center with educational movies and artifacts.
The outside site is open daily from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. The informative center is open most of the year Wednesday – Sunday 9am to 4pm. December and January the center is closed. The site is located about 8 miles from Walla Walla, heading west on highway 12. There is no fee for this park.