The Whitman Mission near Walla Walla

Carol writes:

Cayuse Warrior at the Whitman Mission Interpretive Center

Nowhere was the difference between missionaries and Natives more stark than the site of the Whitman Mission near Walla Walla, Washington where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were the first Protestant missionaries West of the Rockies. They came out together with the Spaldings who settled near Lapwai with the Nez Perce. While the Spaldings lived out their lives among the natives, in the eleventh year of their mission the Whitmans were murdered by their Cayuse charges.

What were the differences? First, the Nez Perce had requested that missionaries be sent to teach them from “The Book of Heaven.” Second, if I understand it right, the Spaldings’ dedication to the Indians was unwavering, they were in fact buried in Nez Perce country, while Whitman got more interested in helping develop the Oregon trail and new Anglo settlements. The most important difference might have been measles.

Here’s the quick version. The Cayuse were interested in trading but not much in agriculture and still less in Christianity. Whitman gradually became more interested in white settlement, even leading one of the largest early wagon trails out to the Oregon territory. It was from one of these caravans that the Cayuse picked up the measles. Half of their band died in a few weeks. The Whites who were now passing through the mission by the thousands were sick, too, but Whitman, who was a doctor, seemed able to cure them. Among the Cayuse if a Medicine Man could not cure someone he could be killed.

In 1847, a group of about five men entered the Whitman’s home and clubbed Marcus to death as he sat before the fire. Narcissa fled but was shot through the chest in the yard. The mission was destroyed and over 50 students from the school were taken hostage. These were raped and forced to work for the tribe until the Hudson Bay company ransomed them. The Cayuse War lasted only a short while. In 1855, that same treaty that sent Chief Joseph fleeing from Oregon, the Cayuse were removed to the Umatilla Reservation. They were a small band and their language has long been extinct.

One note of sadness for the Whitmans was that there only child, Alice, the first white child born out West, drowned in the creek near the mission. She was just shy of two years old and beloved by both the missionaries and the Indians.

These are a few quotes from Narcissa’s writings at the interpretive center near Walla Walla, Washington
about the ideals of missionary life, the goal of which 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 and cows and their children enjoying the benefits of constant instruction.”

This diorama from the Whitman Mission center depicts the benevolent ideals of Protestant missionaries.

This information comes from the interpretive center. “Only a small band took part in the killings. Five were found guilty partly because other Cayuse said so – at least one might have been innocent. The urgency to make Oregon a territory was partly due to the national desire to capture and execute the Whitmans’ murderers.”

Below I have copied an unattributed quote from a Cayuse Indian after they were removed to the reservation. I have copied it as it was written at the interpretive center.

“It was the time of no time.
There were no fences then and no one owned the land.

Cayuse Women

The way the Medicine Man went and got guidance spirit
Contact with animals or whatever it is
Kept on dancing every winter –
They got strong and power came to them
Everything was different in those times and clean air and wilderness
and they could get the truth through the animals.
I don’t think they can now.
Legend days will be over.
Humanity is coming soon. There will be no more…
They will be sad like I am, broken hearted over my last child –
Never to return again – Death takes her
And that’s the way it’s going to be.
I wander along only in the high mountains
and the heads of small streams all the way through –
I’m never down in the civilized country
I’m way up in the wilderness.
Years to come people will lose the only child and will have the feeling just like I have – sad
and that’s why these days sadness comes to us.”

Those last lines ironically reminded me of what the Whitmans must have felt at the drowning of their daughter in the creek.

The mission became an important stop on the Oregon Trail. Pioneers poured into the country by the thousands. The end result of the mission was that the Indians never became farmers alongside the whites but were moved to the reservation where they knew hunger, violence and despair.

A bit of the Oregon Trail has been preserved at the Whitman Mission.

We had a little trouble finding the mission which is now surrounded by elegant wineries. Had we known we could have had a nice wine tasting adventure. Maybe, next time.


About Carol Mell

Photo Encaustic Artist
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