Whitman Mission Route

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

The Whitman Mission Route served as the main stem of the Oregon Trail during the earliest years of the mass overland migrations. The Oregon Trail’s route led emigrants out of the Blue Mountains and north to the Whitman Mission, where hungry and road-weary emigrant groups could buy provisions, make repairs, and obtain medical services if needed. The Whitman Mission was an important way-station for Oregon Trail emigrants.

Between 1841 and 1847, the Oregon Trail’s main route stretched from the Blue Mountains’ western summit at Deadman Pass, crossed the Umatilla River and continued northward to the Whitman Mission, where Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa operated a Presbyterian Mission and supplied travelers with much needed services and supplies. Hudson’s Bay trappers, mountain men, explorers, and emigrants traveled to and from Whitmans’ mission. This route remained open until the Whitman Massacre of 1847 when emigrants began crossing through the Umatilla Valley near present Pendleton (bypassing the Walla Walla area, Fort Nez Perces, and the Upper Columbia River Route) on their way to the vast Columbia Plateau.

Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa established the Whitman Mission in 1836. The Whitman Mission remained in operation until 1847, when the Whitmans and several others were killed inside the mission during an Indian attack.

Historical Context

“Thursday, October 5. Started about noon for Dr. Whitman’s. Traveled eight miles and camped for the night. Sticcas, a very friendly Indian who piloted us across the Blue Mountains accompanied us to-day and camped with us tonight.¬†Friday, October 6. …went on with the carriages to Dr. Whitman’s, where we arrived about two o’clock…” -James Nesmith, 1843

“Tuesday, Oct 22. Our cattle are almost overdone and Mr Hawley has gone on to the Doctor’s to engage accommodations for himself, Mr. Cave and I. He is expected to return this evening.” -Edward Evans Parrish, 1844

It was 1835, when 33 year-old Marcus Whitman was recruited by Samuel Parker to join the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. A native of Wheeler, NY, Whitman was a physician, missionary, and American patriot. When he learned of the opportunity to travel west to the Oregon Country to minister to Indians and to provide medical services at a far away outpost, Whitman eagerly volunteered.

The American Board believed that community was an essential element in the spread of Christianity. To build communities in the Oregon Country, it had to be first proven that women, children, and wagons could cross the Rockies and the Blue Mountains. While women and children could ride horseback, the essential elements of “home” — furniture and belongings — needed transport, somehow, over the mountains. The effort required a dependable wagon road.

Whitman and Parker set out from Boston in 1835, following well-established routes to the Missouri River, then venturing west of the United States and into Indian Country toward Oregon. Following trappers, traders, and Indians, they traveled quickly on Horseback as far as Green River Rendezvous that summer. There they met several Nez Perce Indians, whose enthusiasm for the white men’s religion further inspired the Presbyterians to establish a station in the Oregon Country. As the rendezvous ended, Whitman returned east, planning to raise money from the American Board and other sources. Whitman would return to the western lands the following year. Parker worked his way west to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River.

While in Boston, Whitman met and married Narcissa Prentiss. She shared Whitman’s Presbyterian perspectives and values (and had applied to the American Board, who denied her request because of her status as an “unmarried female”). Narcissa was eager to minister to the welcoming Indians. Whitman also found another couple to join the effort, Henry and Eliza Spalding. In early March 1836 (the day after their wedding), Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Henry and Eliza Spalding, and William H. Gray headed west from New York with their wagons full of supplies and furnishing.

In the months that followed, the missionaries worked to adjust to the new and unfamiliar landscapes they crossed, to the trappers and tribal members they met, and to each other.] Although she reveled in the West’s new experiences, Narcissa missed her home and family.

In an effort to recapture the event for her far-away family, Narcissa kept notes of her adventures and heartaches. She wrote on August 7, 1836: “We love to think and talk of home… It warms our hearts, Strengthens & encourages us in the work of our beloved Master & makes our journeying easy.” Narcissa was the first of many overland emigrants who recorded the loneliness they felt as they left loved ones behind.

The missionaries arrived at the 1836 Green River Rendezvous in mid-July. Normally, the rendezvous was a raucous event. Trappers and traders from throughout the Rockies met to trade supplies and furs and to revel in each other’s company before returning to the solitude of the mountains. The presence of white women at the rendezvous had an immediate effect. In apparent deference to the American women, the normally raucous trappers cleaned up their language, bathed, and toned down their bawdy behavior.

Father Jean DeSmet was there as well, the first of the prominent Catholic missionaries who traveled throughout the west baptizing tribal members.] DeSmet’s presence disturbed Whitman who was deeply suspicious of Catholics and their theology.

From the rendezvous, the Whitmans and Spaldings traveled west with John MacLeod, an HBC Chief Trader, and brigade of HBC trappers. It was a strenuous effort to pull wagons across the Rockies. On July 25, Narcissa noted:

“Husband has had a tedious time with the waggon today. Got set in the creek this morning while crossing, was obliged to wade considerably in getting it out. After that in going between two mountains, on the side so steep that it was difficult for horses to pass the waggon was upset twice. Did not wonder at this at all. It was a greater wonder that it was not turning a somerset continually. It is not very greatful to my feelings to see him wear out with such excessive fatigue as I am obliged too. He [is] not as fleshy as he was last winter.”

On July 28, Narcissa continued…

“One of the axle trees of the waggon broke today. Was a little rejoiced, for we were in hopes they would leave it & have no more trouble with it. Our rejoicing was in vain however for they are making a cart of the hind wheels this afternoon & lashing the forward wheels to it, intending to take it through in some shape or other. They are so resolute & untiring in their efforts they will probably succeed.”

In some places, the sagebrush grew tall enough to brush against horses’ bellies and to tangle in the wagon axles. On August 12, while camped on the banks of the Snake River, Narcissa lamented the necessity of leaving behind a treasured trunk — and their wagon:

“The hills are so steep rocky that Husband thought it best to lighten the waggon as much as possible & take nothing but the wheels, leaving the box with my trunk… It would have been better for us not to have attempted to bring any baggage whatever only what was necessary to use on the way. It costs so much labour, besides the expense of animals. If I were to make this journey again I would make quite different preparations. To pack and unpack so many times & cross so many streams, where the packs frequently got wet, requires no small amount of labour, beside the injury done to the articles… In going from Elmira to Williamsport this trunk fell into the creek… The sleigh came off & all of us came near a wetting likewise.”

After further adjustment, Narcissa was able to keep her trunk, but traveling with the cart proved difficult too.

“We have come at least fifteen miles & have had the worst route in all the journey for the cart, we might have had a better one, but for being misled by some of the company who started out before their leaders. … Husband had considerable difficulty in crossing the cart. Both the cart and the mules were capsized in the water and the mules entangled in the harness. They would have drowned, but for a desperate struggle to get them ashore Then after putting two of the strongest horses before the cart & two men swimming behind to steady it, they succeeded in getting it over.”

On August 22, 1836, at Fort Boise, Narcissa added…

“Perhaps you have wondered why we have left the waggon at the fort, & I have nothing to say about it this time crossing. Our animals were failing & the route in crossing the Blue Mountains is said to be impassable. We regret now to loose the use of [the wagon] when we have been at so much labour in getting it thus far. It is a useful article in the country.”

From Fort Boise, the Whitmans, Spaldings, and their HBC guides (including John MacLeod) continued westward. As the group neared the Grande Ronde Valley, the Spaldings lagged behind; their horses and livestock were footsore and weary. The Whitmans pushed on. With MacLeod as their guide, they followed Indian Trails. On August 28, 1836, the Whitmans descended Ladd Canyon, skirting the Grande Ronde Valley’s tule swamps, and at noon, stopped near Ora Dell where they enjoyed a relaxing lunch. Narcissa continued,

“After dinner we left the plains & ascended the Blue Mountains. There a new and pleasing scene presented itself, mountains covered with timber through which we rode all afternoon, a very agreeable change.”

A research team retracing the Whitman’s route a century later, estimated that the party followed an Indian trail roughly 20 degrees west of north from Ora Dell toward the HBC’s post, Fort Nez Perces.] The route, according to the research team, carried the Whitman party over Fox Hill, crossing the crown of the hill at Dixie Flat. From there, the Whitmans continued to Five Points Creek, where they camped on August 28, 1836.

The next morning, August 29, Narcissa wrote of meeting, “…old acquaintances, in the trees & flowers, & was not a little delighted. Indeed I do not know as I was ever so much affected with any scenery in my life.” Her delight in familiar plants was soon replaced by much larger concerns. The steep slopes of the Blue Mountains were just ahead.

“Before noon we began to descend one of the most terrible mountains for steepness & length I have yet seen. I[t] was like winding stairs in its descent & in some places almost perpendicular. We did a long time descending it The horses appeared to dread the hill as much as we did. They would turn & wind in a zigzag manner all the way down. The men usually walked, but I could not get permission to, neither did I desire it much. We had no soonner gained the foot of this mountain, when another more steep & dreadful was before us. Our ride this afternoon exceeded everything we have had yet, & what rendered it the most aggravating the path all the way was very stony resembling a newly McAdamized road. tonight After ascending the mountain immediately after dinner, we kept upon the main divide untill sunset, looking in vain for water and a camping place. While upon this elevation, we had a view of the valley of the Columbia River. it was beautiful. Just as we gained the highest elevation & began to descend the sun was dipping his disk behind the western horizon. Beyond the valley, we could see two distant Mountains. Mount Hood & Mount St. Helens. We had yet to descend a hill as long but not as steep or stoney as the others. By this [time] our horses were in haste to see camp as well as ourselves, & mind made such lengthy strides in descending that it shook my sides surprisingly. It was dark when we got into camp but the tent was ready for me, & tea also for Mr. MacLeod invited us to sup with him. We are now on the west side of the Blue Mountains.”

August 29, 1836, was a very difficult day. The party rode northwesterly toward Sugar Loaf Mountain and nooned ten miles east of Kamela, having traveled just 8.5 miles since morning. Their afternoon was spent climbing Spring Mountain (where the trail resembled a newly Macadamized road), and then descending it to the point where Owsley Creek joins East Meacham Creek. They continued from there to Meacham Creek. After negotiating an even more difficult ascent of the canyon wall opposite Horseshoe Ridge, on the ridge crest, the Whitmans could see two distant mountains, Hood and St. Helens far to the west. That evening the Whitman party continued over Gibbon Ridge toward Squaw Creek, where they made their evening’s camp and Narcissa enjoyed a cup of tea.

The next day, the Whitmans and their horses rested along Squaw Creek and the Umatilla River. On August 31, the Whitmans traveled again, following an Indian trail from the mouth of Squaw Creek to Saddle Hollow Ridge. After coming out of the canyon, the Whitmans crossed Wildhorse Creek near Athena and Adams. Although they rode 30 miles that day, Narcissa wrote that “We galloped most of the way.” The exhausted Whitmans rode over the breaks east of VanSycle Canyon into the basin of the Walla Walla Valley, stopping eight miles from Pambrun’s post at Fort Nez Perces. Mr. MacLeod continued to the Fort to announce the arrival. The next morning, horses and riders alike were eager to rest in more comfortable lodgings.

On September 1, Narcissa wrote:

“If you could have seen us now you would have been surprised, for both man and beast appeared alike propelled by the same force The whole company galloped almost all the way to the Fort. The first appearance of civilization we saw was the garden, two miles this side of the Fort. The fatigues of the long journey seemed to be forgoten in the excitement of being so near the close. Soon the Fort appeared in sight, & when it was announced that we were near Mr. MacLeod Mr. Pambrun…sallied forth to meet us After the usual introduction & salutation, we entered the fort & were comfortably seated in cushioned armed chairs.”

The Spaldings arrived the next day. After such effort, the Whitmans were happy to rest, pampered by the HBC’s gracious hospitality. They rested there for nearly a week. Narcissa wrote of her delight in the “guest room” (a converted gun cache), salmon pork, and beef, cabbages and turnips, and fresh butter.

The Whitmans, Spaldings, and their hosts traveled the remaining 300 miles by bateaux on the Columbia River, from Fort Nez Perces to Fort Vancouver. Their trip took just 6 days. The missionary wives stayed the winter at Fort Vancouver. Whitman, Spalding, and William Gray traveled back to Fort Nez Perces to locate mission sites.

Whitman selected a place near the Walla Walla River. A day’s ride east from Fort Nez Perces, the site had good water, rolling fields, and tall grasses. He called it Waiilatpu, the Cayuse word describing the place where the rye grass grows. Whitman sent Gray back to Fort Vancouver to retrieve tools and supplies. Then, guided by Nez Perces, Whitman joined Spalding’s search for another mission site. Spalding selected a location about 100 miles east of Whitman’s place, 12 miles north of the junction of the Clearwater and the Snake Rivers at Lapwai, the place of butterflies.

Spalding began immediately building his post among the Nez Perces, while Whitman returned to Waiilatpu to work with the Cayuse and Walla Wallas. Although the Tribes held widely differing cultural perspectives toward work, play and possessions, they quietly shared deep concern for the slowly increasing numbers of whites among them. By 1839, there were Hudson’s Bay Company employees, Catholic missionaries, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries and their families in the country. Each summer, a few more white people arrived. Whitman wrote that year: “The Indians are anxious about the consequence of settlers among them, but I hope there will be no acts of violence on either hand…”

Both Whitman and Spalding quickly established their posts. With the help of Indian laborers, the missions were fenced, crops planted, buildings built, and grist mills turned wheat and rye into flour. The missionaries taught lessons from the Bible, as well as reading, and writing.

Whitman willingly provided all he could to whomever was in need, however, in a letter written in 1840, Whitman noted his displeasure in the responsibilities of his post: “I do not think it proper for me to hold the most difficult and responsible station in the mission where all contacts with Traders, Catholics, Travellers & adventurers of every description come in immediate contact & where I have to discharge all the duties of Minister & Physician to the mission”.

In May 1840, Narcissa noted a different concern. Although generous in tone, she worried that:

“A tide of immigration appears to be moving this way rapidly. What a few years will bring forth, we know not. A great change has taken place even since we first entered the country, and we have no reason to believe it will stop here. Instead of two lonely American females, we now number fourteen and soon may [be] twenty or more, if reports are true. We are emphatically situated on the highway between the States and the Columbia River, and we are a resting place for the weary travelers, consequently a greater burden rests upon us than upon any of our associates — to be always ready.”

Beyond the missionaries’ immediate realm, life in the West was changing. Many fur-bearing animals had been over-trapped in the HBC’s effort to provide skins for the lucrative European markets. The streams and rivers were empty. Because of newly opening trade routes to the Orient, fine silk hats were replacing beaver hats among Europe’s fashionable elite. With the fur trade in decline, the trappers and traders found little to hunt and less to trade. The destitute and bored mountain men occasionally joined together and continued to work to provide for a declining market, but some just moved on to other ventures.

Jim Bridger and a brigade, including Joe Meek, Doc Newell, Caleb Wilkins, among others, gathered at Green River in 1840 for what was to be the last of the big rendezvous. Andrew Drips arrived from St. Louis with trade goods, noting as he entered camp that this too, was the last of the supply caravans. Drips was accompanied by independent missionaries hoping to settle in the West and join the effort to convert the Indians. A family of “bona fide” settlers, Joel Walker, his wife and five children, joined the group. When Drips turned back toward St. Louis, the independent travelers hired Doc Newell and Joe Meek to guide them as far as Fort Hall. At Ft. Hall the missionaries, as promised, gave Newell two wagons as pay. The Walkers decided at Fort Hall to abandon their wagons, too, and Caleb Wilkins claimed one of them. The missionaries and their families stayed on at Fort Hall. The trappers, with their Indian wives and families headed west for the Oregon Country with three wagons and a small herd of cattle.

Meek, Newell, and other emigrants of 1840 endured the same difficulties with horses and wagons as those suffered by the Whitmans and Spaldings as they crossed overland in 1836. At Fort Boise, the boxes were taken off the frames to increase traveling speed. When the group arrived at Waiilatpu in September, the wagons were still intact, and the Whitmans the other missionaries were delighted.

Newell recalled:

“In a rather rough and reduced state, we arrived at Dr. Whitman’s mission station in the Walla Walla Valley, where we were met by that hospitable man, and kindly made welcome and feasted accordingly. On hearing me regret that I had undertaken to bring wagons, the Doctor said, “O, you will never regret it. You have broken the ice, and when others see that wagons have passed they too will pass, and in a few years, the valley will be full of our people.” The Doctor shook me heartily by the hand; Mars. Whitman too welcomed us, and the Indians walked around the wagons, or what they called “horse canoes,” and seemed to give it up.”

Meek and his companions had found a way to move wagons (such as they were) through the mountains between Fort Boise and Waiilatpu. There was potential for a road development later; if one wagon could cross the Blue Mountains other wagons could pass through as well.

The group traveling with Newell and Meek disbursed once they arrived at Waiilatpu. The missionary families joined the missions. Meek left his daughter, Helen Mar, at the Whitmans’ place to be tutored by Narcissa. The mountain men and their families took their wagons to the HBC station at Fort Nez Perces and continued by boat down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver. Newell later shipped his wagon down-river (it became the first overland wagon to reach the Willamette Valley).

By 1841, Whitman had apparently adjusted to his burden in the Oregon Country. In spite of his earlier complaints about providing services and provisions to assorted visitors, Whitman proposed that all of the cultivation, blacksmithing, printing, and mill work be done at Waiilatpu. While he supplied the material needs of the other stations, Whitman argued, the Spaldings and other ministers would have more time for their missionary work. Although Whitman’s proposal was not approved among the ministers working in the field, it reflects a subtle shift in Whitman’s priorities; he maintained interest and concern for saving souls, but was clearly eager to enhance and reinforce Waiilatpu’s status as a supply post. Besides, the missionaries were having a hard time convincing their Indian neighbors to follow the Lord according to the Presbyterian doctrine.

compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved

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