At the Whitman Mission
Bill Long 7/27/06
The "View" from Waiilatpu
Piercing the azure sky atop a hillock probably 150' above the surrounding farm land, on that land known since time immemorial by the Cayuse Indians as Waiilatpu ("place of the people of the rye grass"), is the Whitman Obelisk. Let's begin with Waiilatpu. It is located about 7 miles West of Walla Walla, WA and 20 or so miles due East of the great Northern bend of the Columbia River (along WA State Highway 12 today). It was chosen as the site of the Whitman mission in 1835 when the Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman journeyed West to scope out a location for a future mission (begun in 1836) which would be overseen by Whitman. The next few essays will describe some of my thoughts and feelings upon visiting this out-of-the-way spot in 103 degree heat on July 25.
Then, there is the obelisk. As everyone knows, an obelisk is "an upright four-sided usually monolithic pillar that usually tapers as it rises and terminates in a pyramid." This one was erected in 1897 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Whitman Massacre, as history knows it. It stands 27' tall and thus only rises slightly above the surrounding trees. America went through its "obelisk" phase from the 1840s until WWI, and it reached its high point, so to speak, in the rigid shaft which splits the heavens in DC known as the Washington Monument, finished in the late 1880s.
But is surprising how prevalent the "obelisk phenomenon" was in those days. Where did the obelisk mania come from? Well, actually, from a Frenchman. Napolean conquered Egypt at the end of the 18th century and, so that no one would forget his work, hired artists to depict pyramids, sphinx's, obelisks, etc. He also took objects d'art from that part of the world, which will now keep tons of lawyers busy in the 21st century. Two literary works in the early 19th century then popularized the culture of Egypt for educated elites, leading to a craze known as Eqyptomania in those days. Those works were Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypt (1802) and the Institute of Egypt's Description de l'Egypte (1809).
The craze for things Egyptian had to do with the pictorial language of Egypt (hieroglyphics), mummies, architectural features as well as some individuals (Cleopatra). But the thing that seemed to catch on most in America during the 19th century were the obelisks. Nathan Hale, the patriot who regretted he had only one life to lose for his country, became one of the first individuals to have an obelisk placed over his grave, in 1846. When The WA monument, which took more than 30 years to build, reached more than 500' into the air, it encouraged others to imitate the shape. So, for example, the Battle of Bennington, not exactly "up there" on the battles that students learn about in the Revolutionary War, is now commemorated by a 306' tall obelisk in a park at the high spot of the town. Erected in the late 1880s, this structure is the tallest structure in Vermont and, ironically, it commemorates something that really didn't happen in Vermont. The Battle of Bennington took place just over the New York border from Vermont. When I was visiting Bennington a few years ago, I decided to climb the obelisk, for no good reason other than that it was there. Well, all this talk of obelisks makes one a bit envious, don't you think?
Ah, Waiilatpu, the Obelisk and the Whitman Mission
Though the obelisk isn't the first thing you come upon when you visit the Whitman Mission (you have to go inside and pay your $3 first), you easily find your way there out the East doors of the visitor center. On this day of 103 heat I was one of the few people on the Mission's grounds, but I was so interested in trying to "internalize" and "visualize" the history of the mission that I was oblivious to the heat and headed right up the fairly steep hill to the exposed top of the bluff, where the obelisk stands. It was there, with a panoramic view of the surrounding Walla Walla Valley, with the Blue Mountains of Oregon stretching far to the East and South and the Columbia Basin far to the West, that my imagination returned to me, all the "facts" of the Whitman Mission/Massacre came to me in a fresh way (including some I had just learned while poring through material in the visitor center and asking incessant questions of the rangers) and I began to "see" a history which I had been studying for years but now seemed to coalesce for me for the first time. In the blistering heat of the 2:00 p.m. sun, I stood there, gazing off to the distance, looking back in my mind through the years, until I heard the sounds and felt the emotions of those who so optimistically set up shop there 170 years ago. Occasionally a tear would well up in my eyes, as I reintegrated that past. The next essay tells you what I "saw" on the hill.
The first things I "saw" were three things that the history books never taught me...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long