At the Whitman Mission II
Bill Long 7/27/06
What I Never Learned in the History Books
The first set of images which overwhelmed me while atop the bluff at the Whitman Obelisk in the withering heat of July 25 were of three historical events which shaped the lives of the first missionaries at this place and of the mission itself but which were never mentioned in the history books I read. The reason is that these events are not the kind of things that men (mostly authors of history's, especially before 1990) find that interesting. My contention here, however, is that these three events, which every woman you ever meet would say are foundationally important to understand the Mission, are in fact worthy of an essay, if not much more than an essay. Let me start, however, with narrating the "traditional history " of the Whitman Mission which you will no doubt learn about in history books.
The Dominant/Traditional Narrative
The dominant narrative tells you that Marcus Whitman, M.D., with his new bride, Narcissa Whitman, along with the Rev. Henry Harmon Spalding and his wife, Elizabeth, and a "carpenter," Mr. William Gray, founded the Mission at Waiilatpu late in 1836. Every account I have read places lots of emphasis on the fact that Narcissa and Elizabeth were hardy souls, the first White women to cross the Plains and Rockies to get to the Northwest. Emphasis on the typical "male" characteristics of strength and uniqueness, however, masks some aspects of their femininity which, I would claim, makes them in fact so unique (more about this later). In any case, the master narrative emphasizes that Whitman and Spalding didn't get along with each other (usually the blame is placed on Spalding because no one got along with him) and that they decided to split up, with Spalding and his wife setting up in Lapwai (ID) about 120 miles East of Waiilatpu. These two Missions continued for about 6 years but the contentiousness between and among missionaries was so great (Whitman was supposedly a "rigid" and "unforgiving" person; Spalding was irascible; Gray felt that he wasn't given the kind of "press" and recognition of his more famous colleagues) that the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions ("ABCFM")--recall that this territory was not in any "State" at this time--decided to shut down the Missions late in 1842.
Upon hearing this, Marcus made a "daring" mid-winter trip from Waiilatpu back to Washington, D.C., where he successfully pled for the future of the Oregon territory with Senator Daniel Webster and others (thus the story of how Whitman "saved" Oregon for the United States) and then journeyed up to Boston, the headquarters of the ABCFM, where with marvelous eloquence he persuaded the Commissioners to change their opinion to shut the Mission. He then returned triumpantly to Waiilatpu, leading the first large wagon train of settlers for the Oregon country in May 1843. Then, unfortunately, an outbreak of the measles in 1847 began to kill the native Cayuse at an alarmingly higher rate than the Americans. The Indians, as everyone now knows, had not built up an immunity to this "white man's disease." In any case, believing that Whitman was somehow conspiring against them, the Cayuse, a proud and haughty tribe, descended on him and others on November 29, 1847, killing 13 (some accounts say 14--there is a reason for the discrepancy) and taking about 45 or 50 women and children hostage, until they were freed by Peter Skene Ogden and a host of deliverers from Fort Vancouver about a month later. Later still a military band of settlers was dispatched to the Cayuse Country, where the Cayuse eventually turned over five men they said were responsible for the Whitman masacre. These men were tried in Oregon City and hanged in 1850. The ABCFM, seeing what had transpired on their re-opened mission, decided not only to close this mission but to stop all mission activities in these parts for decades.
Here endeth the official history, though lots of other facts are often thrown into the mix.
Three Facts You Haven't Heard
Three "facts," two very serious and one rather humorous, provided the grist for my re-evaluation of the human details of the Whitman Mission. I don't remember finding these in the traditional histories of the Mission.
1. The reason why there were two missions (one at Waiilatpu and one, led by the Spaldings, at Lapwai) and the major reason why Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding didn't really "get on" very well, was that Spalding had proposed marriage to Narcissa Whitman, Marcus' bride, some years earlier. She had turned down his proposal and, apparently, Spalding wasn't quite "over" Narcissa yet. This makes all the more interesting Marcus Whitman's effort to go out of his way in 1836 to convince the Spaldings, already bound for mission work with the Osage tribe in KS, to join them in the Oregon Country. What are the dynamics happening here? I don't fully know, but don't you now want to learn about the planning stages and early history of the Missions?
2. The Whitman's had a daughter, Alice Clarissa, born in March 1837. She died, however, in June 1839, at 27 months of age, through a drowing accident in the Channel of the Walla Walla River that ran right in front of the Mission. Why don't the history books tell you much, if anything, of this event?
3. (The humorous one). The first thing that Narcissa Whitman and Elizabeth Spalding did upon arriving in the Northwest, after several months on the rugged Oregon trail, was to go shopping. How and where? Well, the next essay goes into the first of these a little more.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long