At the Whitman Mission IV
Bill Long 7/31/06
Two Other Historical Facts They Don't Teach You in School
If the first fact that you don't learn in school about the Whitman Mission--that Henry Harmon Spalding had proposed to Narcissa Prentiss (Whitman) in the 1820s back in Western New York, she had refused his proposal, and that he continued to harass her unmercifully while on the mission in the Oregon Territory--the other two are equally unknown. This essay and the next addresses these other two ignored events and attempts to put the Whitman Mission in richer historical perspective.
A Little Historical Context
Though the immediate trigger for the Oregon Mission was the March 1, 1833 article in the Christian Advocate [text is here], the longer-term stimulus goes back to a prayer meeting at Williams College (the Haystack Prayer Meeting of August 1806) and the mission "spirit" generated thereafter. The "spirit of 1806," however, was for missions to far off places, beginning with Burma, China, the Pacific Islands and other seemingly alluring climes. This spirit permeated not only an isolated prayer meeting at this relatively new New England College (founded in 1793), but also was one of the reasons for the founding of Andover Theological Seminary in 1808. There one could offer up prayers for the world with the kind of fervor that has been lost to much of religious expression today.
One of the people who had both Williams College and Andover Seminary in his background was the Rev. Samuel Parker. Born in 1779, he graduated from Williams in 1806 (he was not one of the five participants in the Haystack meeting) and was in the first class graduating from Andover a few years later. For years he was a minister/home missionary in Western New York and had been interested in "western" missions, but was afraid of the malarial conditions of Ohio swamps and the insalubrity of climate in what had been reported as the American "desert." Nevetheless, when he read the stirring March 1, 1833 article, he decided to offer himself to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to send him west for ministry. He made a swing through Western New York both to recruit support for his proposal to the American Board and to find other laborers for the harvest. A church in Ithaca, NY decided to support him in this venture in January 1834. Impressed by his drive, though a man of 54 (old in those days--I am 54 as I write this!), the American Board sent Parker West in 1834 to explore mission fields. However, he got to St. Louis too late to to join the fur traders to make the Western trek, and returned empty-handed to New York.
Undeterred, Parker then spent the Fall/Winter of 1834-35 visiting Presbyterian and Congregational Churches (the ABCFM was a joint production of these denominations, along with a smaller Dutch Reformed denomination) in Western NY to try to drum up interest in an Oregon Territory Mission. His message fellow on fallow ground at the Wheeler Presbyterian Church, where Dr. Marcus Whitman was a member. A few weeks later he was approached after a presentation in Angelica, several miles to the SW, by a "daughter of Judge Prentiss," about whether unmarried females could go along on such a mission. Parker relayed her question to the Board, and they responded, on December 24, 1834, that no unmarried female would be considered.
The history of the Whitman Mission could be seen as the history of rejects who were later accepted, for Marcus, too had earlier applied to be a missionary with the American Board, but was turned down for medical reasons. After securing recommendations from friends who reported that he was back in full health, Marcus was accepted by the Board and sent with Parker to explore suitable Oregon Territory missions in 1835. This time they left early enough to meet up with fur traders, who left St. Louis in May for the traditional rendezvous at Green River, WY in early August. There Parker and Whitman split, with the former pressing on to find a precise location for the mission and Marcus Whitman returning to get back East before Winter. The year 1836 would see Marcus and Narcissa (oh, by the way, Marcus took care of Narcissa's singleness by marrying her in February 1836) heading out to Oregon with the Spaldings, whom Marcus had convinced to give up their plans to minister to the Osage tribe in KS and join them in Oregon. I mused about the "triangulation" posed by this proposal of Marcus to Henry here.*
[I am unsure about some details regarding Samuel Parker after this. I know he was eventually rejected by the American Board for the mission filed because of his age (as it was, Parker didn't die until 1866, at the ripe old age of 87). I know also that he didn't actually leave to return to New York until 1836 (after wintering at Fort Vancouver with John McLouglin in 1835-36). One biographical description has him returning to New York via ship that left in June 1836 and didn't arrive back East until May 1837. Thus, the question arises as to who actually picked the Waiilatpu site and how that information was communicated to the East. Details...Ah, this site says that Whitman himself picked it in October 1836 because of the proximity both of the Cayuse, to whom to minister, and Fort Walla Walla.].
But the Whitmans, along with the Spaldings and Wm. Gray, arrived at Fort Vancouver in the Oregon Territory on September 12, 1836. Whitman proceeded to Waiilatpu with Spalding and Gray to build a house for the Winter. Meanwhile the two women (Gray was unmarried at the time) stayed in Vancouver to do some shopping. More precisely, they needed to outfit the homes they would inhabit (I don't know precisely when the decision was made to split up the mission between Waiilatpu and Lapwai), and John McLouglin was legendary for his supplies of goods at Fort Vancouver. Some of the china I saw when visiting the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu was not original but was of the pattern that the women supposedly acquired from McLoughlin. Thus, the first shopping trip in the NW occurred even before house was set up.
And, oh, how much did they spend in this first-ever NW shopping spree? By the way, it would all be paid for by the American Board in Boston, so the families were given a little bit of a blank check. The expenses to buy supplies in Vancouver were, ching ching, $2,560--an enormous amount by standards of those days. The entire trip West for the original five totalled aroudn $6,300. By December 1836 the first mission house at Waiilatpu was completed, and the Whitman's moved there just in time for a skimpy Christmas. The work of God, it seemed, was commencing.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long