The Mission at Waiilatpu
Waiilatpu"place of the people of the rye grass"is the site of a mission founded in 1836 among the Cayuse Indians by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. As emigrants began moving across the continent into the Pacific Northwest during the 1840s, the mission also became an important station on the Oregon Trail.
Stirred by accounts of explorers and traders, missionaries had become interested in the Oregon country in the 1820s, but the remoteness of the area discouraged them. In 1833 an article in a New York Methodist publication described the visit to St. Louis of some western Indians seeking teachers and the "Book of Heaven"the Bible. Although it was mostly fictional, the story stimulated missionary interest in work among American Indians in the Oregon country.
In 1835 the American Board of Foreign Missions, representing several Protestant churches, sent Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman to the Oregon country to select mission sites. On the way, the men talked to some Indians at a fur traders' rendezvous and became convinced that the prospects were good. To save time, Parker continued on to explore Oregon for sites, and Whitman returned east to recruit more workers. Soon Rev. Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza, William Gray, and Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, his new wife since February 18, 1836, were headed westward in covered wagons.
The journey was a notable one in the story of the Oregon Trail. The Whitmans and the Spaldings were the first American families to cross the continent overland. The missionaries' wagon, reduced to a cart, was the first vehicle to travel as far west as Fort Boise. Their successful trek inspired many followers.
The party reached the Columbia River on September 1, 1836. After a brief visit at Fort Vancouver, the Hudson's Bay Company headquarters, the men returned up the Columbia to select their mission stations. The women remained temporarily behind as guests of Chief Factor John McLoughlin.
Other mission societies were already active in Oregon. In 1834 Methodists under Jason Lee began work in the Willamette Valley. Later, Catholic missions were established along the lower Columbia. The Whitmans opened their mission among the Cayuse at Waiilatpu, and the Spaldings among the Nez Perce at Lapwai, 120 miles to the east. The missionaries learned the Indian languages and assigned the words English spellings. Spalding printed books in Nez Perce and Spokane on a press brought to Lapwai in 1839the first books published in the Pacific Northwest.
For part of each year the Indians went away to berry-picking grounds, the grassy camas meadows, and the salmon fisheries. Whitman realized that the mission could not fulfill its purpose if the Indians continued moving with the seasonal food supply. He encouraged them to settle onto small nearby farms, but with little success.
The mission expanded gradually. Other missionaries arrived and new stations were established. At Waiilatpu, the large adobe house, gristmill, and blacksmith shop were constructed. William Gray built a house for himself that later served as an "emigrant house" for travelers.
The Cayuse interest in religious worship, books, and school waxed and waned with their trust and acceptance of Whitman's new ideas. In 1842 reports of dissension caused the Board to order the closing of the Waiilatpu and Lapwai stations. Whitman undertook a remarkable overland journey in midwinter to plead his case personally with the Board. Accompanied by Asa Lovejoy, he left Waiilatpu on October 3, 1842. Pushing through blizzards and fording icy rivers, they traveled by way of Fort Hall, Taos, and Bent's Fort. Whitman reached St. Louis on March 9, 1843, and arrived three weeks later at Boston, after stops at Washington, DC, and New York. The Board, moved by his arguments, rescinded its orders.
The Oregon Trail
Whitman returned to Oregon with a wagon train in the Great Migration of 1843, serving as physician and guide. The year before, the first large group of emigrants passed almost the same way on what became known as the Oregon Trail, and they stopped for rest and supplies at the mission. They had taken wagons as far as Fort Hall, where they repacked their belongings and traveled the rest of the way by horse and foot. Whitman helped lead the first wagon train all the way to the Columbia River on his return journey.
Although the main trail bypassed the mission after 1844, those who were sick and destitute turned to the mission for shelter and comfort. One such wagon brought the seven Sager children, who had been orphaned on the trail. With kindness and compassion, the Whitmans took the children into their family, as they had taken in three children of fur traders.
Tragedy at Waiilatpu
After 11 years of working with the Indians, the mission effort ended in violence. There were several causes behind the Indian unrest. Deep cultural differences between the white and Indian ways of life had caused tension and misunderstanding. Increasing numbers of emigrants, and stories of settlers taking Indian land elsewhere, convinced the Cayuse that their way of life was in danger, A measles epidemic during the fall of 1847 spread rapidly among the Cayuse, who had no resistance to the disease. Within a short time half the tribe died. When Whitman's medicine helped white children but not theirs, many Cayuse believed they were being poisoned to make way for the emigrants.
Then, on November 29, 1847, a group of Cayuse attacked the mission and killed Marcus Whitman, his wife. the Sager boys. and nine others. A few survivors escaped, but 50, mostly women and children, were taken captive. Two young girlsLouise Sager and Helen Mar Meekand a small boy died from measles. The others were ransomed a month later by Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company. The killings ended Protestant missions in the Oregon country and led to war against the Cayuse by a volunteer militia from the Willamette and lower Columbia valleys.
In the spring of 1848 Joseph Meek traveled to Washington, D.C.. with news of the tragedy and petitions from settlers to Congress seeking territorial status for Oregon. In August of that year Congress created the Oregon Territory, the first formal territorial government west of the Rocky Mountains.
Nez Perce Indian
Covered Wagons on the Oregon Trail
Planning Your Visit
Park grounds are open year-round 8 am to 4:30 pm except federal holidays October through April. The Visitor Center is open daily 9 am to 4 pm Memorial Day through Labor Day. Winter hours vary.
Self-guiding trails and a picnic area are available. • Fires are permitted in the grills only. • Camping is prohibited. • Lodging and meals are available at Walla Walla, 7 miles away. • Flowers, birds, and park facilities are protected by law. • Watch children carefully, especially near the millpond and on the hill. • Service animals are welcome. • For firearms regulations check the park website.
Source: NPS Brochure (2017)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Contribution Toward a Bibliography of Marcus Whitman (Charles W. Smith, extract from The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 1, October 1908)
A Profile of the Original Plan Communities at Whitman Mission NHS: A Draft Report (R. Gerald Wright, 1983)
Administrative History: Whitman Mission National Historic Site (Jennifer Crabtree, 1988)
Bird Inventories of Big Hole National Battlefield, Nez Perce National Historical Park, and Whitman Mission National Historic Site 2005 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/UCBN/NRR-2009/125 (Rita Dixon and Lisa K. Garrett, August 2009)
General Management Plan, Whitman Mission National Historic Site (September 2000)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR-2014/839 (John P. Graham, August 2014)
McLoughlin and Old Oregon: A Chronicle (Eva Emery Dye, 1910)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Waiilatpu (Whitman Mission National Historic Site) (Stephanie S. Toothman, May 1, 1984)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/UCBN/NRR-2009/118 (Jack Bell and Dustin Hinson, June 2009)
Paleontological Resource Inventory and Monitoring, Upper Columbia Basin Network NPS TIC# D-259 (Jason P. Kenworthy, Vincent L. Santucci, Michaleen McNerny and Kathryn Snell, August 2005)
Photo Monitoring of the Doan Creek Restoration in Whitman Mission National Historic Site: Data Report for 2006-2010 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/UCBN/NRDS—2010/115 (Thomas J. Rodhouse, December 2010)
The Graves At Waiilatpu (Erwin N. Thompson, 1969)
The Legend of Marcus Whitman (Edward Gaylord Bourne, extract from The American Historical Review, Vol. 6 No. 2, January 1901)
The Whitman Controversy (James Clark Strong, extract from The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 4, October 1912)
The Whitman Monument (Edwin Eells, extract from The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 2 No. 1, October 1907)
Upper Columbia Basin Network Integrated Water Quality Annual Report 2008: Nez Perce National Historical Park and Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/UCBN/NRTR—2009/214 (Eric N. Starkey, May 2009)
Upper Columbia Basin Network Integrated Water Quality Annual Report 2009-2011: Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/UCBN/NRTR—2012/580 (Eric Starkey, June 2012)
Upper Columbia Basin Network Integrated Water Quality Annual Report 2014: Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/UCBN/NRR—2015/1023 (Eric N. Starkey, September 2015)
Upper Columbia Basin Network Stream Channel Characteristics and Riparian Condition Annual Report 2011: Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/UCBN/NRDS—2012/379 (Eric N. Starkey, October 2012)
Upper Columbia Basin Network Stream Channel Characteristics and Riparian Condition Annual Report 2014: Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/UCBN/NRDS—2015/987 (Eric N. Starkey, November 2015)
Vegetation Inventory Project: Whitman Mission National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/UCBN/NRR—2012/520 (John A. Erixson and Dan Cogan, April 2012)
Vertebrate Inventory of Whitman Mission National Historic Site 2002-2003 NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/UCBN/NRTR—2010/280 (Thomas J. Rodhouse, Al St. John and Lisa K. Garrett, January 2010)
Weed Control and Revegetation Alternatives for Whitman Mission National Historic Site CPSU/OSU 85-9 (Jim Romo and William Krueger, June 25, 1985)
Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Washington: Historic Handbook No. 37 (HTML edition) (Erwin N. Thompson, 1964)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 03-May-2022