Whitman Mission
National Historic Site
Washington
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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 1839—the 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.

Here we are, one family alone, a waymark, as it were, or center post, about which multitudes will or must gather this winter. And these we must feed and warm to the extent of our powers.

—Narcissa Whitman, 1844

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 girls—Louise Sager and Helen Mar Meek—and 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
Heyuuxc tohon, a Nez Perce chief known as Rabbit-Skin-Leggings, was a member of an 1831 Indian delegation to St. Louis. The chiefs sought information about the white man's sources of power and requested the Bible for American Indians in the Oregon country. George Catlin painted this chief's portrait in 1832.

Covered Wagons on the Oregon Trail
The 2,000-mile-long wagon path from Independence, Mo., to the mouth of the Columbia River became known as the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. It was explored earlier by fur traders but rarely used before "Oregon fever" swept the country. The first large caravan made the long trek in 1842. The next year waves of covered wagons like the one shown here crossed the plains and western mountain ranges via South Pass and the Blue Mountains all the way to the Columbia. The arduous journey took a heavy toll of lives. By the 1850s wagon travel had left the road so deeply rutted that it remains visible in places even today.

Whitman Memorial
Built in 1897 on the 50th anniversary of the Whitmans' deaths, this 27-foot-high monument overlooks the Walla Walla Valley. To the east are the Blue Mountains, which emigrant wagons once crossed on the most difficult part of their journey.

Missionaries
William Henry Gray and the Rev. Henry Harmon Spalding traveled to the Oregon country with the Whitmans in 1836 as missionaries sponsored by the American Board of Foreign Missions. Gray, a carpenter and mechanic, helped build the station at Waiilatpu. Spalding and his wife Eliza opened the Lapwai station among the Nez Perce in 1836.

park map
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Cayuse Indian
Tomahas, a Cayuse chief, killed Marcus Whitman during the Indian uprising at the mission in November 1847. A measles epidemic drove the Cayuse leaders to attack the doctor after he was unable to help them. Irish-Canadian painter Paul Kane created a portrait of the chief from a sketch he made during a visit to the mission a few months before the killings took place.

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)


Establishment

Whitman Mission National Historic Site — January 1, 1963
Whitman National Monument — June 29, 1936


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Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section

Documents

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)

Foundation Document, Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Washington (July 2017)

Foundation Document Overview, Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Washington (January 2017)

General Management Plan, Whitman Mission National Historic Site (September 2000)

General Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement, Whitman Mission National Historic Site (May 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)

Junior Ranger Booklet (Ages 8-12), Whitman Mission National Historic Site (Date Unknown)

Landscape Study and Management Alternatives for Revegetation, Whitman Mission National Historical Site (Summer 1984)

Long-Range Interpretive Plan, Whitman Mission National Historic Site (December 2006)

McLoughlin and Old Oregon: A Chronicle (Eva Emery Dye, 1910)

Mission 66 for Whitman National Monument (1965)

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)

Park Newspaper (Waiilatpu Press): 19901998

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 expand section

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Whitman Mission Preserve near Walla Walla, Washington



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Last Updated: 03-May-2022