Years before the famed Oregon Trail commenced in 1842, missionaries had already crossed the continent overland and settled in present-day Oregon and Washington. One of the most famous couples was Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa. In 1836, the Whitmans established their Protestant mission among the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu, which is near present-day near Walla Walla, Washington (Waiilatpu means “place of the people of the rye grass”). Later, this site became an important station along the Oregon Trail. When visiting the Whitman Mission National Historic Site today, bring a little imagination. The adobe house, grist mill, blacksmith shop and all the other structures that once created a self-contained mission are long gone, but the outline of where each stood is well-marked by a walking path and interpretive signs. A visitor center, the Great Grave, and the Whitman memorial shaft, make this a unique and informative stop.
Try as they might, the Whitmans had limited success in realizing their goal of bringing organized religion, education, and farming practices to the Cayuse. For one thing, the Indians traveled part of the year to gather their seasonal foods (berries, camas roots, salmon), so they showed little interest in settling on farms. In addition, Dr. Whitman’s medicines seemed to work on white people, but not always on Indians who had no natural resistance to many diseases. Because of these reasons, dissension arose between the missionaries and the Indians, as did distrust and disinterest in the Whitman’s new ways.
After 11 years of working with the Cayuse, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and several orphaned children living at the mission were massacred in the fall of 1847. About 50 others were taken captive, but a ransom was later paid by the Hudson’s Bay Company for their return. The leading cause of the massacre was Dr. Whitman’s inability to stop a devastating measles epidemic. After half the tribe died within a short time, Cayuse chief Tomahas, believing his people were being purposely poisoned, killed Marcus Whitman.
The killings ended the Protestant missions in the Oregon country and lead to war against the Cayuse by a volunteer militia from the Willamette and lower Columbia valleys. In the spring of 1848, Congress created the Oregon Territory, the first formal territorial government west of the Rocky Mountains.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Whitman’s death, a 27-foot-high memorial was erected. Climb to the top of the 720-foot hill where the shaft now stands for sweeping views of the Blue Mountains and the Walla Walla Valley. At the base of the hill, you’ll find the mass Great Grave of all those who lost their lives during the massacre of 1847.
IF YOU GO:
• Whitman Mission National Historic Site is open all year, 7 days a week, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The park is located in southeastern Washington, 7 miles west of Walla Walla off of Highway 12.
• Fees: Adults $3.00 each; children under 16 are free. Annual pass is $10 per family. No camping in the park, but there is a nice sheltered picnic area.
328 Whitman Mission Road
Walla Walla, WA 99362