Whitman Mission
Administrative History

Chapter Six:

While the events that occurred from 1836-1847 do not change with time, interpretation of those events changes as perspectives change. Over the years, administrative decisions have resulted in subtle and not so subtle changes in the manner in which the Whitmans are interpreted. In order to understand how and why these changes occurred, and how they affected the park, we must understand the interpretive traditions. Museums, of course, are valuable in gauging interpretive trends. Other documents such as Interpretive Statements, Master Plans, and Management Objectives also reflect these trends. All of Whitman Mission's interpretive programs, no matter how distinct, were guided by the same document--"An Act to Provide for the Establishment of the Whitman National Monument." (49 Stat. 2028) This legislation states that

. . . the Whitman National Monument . . . shall be a public national memorial to Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, who here established their Indian mission and school, and ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the Indians until massacred . . . in 1847.

The most important word in this legislation is the word "memorial." Each administration had to interpret this word first, before they could interpret the Whitman story. This challenge influenced each interpretive approach used at the park over its 47-year history. The following pages examine each of these approaches, beginning with the first Interpretive Prospectus of 1941.

The first Interpretive Prospectus, written in 1941 by Regional Supervisor of Historic Sites Olaf T. Hagen, was an eight-page history of the Oregon Country and the Whitman Mission. Hagen outlined the Whitmans' triumphs--bringing the first wagon to Ft. Boise, the first pioneer women across the Rockies, and leading the 1843 emigration--as well as their struggles teaching Christianity and agriculture to the Cayuse Indians. Overall, Hagen emphasized the Whitmans' contribution to northwest expansion and the common struggle of all such pioneers: "By their life and death the Whitmans symbolize the noblest in the spirit and endeavors of the pioneers." [1] However, Supervisor of Historic Sites Ronald F. Lee reduced this initial draft to just six paragraphs, emphasizing the Whitmans' aid to settlement only. [2] This change is understandable, however, given that past proliferation of the "Whitman Saved Oregon" myth [3] had discredited the Whitmans' role in helping settlers. Supervisor Lee wanted to prevent further misconceptions of this type so he emphasized that, regardless of past myths, the Whitmans' aid to pioneer settlement "deserve(s) recognition as making important precedents for the subsequent history of the Oregon Trail . . . ." [4] Thus, the monument's first Interpretive Prospectus was organized to effectively dispell the "Whitman Myth." Shortly thereafter, the Whitman story was more fully interpreted in the preparation of the monument's first museum.

The adobe museum (top) at it appeared in 1951. This building along with
the First House wall display (below) and the rest of the building sites
were interpretive highlights during the 1920s.

The first use of the artifact storage shed as a museum occurred in April 1942, when a few of the archeological specimens "were put on display for weekend visitors" [5] by Custodian Garth. Planning for proper museum exhibits began three months later, in July 1942. Given that sufficient doubts existed over the feasibility of reconstructing the mission buildings, Regional Director Tomlinson stated that, "the future museum should be looked upon as the key interpretive device at the monument." [6] Tomlinson felt the museum s content should include more than just the "local angle":

The museum story . . . would be not so much what Marcus Whitman did, but rather the widespread significant developments which took place as a result of the occupation of the Oregon country by Whitman and others of his period. [7]

As a result, under the direction of Dorr Yeager, Assistant Chief of the Museum Division, Custodian Garth prepared a Museum Prospectus in 1943 that encompassed the "conditions, trends, and events against which the Whitman story took place." [8] Fourteen exhibit cases explained the Fur Trade era, Indian Customs, the Missionary Movement, Pioneer Expansion, Mission Life, and the Whitman Massacre. [9] While the goal had been to present the changing nature of Old Oregon, Garth was praised because nine of the fourteen cases dealt directly with the Whitmans. [10] The Whitmans were clearly emphasized in the Prospectus:

The lives of Dr. and Mrs. Marcus Whitman, pioneer missionaries, will be the central theme around which the larger story will be woven . . . the life and culture of the native Indians will be presented as a background. [11]

However, implementation of Garth's Prospectus was prevented by World War II and by lack of funds. Upon the monument's reopening in 1946, completion of the museum was rushed for the September 1947 dedication ceremony. Rather than fourteen exhibits, the few exhibits finally completed by the dedication highlighted the recently uncovered artifacts rather than the Whitman story. [12] Therefore, the purpose of this first museum was simply to display as many artifacts as possible, because of lack of time and funds to do a proper display.

Given the museum's focus on artifacts, Garth's 1947 Interpretive Statement more accurately reflects the interpretive slant of the time. Not surprisingly, the same goals presented in his earlier Museum Prospectus were reflected in the 1947 Interpretive Statement: to recognize the Whitmans' place in Old Oregon history. In addition, Garth highlighted their contributions to American settlement: "For no other reason than that it was a semi-hospital, orphanage, and revictualizing place on the Oregon Trail the mission site deserves recognition as a national shrine." [13]

The Whitmans' greatest contribution, then, was aiding pioneer settlers. This idea, though modified slightly, remained the predominant interpretation during the 1950s.

By 1950 the goal to portray the Whitmans against the background of Old Oregon was established. However, to place the Whitmans accurately in this historic context required presenting the Cayuse--a new and difficult challenge. In fact, the new museum cases selected to interpret the Whitman story by Park Naturalist Merlin K. Potts and Superintendent Macy in 1952 did not include one display about the Cayuse. [14] Regional Naturalist Dorr Yeager and Regional Historian Aubrey Neasham quickly recommended including such a display. [15] Superintendent Weldon explained that the original thought "was to keep it all Whitman at first," but acknowledged that perhaps it "would be better to get a little of the Indian background." [16] The exhibit cases finally approved for construction included one Indian exhibit and one missionary exhibit. [17] However, gathering information about the Cayuse was not an easy task for Superintendent Weldon: "We have very little Indian culture references in our own library and notes. Lots of Whitman history but not much about the Indians." [18]

Regardless of this difficulty, the interpretive section of the park's Master Plan, revised in 1953 by Superintendent Weldon, concurred with Garth's 1943 evaluation that the Indians were an important secondary theme:

The story of the Whitmans at the mission from 1836 to 1847 is the central theme . . . . Around this core is woven the story of the Indians, the contemporary Hudsons Bay Company, and the other missionaries, trappers, traders, and immigrants with whom the Whitmans were associated. [19]

The issues of northwest expansion and the Cayuse Indians provided the background information with which to highlight the Whitmans and explain their place in the history of the west.

Unfortunately, Superintendent Weldon found the temporary museum's multiple role -- "museum-workshop-office-library-file room-everything!" [20] -- inadequate for even two new exhibits. Thus, partly due to insufficient space and partly because of insufficient funds, the new cases were not installed. Instead the old cases were simply updated with new artifacts until the visitor center museum was constructed in 1964. [21]

Prior to 1959, the Whitmans were recognized predominantly for aiding settlers at the mission and encouraging expansion by bringing wagons and women west. However, after 1959, the Whitmans were interpreted as the archetypal pioneers, embodiments of the pioneer spirit, struggling to tame a wilderness. This was a major interpretive shift--one that would last for years.

In conjunction with the Mission 66 development program, Park Historian Jack Farr and Associate Professor of History Dr. Robert Whitner wrote a Museum Prospectus in 1959 to replace Tom Garth's 1943 version. Initially, Farr and Whitner interpreted the Whitmans in the tradition of Custodian Garth--figures instrumental in aiding westward expansion because of their association with the Oregon Trail. Again, this association alone made them worthy of national recognition:

Without the example set by the Whitmans, and the material economic aid which their station gave the emigrants; it is quite probable that the emigration of settlers along the Oregon Trail would have been delayed for a number of years. For that reason alone the perseverance of the Whitmans in their undertaking was of national significance and importance, therefore, the site of their labors has been preserved. [22]

In other words, the 1959 Prospectus claimed that the Whitmans were largely responsible for pioneer settlement. However, Acting Regional Director Maier disagreed with this interpretation and presented a more conservative evaluation of their significance:

We are inclined to doubt that large-scale emigration to Oregon would have been long delayed had the Whitman Mission not been in existence . . we would prefer to see a more moderate statement . . . to the effect that the example and aid afforded by the Whitmans were among the many factors influencing American settlement of Oregon. [23]

The Whitmans had neither secured Old Oregon for the United States nor were they responsible for the flood of settlers during the 1840s. Although they laid the groundwork for emigration, like the explorers and trappers before them, many other factors influenced emigration. Thus, by 1960, the traditional interpretation that recognized the Whitmans for their aid to settlers was replaced by another, more abstract approach that recognized their goals and ideals. Assistant Regional Director Maier explained:

In our opinion, the significance of the Whitman Mission is something more than its possible influence upon the settlement of the West . . . the Whitman Mission must stand as symbolic of the great effort by missionaries of all faiths to Christianize and civilize the Indians . . . particularly during the first half of the nineteenth century. It commemorates the ideals and sacrifices of the most sincere of those who made this important, if often unsuccessful, crusade. [24]

The Whitmans' idealism and commitment to their beliefs were clearly the new interpretive focus. In addition to recognizing the Whitmans' spiritual drive and commitment, the new interpretation explained why the Whitmans were valuable for the present generation. The Master Plan, approved in 1959 by Director Wirth, explained that visitors would develop:

a sense of inspiration derived from the examples of heroic . . . devotion to God and country set by the Whitmans, and an understanding and appreciation of the hardships and difficulties faced by the pioneers in settling and bringing civilization to a new land. [25]

In addition to being inspired by the Whitmans, Superintendent Kennedy explained that the visitor

will gain pride in his country and its people, and inspiration and spiritual regeneration . . . as well as a deep sense of humility from the knowledge that [their] sacrifices have formed the foundation for the growth and expansion of our nation. [26]

Thus, the Whitmans' commitment and pioneer spirit were viewed as qualities in which citizens could identify and feel proud. The Whitmans were interpreted as struggling and sacrificing for a goal greater than themselves; this struggle alone made them worthy of recognition.

Park Historian Thompson's revision of the 1959 Museum Prospectus reflected this new interpretation. The Whitmans exemplified "selflessness, zeal, and . . . sacrifice for an ideal." [27] While the Prospectus recognized the Whitmans' struggle, it also recognized the Indians' plight:

Although the mission ended in failure . . . the Whitmans died doing what they believed to be right . . . . Also, the Cayuse should not be shown as "murderers" but as people using their own methods to preserve their way of life. [28]

Although the Prospectus acknowledged the Indian, the Cayuse were little more than the people for whom the Whitmans sacrificed. The Whitmans' ministry was still of lesser import than their perseverance to develop an undeveloped land. [29]

NEXT> CHAPTER 6 (continued)

Last Updated: 02-Feb-2000