A Final Dash
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
There had already been unexpected kinks in the missionaries’ travel plans. In Liberty, Dr. Whitman, Mrs. Whitman, and Mrs. Spalding had missed their steamboat. Rev. Spalding and the others had left with the wagons and animals several days earlier. With much effort, Dr. Whitman and the women had been able to catch-up.
Finally reunited, the missionaries were observing the Sabbath together, enjoying a well earned rest. They were just a mere 18 miles from the Oto Indian Agency, where they planned to join the fur traders’ caravan. Success was in sight! Or, so they thought.
Dr. Whitman went on ahead to help a seriously ill man at the agency. There he learned that the caravan had already passed by! The missionaries needed to join the caravan before it reached the hostile areas of the plains. No caravan meant no mission, at least for that year. Dr. Whitman rode out to them, but they could not wait. Dr. Whitman then returned to the Platte River crossing to rejoin his group. Anxiously, he waited, but no missionaries. Finally, on Wednesday they appeared: their guide had gotten lost.
The missionaries now needed to get their wagons and animals across the swollen Platte. It was a difficult and time consuming task. Narcissa wrote: “Husband became so completely exhausted with swimming the river on Thursday, the 19th, that it was with difficulty he made the shore the last time.” Narcissa continued: “. . . we had but one canoe, made of skins, and that partly eaten by the dogs the night before. We got everything over by Friday night. We did not get ready to start until Saturday afternoon. By this time the company had four and a half days the advance of us. It seemed scarcely possible for us to overtake them, we having two more difficult streams to pass. . . . after a concert of prayer on the subject, we decided to start and go as far as it would be prudent for us.”
And travel they did. They started that afternoon. On Sunday, instead of honoring the Sabbath, they traveled. On Tuesday they traveled 60 miles! Narcissa recounted the events: “Monday and Tuesday we made hard drives – Tuesday especially. We attempted to reach the Loup Fork that night, and a part of us succeeded. Those in the wagons drove there by 11 o’clock, but it was too much for the cattle.” The Whitmans stayed behind with the livestock. “Husband had a cup tied to his saddle, in which he milked what we wanted to drink; this was our supper.” The next morning they rode into camp before breakfast. There, just on the other side of the river, was the caravan!
On the other side, so close, and yet so far. It took the missionaries half a day to cross that river. Meanwhile, the caravan kept moving and was now several miles ahead of them. So, even though the missionaries were tired from traveling and fording the river, they kept going. They traveled the rest of the day and into the night. Finally, at one in the morning, the weary group of missionaries reached the caravan. Success! There would be a new mission in the Oregon Country after all.
While more adventures awaited the missionaries on their trip west, nothing else would be as grueling.
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.Whitman, Narcissa. A letter to Marcus Whitman's family, June 27, 1836. Published in The Letters of Narcissa Whitman. Narcissa Whitman. 1986. Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington.
Did You Know?
The Whitmans’ mission was important to early Oregon Trail travelers. Those who were sick, tired, or hungry or who needed a wagon fixed would make the side trip to the mission. Some would spend the winter with the Whitmans before continuing on to the Willamette Valley.