A Rushed Departure
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
The Whitmans and their missionary colleagues came to the Oregon Country in 1836 to work with the local Indian peoples. When we last left them it was 1842 and they had just received a disturbing letter from their sponsoring board. Let's review what happened.
The missionaries were in a frenzy. They had argued so much among themselves that their sponsors back east were closing two of the three mission stations in the Oregon Country. This included the Whitmans' mission at Waiilatpu (near what is today Walla Walla, Washington). On September 15, Dr. Whitman called an emergency meeting.
Rev. Walker and Rev. Eells came from their mission at Tshimakain (near what is today Spokane, Washington). It took them five days to reach Waiilatpu. Meanwhile Rev. and Mrs. Spalding were traveling when they heard the news. Instead of continuing home to their mission at Lapwai (near what is today Spalding, Idaho), they too turned toward Waiilatpu. By September 26 everyone was assembled.
The missionaries felt that the Board's interpretation of the situation was out of date. Their squabbling had ceased. But communication was slow; it could take two years to get a response to a letter. The order to close the missions was based on the complaining letters they themselves had sent two years earlier. The Board needed to be updated before any drastic action was taken.
Dr. Whitman volunteered to personally take any correspondence. He felt that this was an issue that would be best handled face to face. If he left immediately he could be done in time to join a wagon train traveling west in the spring. In that case he would be gone from his mission station for only one year. But, if he delayed too long and didn't complete his tasks before the wagon trains left, he would have to remain in the East an additional year.
The other missionaries agreed to the plan. But they thought there was enough time for them to compose their thoughts and write them down. The missionaries would go home, write their letters, and send them to Waiilatpu for Dr. Whitman to take with him. Dr. Whitman apparently implied that this was ok, but it wasn't how he felt. To wait for these comments would have required two weeks; time he did not believe he had. Within 24 hours of the other missionaries leaving, Dr. Whitman stated that he had changed his mind. On Thursday, September 29, Narcissa wrote her sister and brother:
Dr. Whitman bade his wife farewell on October 3. In his rush to leave Marcus forgot several things, including his pencil, comb and journal.
The next day Mrs. Whitman started a letter to her husband even though she didn't know when she would be able to send it. She added to it frequently.
She found another item that he forgot to bring and remembered something she forgot to ask.
She ended that day's entry:
Mrs. Whitman continued to reflect on the progress her husband was making on his journey. In another letter she wrote:
But she couldn't have imagined the eventful and harrowing trip that her husband was having.
This is part 25 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3
Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 16 (pdf 709 kb)and Chapter 17 (pdf 3.2 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.
Whitman, Narcissa. Letter to Dr. Marcus Whitman. October 4, 1842. Whitman Mission Collection. Selected 1842 letters.
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.