A Trek through Horrendous Winter Weather
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
Dr. Whitman was a missionary, not a gambler. But in the fall of 1842 he gambled on the weather. And lost. Dr. Whitman thought if he left his mission early enough in the fall he'd have enough time to safely cross the continent to Boston. Although he made it, the trip was anything but safe.
Why did Dr. Whitman even need to make that trip? Survival! The American Board (the sponsors of his mission) had sent a letter closing his mission and the mission run by his colleague Rev. Spalding. Dr. Whitman was tasked with going back East to straighten matters out.
Many people would have put off such a long journey until springtime. However, if he started immediately, he should be able to return home in the spring with a westward bound wagon train. Since the wagon trains only departed in the spring, if he missed the 1843 group he would have to stay in the East a whole extra year! Dr. Whitman wanted to be back at his mission as soon as possible: he was willing to brave a cross continent trip in the winter.
With a little luck this plan should have worked. But two unexpected situations occurred. First, an unanticipated change in the route added many extra miles to the trip. Second, unusually bitter winter weather made travel slow and hazardous, and nearly killed them.
The trip started out well. In fact he and his travel companion, Asa Lovejoy, made excellent time, averaging 48 miles a day. They reached Fort Hall (north of present day Pocatello, Idaho) in only eleven days. When the Whitmans and Spaldings came out six years earlier it had taken them a month to cover that same distance.
At Fort Hall the situation began to disintegrate. Dr. Whitman learned of Indian conflicts to the east. The trader in charge of the post recommended they take a route south through Taos (in what is now New Mexico).
An early snow storm hit shortly after they left the fort. This would be just one of many storms they would endure. Lovejoy described the trip as full of "thrilling scenes and hairbreadth escapes…" One adventure was crossing the partially frozen Colorado River:
As challenging and hair-raising as that was, worse was yet to come. They almost didn't make it to Taos. After leaving Fort Uncompahgre (near present day Delta, Colorado) they got lost:
They continued on, but the trip was taking longer than expected. Supplies were running out. Eventually the pack mules, and even the dog, were killed for food. If some hunters hadn't found them, fed them, and pointed them in the right direction, you wouldn't be reading this story today.
Then success! Two and half months after leaving the mission at Waiilatpu, Dr. Whitman and Lovejoy reached Taos. It had been a harrowing trip thus far. What more could possibly happen?
This is part 26 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3
Next: Frostbitten & Bewildered
Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 18 (3.1 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, 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.