Agriculture at Whitman Mission
Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman arrived in the Walla Walla valley in the fall of 1836. One of the first orders of business was to start growing food. Much of what we know about these efforts comes directly from their own letters. In May of 1837, Marcus wrote, “I have two acres of peas sowed 9 acres of corn planted & intend to plant 3 more & have planted & intend to plant 2 acres of potatoes, in all 16 acres. ” The following year: “I have six acres of potatoes two & half of wheat & peas oats & corn enough to make forty acres probably,” which resulted in “three hundred bushels of corn seventy five of wheat & one thousand bushels of potatoes. besides a large supply of turnips & garden vegitables.”
In addition to harvesting his own crops, Dr. Whitman taught the Cayuse how to farm. He believed that agriculture and his missionary work were inseparable:
The efforts at farming, at least, seemed to be going well. In 1842 Narcissa wrote: “The success of the Kayuses in farming is pleasing beyond description. There is scarcely an individual of them but what has his little farm some where & every year extending it farther & farther. A large number of the Walla Walla tribe are doing the same.”
The Whitmans’ letters speak directly to us of the details of their daily life, their plans, their hopes, and their dreams. We can see that farming, while essential to their physical survival, was much more than just food: it was aid to weary travelers and, more importantly, it was a way to entice the Cayuse to stay nearby and listen to the Whitmans’ message of salvation.
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.