Friendly Forts & Faster Mail
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
September 1843, Dr. Whitman is finally home. After nearly a year away traveling to Boston, he is back at his mission at Waiilatpu (near present day Walla Walla). He had traveled home with a west bound, emigrant wagon train. Seven years earlier, he and his fellow missionaries had had to travel with a fur trapper caravan to reach the Pacific Northwest. But times were changing. In fact, Dr. Whitman had just traveled home with the largest wagon train yet: more than 120 wagons, 694 oxen, and 773 cattle.
Americans were moving west fast! Dr. Whitman wrote to his brother-in-law, Jonas Galusha Prentiss:
Dr. Whitman also wrote to the Secretary of War, who he had met with the President while he had been back East. Apparently, they had expressed interest in hearing Dr. Whitman's ideas about the Oregon Country:
Dr. Whitman proposed that the government establish a string of non-military forts along the emigration route. Not all tribes were friendly toward the travelers, but non-military posts of the fur traders seemed to keep adjacent areas peaceful. Safe passage wasn't Dr. Whitman's only, nor possibly even main, concern. He had observed that
So, in addition to keeping peace in the area, each fort "would be able to furnish them [the emigrants] in transit with fresh supplies of provisions." This would keep the travelers healthier and decrease the amount of food each family had to pack at the beginning of their trip. These forts would also be places to get horses and oxen shod, repair wagons, and fix guns.
Dr. Whitman believed that these forts could be financially self-sufficient:
The potential existence of forts led to another idea:
Dr. Whitman's future may not have included the produce-supplying forts he proposed. He may have been a bit ahead of his time regarding his mail delivery plan - the Pony Express, which sounds similar to Dr. Whitman's idea, began business in 1860. But he was definitely correct about the quickly growing number of emigrants to the Oregon Country. Many would stop by the Whitmans' mission. Each with their own story of the trip.
This is part 32 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3
Whitman, Dr. Marcus. May 28, 1843. Letter to Mr. Jonas Galusha Prentiss (Narcissa Whitman's brother). Whitman Mission Collection.
Whitman, Dr. Marcus. Date written unknown; received June 22, 1844. Letter to Hon. James M. Porter, Secretary of War. Whitman Mission Collection.
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.