Frostbitten & Bewildered
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
The winter of 1842-43 was extraordinarily cold and stormy. Dr. Whitman was racing across the continent in an attempt to save his mission in the Oregon Country. If he could get to Boston, perhaps he could convince the missionary board not to close his mission. But the trip was becoming more difficult than he had imagined.
He hadn't expected the unusually cold winter. Then he had had to make a large detour south to Taos (in present day New Mexico), which added many extra miles to the trip. It had taken over two months to travel just from the mission at Waiilatpu to Taos. And there were many more miles and more bad weather ahead.
Whitman and his traveling companion, Asa Lovejoy, rested at Taos for two weeks. During their stay Whitman bought more travel supplies, which he charged to the mission board to whom he would later be making his plea. Possibly not the best strategy, but necessary, and Dr. Whitman wasn't going to let anything deter him in his quest. So, despite nearly dying earlier and with more bad weather ahead of them, Whitman and Lovejoy continued east.
Lovejoy described how deep the snow was and how difficult traveling was after they left Taos:
Eventually they ran into George Bent, co-owner of Bent's fort, their next destination. A group of traders staying at the fort were about to leave for St. Louis. Lovejoy described what happened next:
It was a gamble, but Dr. Whitman was determined to succeed.
Eventually, Lovejoy reached the fort where he found the traders, but no Whitman.
Apparently when Whitman reached the Arkansas River he mistakenly headed upstream when he should have headed down. According to Lovejoy Whitman explained that "God had bewildered him to punish him for traveling on the Sabbath."
Dr. Whitman left with the traders and reached St. Louis in early March. It had been a difficult, five-month trip and it showed. William Barrows who saw Dr. Whitman while he was in St. Louis provides the following description:
But, Dr. Whitman wasn't done; the real work was still in front of him. His plan was to complete all his tasks and be ready to travel with the west bound wagon trains that May. This meant he had only 2 ½ months to travel to Boston, save the missions, and return to a jumping off town.
This is part 27 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3
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?
Great Basin Wild Rye Grass is part of the natural landscape at Whitman Mission. The name Waiilatpu, meaning place of rye grass, was used by the people to name the mission site.