• bible sitting next to a teapot

    Whitman Mission

    National Historic Site Washington

Life on the "Road"

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
February 2009

In 1836 the Whitmans and their missionary colleagues needed to cross the continent in order to reach their mission site. The missionary party was too small to make the trip safely and 1836 was before the time of the emigrant wagon trains. They needed to find others who were also traveling that direction, but who could that be? Their answer: the annual fur trader’s caravan. In a letter to her sister and brother, Narcissa described what traveling with the fur company was like. The following are excerpts from that letter:

“The Fur Company is large this year; we are really a moving village – nearly 400 animals, with ours, mostly mules, and 70 men. The Fur Company have seven wagons drawn by six mules each, heavily loaded, and one cart drawn by two mules, which carries a lame man, one of the proprietors of the Company. We have two wagons in our company. Mr. and Mrs. S [Spalding], husband, and myself ride in one, Mr. Gray and the baggage in the other. . . . if you want to see the camp in motion, look away ahead and see first the pilot and the captain, Fitzpatrick, just before him, next the pack animals, all mules, loaded with great packs; soon after you will see the wagons, and in the rear, our company. We all cover quite a space.”

“In the morning as soon as the day breaks the first that we hear is the words, “Arise! Arise!” – then the mules set up such a noise as you never heard, which puts the whole camp in motion. We encamp in a large ring, baggage and men, tents and wagons on the outside, and all the animals except the cows, which are fastened to pickets, within the circle.”

“Since we have been in the prairie we have done all our cooking. When we left Liberty [Missouri] we expected to take bread to last us part of the way, but could not get enough to carry us any distance. We found it awkward work to bake out of doors at first, but we have become so accustomed to it now we do it very easily.”

“Our table is the ground, our table-cloth is an India-rubber cloth used when it rains as a cloak; our dishes are made of tin – basins for teacups, iron spoons and plates, each of us, and several pans for milk and to put our meat in when we wish to set it on the table. Each one carries his own knife in his scabbard, and it is always ready to use.”

“I never was so contented and happy before, neither have I enjoyed such health for years.”

 
 

Sources

Whitman, Narcissa. Letter to Harriet and Edward Prentiss. Sent from the "PLATTE RIVER, JUST ABOVE THE FORKS." June 3, 1836. Published in The Letters of Narcissa Whitman. Narcissa Whitman. Ye Galleon Press. 1986. Fairfield, Washington.

Did You Know?

painting of mission with wagon in front

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.