• bible sitting next to a teapot

    Whitman Mission

    National Historic Site Washington

Man on the Move

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2012

"…as I expect soon to be upon the move again, I devote this evening to you."

So began fur trader Francis Ermatinger's Feb 1840 letter to his older brother Edward. He and Edward had joined the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in 1818, when they were 20 and 21. Edward eventually moved on to other careers, while Francis stayed with the HBC. From 1825 through 1846 Francis was stationed in the Columbia district, leading trading parties and eventually running Fort Hall. Over the years his job changed and grew in responsibility. In 1839, he wrote Edward (who by this time was no longer with the HBC):

"The business is not as in your time merely trapping, but trade, and last year I had four clerks and 50 more to carry on our operations."

Regardless of where he was posted, Francis' jobs seemed to have involved a lot of traveling. He discussed his travels in letters to Edward, such as in this excerpt from a letter he wrote while at the 1838 fur traders' Rendezvous, which that year was held at Wind River (near modern day Riverton, Wyoming):

"Since I wrote you last, I have been continually upon the move. From Colvile I went to Vancouver… From Walla Walla I came on here … and now I am about to start back with Mr. Gray to Fort Hall."

Mr. Gray was one of the Whitmans' missionary colleagues who had traveled out with them in 1836. In 1837, Gray returned east to get married and hopefully find additional recruits for the mission. Ermatinger traveled with him part of the way out. He then met Gray and his party the next year and escorted them back.

In the early years of the mission Ermatinger was always popping in and out of the missionaries' lives: escorting people, bringing supplies, and sharing news. In addition to Gray and his party, Ermatinger brought a much desired printing press which had been shipped from their sister mission in Hawaii (1839); escorted independent (i.e. without sponsors) missionaries Mr. and Mrs. Griffin and Mr. and Mrs. Munger (1839); and brought 5-year-old Mary Ann Bridger, daughter of mountain man Jim Bridger, to the mission for the Whitmans to raise (1841). And the list goes on.

Ermatinger's visits were always well received. In 1839, traveler Thomas J. Farnham noted about Ermatinger: "His uniform kindness to the Missionaries had endeared him to them."

Francis was very good at his job, but he was feeling frustrated at not being promoted. He shared these feelings frequently with his brother, as he did in an 1840 letter: "With respect to promotion …I may expect early consideration. What a word after 22 years' services! There are four vacancies to be filled up next year…I learn that four others are certain - men who have done little and suffered less."

Regardless of this frustration Francis continued to stick with the Company and in 1842 he was finally promoted to Chief Factor. That same year he married Catherine Sinclair and moved to the west side of the Cascades. While the Whitmans occasionally heard how he was doing, he was no longer "popping" in and out of their lives. Francis Ermatinger retired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1853 and died a few years later in 1858.

One quirk of history involves his Oregon City home. Built in 1845, it is the oldest house in Clackamas County, Oregon. Today the house is open to the public and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For many it is most notable for an event that took place at a dinner party held there in 1845. Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy were in the left parlor, arguing. They had been discussing what to name the town that would be built on their shared land claim. Asa wanted to name the new town Boston. Francis preferred Portland, after a town in his home state of Maine. They decided to toss a coin: best two out of three. Pettygrove won, so today we have Portland, Oregon, not Boston, Oregon.

Francis Ermatinger is just one of many people the Whitmans encountered whose eventual actions, influence, or just plain interesting story, keeps us still talking about them today.

This is part 7 of "A Missionary Saga, Season 4: The People in Their Lives."

Next: Name Dropping

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.