New Found Friendships
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
The Whitmans knew that their long trip to their new mission site was nearly over when they reached Fort Walla Walla, a Hudson's Bay Company fort on the Columbia River. French-Canadian Pierre Pambrun, who was in charge of the fort, went out to meet them. Narcissa wrote: "we entered the fort & were comfortably seated in cushioned armed chairs." They were served a breakfast of "…fresh salmon, potatoes, tea, bread & butter" and met the rest of the family. This was the beginning of a friendship that would last several years.
Pierre was married to a native woman. Mrs. Pambrun spoke some French, but not much English. Pierre asked Narcissa if she would teach his wife and daughter, Maria. Narcissa was delighted:
The Pambruns were immeasurably helpful to the Whitmans over the years. Pierre helped Marcus locate a site for the new mission and supplied two Hawaiian workers to help Marcus build it. The Pambruns also provided a table, window sashes, and a heating stove for the missionaries. Mrs. Pambrun and Maria were with Narcissa when the Whitmans' daughter, Alice Clarissa, was born. Twelve year old Maria stayed awhile to help out. In a letter to her sister Harriet, Narcissa wrote: "I am at a loss many times to repay them for their kindnesses, for they will set no prices for anything they do. They have recently sent me a rocking-chair, and a little chair for Alice Clarissa."
It is interesting that the two families were such good friends despite their religious differences. The Whitmans were Protestants, in particular Presbyterians; the Pambruns were Catholic. This difference was a big deal at that time. This is illustrated by the reactions of missionary colleagues who joined the Whitmans in 1838. Mrs. Mary Walker, one of the new arrivals, wrote on November 3, 1838: "Last night Mr. Pambrun sent us a quarter of beef. He was expecting some Catholic priests to visit him & so he slew the old cream colored cow… Mr. P. also invited the gentlemen to call over and make his guests a visit. They hardly knew what to do about accepting it, but finally concluded that it was best." All but one that is. According to Mary, Rev. Asa B. Smith, another new associate, refused to attend, stating "that it looked too much like countenancing Romanism."
This difference in religion did not prevent colleague Cornelius Rogers, another 1838 arrival, from later becoming enamored with Pierre's daughter, Maria, who was now 16. He proposed in 1841. Rogers' fellow missionaries were not thrilled by the prospect, but his future father-in-law was. Narcissa recounted: "It was his [Pierre's] subject of conversation by day and by night while he was alive, and in his will he appropriated more to her on his account, than to his other children, besides giving him [Rogers] much of his personal property, and willing him over a hundred pounds sterling."
Unfortunately, Pierre's happiness was short lived. He was thrown from a horse and died that May. He left behind a widow and seven children. Soon after, Mrs. Pambrun took her family to Fort Vancouver in the Willamette Valley. In the end Maria decided not to marry Mr. Rogers and he returned the property willed to him by her father.
At this point Rogers left for the Willamette Valley, which he could do with impunity because he was never an official member of the missionary group and therefore didn't require the sponsoring Board's permission to leave his post.
So who was Cornelius Rogers?
This is part 4 of "A Missionary Saga, Season 4: The People in Their Lives."
Next: An Unofficial Addition
Drury, Clifford M. 1994. Chapter 9 (PDF 2.2 MB), Chapter 10 (PDF 2.0 MB), Chapter 13 (PDF 1.5 MB), and Chapter 15 (PDF 920 KB). Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.
Whitman, Narcissa. 1838. Letter to Mrs. Clarissa Prentiss and the Honorable Stephen Prentiss (parents); April 11, 1838. Whitman Mission Collection. (selected Narcissa letters from 1838)
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.