Setting Up House - A Time Apart
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
It was the fall of 1836. Missionaries Dr. and Mrs. Whitman, Rev. and Mrs. Spalding, and Mr. Gray had safely reached Fort Vancouver. It had been a long trip across the continent, but they were not done yet.
Narcissa Whitman looked at the collection of seeds laid out before her. She had been saving them from the food she ate while at the fort. These seeds would grow into plants which would provide food at her new home. Perhaps Narcissa thought about her husband as she gazed upon these objects of hope.
At the moment she didn’t know where Marcus was or how he was faring. He had left on Wednesday, September 21. The men had gone in search of sites for the new missions. During their trip west the missionaries had decided to establish two missions rather than just one. Exactly where those two missions would be located now had to be determined.
While the men searched for sites, their wives remained at Fort Vancouver. The women had wanted to go with them, but there had not been enough room. We can only imagine what Narcissa and Eliza were feeling as they watched their spouses pull away from the shore in the heavily laden boat. Narcissa wrote: “One thing comforts us. They are as unwilling to leave us as we are to stay, From this we are sure that they will make every effort to return for us soon.”
In the meantime, the women worked to obtain supplies for their new homes. Narcissa wrote to her mother about these activities. In addition to collecting seeds, Narcissa intended on “taking some young sprouts of apple, peach & grapes, & some strawberry vines, etc., from the nursery here.” She also shopped and arranged to have objects specially made. By the time they finally left Fort Vancouver, the missionaries spent nearly $2000 on farming implements, furniture, clothing, building supplies, books, stationary and provisions.
On October 4, Marcus found where he and Narcissa would establish their mission to the Cayuse. With one location selected, Marcus and Henry continued east, where Henry and Eliza would work with the Nez Perce people. Eight days later, Henry chose a site on Lapwai Creek, upstream from the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers [near what is today Spalding, Idaho]. Once the mission sites were selected, Henry returned to Fort Vancouver to get Narcissa and Eliza. Marcus and William Gray remained behind to begin work on the buildings that would be needed.
With Henry’s return, Narcissa realized that her time at Fort Vancouver was nearly over. She added a final comment to a long letter she posted to her family before she left:
Too bad she couldn’t fly. It was going to be a long, wet trip before she saw Marcus again.
This is Part 8 of "A Missionary Saga"
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.
Whitman, Narcissa. Letter to Narcissa's mother. Started July 18, 1836. From My Journal, Narcissa Whitman. 1982. Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, 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.