• bible sitting next to a teapot

    Whitman Mission

    National Historic Site Washington

So Much to Do, So Little Time

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
January 2011

Dr. Whitman was quite a sight! He was weatherworn and frostbitten. Why?

The year was 1843. Dr. Whitman was a man on a quest to save his mission. The sponsoring board wanted to close his mission station and the station of his colleague Rev. Spalding. Someone needed to speak directly with the Board in Boston. Dr. Whitman volunteered. He had just spent several months traveling across the continent through bitter winter storms. And it showed. William Barrows vividly remembered meeting Dr. Whitman in St. Louis:

"The Doctor was in coarse fur garments and vesting, and buckskin breeches. He wore a buffalo coat, with a head-hood for emergencies in taking a storm, or a bivouac nap… heavy fur leggings and boot-moccasins… If memory is not at fault with me, his entire dress on the street did not show one square inch of woven fabric… he bore the marks of irresistible cold and merciless storms… His fingers, ears, nose, and feet had been frostbitten, and were giving him much trouble."

However, St. Louis wasn't Whitman's final destination. He had 2 ½ months to get to Boston, save the mission, and return to the Missouri River to catch a westbound wagon train that spring.

Like many people who are on a long trip, Dr. Whitman wanted to accomplish as many things as possible. In addition to saving the missions, he was tasked with visiting his and Mrs. Whitman's relatives. He also made a stop in Washington, D.C., where he hoped to visit a fur-trader's son who was attending medical school. He missed the son, who had transferred to a school in Ohio, but he did get a chance to visit with John Tyler, President of the United States.

The President! And Cabinet members too! What did they talk about? Dr. Whitman sheds little light on that question. He barely even mentions the encounters in his letters.

Whitman spent only a couple of days in Washington before continuing on. He traveled to New York to catch a boat to Boston. While there he stopped by the office of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Daily Tribune. A visit that almost didn't happen. When Greeley's secretary saw the rugged looking Dr. Whitman she sent him away. But Greeley went out to the street to find Whitman. They had a long visit and an article about the visit appeared in the following day's paper.

Whitman kept moving. Boston was next. His welcome at the American Board's offices, though, was less than enthusiastic. Rev. Greene, the man who had been corresponding with the missionaries in the Oregon Country, was very surprised and asked Dr. Whitman why he had left his mission. Mr. Hill, the Treasurer, also wanted to know what Whitman was doing away from his post. In addition, Hill didn't approve of Whitman's attire; he gave Whitman money to "go, get some decent clothes." Dr. Whitman returned the following day properly clad. Dr. Whitman's fervor and desire for speed was contagious. A special meeting was called and the Board reversed their earlier order:

"Resolved, That Doct. Marcus Whitman & the Rev. H. H. Spalding be authorized to continue to occupy the stations at Waiilatpu & Clear Water…"

Those were the words that Whitman had traveled to Boston, through horrendous weather, to hear.

Now the Board wanted to hear a few words from Whitman. How was Dr. Whitman's missionary work going? Could he provide more details about the lifestyle of the Cayuse? So, even though he still had family to visit, before he left Boston Dr. Whitman wrote over 2500 words on the Cayuse lifestyle and the impact his mission was having.

This is part 28 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: The Mission's Impact on Cayuse Life

 

Sources

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?

photo of Alice Clarissa's memorial marker

On her 29th birthday Narcissa gave birth to a daughter, Alice Clarissa. The Cayuse called her “Cayuse Te-mi” (Cayuse girl) because she was born on Cayuse land. Some historians see her as a potential bridge between the two cultures. Unfortunately Alice Clarissa drowned when she was 2 years old.