A Strange Company of Missionaries
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
The engagement was off! William Gray had just completed a treacherous trip across the continent, from the Oregon Country back to the States. He had planned to marry his fiancé, but her mother thought the Oregon Country was just too dangerous. The other reason Gray had made the trip was to get missionary recruits. Two years earlier, in 1836, the Whitmans, Spaldings, and Gray had traveled to the Oregon Country to establish a Protestant mission for the Indians.
Gray was disappointed by the broken engagement, but he had several months to find someone else to be his wife. Alas, with just a few weeks to go before his trip home Gray was still not married. Rev. Samuel Parker had introduced the Whitmans to each other, perhaps he could help. Parker suggested Miss Mary Augusta Dix. Family tradition states that Gray met Miss Dix on February 14, 1838, at a church social and proposed to her that very night. They were married eleven days later.
The Grays were not the only ones to have a whirlwind courtship. The previous April, Mary Richardson of East Baldwin, Maine, wrote:
The “other” was Mr. Elkanah Walker. Within 48 hours they were engaged to be married. It turned out they both wanted to be missionaries. However, the marriage itself would have to wait. Elkanah returned to Bangor Theological Seminary to finish his studies. On March 3, 1838, Mary learned it was time to leave for their mission station. The couple was married two days later.
On that same day, in Massachusetts, Rev. Cushing Eells and Miss Myra Fairbanks were also married. They too were off to be missionaries in the Oregon Country. It is reported that when asked about becoming a foreign missionary, Myra responded: “I doubt that you could have asked anyone who would be more willing.”
At that time missionaries were not expected to return. The Walkers and Eells met at a farewell service held in their honor in New York City. Rev. Asa Smith and Mrs. Sarah Gilbert White Smith joined the group two days later. The Smiths had just gotten married and hadn’t had enough time to reach New York before the ceremony.
The Grays had not attended the ceremony either. They had gone on ahead to St. Louis to prepare for the overland part of the journey. William Gray had made the trip before, so he assumed that he would be in charge. In addition, he personally promised the sponsoring board that he could keep travel costs down. He decided that two 8’ x 10’ tents were enough for the eight newlyweds. This decision did not sit well with many in the group. Nor was everyone happy with Gray taking charge. Just four days into the trip Mary Walker wrote: “Some of the company feel disposed to murmur against Moses [i.e. William Gray].” And there was still four months of traveling to go!
With the tight quarters and stresses of traveling, tempers frayed. On July 10, 1838, Smith wrote to the sponsors:
People were also complaining about Smith. On July 17, Mary Walker wrote in her diary:
Mary probably summed up the situation best in an earlier entry:
Hopefully things would get better after they reached the Whitmans’ mission. Or would they?
This is part 17 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 2
Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 13 (pdf 1.5 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.
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.