• bible sitting next to a teapot

    Whitman Mission

    National Historic Site Washington

The Man Who Wasn't There

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
February 2012

He was expected. He was needed. But he wasn't there. Rev. Parker was supposed to meet Dr. Whitman's group at the 1836 fur trader Rendezvous in the Rocky Mountains. Parker and Whitman had come out on a scouting trip the previous year. Whitman had returned home to get married and gather recruits. In the meantime Parker was to locate a site for the new mission. Whitman had held up his end, returning with his new bride, Rev. and Mrs. Spalding, and Mr. Gray.

Though the missionaries were disappointed by Parker's absence, no one questioned his zeal for the project. He had been the first to apply to be a missionary to the Indians in the Pacific Northwest, turning to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions for support in 1833. But the Board was leery about sending him: Parker was over 54 years old, 10 years older than the oldest missionary ever appointed by the Board. Parker was persistent. Eventually the Board relented and agreed to sponsor an exploring trip. So, after all that, where was Parker? As it turned out: Hawaii.

Perhaps age was a relevant issue after all. The 57-year-old Parker apparently didn't relish the idea of traveling across the continent one more time in order to get home. So when an opportunity arose to travel by sea he took advantage of it. On June 12, 1836, while Whitman's group was traveling along the Platte River, Rev. Parker boarded a ship bound for Hawaii. There Parker waited. And waited. Finally, in November he caught a ship bound for the east coast. The voyage took 5 months, much of it trying to get around Cape Horn. On May 18, 1837, Parker finally landed at New London, Connecticut. It had been 2 years and 2 months since he had left the United States with Dr. Whitman, during which time Parker had traveled about 28,000 miles.

Parker never saw Whitman again after they parted at the Rendezvous in 1835, but he did meet one of Whitman's colleagues. Mr. Gray returned to the East in 1837 to get married and do some recruiting. Unfortunately for Gray, the mother of his fiancée refused to let him marry her daughter. Parker was able to help. He suggested Miss Mary Augusta Dix. Mr. Gray and Miss Dix were married on February 25, 1838, and left for the Oregon Country the next day. This was Parker's second missionary couple match. Parker had also helped the Whitmans get together.

And while Parker wasn't available to provide a location for the new mission, Parker did provide some travel advice to another couple Gray recruited:

"By all means go across the continent by land. I would rather go across the continent three times than around the Cape once...A lady can go with far more comfort by land than by water."

Apparently, Parker hadn't enjoyed his own sea voyage.

Parker kept notes during his travels, which he used to write a book, Journal of an Exploring Tour: Beyond the Rocky Mountains in 1835. But for Parker's colleagues, whom he was supposed to meet at the 1836 Rendezvous, this information was too little, too late. In 1839 Marcus expressed his frustration in a letter to the Board:

"We cannot say how much good Mr. P's tour will do others, it has done us none, for instead of meeting us at Rendezvous as he agreed, he neglected even to write a single letter containing any information concerning the country, Indians, prospects, or advice of any kind whatever."

But other people would appear who would help the missionaries.

This is part 3 of "A Missionary Saga, Season 4: The People in Their Lives.

Next: New Found Friendships

 

Sources

Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 1 (PDF 3.2MB) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 9 (PDF 2.2 MB) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Whitman, Marcus. 1839. Letter to Rev. David Greene, May 10, 1839. Whitman Mission Collection.

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.