• bible sitting next to a teapot

    Whitman Mission

    National Historic Site Washington

Trials and Tribulations of a Journey West

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2011

During the mid-1840s many Oregon Trail emigrants stopped at the Whitmans' mission to get supplies, rest, and sometimes to spend the winter before continuing their journey. Each family's story was unique. Here is the story of one of those families.

On Tuesday, October 10, 1843, 51 year old Rev. Edward Evans Parrish and his family loaded up their wagon, took one last look at his home in Ohio, then started off for the Willamette Valley.

Problems started almost immediately. Just two days into the trip, the family wagons and animals were traveling by steamboat when one of "the horses kicked Nellie (mare) overboard." Luckily, two of the crew were able to retrieve Nellie.

Then came the crash:

"…we were in great distress in consequence of coming in collision with another boat. The alarm and distress were awful for a while. Our boat was injured considerably, but not so as to hinder her from running."

Then came another crash a couple of days later which "caused another alarm more awful than the former, but she did not sink."

Eventually they were done with river travel and it was time to head overland. But water still plagued them. Rev. Parrish's journal mentions day, after day, after day, of rain. This made travel slow and difficult. More importantly all that water caused the rivers to rise. Crossings became difficult to nearly impossible.

Getting enough food and fuel was another challenge, especially as the group crossed the Great Plains. Bison helped solve both those issues. They found that the dung would "burn finely, make a hot fire and a good light." Preserving the meat was trickier. Rev. Parrish estimated that: "Forty thousand pounds of the best beef spoiled in one night." It had been a hot afternoon, several bison had been shot, but the travelers waited to finish preserving the meat until the following day. By then it was too late. Rev. Parrish wrote: "God forgive us for such waste and save us from such ignorance."

After they left the plains the group reached a couple of forts where they could resupply or trade worn out animals for something useful. At Fort Bridger "Mitchell Gilliam got a coarse hat in trade for Sam, one of his oxen which had become lame."

On October 18, 1844, over a year since they had left their home in Ohio, the Parrish family came out of the Blue Mountains onto the Columbia Plateau:

"A very long hill to come down off the mountain. Here at this camp we met many Indians and horses without number. The Indians are of the Kiucy [Cayuse] nation. Here we got potatoes, pumpkins and horses."

Missionaries Dr. and Mrs. Whitman worked with the Cayuse. Their mission was not far away. It had been a long and tiring year. Part of the group decided to go "…to Dr. Whitman's to winter and try it again in the spring." While traveling toward the mission, they learned about a storm in the mountains they had just left.

"…the snow [back in the mountains] is nearly knee deep…We made a fine escape, for which we thank God…We drove hard and reached the Doctor's at night. Mr. Cave and Mr. Hawley got a room together and I remained in tent."

They spent a few days helping Dr. Whitman with his corn crop and other chores. Then despite the bad weather behind them, or maybe because of it, the group decided to continue on. On Saturday, November 2, they left the mission.

On November 20, the group was in the Columbia River gorge a little below The Dalles. Rev. Parrish noted:

"A cloudy, dull day…I am just reminded that this is my fifty-third birthday. We are waiting for the boats to carry us down the river."

This was Rev. Parrish's second birthday since leaving home. But he was nearing his goal. Three weeks later they reached Oregon City. The trials and tribulations of the journey were over.

Meanwhile, life continued at the Whitmans' mission. Some things were going well; some things were not.

This is part 33 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: First the Good News

 

Sources

Parrish, Edward Evans. "Crossing the Plains in 1844: Diary of Rev. Edward Evans Parrish" in Transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association. 1888. Pages 82-122.

Did You Know?