by Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
The shopping was done. The wagons were loaded. It was time to leave Liberty, Missouri. The missionaries would have to hurry if they were to meet the fur traders’ caravan at the Oto Indian Agency near Bellevue [Nebraska]. Dr. Whitman, Mrs. Whitman, and Mrs. Spalding would travel to Bellevue by steamboat. Rev. Spalding and the rest of the men would travel overland with the livestock, wagons and baggage.
The slower moving baggage group departed on Wednesday, April 27. Dr. Whitman and the women waited in Liberty for the steamboat. One can imagine the missionaries’ surprise and dismay when that next Sunday the steamboat passed them by and refused to stop. Dr. Whitman tried to flag down the boat, but the captain yelled that there was no room. Apparently, the captain hadn’t been told about the travel arrangements that Dr. Whitman had made.
It was 300 miles from Liberty to the Oto Agency. Dr. Whitman and the women would have to find alternate transportation and hope that they had no further troubles. The fur traders’ caravan would not wait for them.
Rev. Spalding had written that his party would wait for Dr. Whitman near Fort Leavenworth [Kansas]. A wagon and driver were hired. But when Dr. Whitman and the women reached Fort Leavenworth, Rev. Spalding’s group wasn’t there! They had changed their minds and decided to continue on to Bellevue without them.
The baggage group had a three day head start. Dr. Whitman and the women would have to travel quickly if they were to catch-up. But, before they left Fort Leavenworth, Dr. Whitman’s group spent Sunday at the nearby Methodist mission. The missionaries strongly believed in keeping the Sabbath and avoided traveling on Sunday whenever possible. So, it wasn’t until Monday, May 9, that they continued their flight to catch Rev. Spalding and after that, the fur traders’ caravan.
Was pausing at the Methodist mission a strategic error? Would the missionaries find each other in time? Dr. Whitman’s group traveled hard for several days. They eventually caught up with Rev. Spalding’s group. On Sunday, May 15, all the missionaries were together. They were just eighteen miles from the Oto Agency. Success was in sight. While the group rested, Dr. Whitman went on ahead to help the Indian agent’s brother who was seriously ill.
While there, Dr. Whitman learned that the fur traders’ caravan had already passed by and was now 25 miles west of the Agency. Dr. Whitman rode out to the caravan. He asked them to wait, but the caravan needed to keep moving. If the missionaries wanted to travel with the caravan, they would have to catch up and keep up.
Would the missionaries reach the fur traders’ caravan in time?
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.