Unlikely Traveling Companions
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
One of the first tasks in establishing a mission is to determine exactly where to put it. In 1835 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman on an exploring trip to the Oregon Country to do just that. The old adage "safety in numbers" has a lot of truth behind it. But 1835 was before the famous rush of emigrants to Oregon. Who could the missionaries travel with? Their answer was the fur traders' caravan that was headed to the yearly Rendezvous in the Rocky Mountains. Convenient? Yes. Necessary? Yes. But definitely not "a marriage made in heaven." At least not at the beginning.
The habits of the missionaries irritated some of their less pious traveling companions. The missionaries' refusal to drink alcohol and their preference not to travel on the Sabbath whenever possible annoyed many in the caravan. Rev. Parker described an incident in which a few of the men tried to dismantle a raft and set it adrift, because the missionaries hadn't been with the group on Sunday when the raft had been used to cross a river. "Providentially," Parker reported," it did not drift far before it lodged against a tree, and, without much loss of time, we repaired it and passed over."
But opinions and attitudes can change. When the dreaded cholera hit the wagon train, Dr. Whitman was able to save all but three. "The medical skill of the Doctor," wrote Parker, "converted those [who had been hostile] into permanent friends."
The prestige earned through his medical skills continued to increase after the group arrived at the Rendezvous. Trapper Jim Bridger had a three-inch arrowhead stuck in his back. It had been there for several years and he wanted it out. Rev. Parker reported: "It was a difficult operation, because the arrow was hooked at the point by striking a large bone and a cartilaginous substance had grown around it. The Doctor pursued the operation with great selfpossession and perseverance; and his patient manifested equal firmness." Parker continued: "The Doctor also extracted another arrow from the shoulder of one of the hunters, which had been there two years and a half. His reputation becoming favorably established, calls for medical and surgical aid were almost incessant."
Things were definitely going better. In fact, based upon his own experience traveling overland and his now favorable rapport with the fur caravan personnel, Dr. Whitman was convinced his fiancé, Narcissa Prentiss, could make the trip. Rather than continuing to explore with Parker, Whitman suggested that he go with the caravan when they returned east. He could get married, find additional recruits, and the group could travel out with the following year's caravan. Meanwhile, Parker would find an appropriate location for the mission. They would all meet at the next year's Rendezvous. Parker agreed.
In the years to follow, trappers and fur traders would play an ongoing role in the success of the mission. In the meantime, Whitman and two new traveling companions, sons of two Nez Perce chiefs, would join the fur traders' trip back to the States.
This is part 1 of "A Missionary Saga, Season 4: The People in Their Lives."
Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 6 (PDF 2.8 MB) in 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.