Agriculture at Whitman Mission
Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman arrived in the Walla Walla valley in the fall of 1836. One of the first orders of business was to start growing food. Much of what we know about these efforts comes directly from their own letters. In May of 1837, Marcus wrote, “I have two acres of peas sowed 9 acres of corn planted & intend to plant 3 more & have planted & intend to plant 2 acres of potatoes, in all 16 acres. ” The following year: “I have six acres of potatoes two & half of wheat & peas oats & corn enough to make forty acres probably,” which resulted in “three hundred bushels of corn seventy five of wheat & one thousand bushels of potatoes. besides a large supply of turnips & garden vegitables.”
Modern sheep in Walla Walla.
Livestock was also important. As of July 1840, “The number of cattle attached to the station are five cows, two one year old heifers & three heifer calves. One pair of oxen two pair of steers two yearling bulls & two bull calves. twenty in all. The number of horses seventeen.”
In 1846, Dr Whitman reflected: “Some sheep we imported from the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] in 1838 have increased one hundred & twenty five per cent in eight years.”
In addition to harvesting his own crops, Dr. Whitman taught the Cayuse how to farm. He believed that agriculture and his missionary work were inseparable:
“. . . although we bring the gospel as the first object we cannot gain an assurance unless they are attracted & retained by the plough & hoe, & in this way even before the language is acquired you may have the people drawn arround you & ready to hear your every instruction. And why should not this be our method of proceeding; Is it not what Paul meant when he said, "I become all things unto all men," that he accommodated himself to the circumstances of the People? Why then should we not take the best, & may I not say, the only means to win them to Christ? Had I one doubt of the disposition of the Indians to cultivate I would not thus write; But having seen them for two season breaking ground with hoes & sticks & having given them the trial of the plough, I feel an entire confidence in their disposition & ability.”
The efforts at farming, at least, seemed to be going well. In 1842 Narcissa wrote: “The success of the Kayuses in farming is pleasing beyond description. There is scarcely an individual of them but what has his little farm some where & every year extending it farther & farther. A large number of the Walla Walla tribe are doing the same.”
Replica covered wagon sits upon reconstructed ruts at Whitman Mission.
The Whitmans provided food to Oregon Trail emigrants: “In the mean time a large part of Emigrants had passed my house with their Waggons. All came in their turns & were supplied with provisions I soon put a small pair of (hand) mill stones runing by water so that the latter part of the Emigration got grinding done. My wheat beef & most of my hogs & corn & many of my potatoes have been furnished them.”
(Marcus, November 1843). Some of these emigrants spent the winter at the mission, exchanging work for food and shelter. Once the spring arrived, they continued on to the Willamette Valley. This pattern repeated itself for the next few years as more waves of pioneers passed through the area.
The Whitmans’ letters speak directly to us of the details of their daily life, their plans, their hopes, and their dreams. We can see that farming, while essential to their physical survival, was much more than just food: it was aid to weary travelers and, more importantly, it was a way to entice the Cayuse to stay nearby and listen to the Whitmans’ message of salvation.