Washington: Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Whitman Mission Grave
Whitman Mission Grave

Courtesy of National Park Service

A rest stop along the historic Oregon Trail, the Whitman Mission was the site of the 1847 massacre that played a key role in America’s westward expansion. What was initially a mission to Christianize American Indians soon became the center of a bloody clash of cultures between white settlers and American Indian tribes. Located in Walla Walla, Washington, Whitman Mission National Historic Site preserves the site and tells the story of the events that took place on the Columbia Plateau from the moment the Whitmans established their mission in 1836, up to 1848, when after the massacre, Oregon became an official territory of the United States.

Born September 4, 1802, in Rushville, New York, Marcus Whitman spent most of his childhood learning how to prepare wool for spinning, but he left behind his textile laboring days in 1809, when he moved to Massachusetts after his father’s death.  Around this time he lived with his uncle, and while receiving his education in Plainfield, the teenage Whitman first became interested in the religious revivalism during the Second Great Awakening. When he reached adulthood, Whitman left his uncle’s place in Massachusetts and returned to New York with aspirations of becoming a minister. Instead, upon learning of his family’s hesitation toward his chosen vocation, Whitman pursued and obtained his degree in medicine becoming a doctor in 1831. Despite his new profession, Whitman continued to follow his religious aspirations, and in 1832, he moved to Wheeler, NY where he became a prominent member of the town’s Presbyterian Church.

By 1834, Whitman’s active membership in the church community captured the attention of Boston’s American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), and in 1835, the board appointed him as a missionary doctor. The same year, the board sent him with Reverend Samuel Parker to the Oregon country to determine if prospects were good for their missions. The board’s initial interest in Oregon stemmed from a fictional article published in 1833, which told the story of western American Indians who traveled to St. Louis in search of educators who would teach them about the white man’s “Book of Heaven,” or the Bible. After meeting some Indians on their journey, Whitman and Parker were convinced their missions would succeed, and while Parker stayed to explore the area, Whitman returned to New York to recruit workers and other missionaries, including his wife Narcissa. 

In September 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman reached the Columbia River, along with Reverend Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza. The Whitmans opened their mission in Waiilatpu to work with the Cayuse, and the Spaldings established their mission among the Nez Perce people of Lapwai. Once settled, the missionaries learned the native tongue, and by 1839, Spalding published his book in the Nez Perce language. While the Whitman and Spalding missions expanded gradually, other missionaries reached the complex and established new stations. During this time, three properties were erected, the blacksmith shop, gristmill, and a main large adobe house or mission house. Both missions establish large complexes; however, Whitman’s site was not as successful as Spalding’s mission.

Although the two mission sites were within close proximity, the cultural differences between the two American Indian tribes and the white settlers caused great friction. Whitman’s Cayuse Indians were not as receptive to the white man’s religion as Spalding's Nez Perce converts. By 1842, having heard of the growing dissension between the Cayuse and Whitman’s mission, the Board ordered the closing of both the Waiilatpu and Lapwai stations. Whitman, convinced his mission would succeed if provided more time, traveled to St. Louis, New York, Washington, DC, and Boston to make his case and save his mission. In 1843, moved by his statement, the American Board of Foreign Missions offered the Whitman and Spalding missions a second chance and withdrew the original orders to close the missions. On his final return to Oregon during the Great Migration of 1843, Whitman led the first wagon train to the Columbia River on what would later become the historic Oregon Trail.

Although the mission sites of Waiilatpu and Lapwai were not directly on the Oregon Trail, numerous westward migrating groups stopped and sought shelter at these missions during times of illness and destitution. In 1844, the Whitmans adopted the seven Sager children who reached the mission after losing their parents during their journey west. Although at the time the children were fortunate, their future seemed bleak as tensions between the Whitman mission and the Indians continued to grow. Cultural differences had already led to great misunderstandings, and when a measles epidemic spread throughout the Waiilatpu mission site -- killing a greater number of Cayuse Indians than white settlers --a tragedy occurred.

On November 29, 1847, after seeing that Whitman’s medicine only helped the settler’s children and not their own, the Cayuse attacked the Waiilatpu mission and killed Marcus Whitman, his wife, and the Sager children who had not died from the measles. The Cayuse then captured some of the remaining survivors and held them hostage, while others managed to escape. A month later, the Cayuse released the hostages after Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson’s Bay Company offered a ransom. The hostages, including the Spaldings, reached Fort Walla Walla on January 8, 1848, and in the same year, survivor Joseph Meek traveled to Washington, DC to inform congress of the attacks. On behalf of the settlers, he petitioned the Federal Government to create the Territory of Oregon, and on August 14, 1848, President Polk--who was cousin by marriage of Joseph Meek--signed the bill making Oregon a legal territory of the United States.

The Whitman Mission was the first Christian mission established in the Pacific Northwest. Although the mission failed in establishing a positive relationship with the Indians, the Whitman Mission tragedy opened the door for the United States to claim Oregon officially. The Whitman Mission is also significant in American history for being the first to publish a book in the Pacific Northwest. In another first, the women of the mission, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, were the first white women to travel across the continent to Oregon.

Today, at Whitman Mission National Historic Site, visitors can begin their journey to the past at the visitor center and learn about the mission by walking on the self-guided trails to the Mission House, the Great Grave, the Whitman Memorial, and the reconstructed Oregon Trail Ruts.

Whitman Mission National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 328 Whitman Mission Rd. in Walla Walla, WA. Click for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos.The Whitman Mission Visitor Center operates Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. The Visitor Center is closed Federal holidays except Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day. The park grounds are open daily from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm and closed Federal holidays except Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day. There is no admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Whitman Mission National Historic Site website or call 509-522-6360. 

Last updated: August 7, 2017