A Rushed Departure

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
January 2011

The Whitmans and their missionary colleagues came to the Oregon Country in 1836 to work with the local Indian peoples. When we last left them it was 1842 and they had just received a disturbing letter from their sponsoring board. Let's review what happened.

The missionaries were in a frenzy. They had argued so much among themselves that their sponsors back east were closing two of the three mission stations in the Oregon Country. This included the Whitmans' mission at Waiilatpu (near what is today Walla Walla, Washington). On September 15, Dr. Whitman called an emergency meeting.

Rev. Walker and Rev. Eells came from their mission at Tshimakain (near what is today Spokane, Washington). It took them five days to reach Waiilatpu. Meanwhile Rev. and Mrs. Spalding were traveling when they heard the news. Instead of continuing home to their mission at Lapwai (near what is today Spalding, Idaho), they too turned toward Waiilatpu. By September 26 everyone was assembled.

The missionaries felt that the Board's interpretation of the situation was out of date. Their squabbling had ceased. But communication was slow; it could take two years to get a response to a letter. The order to close the missions was based on the complaining letters they themselves had sent two years earlier. The Board needed to be updated before any drastic action was taken.

Dr. Whitman volunteered to personally take any correspondence. He felt that this was an issue that would be best handled face to face. If he left immediately he could be done in time to join a wagon train traveling west in the spring. In that case he would be gone from his mission station for only one year. But, if he delayed too long and didn't complete his tasks before the wagon trains left, he would have to remain in the East an additional year.

The other missionaries agreed to the plan. But they thought there was enough time for them to compose their thoughts and write them down. The missionaries would go home, write their letters, and send them to Waiilatpu for Dr. Whitman to take with him. Dr. Whitman apparently implied that this was ok, but it wasn't how he felt. To wait for these comments would have required two weeks; time he did not believe he had. Within 24 hours of the other missionaries leaving, Dr. Whitman stated that he had changed his mind. On Thursday, September 29, Narcissa wrote her sister and brother:

My Dear Jane and Edward: – I sit down to write you, but in great haste. My beloved husband has about concluded to start next Monday to go to the United States, the dear land of our birth…He hopes to reach the borders in less than three months…It is a dreadful journey, especially at this season of the year…

Dr. Whitman bade his wife farewell on October 3. In his rush to leave Marcus forgot several things, including his pencil, comb and journal.

The next day Mrs. Whitman started a letter to her husband even though she didn't know when she would be able to send it. She added to it frequently.

She found another item that he forgot to bring and remembered something she forgot to ask.

[Oct] 5th In arranging the cupboard to-day, I found that you had not taken the compass as you designed to. I fear you will suffer for the want of it…I intended to have spoken to you about purchasing one or two pair of spectacles. Perhaps you will think of it.

She ended that day's entry:

Where are you to-night, precious husband? I hope you have been prosperous to-day and are sleeping sweetly. Good night, my loved one.

Mrs. Whitman continued to reflect on the progress her husband was making on his journey. In another letter she wrote:

I follow you night and day, and shall through the whole journey, in my imagination and prayers.

But she couldn't have imagined the eventful and harrowing trip that her husband was having.

This is part 25 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: A Trek through Horrendous Winter Weather



Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 16 (pdf 709 kb)and Chapter 17 (pdf 3.2 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Whitman, Narcissa. Letter to Dr. Marcus Whitman. October 4, 1842. Whitman Mission Collection. Selected 1842 letters.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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