By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
Dr. Whitman was a missionary, not a gambler. But in the fall of 1842 he gambled on the weather. And lost. Dr. Whitman thought if he left his mission early enough in the fall he'd have enough time to safely cross the continent to Boston. Although he made it, the trip was anything but safe.
Why did Dr. Whitman even need to make that trip? Survival! The American Board (the sponsors of his mission) had sent a letter closing his mission and the mission run by his colleague Rev. Spalding. Dr. Whitman was tasked with going back East to straighten matters out.
Many people would have put off such a long journey until springtime. However, if he started immediately, he should be able to return home in the spring with a westward bound wagon train. Since the wagon trains only departed in the spring, if he missed the 1843 group he would have to stay in the East a whole extra year! Dr. Whitman wanted to be back at his mission as soon as possible: he was willing to brave a cross continent trip in the winter.
With a little luck this plan should have worked. But two unexpected situations occurred. First, an unanticipated change in the route added many extra miles to the trip. Second, unusually bitter winter weather made travel slow and hazardous, and nearly killed them.
The trip started out well. In fact he and his travel companion, Asa Lovejoy, made excellent time, averaging 48 miles a day. They reached Fort Hall (north of present day Pocatello, Idaho) in only eleven days. When the Whitmans and Spaldings came out six years earlier it had taken them a month to cover that same distance.
At Fort Hall the situation began to disintegrate. Dr. Whitman learned of Indian conflicts to the east. The trader in charge of the post recommended they take a route south through Taos (in what is now New Mexico).
An early snow storm hit shortly after they left the fort. This would be just one of many storms they would endure. Lovejoy described the trip as full of "thrilling scenes and hairbreadth escapes…" One adventure was crossing the partially frozen Colorado River:
"This stream was some one hundred and fifty, or two hundred yards wide, and looked upon by our guide as very dangerous to cross in its present condition. But the Doctor, nothing daunted, was the first to take the water. He mounted his horse, and the guide and myself pushed them off the ice into the boiling, foaming stream. Away they went completely under water—horse and all; but directly came up, and after buffeting the waves and foaming current, he made to the ice on the opposite side…"
As challenging and hair-raising as that was, worse was yet to come. They almost didn't make it to Taos. After leaving Fort Uncompahgre (near present day Delta, Colorado) they got lost:
"After spending several days wandering round in the snow without making much headway, and greatly fatiguing our animals to little or no purpose, our guide informed us that the deep snows had so changed the fact of the country, that he was completely lost, and could take us no further"
"We at once agreed that the Doctor should take the guide and make his way back to the fort, and procure a new guide, and that I should remain in camp with the animals until his return, which was on the seventh day…"
They continued on, but the trip was taking longer than expected. Supplies were running out. Eventually the pack mules, and even the dog, were killed for food. If some hunters hadn't found them, fed them, and pointed them in the right direction, you wouldn't be reading this story today.
Then success! Two and half months after leaving the mission at Waiilatpu, Dr. Whitman and Lovejoy reached Taos. It had been a harrowing trip thus far. What more could possibly happen?
This is part 26 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3
Next: Frostbitten & Bewildered