Agricultural Challenges

Supplies

Seeds, animals, and tools needed to be imported. On their trip out, Dr. Marcus Whitman and Rev. Henry Spalding bought $7.00 worth of seeds in Cincinnati. Mrs. Narcissa Whitman collected seeds and cuttings at Fort Vancouver. She wrote in her diary: “I have got collected before me an assortment of garden seeds, which I take up with me, also, I intend taking some young sprouts of apple, peach & grapes, & some strawberry vines, etc., from the nursery here.” The Whitmans also wrote home for seeds of broom corn and locust, chestnut, walnut, and butternut trees.

 
Hoe blade, badly pitted.
This hoe blade was recovered during an archeological dig on the mission grounds. It is on display in the park's museum.

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They needed ploughs and hoes. Dr. Whitman started with one plow and 15 hoes, but this wasn’t enough. The Whitmans were encouraging the Cayuse to farm and needed equipment for them also. Rev. Spalding had similar problems; he tried to make a plow out of cedar, but this didn’t work well. In May 1838 Dr. Whitman wrote to the American Board to explain their situation:

“I have thought best not to ask the Board for them fearing what reception it might meet with & so have written to several gentlemen of my acquaintance to send us fifty ploughs & three hundred hoes, & in case of failure I have ordered my Brother [Augustus Whitman] to appropriate two hundred dollars on my account to that object. But this is not enough, what are three hundred hoes & fifty ploughs? We ought to have at least seventy five or one hundred ploughs & six hundred hoes immediately to save this starving multitude from an untimely grave”

Two years later the requested supplies arrived: Ten ploughs and “18 or 20 doz. hoes” from the American Board and 25 plows from the Rushville Congregational Church.

 
Park path passes by split rail fence.
Kane’s 1847 sketch of the mission showed some split-rail fencing to the east of the mission house. The Whitmans' fences are long gone. Today, paths wind by split-rail fences that the National Park Service built.

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Fencing

The Cayuse did start farming, but they did not give up their traditional seasonal rounds to acquire food. They left their fields unattended. Often while they were away their crops were destroyed by wandering cattle or horses. Fences would have helped, but the area was a large grassland with few trees. Eventually Dr. Whitman established a sawmill in the Blue Mountains 20 miles away. In April of 1847, he wrote: “I have made large preparation to aid them [the Cayuse] in cultivating by getting near 20 thousand rails split for them & I hope to plough additional prairie for them as much as they can fence.”

 

Crop Failure

The ominous specter of a crop failure looms in the background for all farmers. Rev. Spalding’s first potato crop at the Lapwai mission was largely unsuccessful. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) staff at Fort Walla Walla also experienced a crop failure on at least one occasion. At a later point, a drought and a grasshopper infestation struck the crops at the HBC’s Fort Colville outpost.

 
A heavy blanket of snow covers park grounds.
A heavy snow storm covers the grounds of Whitman Mission National Historic Site in 2008.

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Weather

Cold weather could be fatal for horses and cattle. The winter of 1846-47 was an especially harsh one. In April of 1847, Dr. Whitman wrote: “The winter has been one of unusual severity throughout the whole country. Many cattle have died in all parts particularly in the lower Country. At our station we have had a heavy loss in sheep calves + some cattle (old cows) colts + horses. Cattle that were in good condition at the begining of the winter have done well.”

 

Accidents

When Marcus went East in 1842, Narcissa stayed at the Methodist mission in The Dalles. During their absence the son of one of the chiefs accidentally burned the gristmill. She described the aftermath of the fire: “Probably there was more than two hundred bushels of wheat and corn burnt and some flour. The mill bolt and threshing mill, even to a part of the wheel, was burnt. My poor husband will feel this sadly – so much lost, and so much, too, that will save labor.” Animals also suffered accidents. Reverend Smith was heartbroken when one of his cows died after eating a wild parsnip plant. He lost a pig when another animal kicked it on the head.

 

Sources:

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford Drury

Collection of Dr. Whitman's Letters. Compiled by the National Park Service.

Mountains We Have Crossed by Clifford Drury

Nine years with the Spokane Indians the diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker by Clifford Drury

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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328 Whitman Mission Road
Walla Walla, WA 99362

Phone:

(509) 522-6360

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