Farming at Waiilatpu

native man plowing

Farming at Waiilatpu

Source: Chiefs & Chief Traders, Theodore Stern 1993

A stable farming community of Cayuses sprang up neighboring the Whitman Mission.They came, not only because of advantages of the soil, but because from nearby Waiilatpu, the missionaries could watch their ripening crops while they were away, lest fellow tribesmen steal them. Evidently, crops in the ground at that time had not yet clearly acquired the status of property. Since the Cayuse had fitted their planting and harvesting into their native food gathering rounds, and were gone during the intervening months, congregations at Christian services peaked during spring planting and at harvest time in late summer.

By 1843, Cayuses were farming some sixty tracts; they had fenced their fields, probably with poles and rails, in areas ranging from a quarter of an acre to three acres, planted wheat, corn, peas, and potatoes. They acquired above all, cattle, but also hogs and hens, and some sheep as well. In 1842, several went down to the Willamette to trade horses for cattle. Two years later, Narcissa Whitman reported that some were going out eastward along the Oregon Trail as far as Fort Hall to trade their "cayuses" (Cayuse horses) for emigrant cattle.

Marcus Whitman recognized that the Cayuse were predisposed to their Waašat (Seven Drum Religion) observances to a ritual in which the tribal religious leader served as principal officiant. The role that Whitman took in Christian services displaced that native role and ultimately the Cayuse chiefs found themselves overshadowed.

Of particular weight in the Cayuse assessment of Marcus Whitman was his practice of medicine, a curer to be sure, but also a potential sorcerer. Such fears emerged in the first year of the mission and they were to dog him through the remaining years. Indian suspicions were kept alive by missionaries with practices such as setting out poisoned meat for wolves and by injecting emetics (which induce vomiting) into melons to deter thieves.

It might be said that the eventual attack upon Waiilatpu (Whitman Mission) was predetermined as there were multiple aggravations. Yet the final desperate stroke came after a decade of accommodation. It was driven by the overwhelming sense of hopelessness among the Cayuse in the face of the crushing flow of overland migrations, capped by an epidemic disease, and the interpretation that linked Marcus Whitman as agent to both.

Last updated: October 18, 2016

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