Friendly Forts & Faster Mail

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
February 2011

September 1843, Dr. Whitman is finally home. After nearly a year away traveling to Boston, he is back at his mission at Waiilatpu (near present day Walla Walla). He had traveled home with a west bound, emigrant wagon train. Seven years earlier, he and his fellow missionaries had had to travel with a fur trapper caravan to reach the Pacific Northwest. But times were changing. In fact, Dr. Whitman had just traveled home with the largest wagon train yet: more than 120 wagons, 694 oxen, and 773 cattle.

Americans were moving west fast! Dr. Whitman wrote to his brother-in-law, Jonas Galusha Prentiss:

"It is now decided in my mind that Oregon will be occupied by American Citizens These who go only open the way for more another year. Wagons will go all the way I have no doubt this year It is very easy for families to come down the Algany on rafts & be on the border in time for starting."

Dr. Whitman also wrote to the Secretary of War, who he had met with the President while he had been back East. Apparently, they had expressed interest in hearing Dr. Whitman's ideas about the Oregon Country:

"Sir: – In compliance with the request you did me the honor to make last winter while at Washington, I herewith transmit to you the synopsis of a bill…"

Dr. Whitman proposed that the government establish a string of non-military forts along the emigration route. Not all tribes were friendly toward the travelers, but non-military posts of the fur traders seemed to keep adjacent areas peaceful. Safe passage wasn't Dr. Whitman's only, nor possibly even main, concern. He had observed that

"Many cases of sickness and some deaths took place among those who accomplished the journey this season, owing, in a great measure, to the uninterrupted use of meat, salt and fresh, with flour, which constitute the chief articles of food they are able to convey on their wagons,"

So, in addition to keeping peace in the area, each fort "would be able to furnish them [the emigrants] in transit with fresh supplies of provisions." This would keep the travelers healthier and decrease the amount of food each family had to pack at the beginning of their trip. These forts would also be places to get horses and oxen shod, repair wagons, and fix guns.

Dr. Whitman believed that these forts could be financially self-sufficient:

"…a market that would, in my opinion, more than suffice to defray all the current expenses of such posts. The present party is supposed to have expended no less than $2,000 at Laramie's and Bridger's forts, and as much more at Fort Hall and Fort Boise, two of the Hudson's Bay Company's stations. These are at present the only stopping places in a journey of 2,220 miles, and the only places where additional supplies can be obtained,"

The potential existence of forts led to another idea:

"The very existence of such a system as the one above recommended suggest the utility of post offices and mail arrangements, which is the wish of all who now live in Oregon to have granted them; and I need only add that contracts for this purpose will be readily taken at reasonable rates for transporting the mail across from Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia in forty days, with fresh horses at each of the contemplated posts."

Dr. Whitman's future may not have included the produce-supplying forts he proposed. He may have been a bit ahead of his time regarding his mail delivery plan - the Pony Express, which sounds similar to Dr. Whitman's idea, began business in 1860. But he was definitely correct about the quickly growing number of emigrants to the Oregon Country. Many would stop by the Whitmans' mission. Each with their own story of the trip.

This is part 32 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: Trials and Tribulations of a Journey West



Whitman, Dr. Marcus. May 28, 1843. Letter to Mr. Jonas Galusha Prentiss (Narcissa Whitman's brother). Whitman Mission Collection.

Whitman, Dr. Marcus. Date written unknown; received June 22, 1844. Letter to Hon. James M. Porter, Secretary of War. Whitman Mission Collection.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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