Frostbitten & Bewildered

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
January 2011

The winter of 1842-43 was extraordinarily cold and stormy. Dr. Whitman was racing across the continent in an attempt to save his mission in the Oregon Country. If he could get to Boston, perhaps he could convince the missionary board not to close his mission. But the trip was becoming more difficult than he had imagined.

He hadn't expected the unusually cold winter. Then he had had to make a large detour south to Taos (in present day New Mexico), which added many extra miles to the trip. It had taken over two months to travel just from the mission at Waiilatpu to Taos. And there were many more miles and more bad weather ahead.

Whitman and his traveling companion, Asa Lovejoy, rested at Taos for two weeks. During their stay Whitman bought more travel supplies, which he charged to the mission board to whom he would later be making his plea. Possibly not the best strategy, but necessary, and Dr. Whitman wasn't going to let anything deter him in his quest. So, despite nearly dying earlier and with more bad weather ahead of them, Whitman and Lovejoy continued east.

Lovejoy described how deep the snow was and how difficult traveling was after they left Taos:

"the mule would go out of sight & [you] would see nothing but her ears. Some days we would not travel out of sight of the smoke where we had slept…We could not see; there was no sign in the world. I think we were from 15 to 20 days traveling what ought to have taken two or three."

Eventually they ran into George Bent, co-owner of Bent's fort, their next destination. A group of traders staying at the fort were about to leave for St. Louis. Lovejoy described what happened next:

"[Whitman] taking the best animal, with some bedding and a small allowance of provision, started alone, hoping, by rapid travel, to reach the fort in time to join the St. Louis party, but to do so he would have to travel on the Sabbath, something we had not done before."

It was a gamble, but Dr. Whitman was determined to succeed.

Eventually, Lovejoy reached the fort where he found the traders, but no Whitman.

"Being furnished by the gentlemen of the fort with a suitable guide, I started in search of the Doctor, and traveled up the river about one hundred miles. I learned from the Indians that a man had been there, who was lost, and was trying to find Bent's Fort…I returned to the fort as rapidly as possible but found that the Doctor had not arrived…Late in the afternoon, he came in very much fatigued and desponding…"

Apparently when Whitman reached the Arkansas River he mistakenly headed upstream when he should have headed down. According to Lovejoy Whitman explained that "God had bewildered him to punish him for traveling on the Sabbath."

Dr. Whitman left with the traders and reached St. Louis in early March. It had been a difficult, five-month trip and it showed. William Barrows who saw Dr. Whitman while he was in St. Louis provides the following description:

"he [Dr. Whitman] bore the marks of irresistible cold and merciless storms… His fingers, ears, nose, and feet had been frostbitten, and were giving him much trouble."

But, Dr. Whitman wasn't done; the real work was still in front of him. His plan was to complete all his tasks and be ready to travel with the west bound wagon trains that May. This meant he had only 2 ½ months to travel to Boston, save the missions, and return to a jumping off town.

This is part 27 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: So Much to Do, So Little Time



Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 18 (3.1 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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