Pineapples and Rye Grass: The Role of Hawaiian Laborers at Whitman Mission

"History -- the window through which the soul looks down upon the past and reads its lessons."
Reverend Oliver Nixon
(an early twentieth century historian)

There are certainly many fascinating lessons to be learned when one looks through the window of the past here at Waiilatpu. For example, several Hawaiians lived at the Whitman Mission and were an important, but now largely forgotten, part of the site's history. In 1836, a Hawaiian known as "Jack" and another Hawaiian whose name is unknown helped Dr. Whitman establish the Waiilatpu mission. Joseph Maki and his wife Maria were two later arrivals from Hawaii who also became good friends of the Whitmans. In addition, the Whitmans knew an individual named Mungo Mevway. He was the son of a Hawaiian father and a Native American mother.

The presence of these individuals at Whitman Mission brings up several intriguing questions. For example, how did Hawaiian laborers end up in the Pacific Northwest? What type of tasks did these workers perform at Waiilatpu? Finally, what were the eventual fates of these dedicated laborers?

In order to answer these questions, we must go back all the way to 1813. This was the year when Hawaiians first begin working in the Pacific Northwest. These individuals worked for a fur-trading company called the North West Company. In 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) bought the North West Company. The HBC continued to hire Hawaiians as manual laborers. So, Jack and the anonymous Hawaiian worker were already at Fort Vancouver when the Whitmans arrived there in 1836. Dr. Whitman hired them to help build the first house at his new Waiilatpu mission. Mrs. Whitman praised this house in a letter that she wrote to her parents.

The Whitmans certainly needed the assistance of the Hawaiian workers because Waiilatpu had to be self-sufficient. So, the missionaries spent a lot of time growing crops and looking after farm animals. These animals included a flock of sheep that were sent to Waiilatpu by some of the American Board's missionaries in Hawaii. Mr. Maki and his wife accompanied these sheep on their long journey to the Whitman Mission. They spent much of their time at Waiilatpu taking care of this flock.

The Makis also spent a lot of time in prayer and other religious activities. They even joined a church that was established by the Whitmans and the Spaldings in 1838. The Spaldings traveled to Waiilatpu for this meeting while Jack looked after the Lapwai Mission for them. Jack did have the opportunity to attend a prayer meeting a few years later in October 1842. He and Mr. Mevway listened as Mrs. Whitman explained different Biblical passages. Mrs. Whitman led the meeting because her husband had started his epic trip back east a few days earlier. She later wrote a letter to her husband saying that the meeting was very satisfying.

This meeting took place only a few days after a very frightening episode for Mrs. Whitman. A mysterious intruder tried to break into her bedroom late one night when Dr. Whitman was away. The prowler was loud enough to wake up Mrs. Whitman and she called out for Jack's assistance. The intruder ran away before he could be identified and Jack spent the rest of the night near the bedroom door.

The next day, Mrs. Whitman still felt nervous about the incident. She told Mr. Mevway and he decided to get advice from the HBC official at Fort Walla Walla. The official recommended that Mrs. Whitman leave the mission until her husband returned. Mrs. Whitman decided to follow this advice. She left Waiilatpu a few days later and stayed with the Methodist missionaries at the Dalles. It is not known when Jack and Mr. Mevway left the Whitman Mission. They may not have spent the winter at Waiilatpu because another caretaker looked after the site during part of Dr. Whitman's absence.

Mr. Mevway had been at Waiilatpu in 1839 when the Whitmans lost their only natural child, Alice Clarissa, in a tragic accident. On the afternoon of June 23 Mr. Mevway noticed that two cups were floating in the river. He told the Whitmans about this puzzling discovery and they started to search for their daughter. Unfortunately, Alice had already drowned by the time her body was discovered.

The Whitmans suffered another loss of both a friend and good worker just over a year later when Mr. Maki passed away due to illness. He never had the opportunity to return to his homeland. His wife returned to Hawaii in January 1842. Mr. Mevway married a member of the Spokane tribe around the October of 1842. Jack's fate remains a mystery.

The memories of the Hawaiian laborers have faded into the mists of time and are almost completely forgotten now. However, these workers did play a very important role in the history of Whitman Mission. Perhaps the best tribute to the Hawaiians can be found in a letter that Mrs. Whitman wrote on October 9, 1840. She told her mother about Mr. Maki's death and wrote a very moving epitaph:

"Our loss is very great. He was so faithful and kind - always ready to relieve us of every care, so that we might give ourselves to our appropriate missionary work - increasingly so to the last. He died as a faithful Christian missionary dies - happy to die in the field - rejoiced that he was permitted to come and labour for the good of the Indians…"



Drury, Clifford M. The First White Women Over the Rockies, Volume 3. 1966. The Arthur H. Clark Company: Glendale, California.

Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Gulick, Bill. Chief Joseph Country, third printing. 1994. The Caxton Printers Ltd.: Caxton, Idaho.

Nixon, Oliver. Whitman's Ride Through Savage Lands. 1905. The Wiona Publishing Company: Biloxi, Mississippi.

Whitman, Narcissa. The Letters of Narcissa Whitman. 1986. Ye Galleon Press: Fairfield, Washington.

Last updated: February 1, 2020

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