Chapter Six: The Interpretive Program


While the events that occurred from 1836-1847 do not change with time, interpretation of those events changes as perspectives change. Over the years, administrative decisions have resulted in subtle and not so subtle changes in the manner in which the Whitmans are interpreted. In order to understand how and why these changes occurred, and how they affected the park, we must understand the interpretive traditions. Museums, of course, are valuable in gauging interpretive trends. Other documents such as Interpretive Statements, Master Plans, and Management Objectives also reflect these trends. All of Whitman Mission's interpretive programs, no matter how distinct, were guided by the same document--"An Act to Provide for the Establishment of the Whitman National Monument." (49 Stat. 2028) This legislation states that

. . . the Whitman National Monument . . . shall be a public national memorial to Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, who here established their Indian mission and school, and ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the Indians until massacred . . . in 1847.

The most important word in this legislation is the word "memorial." Each administration had to interpret this word first, before they could interpret the Whitman story. This challenge influenced each interpretive approach used at the park over its 47-year history. The following pages examine each of these approaches, beginning with the first Interpretive Prospectus of 1941.

The first Interpretive Prospectus, written in 1941 by Regional Supervisor of Historic Sites Olaf T. Hagen, was an eight-page history of the Oregon Country and the Whitman Mission. Hagen outlined the Whitmans' triumphs--bringing the first wagon to Ft. Boise, the first pioneer women across the Rockies, and leading the 1843 emigration--as well as their struggles teaching Christianity and agriculture to the Cayuse Indians. Overall, Hagen emphasized the Whitmans' contribution to northwest expansion and the common struggle of all such pioneers: "By their life and death the Whitmans symbolize the noblest in the spirit and endeavors of the pioneers." [1] However, Supervisor of Historic Sites Ronald F. Lee reduced this initial draft to just six paragraphs, emphasizing the Whitmans' aid to settlement only. [2] This change is understandable, however, given that past proliferation of the "Whitman Saved Oregon" myth [3] had discredited the Whitmans' role in helping settlers. Supervisor Lee wanted to prevent further misconceptions of this type so he emphasized that, regardless of past myths, the Whitmans' aid to pioneer settlement "deserve(s) recognition as making important precedents for the subsequent history of the Oregon Trail . . . ." [4] Thus, the monument's first Interpretive Prospectus was organized to effectively dispel the "Whitman Myth." Shortly thereafter, the Whitman story was more fully interpreted in the preparation of the monument's first museum.


The first use of the artifact storage shed as a museum occurred in April 1942, when a few of the archeological specimens "were put on display for weekend visitors" [5] by Custodian Garth. Planning for proper museum exhibits began three months later, in July 1942. Given that sufficient doubts existed over the feasibility of reconstructing the mission buildings, Regional Director Tomlinson stated that, "the future museum should be looked upon as the key interpretive device at the monument." [6] Tomlinson felt the museum s content should include more than just the "local angle":

The museum story . . . would be not so much what Marcus Whitman did, but rather the widespread significant developments which took place as a result of the occupation of the Oregon country by Whitman and others of his period. [7]

As a result, under the direction of Dorr Yeager, Assistant Chief of the Museum Division, Custodian Garth prepared a Museum Prospectus in 1943 that encompassed the "conditions, trends, and events against which the Whitman story took place." [8] Fourteen exhibit cases explained the Fur Trade era, Indian Customs, the Missionary Movement, Pioneer Expansion, Mission Life, and the Whitman Massacre. [9] While the goal had been to present the changing nature of Old Oregon, Garth was praised because nine of the fourteen cases dealt directly with the Whitmans. [10] The Whitmans were clearly emphasized in the Prospectus:

The lives of Dr. and Mrs. Marcus Whitman, pioneer missionaries, will be the central theme around which the larger story will be woven . . . the life and culture of the native Indians will be presented as a background. [11]

However, implementation of Garth's Prospectus was prevented by World War II and by lack of funds. Upon the monument's reopening in 1946, completion of the museum was rushed for the September 1947 dedication ceremony. Rather than fourteen exhibits, the few exhibits finally completed by the dedication highlighted the recently uncovered artifacts rather than the Whitman story. [12] Therefore, the purpose of this first museum was simply to display as many artifacts as possible, because of lack of time and funds to do a proper display.

Given the museum's focus on artifacts, Garth's 1947 Interpretive Statement more accurately reflects the interpretive slant of the time. Not surprisingly, the same goals presented in his earlier Museum Prospectus were reflected in the 1947 Interpretive Statement: to recognize the Whitmans' place in Old Oregon history. In addition, Garth highlighted their contributions to American settlement: "For no other reason than that it was a semi-hospital, orphanage, and revictualizing place on the Oregon Trail the mission site deserves recognition as a national shrine." [13]

The Whitmans' greatest contribution, then, was aiding pioneer settlers. This idea, though modified slightly, remained the predominant interpretation during the 1950s.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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