The Interpretive Program: Part 2


By 1950 the goal to portray the Whitmans against the background of Old Oregon was established. However, to place the Whitmans accurately in this historic context required presenting the Cayuse--a new and difficult challenge. In fact, the new museum cases selected to interpret the Whitman story by Park Naturalist Merlin K. Potts and Superintendent Macy in 1952 did not include one display about the Cayuse. [14] Regional Naturalist Dorr Yeager and Regional Historian Aubrey Neasham quickly recommended including such a display. [15] Superintendent Weldon explained that the original thought "was to keep it all Whitman at first," but acknowledged that perhaps it "would be better to get a little of the Indian background." [16] The exhibit cases finally approved for construction included one Indian exhibit and one missionary exhibit. [17] However, gathering information about the Cayuse was not an easy task for Superintendent Weldon: "We have very little Indian culture references in our own library and notes. Lots of Whitman history but not much about the Indians." [18]

Regardless of this difficulty, the interpretive section of the park's Master Plan, revised in 1953 by Superintendent Weldon, concurred with Garth's 1943 evaluation that the Indians were an important secondary theme:

The story of the Whitmans at the mission from 1836 to 1847 is the central theme . . . . Around this core is woven the story of the Indians, the contemporary Hudsons Bay Company, and the other missionaries, trappers, traders, and immigrants with whom the Whitmans were associated. [19]

The issues of northwest expansion and the Cayuse Indians provided the background information with which to highlight the Whitmans and explain their place in the history of the west.

Unfortunately, Superintendent Weldon found the temporary museum's multiple role -- "museum-workshop-office-library-file room-everything!" [20] -- inadequate for even two new exhibits. Thus, partly due to insufficient space and partly because of insufficient funds, the new cases were not installed. Instead the old cases were simply updated with new artifacts until the visitor center museum was constructed in 1964. [21]

Prior to 1959, the Whitmans were recognized predominantly for aiding settlers at the mission and encouraging expansion by bringing wagons and women west. However, after 1959, the Whitmans were interpreted as the archetypal pioneers, embodiments of the pioneer spirit, struggling to tame a wilderness. This was a major interpretive shift--one that would last for years.

In conjunction with the Mission 66 development program, Park Historian Jack Farr and Associate Professor of History Dr. Robert Whitner wrote a Museum Prospectus in 1959 to replace Tom Garth's 1943 version. Initially, Farr and Whitner interpreted the Whitmans in the tradition of Custodian Garth--figures instrumental in aiding westward expansion because of their association with the Oregon Trail. Again, this association alone made them worthy of national recognition:

Without the example set by the Whitmans, and the material economic aid which their station gave the emigrants; it is quite probable that the emigration of settlers along the Oregon Trail would have been delayed for a number of years. For that reason alone the perseverance of the Whitmans in their undertaking was of national significance and importance, therefore, the site of their labors has been preserved. [22]

In other words, the 1959 Prospectus claimed that the Whitmans were largely responsible for pioneer settlement. However, Acting Regional Director Maier disagreed with this interpretation and presented a more conservative evaluation of their significance:

We are inclined to doubt that large-scale emigration to Oregon would have been long delayed had the Whitman Mission not been in existence . . we would prefer to see a more moderate statement . . . to the effect that the example and aid afforded by the Whitmans were among the many factors influencing American settlement of Oregon. [23]

The Whitmans had neither secured Old Oregon for the United States nor were they responsible for the flood of settlers during the 1840s. Although they laid the groundwork for emigration, like the explorers and trappers before them, many other factors influenced emigration. Thus, by 1960, the traditional interpretation that recognized the Whitmans for their aid to settlers was replaced by another, more abstract approach that recognized their goals and ideals. Assistant Regional Director Maier explained:

In our opinion, the significance of the Whitman Mission is something more than its possible influence upon the settlement of the West . . . the Whitman Mission must stand as symbolic of the great effort by missionaries of all faiths to Christianize and civilize the Indians . . . particularly during the first half of the nineteenth century. It commemorates the ideals and sacrifices of the most sincere of those who made this important, if often unsuccessful, crusade. [24]


The Whitmans' idealism and commitment to their beliefs were clearly the new interpretive focus. In addition to recognizing the Whitmans' spiritual drive and commitment, the new interpretation explained why the Whitmans were valuable for the present generation. The Master Plan, approved in 1959 by Director Wirth, explained that visitors would develop:

a sense of inspiration derived from the examples of heroic . . . devotion to God and country set by the Whitmans, and an understanding and appreciation of the hardships and difficulties faced by the pioneers in settling and bringing civilization to a new land. [25]

In addition to being inspired by the Whitmans, Superintendent Kennedy explained that the visitor

will gain pride in his country and its people, and inspiration and spiritual regeneration . . . as well as a deep sense of humility from the knowledge that [their] sacrifices have formed the foundation for the growth and expansion of our nation. [26]

Thus, the Whitmans' commitment and pioneer spirit were viewed as qualities in which citizens could identify and feel proud. The Whitmans were interpreted as struggling and sacrificing for a goal greater than themselves; this struggle alone made them worthy of recognition.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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