Mission Site


The Mission Site

The park's most important cultural resource is, of course, the mission site where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established their mission and lived for eleven years. From the once busy center of farming, teaching, and ministering to the serene park-like setting of today, this site has changed drastically and is administration's primary cultural resource. Excavated from 1941-1950, the site came under the responsibility of Superintendent Weldon from 1950-1956. During his administration, the sites were backfilled, covered with gravel, and outlined with timbers. [98] This method of delineating the mission buildings sufficed until 1957 when Superintendent Kennedy replaced the planks with concrete blocks. [99] Upon Director Wirth's suggestion, the room interiors were outlined in 1961. [100]

From 1952 onward, the mission site was managed as a self-guiding site. Begun initially to provide visitors with information when Superintendent Weldon was absent, [101] the self-guiding trail and sign program became an important part of cultural resource management. The first signs were located at the gristmill, first house, emigrant house, and blacksmith shop with bulletins placed near the millpond, great grave, and memorial shaft. [102] In 1953, five new signs arrived for the memorial shaft, great grave, millpond dikes, mission agriculture, and the mission children. [103] A sign also marked the Whitman-Eells memorial church site for a short time. [104]

In 1960, Park Historian Thompson suggested revising the trail system to encourage visitors to end their tour of the grounds at the mission house where the massacre occurred--the climax of the Whitman story. [105] His suggestion was incorporated into the 1962 revised master plan and the trail completed in May 1962. [106] The next year Thompson and Superintendent Kennedy planned a new comprehensive interpretive sign program consisting of metal photo signs and audio stations, which proved popular with visitors and eased the burden on the interpreters during those busy development years. [107] In 1978, the old signs were replaced with a new series--eleven wayside exhibits, one moveable exhibit on the Oregon Trail, and three directional markers. [108] These exhibits, at the park today, include audio stations at the gristmill, emigrant house, blacksmith shop, and mission house, on the spot where Alice Clarissa drowned, and at the Great Grave and the Memorial Shaft. Thus, the self-guiding trail continues to meet both management and visitor needs.

Although the mission buildings were never reconstructed, a portion of the adobe-brick wall of Whitman's first house was displayed in situ from 1954-1978. Then, after 24 years of the wall's deterioration, management decided that the best way to manage this valuable cultural resource was to cover up the display. This was long delayed, yet not surprising, decision considering that the adobe exhibit was problematic from the beginning. Housed in a concrete box with a glass top for viewing, Superintendent Kennedy reported only two years after its installment that sloughing of a portion of the wall had occurred due to minus 20 degree weather. [109] Given that such cold weather would likely reoccur, Kennedy wondered then just how permanent this exhibit would be. [110] Nevertheless, a heat lamp and fan were installed to protect the adobe from the cold weather, [111] although standing water and excessive condensation inside the glass were continual problems. [112] In March 1967, upon the suggestion of Paul Schumacher, Chief, Archeological Research, a sealant called Pencapsula was applied to the adobe and reapplied in November. In spite of this treatment several inspections revealed further cracking and sloughing of adobe. [113] A consultation with Mr. C. E. Holmes, who was familiar with Pencapsula, revealed that the Pencapsula itself probably contributed to the deterioration. [114] In 1967, Regional Curator Edward Jahns requested assistance from Don P. Morris of the Ruins Stabilization Unit, Southwest Archeological Center, who recommended two alternatives -- either sealing the wall portions under grade level or burying the wall and constructing a replica. [115] Regional Curator Jahns had doubts about both options, as did Superintendent Stickler and Regional Historian John A. Hussey. [116] As a result, Superintendent Stickler stated the course of action that was ultimately followed, "Another alternative is to display the present exposed section of the wall as long as it is presentable." [117] In other words, the wall was displayed regardless of deterioration. By 1976, the Wayside Exhibit Plan indicated that the display would be dismantled: "The new [first house] exhibit will not expose any portion of the adobe wall." [118] The adobe wall exhibit was finally backfilled to prevent further deterioration in 1978. [119] Thus, after years of trying to stabilize the adobe, management determined the best way to ensure the existence of this important cultural resource was to return it to earth which had previously protected it so well.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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Walla Walla, WA 99362


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