Now the Bad News

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2011

In April of 1845, Dr. Whitman wrote his sponsoring board about the progress being made at his mission. In the previous article we focused on the good news. Now here's the bad.

It looked like one of the missionaries' fears was about to come true. The Whitmans and their colleagues were Protestants. An on-going concern was the potential arrival of Catholics to the area. Dr. Whitman informed his board that, "We look for a Jesuit Station some where in this vicinity…" The Jesuits are a religious order within the Catholic Church dedicated to education and missionary work.

While individuals within each group were civil to each other, philosophically the groups were arch rivals. In his letter, Dr. Whitman stressed, yet again, that the sponsoring board needed to have a stronger presence in the Oregon Country if they were going to counteract the impact of the Catholics:

"I wish very much you would aid me in inducing Rev David Malin or some one in his place to adopt the interests of this country & to lay the foundation for our religious & Literary institutions – I hope it will not be left for this the only spot on the western coast of America where Protestantism can soon gain a footing to be added to the Jesuit dominions of this coast"

Overall, tensions were building at the mission. Surprisingly, actions by some Canadian trappers were adding to the worsening situation:

"It is the custom of the Canadians … to awe them [Native Americans] through their superstition of sorcery – by telling them that such and such white men are more largely endowed with supernatural power – than even there own Tewats (Sorcerers). I have been one… who have been held forth to them as a sorcerer of great power. Much of this was well enough intended on account of my medical profession but ill timed…An impression of this kind among them if strengthed by such circumstances – and by the countenance of such men as the Canadians – and perhaps by Priests – would make my stay among them [the Cayuse] useless & dangerous – and might induce me to leave at once …"

Another contributing factor was a tragic event that happened in California. In the fall of 1844, a few young Walla Walla men went to California to trade for cattle. (The Walla Walla people also lived near the Whitmans' mission at Waiilatpu.) But things went terribly wrong. Dr. Whitman reported:

"Last year a small party of Waiilatpu Walla Walla Indian and one Spokan went to California to explore the way and prepare to get cattle by bringing a few – By some imprudence of theirs and probably intemperance and haste of Capt Suture and some Americans who live on his possessions – Elijah Heading a fine young man son of the Walla Walla Chief [Peu-peu-mox-mox] was killed being shot down while in the fort without arms…This occasioned the hasty return of the party leaving the Cattle they had bought & bringing the horses and mules about which the dispute arose that caused the death of the young man."

Many of the local Walla Wallas were enraged by this event and for awhile the Whitmans were concerned that their fury would be turned against them. But, by the time this letter was written the danger seemed to have passed.

Another death, closer to home, was causing Dr. Whitman more trouble:

"Some very trying remarks have been made also on the occasion of the death of the Chief Waptashtakmahlin. His son came to me as he was dying – and in a passion told me "I had killed his Father – and that it would not be a difficult matter for me to be killed – " You are aware already of their habit to kill their own Medicine men as they are commonly called … Two of the Gentlemen of the Hon Hudson B. Company have fallen in this way since we have been in this country"

Tempers rose, but no violence occurred. At least not yet.

This is part 35 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: The Saga Ends



Whitman, Dr. Marcus. April 8, 1845. Letter to Rev. David Greene, Corresponding Secretary for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Whitman Mission Collection.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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