The Spaldings' Mission at the "Place of Butterflies"

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2009

November 1836. After many months of travel, the missionaries were now nearly ready to begin their real work. The women had waited at Fort Vancouver while the men searched for mission sites. With the sites selected, Rev. Spalding retrieved the women and brought them to Fort Walla Walla. Finally, everyone was together again, but only very briefly. Within just a few days they were saying “goodbye” to each other yet again. Marcus Whitman returned to his chosen site to continue working on buildings, leaving Narcissa Whitman at the fort. The Spaldings left for their site taking with them five cows, one bull, two calves and 5,000 pounds of supplies.

Narcissa wrote:

“Mr & Mrs S left W W for their location on the 22d Nov. Mr Gray going with them to assist in building &c. This dear Sister goes very cheerfully to her location, expecting to live in a skin lodge untill her house is built & this too in the dead of winter, but she prefers it to remaining here & so should I.”

The Spaldings arrived at their site a week later. Rev. Spalding had selected a place along Lapwai Creek near the base of the Thunder Mountains. Lapwai means “place of butterflies.” The imagination flits with delight at the meaning of the name. The Spaldings were very pleased with their situation. Rev. Spalding wrote:

“On approaching this valley, my feelings were peculiar. Ten months had rolled away, rising every morning, only to seek a new place to lay our heads at night. Now we were to camp for life. And when our lodge of buffalo hides was pitched, we welcomed it as our home, and looked upon it with as much satisfaction, doubtless, as any prince ever did upon his new built palace.”

Eliza Spalding described their new home to her family:

“I need not specify any particulars to satisfy you why this spot is endeared to me, if you will reflect for a moment upon the thousands of miles I have journeyed on horseback through rugged, barren, uninhabited regions to reach it. We lived in a lodge of buffalo hides 3 weeks and 3 days, during which time Mr. S. and Mr. Gray, with the assistance of the natives, erected and made comfortable a part of the dwelling we now occupy. It is 42 by 18 posts grooved and filled with small timber split. Roof first timber, then layer of grass, upon which is a thick layer of clay. Eighteen feet of one end is devoted to ourselves, which furnishes us a comfortable room with buttery, closet and recess. The remainder is our schoolroom, place of worship and resort for Indians.”

Meanwhile Narcissa waited at Fort Walla Walla for Marcus to return.



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

Spalding, Eliza. Letter to her parents, brothers, and sisters. February 16, 1837. Whitman College and Northwest Archives.

Spalding, Rev. Henry. Letter to Missionary Herald. February 16, 1837. Whitman College and Northwest Archives.

Whitman, Narcissa. Letter to Narcissa's mother. Started December 5, 1836. Included in "The Coming of the White Women, 1836" (Part IV). T. C. Elliott. In the Oregon Historical Quarterly: vol. XXXVIII, number 1, pg. 46. March, 1937. Statesman Publishing Co., Salem, Oregon.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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