Rain, Foam, and Fury - Ten Days on the Columbia River

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2009

It was October 1836. At Fort Vancouver, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding waited for their husbands. The men had left them there while they went to locate sites for the two new mission stations. Eliza was the first to be reunited with her husband when Henry Spalding returned to retrieve them. The three would now travel up the Columbia River to Fort Walla Walla where they would join Marcus Whitman. Narcissa wrote her mother a detailed account of the voyage:

“We left Vancouver Thursday noon Nov 3rd in two boats. Mr McLeod myself & baggage in one & Mr and Mrs S [Spalding] in the other…It rained some that afternoon, also on the fourth & fifth. Sixth it rained all day, nearly, & the wind was very strong, but in our favour, so that we kept our sail up most of the day. Our boat was well covered with an oil cloth. I succeeded in keeping myself dry by wrapping well in my cloak & getting under the oil cloth…I roll’d my bed & blankets in my India Rubber cloak which preserved them quite well from the rain, so that nights I slept warm & comfortably as ever.”

“On the morning of the Seventh we arrived at the Cascades made the portage & breakfasted had considerable rain. The men towed the boats up the falls on the opposite side of the river. The water was very low & made it exceeding difficult for them to drag the boats up in the midst of the rocks, & noise of the foaming waters. Sometimes they were obliged to lift the boats over the rocks, at others go round them to the entire destruction of the gum upon them which prevents them from leaking. It was nearly night before all was safely over the difficult passage & our boats gumed ready for launching.”

“8th [Tues.] breakfasted just below the Dalls, past them without unloading the boats. This was done by attaching a strong rope of considerable length to the Stern of the boat two men only remaining in it to guide & keep it clear of the rocks, while the remainder & as many Indians as can be obtained draw it along with the rope, walking upon the edge of the rocks above the frightful precipice. The little Dalls just above these the current is exceeding strong & rapid & full of whirlpools…I remained in the boat being quite fatigued with my walk past the other Dalls. It is a terrific sight, & a frightful place to be in, to be drawn along in such a narrow channel between such high craggy perpendicular bluffs …Many times the rope would catch against the rocks & oblige some one to creep carefully over the horrible precipice to unloose it much to the danger of his life… Many boats have been dashed to pieces at these places & more than a hundred lives lost.”

“Thursday we made the portage of the Chutes & were all day about it. While on land had several heavy showers. Friday also was another soaking wet day, the night too. This was dreary enough. Saturday was much more pleasant no rain. We arrived at Walla W [Fort Walla Walla] early Sab [Sabbath] Morning in health with all our effects preserved to us mercifully.”

Marcus arrived a few days later. This marked the end of the missionaries’ travels together. Each couple would now continue on to their own mission station.



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

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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