Relationship Whitman College


Relationship with Whitman College

The park's relationship with Whitman College deserves attention not only because both institutions share the same namesake, but more importantly, both contain extensive collections of information about Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and both institutions owe their existence to Whitman. While the relationship between Whitman Mission and Whitman College has not been consistent, it has nevertheless been a long one, beginning in 1859, when Reverend Cushing Eells established Whitman Seminary, "the fittest memorial" [62] for Marcus Whitman, on the site of the mission grounds. Although Whitman Seminary closed after 23 years of financial and enrollment problems, it reopened as Whitman College in 1882, at its present location in Walla Walla.

Struggling as it was for solvency in the 1880s, supporters of the college were not also necessarily supporters of the fledgling movement to erect a Marcus Whitman monument at the mission site. In fact, in 1888 a few town leaders briefly favored moving the victims' grave to Whitman College. [63] From the college's founding, then, it competed with the mission site for the right to be called the proper memorial to Marcus Whitman. One student criticized William H. Gray's monument campaign as misdirected:

It appears that greater honor could be done to the memory of Dr. Marcus Whitman than by investing $12,000 in a rock pile to be erected in the sage brush hills below Whitman station . . . . Let the name of Whitman go down to posterity coupled with education the cause in which the pioneer gave his life's blood. [64]

Undoubtedly criticism like this hurt the monument effort but despite such detractors and boasts that "Whitman College stands today as the only memorial of Marcus Whitman," [65] the shaft was indeed erected in 1897, with Whitman College noticeably represented at the dedication ceremony. The Whitman College student body, faculty, President Stephen B. L. Penrose, and the College trustees were all in attendance. [66] A December 1, 1897, Oregonian article explained that compromise prevailed between college and monument supporters between 1882 and 1897:

During the intervening years the conviction obtained in the minds of a few persons that, while Whitman College was and of right ought to be Dr. Whitman's true memorial, yet there ought to be a plain, comparatively inexpensive, yet enduring shaft to mark his resting place . . . [67]


The shaft was indeed plain and enduring, yet it was also not completely paid for. An outstanding debt of $2,500 existed several years after its placement near the mission site. Although Whitman College was solicited for funds, Mr. T. C. Elliott explained that the college had no responsibility for the debt:

It was definitely and positively understood, before Walla Walla parties had anything to do with the monument project, the Whitman College would not be connected in any way with it, and would not assume any responsibility in the matter. [68]

Although the college was under no obligation to pay the debt, in 1907 President Penrose joined a committee of four to liquidate the debt. [69] In this manner President Penrose demonstrated his support for memorializing Marcus Whitman at the mission site.

President Penrose recognized the historic and symbolic value of the mission site, so he brought his students to the mission grounds annually, an orientation still fondly remembered by former students. A Whitman College alumnus and national park supporter, B. Loyal Smith remembers his orientation as "one of my favorite memories in four years at Whitman College," [70] while the orientation trip inspired alumnus Nard Jones to write the book Marcus Whitman, The Great Command currently on sale at the park.

Although Penrose recognized the importance of the mission site, saving his struggling college was foremost in his mind. Therefore, he and others used Whitman's legacy to recruit funds and support for the college [71] while other groups cared for the mission grounds. After the end of his career, Ex-President Penrose became a trustee of the Whitman Centennial, Inc., supporting a Whitman National Monument just as he had the Whitman story his entire life.

Good relations between the college and the park continued in the 1940s, highlighted by the students' annual orientation trek. Mount Rainier Superintendent John Preston said in 1946, "Tom Garth has always maintained good relationship . . . with both Walla Walla College and Whitman."[72] The students were not the only college representatives to make the long trek to the mission; professors joined them, several of whom were park employees during the 1950s and 1960s. Professor of Biology Arthur Rempel was a summer seasonal ranger from 1953-1954 and on weekends and during the off-season in 1957 and 1960-1961. Kenneth Schilling, head of the music department, worked weekends in 1956 as a ranger-historian, as did William H. Bailey in 1957. Associate Professor of History Dr. Robert Whitner wrote the park's 1959 Interpretive Prospectus while Larry Dodd was a seasonal ranger from 1965-1969 before becoming curator of Whitman College's Eells Northwest Collection. College and park officials interacted at this time, also. In 1963, Whitman College President Chester Maxey wrote the interpretive theme statement for the new museum. Ex-National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth spoke at Whitman College's 1964 commencement and Whitman College President Louis Perry spoke at the mission's visitor center dedication ceremony the next day.

Use of Whitman College's research facilities, the Museum of Northwest History, and the Penrose Memorial Library, occurred intermittently. Custodian Garth and Dr. Melvin Jacobs, curator of the museum, exchanged information and material for displays and jointly investigated archeological sites along the Columbia River. [73] Superintendent Weldon tried to acquire artifacts from the Northwest History museum for display but met with little success. Weldon understood the college's position:

They feel, perhaps rightly so, that the articles at the college should be kept there in their museum at present until Park Service plans for a museum at Whitman National Monument are more definite of accomplishment. [74]

By the time the museum was built, artifacts from the mission, Fort Walla Walla, and the Evans collection in Spalding, Idaho, were placed on display, instead. It was not until 1970 that the Museum of Man and Nature loaned their Whitman-related artifacts to the park. Penrose Memorial Library was Custodian Garth's first research tool and is still useful to park historians such as Erwin Thompson. Many of the Whitman-related items from the college's Eells Northwest Collection and Archives are copied and located in the park's history and archival files. However, the park staff has not used the Eells Northwest and Archival resource materials much since 1969, "mainly because the [park's] research phase was over by the time I came here," explains Eells Northwest Curator Larry Dodd. "My guess would be that most of the staff, for the last ten or fifteen years at Whitman Mission, have very little knowledge of what's at Whitman College." [75] The most recent use of the material occurred this year when Superintendent Herrera asked Dodd to offer suggestions for revising the new museum and included him in the meeting of local Whitman authorities. Unfortunately his advice was not gleaned before the museum went into production, but as Dodd stated, "We've probably been asked more in the last week for things than we have for the last three or four years." [76]

Just as it is up to the individuals to use the Eells Northwest Collection, it is up to individuals to create and determine the type of relationship between the park and college. When students lost interest in the Whitmans during the late 1960s and their annual Penrose-inspired visit stopped, the college lost its principal reason and avenue for communicating with the Park. Larry Dodd explained that college officials were not about to push the students: "If [the students] are not going to be interested . . . why try to force feed them?" [77] The general apathy on campus concerning the Whitman story continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Today Whitman College students are not violently opposed to the Whitmans as they were during the 1960s; instead they know little or nothing about them and care even less. [78] The apathy is felt not just among students, but among college officials, as well. In 1975, President Robert Skotheim brought a tree from New York, Whitman's home state, and planted it in the park, but has paid scant attention to the Whitmans since. An intellectual historian and keenly sensitive to popular sentiment, Skotheim is much more comfortable talking about the long and beneficial Penrose administration than about the contributions of the Whitmans. [79]

Like community relations, interaction with the college exists only when a need arises. While most people of both institutions find little reason or ways to involve the other, other than for dedication ceremonies, some small strides are being made. The student orientation trip to the park was revived this year and, although it met with mixed reactions by both students and park staff, another trip next year is possible. Professor of History G. Thomas Edwards routinely escorts his Northwest History class to the park after reading Erwin Thompson's Shallow Grave at Waiilatpu. Again, the relationship depends on people. When people from both sides are willing to communicate, then the relationship will move away from the merely symbolic toward the substantive.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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