The Shaft on the Hill

obelisk on top of hill

NPS Photo


Have you ever wondered why someone put a marble shaft on top of a hill near Walla Walla? The only word on the shaft is WHITMAN. The efforts to memorialize Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman began at the dedication of the first building at Whitman Seminary. At the 1866 ceremony, the principal of the new school, Reverend P.B. Chamberlain said of Marcus Whitman, "…a man of character and so eminent in all relations of life which he occupied as to render his memory being cherished and commemorated by all and noble men."

The first attempt to obtain land and raise funds began in 1869. Through efforts of Edwin Eells, the son of Cushing Eells, who was a missionary associate of Dr. Whitman, a bill was introduced into the territorial legislature by J.H. Lasater of Walla Walla, memorializing Congress to erect a monument in honor of Dr. Whitman. It failed to pass.

In 1874 at the suggestion of William Gray, the Oregon Pioneer and Historical Society appointed a committee to promote the concept of a memorial to Dr. Whitman and to solicit funds. Very little was accomplished over the next three years.

William Gray began again in 1880 to create an organization and raise funds to memorialize the Whitmans. There still was not much interest or financial help.

Even if money were raised, there was no land on which to place the proposed memorial. Finally in 1881 Lucinda and Marion Swegle donated seven acres including the site of the grave and the hill behind it in 1881. The money already collected was placed in a bank in Portland and left to draw interest.

In 1882 Gray and the others tried to induce the people of Walla Walla to take up the matter. A controversy arose when some wanted to move the remains to the Whitman Seminary grounds in Walla Walla. Gray and other survivors, including some of the Sager girls, objected. William Gray died in 1889 without realizing his dream of a suitable memorial to his former associate Dr. Marcus Whitman.

In 1889 the Whitman Historical Society headquartered in Walla Walla took up the matter. They also proposed moving the remains to the Whitman College grounds. It was felt that the consent of the heirs of those buried there must be obtained. All agreed but Matilda Sager Delaney, sister of two of the victims, John and Francis Sager. There the matter rested.

The Whitman Monument Association was formed in March, 1897. It obtained the money raised in the past by Mr. Gray and others and committed itself to completing the proposed memorial. William Gray was given credit for keeping the Whitman Memorial cause alive. The Whitman Monument Association ordered a mausoleum of Vermont marble, carved with the names of those slain, to cover their remains. The hill behind the grave was chosen for the monument shaft as it was the highest point near the old mission site. Also built of Vermont marble, the spire is 18 feet high and two feet square at the base, tapering to the top. Placed on a larger foundation, the entire monument rises a total of 26 feet, 11 inches.

The association bought seven acres of land at a cost of $30.00 per acre for a total of $210.00. The cost of the stone work, the mausoleum, and the monument came to $2250.00. Other expenses totaled $40.00, bringing the total cost to about $2500.00.

Although completed, the shaft and grave marker did not arrive from Vermont in time for installation before the memorial observance planned for Monday and Tuesday, November 29 and 30, 1897.

The opening event was held as planned in the Opera House in Walla Walla. Only eight of the 17 survivors still alive could attend. They were the three older Sager sisters: Catherine, Elizabeth, and Matilda; the three Kimball sisters: Susan, Sarah, and Mina; and Nancy Osborn, all of whom had since married; and Bryon Kimball. Marcus Whitman's nephew, Perrin Whitman, who was ill at the time at his home in Lewiston, Idaho, sent his greetings with his grandson, Marcus Whitman Barnett.

On Tuesday, November 30, a large crowd rode the train to Waiilatpu to hear brief prayers and speeches. Catherine Sager Pringle, the oldest of the surviving Sager children gave the most moving one. Because of bad weather, the participants decided to adjourn to the Opera House in Walla Walla where they completed the rest of the ceremonies. The program ended with the congregation singing "America" and a closing benediction.

William Gray's dream finally became reality, and for the next forty years remained the sole reminder of Waiilatpu's eleven year existence.

Written for the Park newspaper, Summer 1996

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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