The Mission’s Impact on Cayuse Life

By Renee Rusler
February 2011

In 1843 Dr. Whitman wrote a report for his sponsoring board describing Cayuse life and religious progress at his mission station.

Whitman and his wife had arrived in the Oregon Country in 1836. At that time, the Cayuse and other tribes of the Columbia Plateau were pursuing their traditional seasonal round, a set pattern for gathering food based upon location and availability of food staples. Salmon, roots, and berries were central items of the diet. Since every family had their own areas for gathering these foods, the seasonal round resulted in the Cayuse and other tribes being dispersed over the landscape for much of the year. How was a missionary to save souls if his flock was so scattered? The Whitmans believed farming was the answer. They thought it would improve the lives of the Cayuse and, more importantly, keep them in one place for religious instruction.

By providing supplies and setting a good example of farming, the Whitmans hoped to inspire the Cayuse to farm also. The Whitmans were partially successful. Many of the Cayuse did start farming, but they did not give up the seasonal round. Instead, they found a way to blend farming into their traditional lifestyle.

In his report, Dr. Whitman described how this blending worked:

"The Months of February & March bring a return of the Indians from their winter dispersion in order to commence the agricultural year…"

But the Cayuse wouldn't stay long. Mid-April was the time to start gathering cous root, also known as biscuit-root, a traditional staple of their diet.

"To obtain this root…they have to disperse along the streams coming out of the Blue Mountains. Some are not more than ten or fifteen miles from the station while others are thirty or forty…From six to eight weeks are given to gathering drying & depositing this root."

From "the tenth to the fifteenth of May the salmon arrive …At this season all the smaller tributaries of the Columbia are barred by a webb or wiker work of willows for taking salmon." During this period there was also time to "visit the station in order to attend to the hoeing & cultivation of their crop…"

Then it was time to move again. Some would "leave who go after Buffalo" while others traveled across the Blue Mountains to the Grand Round to gather camas roots. (Note: there is an edible species of camas and a deadly species. Do not gather camas unless you can tell the difference.)

The wheat harvest began at the end of July. This would "bring many around the station from this time to the first of October or untill the potatoe harvest is passed." Even at that time, the Cayuse were not truly settled near the mission:

"This period is marked by a great number comeing & remaining for a short time & then going again, & others comeing; than by great numbers remaining stationary for any considerable time."

The potato harvest marked the end of the agricultural year. The Cayuse would disperse to their winter quarters "& thus the year comes round & February & March bring them back again."

While, things hadn't turned out as expected, the Whitmans believed that agriculture was helping. Dr. Whitman reported that through these and other visits "an extencive acquaintance is made and much usefull information & religious instruction given."

Dr. Whitman had written this report while he was in Boston. He had traveled east to prevent the sponsoring board from closing his mission. With the mission saved and his report written, Dr. Whitman could now take some time to visit family before returning home.

This is part 29 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: Hurry up and Wait



Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 10 (pdf 2.0 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Whitman, Marcus. April 7, 1843. Letter to Rev. David Greene of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Boston. Whitman Mission Collection.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

328 Whitman Mission Road
Walla Walla, WA 99362


(509) 522-6360

Contact Us