Their Only Vacation

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
February 2010

During the time of the Whitmans, being a missionary was a 24/7, 365 day occupation, for the rest of your life. But sometimes you just need a break. Historian Clifford Drury described the winter camping trip of 1839 as “Perhaps the nearest to a vacation the Whitmans ever experienced…”

The Whitmans’ house was very crowded in the fall of 1838. There were over twenty people living at the site including the Whitmans and their young daughter; Hawaiian helpers; Indian helpers; a fur trapper family; and newly arrived missionaries who had nowhere else to go. Tempers frayed and tensions rose.

In January 1839, Dr. Whitman took the opportunity to visit Rev. Spalding’s mission (near what is today Spalding, Idaho). The religious services were very successful. Whitman was impressed by Spalding’s proficiency with the native language. Spalding suggested that Whitman leave his mission for a short period and live with the natives. Perhaps that would give Whitman a better grasp of the Nez Perce language. A local band of Nez Perce Indians agreed to help. They would meet Whitman at the Tucannon River. (The Tucannon River is located in what is now southeastern Washington. It flows from the Blue Mountains into the Snake River.)

Whitman returned to his mission and asked Narcissa to join him. Narcissa jumped at the chance. She wrote to her sister Jane:

“He had no difficulty to persuade me to accompany him, for I was nearly exhausted, both in body and mind, in the labour and care of our numerous family.”

On January 22, Marcus, Narcissa, and their 22 month old daughter, Alice Clarissa, left on their trip. One can almost imagine their sighs of relief as their crowded house faded from view. The Whitmans, though, weren’t the only ones who had noticed the tensions. Mary Walker, one of the new missionaries, wrote:

“Mrs. W has dealt so largely in powder and balls of late that perhaps her absence will not detract much from our happiness.”

“Powder and balls,” what an evocative phrase, brings to mind someone who is exploding at everyone. Perhaps some time apart would be good for everyone.

The first few days of the trip were unseasonably warm. In three days the Whitmans reached the Tucannon river. Then the weather turned cold and it started to snow. At first Marcus built a fire in their tent to keep the family warm, but the smoke made Alice Clarrisa cry. Narcissa described their solution: “we were obliged to put up a lodge around the fire at the mouth of the tent to prevent the smoke from troubling us.”

Despite the cold weather, Narcissa enjoyed the trip. She wrote to her sister:

“O, my dear Jane, could you see us here this beautiful eve, the full moon shining in all her splendor, clear, yet freezing cold, my little one sleeping by my side . . . and before me a large comfortable fire in the open air. Do you think we suffer? No, dear Jane; I have not realized so much enjoyment for a long time as I have since I since I have been here.”

But all good things must end. After three weeks, the Whitmans returned home.

On Saturday, February 9, Mary Walker wrote:

“Dr. and Mrs. W. returned. Adieu to peace and order.”

Despite the personal irritations the missionaries were able to work together. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding each had a young child. Normally, family members would have provided information and support to a new mother. But their families were 3,000 miles away. Instead the missionary women looked to each other for support and guidance.

This is part 19 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 2

Next: The First Women's Club



Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 13 (pdf 1.5 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Whitman, Narcissa. 1839. Letter to Ms. Jane Prentiss (sister) May 17, 1839. Whitman Mission Collection. Selected 1839 letters (pdf 72 KB).

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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