Thomas Farnham's Description of Whitman Mission

[September 22, 1839 – traveling toward Dr. Whitman’s mission]

. . . Our course was northeasterly over sharp swells, among which ran many clear and beautiful brooks; soil gravel, loam, sand, and clay, and well covered with dry bunch grass, incapable of producing the grains without irrigation. The swells and streams run northwesterly from the Blue Mountains. Our course was diagonally across them. Having made about 10 miles at sunset, we encamped for the night. . . .


[September 23, 1839]

A ride of five miles afterward brought us in sight of the groves around the mission. The plains far and near were dry and brown. Every form of vegetation was dead save the forest trees, whose roots drank deeply of the waters of the stream. We crossed the river, passed the Indian encampment hard by, and were at the gate of the mission fields in presence of Dr. Whitman. . . . The doctor introduced me to his excellent lady, and departed to his labor.

The afternoon was spent in listless rest from the toils of my journey. At sunset, however, I strolled out and took a bird’s-eye view of the plantation and plain of the Wallawalla. The old mission-house stands on the northeast bank of the river, about four rods from the water-side, at the northeast corner of an enclosure containing about 250 acres; 200 of which are under good cultivation. The soil is a thin stratum of clay, mixed with sand and a small proportion of vegetable mould, resting on a base of coarse gravel.-Through this gravel, water from the Wallawalla filtrates, and by capillary attraction is raised to the roots of vegetation in the incumbent earth.-The products are wheat, musk and nutmeg melons, squashes, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, &c. in the garden-all of good quality, and abundant crops.

The Wallawalla is a pretty stream. Its channel is paved with gravel and sand, and about three rods in width; water two feet deep running five or six miles the hour, and is limpid and cool through the year. A hundred yards below the house, it makes a beautiful bend to the southwest for a short distance, and then resumes its general direction of northwest by north, along the border of the plantation. On the opposite bank is a line of timber and underwood, interlaced with flowering brambles. Other small groves occur above and below along the banks. The plain about the waters of this river is about 30 miles square. A great part of this surface is more or less covered with bunch grass. The branches of the river are distributed over it in such manner that most of it can be grazed. But from what came under my own observation, and the information received from respectable American citizens, who had examined it more minutely than I had time to do, I suppose there to be scarcely 2,000 acres of this vast extent of surface, which can ever be made available for the purposes of cultivation.-The absence of rains and dews in the season of crops, and the impossibility of irrigating much of it on account of the hight of the general surface above the streams, will afford sufficient reasons for entertaining this opinion.


[September 24, 1839]

The morning of the 24th opened in the loveliest hues of the sky. Still none of the beauty of the harvest field-none of the fragrance of the ripened fruits of autumn were there. The wild horses were frolicking on the plains; but the plains smoked with dust and dearth. The green woods and the streams sent up their harmonies with the breeze; but it was like a dirge over the remains of the departed glories of the year. . . .

The breakfast being over, the doctor invited me to a stroll over his premises. The garden was first examined; its location, on the curving bank of the Wallawalla; the apple trees, growing thriftily on its western border; the beautiful tomato and other vegetables, burdening the grounds. Next to the fields. The doctor’s view of the soil, and its mode of receiving moisture from the river, were such as I have previously expressed. “For,” said he “in those places where you perceive the stratum of gravel to be raised so as to interrupt the capillary attraction of the superincumbent earth, the crop failed.” Then to the new house. The adobie walls had been erected a year. It was about 40 feet by 20, and one and a half stories high. The interior area consisted of two parlors of the ordinary size, separated by an adobie portion. The outer door opened into one of them; and from this a door in the partition led to the other. Above were to be sleeping apartments. To the main building was attached another of equal hight designed for a kitchen, with chambers above for servants. Mr. Monger and a Sandwich Islander were laying the floors, making the doors, &c. The lumber used was a very superior quality of yellow pine plank, which Dr. Whitman had cut with a ship saw among the Blue Mountains, 15 miles distant. Next to the “caral.” A fine yoke of oxen, two cows, an American bull, and the beginning of a stock of hogs were thereabout. And last to the grist-mill on the other side of the river. It consisted of a spherical wrought iron burr four or five inches in diameter, surrounded by a counterburred surface of the same material. The spherical burr was permanently attached to the shaft of a horizontal water-wheel. The surrounding burred surface was firmly fastened to timbers, in such a position that when the water-wheel was put in motion, the operation of the mill was similar to that of a coffee-mill. It was a crazy thing, but for it the doctor was grateful. It would, with the help of himself and an Indian, grind enough in a day to feed his family a week, and that was better than to beat it with a pestle and mortar. It appeared to me quite remarkable that the doctor could have made so many improvements since the year 1834. But the industry which crowded every hour of the day, his untiring energy of character, and the very efficient aid of his wife in relieving him in a great degree from the labors of the school, are, perhaps, circumstances which will render possibility probable, that in five years one man without funds for such purposes, without other aid in that business than that of a fellow missionary at short intervals, should fence, plough, build, plant an orchard, and do all the other laborious acts of opening a plantation on the face of that distant wilderness; learn an Indian language, and do the duties, meanwhile, of a physician to the associate stations on the Clear Water and Spokan.

Excerpted from: An 1839 Wagon Train Journal - Travels in the Great Western Prairies, the Anahuac and Rocky Mountains and in the Oregon Territory. Thomas J. Farnham. 1843. Greeley & McElarath, New York.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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Walla Walla, WA 99362


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