Armchair photo tours: Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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A covered wagon on the Oregon Trail at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla, Washington

Photos by Cheryl Landes

In the spring of 1836, five years before anyone traveled west on the Oregon Trail, newlywed couple Dr. Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Whitman left their home in upstate New York for Oregon Country. They came with Henry and Eliza Spalding and William Gray. All five travelers were appointed by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions to bring Christianity to the Indians.

They arrived at the Columbia River Plateau seven months later with their good intentions of ministering to the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes here. The native peoples welcomed them and gave them permission to build on their land. Henry and Eliza Spalding established a mission with the Nez Perce in Idaho, and the Whitmans built a mission at a site on the Walla Walla River called Waiilaptu, which means “The Place of the Rye Grass”.

When the Whitmans and Spaldings arrived on the plateau, British missions and fur trading posts were already established here. The British did not force the native peoples to change their beliefs, lifestyles, and culture, which was the opposite of the Whitmans’ and Spaldings’ intent. Their goal was to save the native peoples, who they considered as heathens, from going to hell.

In Waiilaptu, the Cayuse were curious at first. They were interested in learning new things, but their beliefs differed vastly from the Whitmans. The Whitmans saw the Cayuse as inferior compared to the white people. After almost a year, tensions grew because of miscommunication and language barriers. The Cayuse thought they could integrate some of the skills they learned into their culture, like shooting guns and farming. Another year later, they stopped attending Dr. Whitman’s church services, because their spiritual beliefs conflicted.

In 1841, immigrants started migrating west on the Oregon Trail. They stopped at the Whitman Mission for rest, food, and care from Dr. Whitman before they continued the final leg of the journey to the Willamette Valley. The travelers brought goods and livestock that they could trade with the Cayuse, but they also carried new diseases like whooping cough, influenza, and dysentery. The Cayuse had no immunity built up to fight these diseases, and many became sick and died. Dr. Whitman’s treatments worked for the white people but not for the Cayuse. They feared that the Whitmans were poisoning them so that the white people could take their land.

The Cayuse chiefs confronted Dr. Whitman numerous times, demanding that the Whitmans leave. The Whitmans refused.

As more immigrants arrived, they brought another new disease, measles, which brought more sickness and death to the Cayuse faster than before. Half of the Cayuse population died. They continued demanding that the Whitmans leave. The Whitmans still refused, so the tribes met and decided that the only solution was to kill the Whitmans.

On November 29, 1847, two native men went to the Whitmans to ask for medicine for their children, and when Dr. Whitman appeared, they killed him and the attack began. Thirteen people at the mission were killed that day, including Narcissa. Forty-seven mission residents were captured and held hostage for a month, when the Cayuse released them to the Hudson’s Bay Company in exchange for a ransom.

The attack gave the U.S. government an excuse to accelerate the establishment of the Oregon Territory and set up Indian reservations.

In 1936, the mission site was designated as the Whitman National Monument and was redesignated as the Whitman Mission National Historic Site in 1963. Today, the National Park Service maintains the site and has a partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to continue telling the story of the mission and the effects of the early interactions between the native people and white immigrants.

Today’s armchair photo tour is a walk through the mission site. None of the original buildings remain. Concrete outlines in the grass show where the buildings once stood, and markers have information about what life was like at the mission. A 25-minute video at the visitor center provides more information about the circumstances that led to the attack.

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The visitor center at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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A display in the visitor center at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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Another display at the visitor center at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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Flowers outside the visitor center at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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A pond at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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Canada geese and goslings swimming in the pond at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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A view from the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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The orchard at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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None of the original buildings are standing at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The concrete outlines mark the foundations where the buildings once stood.

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The site of the Mission House at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla. The adobe whitewashed structure had painted trim, window panes, and fireplaces. The roof consisted of poles covered with grass and mud like the other buildings at the mission.

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The site of the Whitmans’ home at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla. The house also served as a school, hospital, orphanage, and church.

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One of the trails at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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The trail to the Whitman Memorial at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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The Whitman Memorial at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. Walla Walla residents installed this Vermont granite monument here in 1897.

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A view of the Oregon Trail from the Whitman Memorial at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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A view from the trail to the Whitman Memorial at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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The Great Grave, where the Whitmans are buried, at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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The Pioneer Cemetery at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

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A pair of Canada geese and their goslings swimming in the pond at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla

The Whitman Mission National Historic Site is located eight miles west of downtown Walla Walla, 226 miles northeast of Portland, and 254 miles southeast of Seattle.

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