Whitman-Spalding missionary party arrives at Fort Vancouver on September 12, 1836.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 2/14/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9700

On September 12, 1836, missionaries Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and Henry Spalding (1803-1874) and their respective wives, Narcissa (1808-1847) and Eliza (1807-1851), arrive at Fort Vancouver after a seven-month, 3,000-mile journey overland from their homes in upstate New York. Narcissa and Eliza are the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. The Whitmans will go on to establish a mission among the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington; the Spaldings, among the Nez Perce at Lapwai, in what is now Idaho. Both missions will be closed after long-simmering tensions erupt 11 years later and the Cayuse attack the Whitman mission, killing the Whitmans and 11 others.

"The Borders of Civilization"

The two couples began their journey in mid-February 1836 (the Spaldings leaving on February 12 from Prattsburg, New York; the Whitmans one week later from the nearby town of Angelica). The Spaldings originally intended to establish a mission among the Osage Indians in western Missouri. However, Whitman persuaded them to go to what was then called Oregon Country instead. Eliza Spalding agreed to the change in plans even though she had recently given birth to a stillborn daughter and was suffering from a variety of physical ailments.

Whitman, a physician, and Spalding, a newly ordained Presbyterian minister, and their wives undertook a difficult and unprecedented journey in order to "save the heathen" -- that is, to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and persuade them to abandon their traditional way of life and adopt white culture instead. They believed they had a divine mandate to bring "the blessings of civilization and religion" to the Indians (Diary of Eliza Spalding, May 27, 1836). Frustrated by the Indians’ indifference and even hostility toward their teachings, the missionaries eventually shifted their focus to supporting and encouraging immigration by whites. Their relationships with the people they had come to "save" deteriorated as an increasing number of white settlers moved into the region, leading to what writer William Dietrich has called a "tragic collision of cultures" (163).

The Whitmans joined the Spaldings in Cincinnati, Ohio, in mid-March. From there, they traveled together by steamboat to St. Louis, Missouri, the last large town on the frontier. "It seems to me now that we are on the very borders of civilization," Narcissa Whitman wrote in her journal on March 30, 1836. If she had any fears or second thoughts about what lay ahead, she did not express them. Instead, she struck a positive note: "I have not one feeling of regret at the step which I have taken, but count it a privilege to go forth in the name of my Master, cheerfully bearing the toil and privation that we expect to encounter."

Westward Ho

A week later, the party arrived in Liberty, Missouri, where they acquired the equipment, supplies, and livestock they would need to establish their new homes in the West. They bought a sturdy farm wagon; a dozen horses, six mules, 17 cattle, and four milk cows; life preservers made of India rubber, for a measure of safety when crossing rivers; tools, furniture, clothing, blankets, barrels of flour, and other provisions. They also bought enough bedticking to make a tent, handsewn by Narcissa and Eliza, that could shelter up to 10 people sleeping on the ground.

The total bill came to $3,063.96 (about $60,000 in 2010 dollars). It was paid by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Boston-based organization that directed the efforts of Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries in "foreign" lands, including Indian territory.

Spalding had brought with him a light wagon, a gift from his father-in-law. The farm wagon would eventually be abandoned, and Spalding’s wagon would eventually be broken down to a two-wheeled cart. Even so, it would become the first wheeled vehicle to be taken over the Rockies and as far West as Fort Boise on the Snake River -- a feat many had doubted would be possible.

Before leaving Liberty, the missionaries were joined by a carpenter, William Henry Gray (1810-1889), from Utica, New York, appointed a "lay member" of the party by the ABCFM; and two young men, hired to help drive the livestock to Oregon Country. The group also included, as interpreters and laborers, three young Nez Perce.

Over the Rockies

The missionaries planned to cross the prairie with the American Fur Company’s caravan of 70 or so traders and trappers from St. Louis to the annual rendezvous on the Green River in Wyoming. They did not believe it would be safe for their small party to travel without the company’s protection. But they were late getting started. Spalding, the Nez Perce boys, and the hired men left Liberty on April 27 with the wagons, supplies, and livestock, traveling overland to intersect the caravan, which had left about a week earlier. Whitman and the women were supposed to travel up the Missouri River on one of the fur company’s boats. But when the boat appeared in Liberty, on May 1, the captain refused to stop. They had to hire a wagon and driver and rush to catch up, first with Spalding and then with the caravan.

By mid-May, the missionary party was reunited but it was still far behind the caravan. The need for speed was so great that they even traveled on a Sunday, violating a key directive from the ABCFM that they strictly observe the Sabbath as a sacred day of rest, partly to set an example for the Indians. After several days of forced marches, they finally reached the caravan, at 1 a.m. on the morning of May 26.

The caravan’s route followed river valleys westward toward the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountains, the immense range that bisects North America. The journey was long and tedious, covering only 15 miles or so in a good day. The diet consisted mostly of buffalo meat (supplied by the caravan’s hunters), supplemented with milk from the missionaries’ cows. Buffalo dung was the only source of fuel for cooking. Despite the hardships, Narcissa Whitman -- who kept the most complete of the missionary accounts of the trip -- seemed to relish the experience. "I never was so contented and happy before neither have I enjoyed such health for years," she wrote (Letters, June 4, 1836).

In contrast, Eliza, who may have been suffering from tuberculosis as well as the aftereffects of a difficult childbirth, wondered if she would die on the trail. "We are now 2,800 miles from my dear parent’s dwelling, expecting in a few days to commence ascending the Rocky Mts," she wrote from Fort William (later Fort Laramie, in present-day Wyoming). "Only He who knows all things, knows whether this debilitated frame will survive the undertaking. His will, not mine, be done" (Diary, June 21, 1836).

Crossing the plains, the two women often rode in Spalding’s wagon. But as they approached the mountains, the trail became rougher. The farm wagon was abandoned. Some of what it had carried was also left behind; the rest was loaded into the lighter wagon. The women rode most of the rest of the way on horseback -- on sidesaddles, sitting with their legs on one side of their horses. Riding astride was a breach of decorum for women of their backgrounds. The sidesaddles were less comfortable and less secure, but protected the riders’ sense of propriety.

The caravan, the missionaries, and the remaining wagon crossed the Rockies at South Pass in Wyoming on July 4, 1836. "Crossed a ridge of land today; called the divide, which separates the waters that flow into the Atlantic from those that flow into the Pacific," Eliza noted in her diary that day, showing no sign of excitement at having just become one of the first two white women to travel over the Continental Divide. Narcissa made no mention of the milestone at all.

"Hungry and Weary"

The missionary party left the caravan at the Green River rendezvous and traveled into present-day Idaho with two employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company and a group of 200 or so Nez Perce (including women and children). None of the Indians had ever seen white women before, and they did not contain their curiosity. "The women were not satisfied short of saluting Mrs. W and myself with a kiss," Eliza wrote. "All appear happy to see us" (Diary, July 6, 1836).

By late July, the heat was oppressive, the mosquitoes maddening, and the tedium mind-numbing. There were antelope but no buffalo. The missionaries were heartily sick of the monotonous diet. "Have been living on fresh meat for two months exclusively," Narcissa wrote. "Am cloyed with it. I do not know how I shall endure this part of the journey." Still: "Do not think I regret coming. No, far from it; I would not go back for a world. I am contented and happy, notwithstanding I sometimes get very hungry and weary" (Letters, July 23, 1836).

Adding to the travails was the trouble-plagued wagon. It got stuck in creeks, sometimes tipped over on steep trails, and regularly broke down. Whitman and Spalding exhausted themselves trying to get it over terrain that no wheels had ever crossed. When one of the axles broke, the women "rejoiced, for we were in hopes they would leave it, and have no more trouble with it," Narcissa wrote, adding: "Our rejoicing was in vain for they are making a cart of the back wheels, this afternoon, and lashing the fore wheels to it -- intending to take it through in some shape or other" (Letters, July 28, 1836).

Finally, at Fort Boise (also called Snake Fort), on what is now the Idaho-Oregon border, Whitman and Spalding gave up and left the makeshift cart behind. Among other baggage that had to be jettisoned was a small trunk that Narcissa’s sister Harriet had given her. Narcissa expressed both regret and resignation: "Thus we scatter as we go along" (Letters, August 12, 1836).

The mission party spent three days at Fort Boise, a welcome respite. The women washed clothing; the men repacked. In addition to the cart, they left behind five ailing cattle, hoping to obtain replacements at the next major trading post on their route, Fort Walla Walla. On August 29, after crossing the Blue Mountains (which Narcissa described as "one of the most terrible mountains for steepness & length I have yet seen"), they camped at a spot overlooking the Walla Walla Valley. The day was clear enough to provide distant views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. It was, Narcissa wrote, "enchanting & quite diverted my mind from the fatigue under which I was labouring" (Letters, August 29, 1836).

"A Delightful Place"

The Whitmans arrived at Fort Walla Walla on September 1. Gray and the Spaldings, with the pack animals and the remaining cattle, followed two days later. Leaving the livestock at the fort, the five missionaries and several escorts traveled by boat down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver.

The missionaries marveled at the comforts available at Fort Vancouver, headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast Columbia District. Under the direction of Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), the Chief Factor, the fort had become a bustling commercial center and supply depot. Its orchards, fields, and pastures stretched for 15 miles along the Columbia and five miles inland. Inside the central stockade were some 40 buildings, including warehouses, a school, a library, a chapel, a rudimentary hospital, and housing for British officers and company officials. Outside was a multicultural village with inhabitants from more than 35 different ethnic and tribal groups, including a large number of Hawaiians (referred to as "Kanakas" or "Owyhees") who worked for the company. There was a shipyard, a sawmill, a tannery, a dairy, and (to the disapproval of the missionaries) a distillery. Altogether, up to 700 people lived in and around Fort Vancouver in the mid-1830s.

McLoughlin himself came out to greet the missionaries at the fort’s main gate and ushered them into his large white house. Narcissa luxuriated in the experience of sitting on a sofa for the first time in seven months. McLoughlin then took the visitors on a tour of the gardens and other facilities. "What a delightful place this is," she gushed (Letters, September 12, 1836).

Eliza and Narcissa spent almost eight weeks at Fort Vancouver while their husbands explored possible mission sites. They helped out in the school, which had about 50 students, most of them the children of French fathers and Indian mothers. Narcissa, who was known for her clear soprano, taught singing. Eliza’s health improved. Narcissa took time to make a copy of her journal. Both women shopped in the fort’s warehouses, selecting linen, china, blankets, cookware, furniture, and other goods. "We see now that it was not necessary to bring anything because we find all here," Narcissa wrote (Letters, November 1, 1836).

Spalding chose a mission site at Lapwai in Nez Perce territory on the Clearwater River in Idaho. Whitman, ignoring McLoughlin’s advice, settled on a place about 120 miles from Lapwai, amid the Cayuse at Waiilatpu, or "The Place of the Rye Grass." Whitman and Gray remained at Waiilatpu, building a rough cabin, while Spalding returned to Fort Vancouver to escort the women and supplies on the trip upriver. They left the fort on November 3, 1836, for lives that would never again have the same degree of comfort and ease they had enjoyed as guests of Chief Factor McLoughlin.


Sources: Eliza Hart Spalding, Diary of Eliza Hart Spalding, in Clifford M. Drury, Where Wagons Could Go (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books Edition, 1997); William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Narcissa Whitman, The Letters of Narcissa Whitman (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1986); Drury, First White Women Over the Rockies (Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1963); Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, Vols I and II (Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, 1986, 1994); "Fort Vancouver," National Park Service website accessed January 2011 (http://www.nps.gov/fova/index.htm).

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