Washington Territorial Legislature charters Whitman Seminary on December 20, 1859.

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 10/17/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8311
See Additional Media

On December 20, 1859, the Washington Territorial Legislature approves the first charter for an institution of higher educational in the territory.  The charter is for Whitman Seminary, a coeducational pre-collegiate academy, which is to be located at the mission site where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman worked from 1836 until 1847, when they were killed by a group of Cayuse Indians. The first classes are not held until 1866, and the school begins in the city of Walla Walla rather than at the nearby mission site.  After many years of struggle, in 1882 Whitman College begins offering college curricula and the school attracts more support and students.  During the twentieth century Whitman College will emerge as a distinguished liberal arts college. 

A Memorial to the Whitmans 

In 1859, after the land east of the Cascades was opened for resettlement, Cushing Eells (1810-1893) visited the mission site of his former colleagues Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.  The Whitmans, responding to a call by tribal peoples for missionaries, established their mission site, Waiilatpu, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, in 1836.  In 1847, they were killed by a group of Cayuse Indians.  As Eells considered the fate of the Whitmans and the future of the region, he resolved to establish a “monument” to the Whitmans in the form of a high school for pioneer boys and girls.   

With the support of other Congregational ministers, in 1859 Eells obtained a charter for Whitman Seminary from the Washington territorial government.  That same year, he acquired the Whitman mission site from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  Eells soon moved with his family to the former mission site and began working to establish Whitman Seminary.  Eells donated more than half of the site’s land to the school, but local pressure and resources provided a way for the school to open in the city of Walla Walla.  In 1866, Walla Walla’s wealthiest denizen, merchant Dorsey Syng Baker (1823-1888), donated land near his home.  A wood-frame building was quickly erected for the school and classes began later that year, with a principal, two assistants, and 36 students.   

From Academy to College 

Whitman Seminary opened with great ambitions and fanfare, but within a year the school’s first principal, local Congregational minister Peasly B. Chamberlin, resigned.  Eells took over as principal for two years but also resigned, claiming that he lacked the energy to continue.  After Eells’s resignation, the school was unable to retain teachers and students, and it failed to remain open for each term.  Realizing that their school could not compete with local private and public schools, Whitman’s trustees thought the school might be able to survive as the region’s first college.  

In 1882, Whitman trustees called Alexander J. Anderson (1832-1903), the recently resigned president of the Territorial University (later the University of Washington), to become the first president of Whitman College.  With development support from the Congregational American College and Education Society, Anderson was able to successfully start Whitman College, a liberal arts college modeled on such New England colleges as Williams.  A new charter for the school was obtained in 1883.  In 1907, Whitman ended its relationship with the Congregational Church and became an independent college.  In spite of periodic financial struggles, Whitman College emerged as a premier liberal arts college.

Sources: G. Thomas Edwards, The Triumph of Tradition: The Emergence of Whitman College, 1859-1924 (Walla Walla: Whitman College, 1992); Myron Eells, Father Eells, or, The Results of Fifty-Five Years of Missionary Labors in Washington and Oregon (Boston: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, 1894); Stephen B. L. Penrose, Whitman: An Unfinished Story (Walla Walla: Whitman Publishing Co., 1935).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier timeline essay on the same subject.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You