WHAT IS IT?
A Visitor Center and museum dedicated to the memory of Oregon Trail pioneers and Presbyterian missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. A walking trail passes by the grounds where the Whitman Mission stood until the infamous Day of Retribution, November 29, 1847.
Whitman Mission NHS could be a peaceful, charming place. There are apple trees, a pond whose banks enjoy sunning turtles, gently blowing wheat fields in the distance and a strikingly green manicured lawn. The only problem is that the Site commemorates many brutal murders. We walked around with a serious case of unease.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
In 1831, four Nez Perce emissaries traveled to St. Louis in search of information about the Christian book of heaven. Their inquiry was made known in New England Christian circles and was met with a clear response: Presbyterian missionaries headed west to spread the Gospel. In 1836, Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman departed St. Louis with Rev. Harmon and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to make the overland journey west.
The Spalding’s settled in Nez Perce country while the Whitman’s found a home among the Cayuse Indians. Relations between the Whitman’s and the Cayuse, never stellar, took a turn for the worse in 1847. By this time, the Oregon Trail was bringing numerous emigrants to the territory. The Cayuse were not thrilled. When pioneer-brought measles epidemic killed half the Cayuse tribe members, the Indians became understandably angry.
They blamed the deaths on Marcus. His medical treatments cured the white settlers but did not help the Indians whose bodies had no resistance to the germs. They believed Dr. Whitman was poisoning them to make room for more emigrants. As was their custom, vengeance would soon come to the medicine man, in this case, Marcus. On the Day of Retribution, the Doctor and his wife met a gruesome death, as did their two adopted male children and nine others. The remaining missionaries were taken hostage and a month later released with a ransom.
The end result was no more missions in Oregon Country. The remaining Cayuse fled to the mountains. Eventually five presumably guilty Indians were handed over to the newly created Oregon Territory Government and hanged. The Whitmans’ is an interesting and grisly story. They had a part in the opening of Oregon country and in westward expansion but we are hesitant to assign them a major role.
There were not many people at the Whitman Mission NHS. We arrived at the tail end of a school trip and saw no one else for the next hour.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
Washington State is a lot larger and more remote than we easterners give it credit. Walla Walla is in the southeast portion of the state along the Oregon border. The Site is 37 miles east of Interstate 82 as well as 40 miles north of Interstate 84. The town and the Site are surrounded by rolling hills covered with shimmering wheat. It is a lot more rural than we ever imagined Washington State.
The self-guided walk around the Mission site is, to quote a Ranger, “mostly flat, except for that hill part.” But beware that hill. It is a serious uphill grade if you want to see the “Whitman Memorial Shaft” that overlooks the remnants of the former Mission.
Upon first glance, the Whitman Mission NHS bookstore selection looks to be a bit thin. Further inspection reveals that the majority of the books are Whitman-related, titles that would be difficult to find at the Barnes and Noble. Among the stacks is Stout-Hearted Seven, the historical children’s novel based on the tragic lives of Sager children. Orphaned while traveling the Oregon Trail, the Whitman’s adopted all seven. The two boys were murdered with the step parents while the five girls, after being orphaned a second time, were kidnapped by the Cayuse. Our incredulity that a children’s book could be written about such an instance was matched only by our intrigue in the books contents. Gab read about 15 pages at the bookstore while Michael played a Get Your Salmon to Spawn computer game.
The sight costs $3 per adult or $5 per family. Admission is free with the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
We encountered only one Ranger at the Site. He shifted from his office workplace in the Visitor Center bowels to the front desk when the rare tourist needed help. He ably answered the few questions we had. The self-guided tour, the museum and the slide show were more than adequate in sating our Whitman understanding.
We read in our Guide to the National Parks book that living history presentations occur here during the summer weekends. By the time we arrived in mid-September, just the props were on display at the Visitor Center. Looking at the large spinning wheel, and baskets of hand-dipped candles and molded soaps, we imagined that these working artisan displays would add a nice touch to the site.
We watched the introductory film and browsed the small museum. We weren’t exactly sure what the Day of Retribution was until we toured the former site of the mission. It was only then that the full meaning of the term became clear.
Everything about the site is self-directed. In addition to the walking tour of the mission site, complete with audio and visual displays at each landmark, there is the aforementioned Get Your Salmon to Spawn computer game. Although we are not normally fans of the computer screens which in some places seem to be substitutes for Rangers, this simple choose-your-own-adventure type program had us hooked (no pun intended). The life of a salmon is a perilous journey.
We did not have many questions for the Ranger until we returned from our walk and browsed the bookstore. Once we had a good idea of what took place at the Whitman Mission, we asked him to help verify and further explain some of the events.
For teachers and educators, there are binders near the entrance of the Center that offer ideas for lesson plans and activities related to the site. We are both glad that this was not a regular field trip offering at our grade schools.
As much fun as watching the New York City Channel 9 local news or exploring first-hand the events of an episode of America’s Most Wanted.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
The site is intriguing, but not a must-see destination.
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