At the Whitman Mission VI
Bill Long 7/31/06
The Attempt to Close the Whitman Mission
Discord among the American Board Missionaries in the Northwest, who had now set up shop not only at Waiilatpu and Lapwai but also in two other places near Spokane, led the American Board to send a letter to Whitman in February 1842 with the intent to close the mission, recall most of the missionaries and reassign Whitman to the Tshimikain mission up north. On Feb. 23, the ABCFM met and voted to dissolve the southern missions, but the letter didn't arrive in Waailatpu until it was hand-delivered on September 10 by Elijah White, leader of the 1842 Oregon trail migration. In response to this letter, the missionaries held a meeting late in September, deciding that Whitman would return East in the dead of Winter to try to save the mission. He left on October 3, 1842 and eventually made it to Washington DC, New York and Boston.
This trip has been romanticized in American history as Dr. Whitman's "saving" of Oregon, and it was probably the long-standing nature of this myth that contributed to Whitman's statute being one of the two from the State of WA placed in the Statuary Hall in Washington, D. C. in 1953. In any case, all scholars are in agreement that after Whitman's mid-winter trip back to the East (it was a particularly treacherous journey because weather and Native American problems in the Northern Plains forced him to take a huge detour through, of all places, New Mexico), he not only was able to change the mind of the ACBFM but he adopted a "new approach" to the Mission. From henceforth his work would primarily be to help settlers on the Oregon Trail, which went right in front of the Mission, gain rest and supplies for the last 300 miles of the journey. This volte-face would also breed further suspicion and hostility between Whitman and the Cayuse. It was as if the two cultures were on a collision course even though it took several years for the tinder to be struck and an open conflagration to break out (1847).
Excerpts from the ABCFM letter (Feb. 25, 1842)
The Rev. Greene, Secretary for the Board, wrote the following:
"But as it seems to be the unanimous opinion of all those connected with the south branch of the mission, with, perhaps Mr. Spalding excepted, that the stations must be discontinued or supplied with new men, in which opinion the brethren at the Sandwich Islands concur, the Committee have taken the subject, in that view of it, into serious consideration. They felt compelled to this the more by the despondent tones in which many of your number wrote about the smallness of the number and the unpromising character and habits of the Indians, and the unsuitableness of the country for supporting any numerous or dense population."
The Board didn't consider it proper to air the dirty laundry through the letter, but it spoke obliquely of the troubles that many had with each other when it mentioned "disaffection among its members." The most egregious of the violators seemed to be the Rev. Spalding. The letter has this to say about him:
"Against Mr. Spalding the Committee would of course bring no charges without giving him an opportunity to vindicate himself. Still it is evident that he does not enjoy the confidence of his brethren of the mission, nor of those of the mission at the Islands, in such a degree as to justify the Committee in continuing him longer in the mission."
Mrs. Smith's health (wife of Asa Smith) had so deteriorated that the Board required her and her husband also to return home. Then, with respect to William Gray, another member of the 1836 delegation, they said:
"The Committee do not think that Mr. Gray is likely to labor happily or usefully in the Oregon country; nor do they see that any field is open for him in connection with the mission at the Sandwich Islands."
A Real Housecleaning
Does the first indented paragraph above mean that Whitman, too, wanted the mission to close? I don't know, but the Board concluded that he still had a utility in the area. But here is what they proposed to do:
"1 To discontinue the southern branch of the Oregon Mission.
2 To recall the Rev. Henry H. Spalding and wife, with the expectations that they would return to the United States by the earliest suitable opportunity.
3 Expressing the decided opinion that it is expedient for Rev. Asa B. Smith and wife, and Mr. William H. Gray and wife also to return to the United States by the earliest suitable opportunity.
4 Transferring Doct. Marcus Whitman, and Mr. Cornelius Rogers [Rogers, who was only 23, had died in the Columbia River before this letter arrived], if he should be disposed to continue in the missionary work, to the north branch of the mission, to cooperate with Messrs. Eells and Walker.
5 Appointing Doct. Whitman and Mr. Rogers to dispose of the mission property connected with the south branch of the mission, to the Methodist mission, or in such other manner as they might deem advisable, In order to bring the affairs of those stations to a close more speedily and with the least loss to the Board. Whatever can advantageously be transferred to the north branch of the mission, will, of course be thus disposed of."
Whitman Secures the Reversal
Whitman left Waiilatpu on Monday October 3, 1842 with only a fellow companion named Asa Lovejoy (a founder of Portland, OR in 1845) and a dog named Trapper. At South Pass they were warned about Indian dangers, and so set a southward course with a guide, arriving finally in Taos in early December. He arrived in Westport, near St. Louis on February 15 and then dashed to Washington DC arriving about six weeks later, just after Senator Lewis Linn (MO) had introduced his first land bill which would have granted every white male settler over 18 years of age up to 640 acres of land. While in Washington DC he talked with Senator Daniel Webster and others about the need to have a strong presence in the Northwest as Westward migrations began in earnest. Then, he proceeded to New York and finally to Boston, arriving on March 29, 1843. He stayed there for 10 days, putting his case before the American Board for the first five. He rested his case on five arguments:
"1. Tshimakain was the poorest mission of them all.
a. Agricultural conditions were most unfavorable.
b. The Indians were unresponsive.
2. Emigrants were beginning to come and Waiilatpu was a strategic stopping point.
3. Smith and Rodgers were gone.
4. Gray was planning to depart.
5. A reconciliation had been made with Spalding."
After hearing Whitman's "case," the board reversed its decision.
Not having any time to lose, Whitman dashed off to Western New York, where he recruited his nephew, Perrin Whitman, to accompany him West. They arrived in Westport, MO after the first wagon trains had left for Oregon, but they joined with others, leading a return to Waiilatpu, now with renewed backing of the Board.
Even if his trip didn't "save" Oregon for the United States, it was a dramatic trip nevertheless. The upshot of it, however, was to refocus the mission to help Americans settle in the region. Was the original missionary or evangelization feeling lost? Only deep study of letters and other testimony would enable us to answer that question. Suffice it to say here that the mission redirection appeared to be a necessity in order to gain a reprieve from the Board and the support of some significant Congressional leaders. Compromise, after all, is the name of the game, even for those with a divinely-given vision.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long