Oregon Trail, Day Eight: A Fortuitous Change of Plans

I returned to my stepdad’s house on Sunday, August 3, concluding my road trip at exactly two months (it went so fast)

…and yet this post is about Day Eight on the Oregon Trail, which was June 18. Again, I hang my head in shame. I’m going to try to be better about putting up the rest of my trip photos, at least as far as the Oregon Trail part is concerned. I do have a lot of ideas for unrelated blog posts tumbling around in my brain, so those will be scattered among the trip-related posts as well.

When I left Baker City, OR, I was supposed to stop and camp for the night at Emigrant Springs campground, sleeping in my car for the second time. I must have been delusional when I made those plans, because it was a short drive from one place to the other, with little to see in-between, meaning the original plans wasted most of a day. So I changed my plans and made a last-minute reservation for a hotel in Walla Walla, Washington. It was one of the best decisions of my trip.

I did stop and cruise through part of Emigrant Springs, which is in an old-growth forest in the Blue Mountains.

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Clearly meant for me

The location was a popular camping spot for the emigrants. Being Oregon, though, it was damp, and, as I expected to see some of the same kind of wilderness around Seattle (unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, but of course I did not know that at the time) I did not stay long.

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I drove on to Pendleton, OR, and visited the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, which, according to TripAdvisor, “chronicles tribal heritage and the impact of Western migration from the Native American perspective.” It focuses particularly on the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Tribes that lived in the region. The museum is located next to the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, near the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The exhibits were interesting to see (especially the temporary exhibit on North American wolves), but not as informative as I would have liked. They did not provide a lot of written information about the tribes themselves, their language, and their mythology, even though some of the plaques contain vague references. Maybe I would have been less confused if I had watched the informational video at the start of the exhibit, but the theater was closed for repairs.

There were some spectacular views on the drive that day.

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Before reaching the town of Walla Walla, I stopped at the nearby Whitman Mission Site. This was one of the most moving parts of the entire journey.

It was a little bit out of my way, as it was for the emigrants, as well. I had to drive further north into Washington state, and then back down into Oregon the next day to continue on the main trail route. But in the early days of the Oregon Trail, the Whitman Mission provided a supply of provisions, and even quarters for the winter. I couldn’t not stop by.

DSC01483The Whitman Mission, also known by the name Waiilatpu, was a product of the United States’ Second Great Awakening, founded by Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman to spread the Gospel among the Cayuse Indians and teach them modern (at the time) farming techniques. Language barriers and cultural misunderstandings severely limited the mission’s effectiveness, and eventually the Whitmans focused more on farming and serving the needs of passing emigrants. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, the wife of another missionary, were the first two white women to cross the American continent. Their passage in the early 1940s was a major contribution to the popularity of the Oregon Trail, as it proved that the journey could be made by families as well as hardy, wild trappers and natives.

Relations with the Cayuse never really improved, as they feared the growing numbers of pioneers entering their lands and bringing diseases that were new to the Indians. As the Whitmans devoted more time and effort toward caring for the emigrants instead of the Indians, the Cayuse grew even more suspicious. In the autumn of 1847, a measles epidemic spread from the emigrants to nearby Indian villages, killing about half the population. Marcus Whitman could not control the epidemic, and suspicions were further aroused when his treatments seemed more effective among the whites than the Indians.

The Cayuse believed that the Whitmans were practicing bad medicine against them deliberately, which in their view, was a hostile act that required retribution. A group of Cayuse held a meeting to pronounce a death sentence on Marcus Whitman. On November 29, 1847, a small group of warriors attacked the mission, killing 13, including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and capturing 49. Some survivors escaped, and some captives died or were ransomed. The massacre triggered a public outcry that led to U.S. retribution and set off the Cayuse War of 1848.

The “Great Grave,” housing the remains of the massacre victims

Part of the reason why this particular site affected me quite deeply is because, as a Christian, I believe in the importance of mission work, and it pains me deeply when efforts to further the Gospel are unsuccessful. There is a very informative video at the Whitman Mission visitor’s center that provides (what I think is) a well-balanced view of the event. I think Marcus and Narcissa Whitman did have good intentions, but they were woefully unprepared for the land and the people they meant to preach to. Part of this was their own fault, and part of it was simply the ignorance of the age. The vast number of factors that contributed to such a tragedy (and when I say “tragedy” I mean both the measles deaths and the deliberate killings) is partly why, I think, it is so heartbreaking.

The history of the Whitman Mission is mentioned in many historical sites and exhibits in this part of the country (including the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute), and it seems to be treated with great reverence, especially at the site itself.

Memorial to the Whitmans at the top of a hill overlooking the mission’s original site

Close-up of the Whitman memorial

The area was as beautiful as it was sad.

View of the mission site, from the memorial

Surrounding farmland, some of which was once owned and cultivated by the Whitmans

A closer look at some of that farmland

Walking path near the memorial

Another view of the site (bonus wagon model)

Archaeologists have done excavating at the site and uncovered the foundations for many of the buildings, including the blacksmith and the Whitmans’ house, where they were killed.

The foundation of the Whitman house, the very spot where they died. This may have been where I started to weep.

Small-scale reproduction of the orchards at the mission

From the Whitman Mission site, I proceeded to Walla Walla itself, where I checked into my hotel before exploring the town.

As with Baker City, I didn’t take any pictures of the unspeakably adorable downtown Walla Walla area. I was too busy enjoying it. There were lots of wine bars and shops, it being in the middle of wine country, as well as clothing stories (upscale and consignment), book stores, a delightful toy store, and a variety of bistros and cafes. The hotel I chose was well within walking distance of all these delights.

I didn’t regret my change of plans for a moment, and now Walla Walla is one of the two top contenders for Where Will Em Live Next?

Photo I “borrowed” from wallawalla.org. Except for the difference in seasons, yes, it is that quaint and pretty.

3 thoughts on “Oregon Trail, Day Eight: A Fortuitous Change of Plans

  1. Sad and beautiful, as you say. :)

    I’ll pass on some wisdom a friend gave to me not long ago. It pertains to hanging your head in shame at failing to post promptly. Don’t let the blog be a tyrant. It exists for you, not you for it. It shouldn’t make you feel bad. ;)

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