If you’re of a particular generation, you’re likely to remember the Oregon Trail video game. Long before kids were master Minecraft builders, or zipping around corners in MarioKart, they were leaders guiding settlers as they traveled from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The road was tough, and you had to make life-altering decisions, decisions that would lead to the success of the party or would lead to dysentery. No one wanted to die of dysentery.
But for the real-life 19th-century Pioneers, the adventure was anything but a video game.
If you listened to our two-part series on the Lewis and Clark expedition, then you know America was longing to find a passable route to the Pacific Northwest. And while Lewis and Clark were able to find a passage, it wasn’t a realistic one for families in covered wagons. Another route was required.
Enter Robert Stuart of the Astorians. Part of a group of fur traders who established Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in western Oregon, Stuart became the first white man to use what would become known as the Oregon Trail in 1810. The 2,000-mile journey from Fort Astoria to St. Louis took 10 months to complete, which admittedly, was a decent chunk of time, yet it was less rugged than Lewis and Clark’s, and it was accessible to covered wagons. It was, a game changer.
While the white man saw this land as wild and untamed, a collection of resources to be claimed and inhabited, many Indigenous tribes saw it as their home. The arrival of those from the east would be the beginning of the end for the Native American way of life.
Yet it would be another 26 years before the first wagons would carve a trail towards Oregon Country.
A missionary party headed by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman set out to reach the Willamette Valley in March 1836, eventually settling in eastern Washington at Waiilatpu in September of that year.
During that time Narcissa kept a journal at the suggestion of her mother, whom she would never see again. In it, she writes to her family of life on the trail, of the oppressive heat, the difficult terrain, the joys, and her faith.
On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and our slightly edited version of the August 1836 journal entries from a woman who would hold many “firsts” as she made her way on foot towards the Pacific Northwest.
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August 7th: Came fifteen miles without seeing water, over a dry parch earth, covered with its native sage as parched as the earth itself. Heat excessive but mitigated with a gentle breeze. We have encamped on a fine place plenty of good grass for our weary animals. Thus are blessings so mingled, that it seems as if there was nothing else but mercy and blessings all the way.
August 8th Mon. Eve. Snake River: Have an excellent campground tonight, plenty of excellent feed for our horses & cattle. Quite a change in the temperatures of the atmosphere since yesterday noon. It was so cool last night & we have such a wind today, that we and our animals have traveled more comfortably for it. Have come eighteen miles today & have taken it so deliberately that it has been easy for us. The hunters came in last night well loaded. They had been in the mountains two days after game. Killed three Elks & two antelopes. This is the first Elk meat we have had, & is the last opportunity we expect to have of taking any more game. We think ours will last us until we reach the Salmon fishery, at Snake Falls. Thus we are well provided for all the way, contrary to our expectations.
August 11th [Thursday]. Tues & Wed. have been very tedious days, both for man and beast. Lengthy marches without water. Not so tedious today for length, but the route has been rocky & sandy.
August 12th Frid: Raised camp this morn at Sunrise. Came two hours ride to the Salmon fishery, [and] Obtained & boiled for our breakfast find it good eating. Friday eve. Dear Harriet the little trunk you gave me has come with me so far, & now I must leave it here alone. Poor little trunk! I am sorry to leave thee. Twenty miles below the Falls on Snake River. Farewell little Trunk. I thank thee for thy faithful services & that I have been cheered by thy presence so long. The hills are so steep that Husband thought it best to lighten the wagon as much as possible & take nothing but the wheels. I regret leaving anything that came from home especially that trunk, but it is best. It would have been better for us not to have attempted to bring any baggage only what necessary to use on the way. If I were to make this journey again I would make quite different preparations. To pack & unpack so many times & cross so many streams, where the packs frequently get wet, requires no small amount of labour, besides the injury done to the articles. Our books what few we have, have been wet several times. The custom of the country is to possess nothing & then you will lose nothing while traveling. farewell for the present.
August 13th Sat: Dear H, Mr McKay has asked the privilege of taking the little trunk along so that my soliloquy about it last night was for naught. We have come at least fifteen miles & have had the worst route in all the journey for the cart. They were preparing to cross Snake River. The river is divided by two islands into three branches & is fordable. The packs are placed upon the top of the highest horses &in this way crossed without wetting. Two of the tallest horses were selected to carry Mrs S & myself over. Husband had considerable difficulty in crossing the cart. Both the cart & the mules were capsized in the water and the mules entangled in the harness. They would have drowned, but for a desperate struggle to get them ashore Then after putting two of the strongest horses before the cart & two men swimming behind to steady it, they succeeded in getting it over. I once thought that crossing streams would be the most dreadful part of the journey. I can now cross the most difficult stream without the least fear. There is one manner of crossing which Husband has tried, but I have not, neither do I wish to. Take an Elk Skin and stretch it over you spreading yourself out as much as possible. Then let the Indian women carefully put you on the water, & with a cord in the mouth they will swim & drag you over.(Edward how do you think you would like to ride this way.)
August 15th: Yesterday Mr McLeod with most of his men left us wishing to hasten his arrival at Snake Fort, leaving us a pilot & his weakest animals to come in with us at our leisure. This is a relief to us for it is difficult to bring our cattle up to the speed they wish to travel. We have had such a cool wind today & it has been so comfortable traveling that we have made better progress than usual. We passed the hot Springs just before noon which are quite a curiosity. Boiled a bit of dry Salmon in one of them in five minutes.
August 19th: Arrived at Snake Fort about noon. It is situated on Big Wood River, so called because the timber is larger than any to be seen this side of the mountains. Snake Fort is owned & built by Mr McKay one of company whom we expect to leave here. He with Mr McLeod gave us a hearty welcome. Mr McLeod was ready to leave on the morrow but said he would stay a day longer to give us the opportunity of doing some necessary work, for which we were thankful.
August 20th Sat: Last night I put my cloths in water & this morning finished washing before breakfast.I find it not very agreeable to do such work in the middle of the day when I have no shelter to protect me from the suns scorching rays. This is the third time I have washed since I left the states or home either. Once at Fort Williams & at Rendezvous. Mr McLeod call this eve to see if we were ready to leave. Observed that we had been so engaged in labor as to have no time for rest & proposed for our sakes (the Ladies) to remain over the Sabbath. This I can assure you was a favour for which we can never be to thankful for as our souls need the rest of the Sab, as well as our bodies.
Narcissa, along with her husband Marcus and the rest of their party reached the Walla-Walla Washington area on September 1, 1836. During that time she became one of the first two white women to cross the continent overland, and in 1837 she had the first child born of American parents in Oregon Country. Her journey proved women could cross the country on foot, opening the door for several generations of emigrants to embark on the Oregon Trail.
Narcissa and her husband lived in Oregan for over 10 years as missionaries, dispensing farming and medical advice while preaching to local tribes. Earlier fur traders had brought infectious disease to the area, so when an outbreak of measles took hold, tribal leaders blamed the settlers, and on November 29, 1847, several men, secretly bearing hatchets and guns, visited Marcus Whitman under the pretense of a medical visit. In the ensuing attack, Narcissa lost her life, along with her husband and 11 other emigrants. The attack horrified Americans and impacted the lives of the peoples of the Columbia Plateau for decades.
Today, the story of The Whitmans and their time in Washington lives on at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The park is located in southeastern Washington, seven miles west of Walla Walla off of Highway 12. The grounds are open all year, sunrise to sunset, and the Visitor’s Center is open daily during the summer and closed Monday’s and Tuesday’s during the Winter. There is no fee to enter and the site includes the original mission, a mass grave where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman are buried, the Whitman memorial obelisk, and a small museum inside the Visitor’s Center.
This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and written and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.
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