Excitement is building at the Whitman Mission, one of Walla Walla’s best-visited attractions. As the centennial celebration of its founding in 1936 by the National Park Service as Whitman National Monument grows nearer, a much-awaited opportunity to invigorate the venerable narrative of the Whitman massacre and Oregon Trail saga presents itself.
Dr. Beth Erdey, an archivist and Research Center director with the National Park Service, graciously allowed Lifestyles a glimpse into a nonpublic depository where excavated artifacts and donated, loaned and purchased objects are stored. With help from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Whitman College, this collection could assist in rejuvenating the narrative of a pivotal time in area history.
A rich and vibrant infusion of new thinking and wider understanding is bound to shake up the familiar old images. The broader sweep will include the story of the neighboring Métis settlement at Frenchtown, which by 20 years predates the founding of the mission at Waiilatpu by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.
The new approach also will take a closer look at the diverse Native populations who established presences in this area over 10,000 years ago. The Cayuse people, inflexibly demonized after the bloodletting and siege of November and December 1847, will hold their own in the updated accounting.
Whether recovered from the ground archaeologically, donated, purchased, on loan or commissioned, the many not-on-display objects and item-fragments are eloquent testimonials of culture, character and events. Once liberated from storage, unknown old stuff is bound to prompt new questions and fresh understanding.
A humble, green, eight-sided glass ink bottle was recovered from the Mission House. An iron horseshoe came to light in the blacksmith shop in 1962. Shards of ironstone pottery, some stamped and datable, speak to the movement of people along the Oregon Trail and the occupation of the site after the Whitmans’ deaths.
A molded brown clay pipe found in two pieces alludes to the dispersal of manufactured goods at a time when the Hudson’s Bay Company was in full swing at Fort Nez Perce, 25 miles to the west.
A beaded bag with two small handles, recorded as an incoming loan from the Umatilla Indian Reservation, is dated to the 1920s and attributed loosely to Columbia Plateau origins. Its various materials (blue wool trade cloth, cotton fabric, silk binding, tanned buckskin, brown paper, blue, lavender, green, red, white and turquoise beads, and a fortifying paste of flour and water for reinforcement), signs of hand stitching and evidence of restoration and renewal attest to its sturdy manufacture, long service and cherished value.
With backing from the interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Presybterian Whitmans founded the mission at Waiilatpu in 1836, situated among lands occupied by the Cayuse peoples, specifically the Pasxapu band (named after the local balsamroot sunflower) under Chief Umtippe (Cut Lip or Split Lip).
After the Whitmans and 12 others were killed in 1847, the site was briefly occupied by about 500 volunteer militiamen from the Willamette Valley. Upon their arrival they found the mission in ruins, and later constructed a shelter called Fort Waters.
Not long after this short-lived occupation, stockmen took up residence in the existing building from 1852-55. When they moved on, the site burned, and later was reinhabited by Reverend Cushing Eells, who in 1859 erected a home for his family, as well as a school in memory of the Whitmans — the forerunner of Whitman College.
The Eells’ residence was destroyed by fire in 1872. The land, fortuitously unsuitable for crops by this time, allowed the archaeological record attesting to successive layers of occupation to remain undisturbed until the 20th century. The earth retained traces of the people who came and went, and memories and possessions were passed along family and tribal lines.
Once the site was obtained by the National Park Service and designated Whitman National Monument, several seasons of professional archaeological research — interrupted by World War II — were undertaken by Thomas Garth and an assistant. Descriptions were provided by contemporary written records. Five mission buildings were identified: the so-called First House, Emigrant House, Blacksmith Shop, Gristmill and Mission House.
A setback occurred at the end of Garth’s first season, when a fire destroyed his trailer along with 200 artifacts and an untold number of supporting notecards. The fruits of Garth’s subsequent digs in 1947 and 1948, and another archaeological campaign in the 1960s, yielded over 10,000 items. Many other objects, carried off by survivors of the Whitman attack who had been ransomed and relocated downriver by Peter Skene Ogden of Fort Vancouver, eventually found their way into the collection of the Oregon State Historical Society
When talking about objects of Cayuse or Columbia Plateau manufacture, Roger Amerman brings a beading artist’s sensibility and a natural resource scientist’s mind to his job as ranger at the historic site.
Referring to his assorted native roots, Amerman admits, “There’s a lot of footprints.” In addition to his Choctaw blood, he has relatives among the Hopi in Arizona, and marital and professional contacts throughout the Columbia Plateau tribes, including the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Nez Percé.
Nodding toward an ornate re-creation of a dress, dated to the early to mid-1800s, in the public display area of the adjoining museum, Amerman states, “The Whitman Mission includes artifacts, cultural items and life-way graphics and narratives about the Cayuse peoples and their descendants, and we have some extremely excellent work from one of the best beadworkers in North America, Maynard White Owl Lavadour, who is a Cayuse descendant and a former employee here, too.”
Emphasizing the paramount importance of the horse to Cayuse status and identity, Amerman explains the relevance of strong patterns and bold colors as design elements. “A piece ‘reads’ well if it’s bold from a distance. Riding into camp, they’re making a good presentation nonverbally; their horses are adorned and dressed just as fine as themselves, or better. You’ll see bold stars with bold diamonds, yesterday and today. You’ll still see that design at the Pendleton Round-Up. Those repeated stars look very good, and they are very sacred signs, too.”
After contact with Euro-Americans, Cayuse “art sense” changed; this is evident in the greater attention to detail and subtle changes in color tones, Amerman says.
“The more recent work looks good up close, but the ancestors would say, ‘I can’t see that from a distance, it’s too detailed.’” Speaking about the maker’s original intention, Amerman adds, “It wasn’t about how ornate I could make it in a quarter-inch.”
Excitement for the chance to pump new life into what has become a static narrative is building in anticipation of the centennial celebration in a couple of decades. Strong ties with the city of Walla Walla, partnerships with the CTUIR and Whitman College, as well as public input, will undoubtedly shake loose the narrow codified version of early local history.
“Slowly we get more native stories from family members related to those who lived here in earlier times and more information from descendants related to Frenchtown people,” park Ranger Stephanie Martin relates.
“What we learn from them just rounds out the picture — and we’ve learned more from them in the last 10 years than we have in the last 70.”
With the wealth of information eventually to be gleaned from artifacts presently existing in archival limbo, get ready: A new history is about to come alive.