The advance of European and American interests into the Pacific Northwest was carried out on two fronts: by sea and by land. Although sea explorations of the Pacific coast began in the late 16th century, it took another 200 years before the mouth of the Columbia River was discovered by Capt. Robert Gray. His find received very little publicity, and it wasn’t until Lewis and Clark came at it from the other direction several years later, over land, that its immensity could be appreciated.
In 1805, a party led by Lt. William Clark and Capt. Meriwether Lewis completed the westward leg of their arduous journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, mandated by President Jefferson following the United States’ acquisition of an enormous tract of land from the French, the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson’s motivation for the expedition was manifold. He needed to map this new territory in the hope of establishing a water system spanning the continent from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The mission of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was to plot a river route that would link the new territory to eastern commercial river ports, to cross the Rocky Mountains, and to find and follow the Columbia River to its end.
Jefferson also needed information about the current inhabitants of the territory, to inform the Indian people that it was no longer theirs, and to assess the scope of the project ahead, the westward expansion of the United States.
In all of this, Lewis and Clark succeeded, and their initial crude route soon became a major funnel through which Americans flooded west to grab land, gold, silver, timber and furs, squeezing those indigenous people who survived into reservations.
First out of the gate were the fur traders, led by John Jacob Astor, whose Pacific Fur Company established a base, called Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia in 1811. This was soon sold to the British-owned North West Company, which vied with the Hudson’s Bay Company for dominance of the market until the two merged in 1821.
A thriving fur trade required an infrastructure — namely, a central supply depot, quarters for personnel and secure storage for the valuable trade goods. In 1818, the North West Company built such a facility on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Walla Walla River. Fort Nez Perce was the first trading post in the area. It was eventually renamed Fort Walla Walla by the Hudson’s Bay Company; it burned down in 1841. It was quickly replaced but was finally abandoned in 1855 in response to the Indian uprising of that year.
The trading posts employed French Canadian guides and trappers, many of whom married native women and began to settle the Walla Walla River valley in the 1820s. By 1847, more than 50 of these mixed-blood families, or Métis, had established farms near what is now Lowden, in a community called Frenchtown.
Following the fur traders were the missionaries who, in an ironic twist of history, were actually solicited by a small delegation of Indians in an effort to find people who would teach them the power of this invading white man. Their plea was made in St. Louis in 1831 and was answered in 1835, first by a Congregational pastor, Samuel Parker. He recruited a Calvinist medical missionary, Dr. Marcus Whitman, and the two of them traveled to Wyoming to assess the situation. Deeming missions to be necessary, Parker continued west while Whitman returned east for supplies and additional missionaries.
Five missionaries, including the first white women to cross the continent, took almost seven months to get from New York to Fort Vancouver: Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, Henry and Elizabeth Spalding, and a lay member, William H. Gray. The party arrived at the fort on Sept. 12, 1836, and soon separated to establish missions in two locations. The Spaldings chose to work with the Nez Perce at Lapwai (near Lewiston, Idaho) while the Whitmans moved to Waiilatpu, home of the Cayuse, near present-day Walla Walla.
In 1843, Whitman helped establish the viability of the Oregon Trail by guiding the first large group of wagon trains to the area. He hoped that an influx of Christian families would help to convert the Indians, a task at which he had not been overly successful. Instead, the increased number of whites served to further unsettle the jittery Cayuse who were worried about being displaced, and when a measles epidemic decimated the tribe in the fall of 1847, Whitman was blamed for poisoning them. On Nov. 29, the Whitmans and 12 others were killed. The “Whitman Massacre,” as it came to be known, helped to ignite the seven-year Cayuse Indian War, which had tragic consequences for the Indians and was part of what led to the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.