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A Caravan On the Oregon Trail

The wagon train of 1843 was the largest yet to assemble for the trip to Oregon. Its way had been paved by the triumphs and failures of the fur traders, adventurers, missionaries, and settlers who had gone before. Back in 1832, Capt. Benjamin Bonneville had taken 20 wagons beyond the Continental Divide. However, he did not attempt to take them to the Columbia River, which he visited in 1834 and again in 1835. In 1836 Whitman and Spalding set a new milestone by taking a light wagon, by then converted to a two-wheeled cart, as far west as Fort Boise.

The first wagons reached the Columbia in 1840. They were brought from Fort Hall, where earlier travelers had abandoned them, by a group of mountain men who were on their way to settle in the Willamette Valley. The trail was so rough that the men finally stripped the wagons down to their bare frames to get through the sagebrush. The next year an emigrant train of more than 100 people, led by Dr. Elijah White, reached the Columbia, but their wagons were taken only as far west as Fort Hall. It was the caravan of 1843 that brought all these efforts to fulfillment by taking its wagons intact to the Columbia. One of the reasons for this success was Dr. Whitman.

In May 1843 the emigrants held a general meeting at Independence to plan the organization of the wagons. For better control, it was eventually decided to divide the train into two parts: an advance group unencumbered by livestock, and a slower group that would take the cattle. Beyond Fort Hall, where the danger from Indian attack was much less, the train was to split into smaller units, each to proceed at its own speed. The emigrants also appointed a committee to talk to Dr. Whitman to obtain advice on the journey. From his own experiences, Whitman was in a position to offer many sound suggestions.

While the caravan crossed the prairie during June and July, Marcus Whitman remained behind with the cow column. But when the lead wagons reached the mountains in the first week of August, he moved up to the advance party. From then on Whitman was active in helping to guide the train westward. He assisted in finding the easiest fords and in crossing the rivers. He pushed on ahead to locate and mark the best routes. Whenever necessary, he treated the sick and the lame. Above all, he constantly urged the emigrants, some of whom were experiencing great discouragement, to keep on pushing westward so that they would reach Oregon before winter set in. At Fort Hall, the Hudson's Bay Company trader, Richard Grant, in good faith advised the emigrants to leave their wagons there. But Whitman insisted that the wagons could be taken to the Columbia. Catching his enthusiasm, the emigrants formally hired the doctor to lead them the rest of the way. From Fort Hall to the Grande Ronde Valley, he went ahead of the train marking the route for the wagons to follow.

Just before the difficult crossing of the Blue Mountains, Whitman received word by messenger to hurry to Lapwai where both Henry and Eliza Spalding were seriously ill. To help the emigrants in crossing the mountains, he persuaded them to accept as a guide an outstanding Cayuse leader named Stickus. This chief faithfully and carefully guided the wagons across the timber-covered range and on to the mission station.

After a fast ride to Lapwai, Whitman treated the Spaldings, then hurried on to Waiilatpu. He arrived home on September 28, just 5 days short of a year since he had started on his trip. Stopping only long enough to notice that the first of the emigrant wagons had already arrived, the doctor mounted his horse once more in answer to an other summons and rode to the Tshimakain mission to deliver Myra Eells of a son.

By the time Whitman again returned to Waiilatpu, most of the emigrants had already stopped at the mission and had gone on to the Columbia. From the mission's storerooms, the travelers had refurnished their supplies with wheat, corn, potatoes, beef, and pork raised at Waiilatpu.

This migration of 1843 confirmed Marcus Whitman's thoughts that his mission was to be an important way station on the Oregon Trail. From then on, by the time emigrants reached the Walla Walla Valley each autumn many were sick, exhausted, or suffering from hunger. Marcus and Narcissa welcomed these people, whether they stopped overnight or stayed for the winter. The sick and injured were treated; produce from the fields was sold or given to the needy; worn-out horses and cattle were replaced with fresh ones from the mission's herd. A few, not yet aware of the high cost in the Far West of food, tools, and other things needed by the emigrants, criticized Whitman for being mercenary, but most visitors praised him for his aid. He turned no one away. Whitman felt it was his special responsibility to care for the destitute and the sick.

The Oregon Trail was repeatedly changed with the discovery of shortcuts during these years. In 1845 the majority of the emigrants by-passed the mission when a trail was opened down the Umatilla River past present-day Pendleton, Oreg. But each autumn many of the wagons still turned toward Waiilatpu for shelter. The famous as well as the unknown came to the mission: T. J. Farnham, emigrant leader; Capt. John Charles Frémont, army explorer; Paul Kane, artist; and John Sutter, of later California fame. These and hundreds more found comfort and aid at Waiilatpu.

Because Whitman was back at his station and relations among the missionaries were greatly improved, the next few years seemed to be good ones for the Oregon mission. But, despite the outward signs of success, troubles were breeding that would lead to tragedy.


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Last Modified: Sat, Sep 28 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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