Congregationalist missionary the Reverend Cushing Eells was born in Massachusetts on February 16, 1810. Eells founded Whitman CollegeExternal in Walla Walla, the oldest educational institution in Washington State, when the Washington Territorial Legislature granted a charter to the Whitman Seminary on December 20,1859. He named the school in honor of fellow missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who were killed by Native Americans in 1847. The Whitmans were pioneers who helped open the Oregon Territory to U.S. settlement.
In 1836, the Whitmans founded a mission among the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu, seven miles west of present-day Walla Walla. In addition to evangelizing, the missionaries established schools and gristmills and introduced crop irrigation. However, their work advanced slowly, jeopardizing funding. In 1842, in response to a letter ordering the Whitmans to leave Waiilatpu, Marcus Whitman journeyed East and convinced the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to continue supporting the work of the mission. Returning the following year, he joined the “Great Migration of 1843”—approximately 1,000 settlers traveling to Oregon Territory. Without Whitman’s aid the caravan might not have reached its goal.
With the sudden influx of settlers, tension between Native Americans and the pioneers escalated. Trouble erupted in 1847 when a measles epidemic killed a disproportionate number of Native American children. A practicing physician, Whitman was accused of using magic to eliminate Native Americans in order to make way for new immigrants. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and twelve other settlers were killed by Cayuse warriors on November 29, 1847. Known as the Whitman Massacre, this event precipitated the Cayuse War—a conflict that lasted until 1850.
Between 1769 and 1823, Spanish Catholics established twenty-one missions among California Indians. Catholic missionaries competed for conversions among the Cayuse in the 1840s.
- Joseph Wilkinson Hines discusses early missions in contemporary Oregon and Washington in Chapter VIII of his memoir, Touching Incidents in the Life and Labors of a Pioneer on the Pacific Coast Since 1853. A full text search in California as I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900 on Walla Walla or Marcus Whitman will lead to more recollections of pioneer days in southeastern Washington.
- To learn about another northwestern tribe evangelized by Congregationalist missionaries see the Today in History feature on Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.
- Search Chronicling America on Cushing Eells, Marcus Whitman, Whitman College, Cayuse Indians, and other terms of interest to find newspaper articles on these topics.
- Search the Panoramic Photographs and Detroit Publishing Company collections to see more images, urban and rural, of Washington State.
- Visit the website of the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, maintained by the National Park Service, to learn more about the Whitmans.
- Browse American Indians of the Pacific Northwest CollectionExternal on Whitman, Cayuse, and Walla Walla for images and documents.
- Search the Curtis (Edward S.) Collection by keywords Cayuse and Nez Perce for photographic images of these Native Americans. Also visit Edward S. Curtis’s The North American IndianExternal to view photogravure plates printed from Curtis’s photographs.
- Search mission in the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey collection to see photographs and drawings of missions in several states.
- A keyword search on Nez Perce in the Denver Public Library Digital CollectionsExternal, will yield additional images of this Native American tribe.