Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whitman Mission

When I was growing up, my favorite book was a fictionalized biography of Narcissa Whitman. Other girls my age were reading about the Bobsey Twins or Nancy Drew, but I stuck to Narcissa Whitman. Over the years, she has remained the woman I most admire, the woman I would most like to spend an hour or two talking with.

Concrete blocks outline the site of the
Whitman Mission.

Why Narcissa Whitman? Well, why not! There is much to admire about her: her courage, her spirit of adventure which led her to become the first white woman to cross the Oregon Trail in 1836. Some may say she jumped at the chance to marry Marcus Whitman to save herself from a life of lonely spinsterhood. I prefer to think differently. Had she known the tragedy which would befall her when she reached what is now Washington, I think a life of lonely spinsterhood would have seemed pretty darned good.

I feel close to Narcissa Whitman whenever I visit the site of the mission the couple established just west of Walla Walla. Nothing remains of the mission today which is now a National Historic Site, though concrete blocks in the grass outline the shape of the main mission building which was also the couple's home. There is an aura of serenity about the site; there is no hint of the tragic massacre which took place there on November 29, 1847, when the Whitmans and several of their adopted Sager children were killed by Indians upset because a white man's disease -- measles --  had decimated the tribe.

A couple of hundred yards away, up the hill beyond the visitor center, lies the Great Grave, where everyone killed that day is buried. Farther up the hill is a monument overlooking the mission grounds, including remnants of the Oregon Trail which passed by.  The visitor center is small, but has quality exhibits about life at the mission during that time. The mission is open almost every day at 328 Whitman Mission Road, which is a turn off Old Highway 12 onto Swegle Road.

Over the years, thinking about what Narcissa Whitman would have done has given me courage to face my own frontiers, such as up and moving to Alaska or China on a whim. Both times the thought of the unknown scared me out of my wits. I asked myself what would Narcissa have done. She would have gone without a backward glance. So I calmed myself down and went, too.

What woman do you most admire? 

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