By Dr. Rick Chromey
Oregon. Washington. Idaho. Parts of Montana and Wyoming.
It’s nearly 300,000 acres of majestic, rugged land known as the Oregon Territory, a portion of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The infamous Oregon Trail snakes through this vast estate, connecting the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of westward wagons once traveled its corridors and canyons, leaving behind etchings, belongings, and graves. Today it’s interstates and roads that mark the path.
But who started the trail? And for what reason?
The story originates with five Indians – four Flathead and one Nez Perce – who traveled over 2,000 miles to visit “their great father,” William C. Clark. Clark and Meriwether Lewis had encountered the Nez Perce and Flathead Indians in their exploration of the Missouri and Columbia rivers in 1803-1806.
Now these four Indians sought spiritual guidance. They wanted to secure the “book to Heaven” that allowed people to “live forever with the Great Spirit.” And in 1831 they traveled to faraway St. Louis, Mo. to get answers. On the way, one died.
The remaining four Indians found Clark at his home. Upon learning of their quest, Clark kindly gave them a tour of town and showed them a cathedral…but offered no answers. When another two Indians died, the remaining pair desperately pled Clark for insight. Don’t send us back “blind…broken and empty,” they begged. A young man overheard the Indians’ request to Clark, wrote their words and eventually published it as “Wise Men from the West” for the Christian Advocate journal (March 1833).
The story ignited eastern Christian churches. Somebody needed to go west.
A New York physician named Marcus Whitman was inspired…and ready. He hungered for adventures and mission work. Consequently, in 1835, Whitman traveled with another missionary to Montana and Idaho. They purposely visited the Flathead and Nez Perce tribes. From their efforts, some Indians converted to Christianity. The Nez Perce then invited Whitman to live among them and he promised to return.
A year later Marcus and his new bride Narcissa – along with another missionary couple – headed west again. This time they blazed a new trail deep into the Oregon Territory. Narcissa became the first woman to travel west of the Rocky Mountains.
For the next decade the Whitmans lived, worked, and churched among the Nez Perce and Cayuse tribes of western Washington. Narcissa was a teacher. She taught the Indians how to read and write. Marcus tended to their health, treating wounds, disease, and aging. Through their Christian service, the Whitmans evangelized numerous Indians. In 1842, Marcus returned east to Washington, D.C. to beg President John Tyler and other politicians to help them settle the Oregon Territory. Christianity was spreading and there was great need for additional Christians to teach, lead, serve and comfort. The idea proved unpopular. Most easterners viewed settling the Oregon Territory as pointless. It was desolate, worthless…and few cared about the Indian. One southern senator chortled he “would not give a pinch of snuff for the whole territory.”
But Marcus was not deterred. Eventually President Tyler approved his request and told the buckskin-clad Whitman: “Your long ride and frozen limbs testify to your courage and your patriotism. Your credentials establish your character.” Whitman immediately marshalled a group of “Christian soldiers” – over 200 wagons and a thousand people strong – to head back to Oregon along the path he had charted.
The “Oregon Trail” was born.
Soon their western route (and news of fertile land) inspired additional wagon trains to form.
The Whitmans continued to work among the Indian…and now the emigrant. They eventually opened a school for orphaned children left along the Trail. And they continued to spread Christianity among the Indians.
The Nez Perce particularly favored Christianity. Chief Joseph’s father converted, and the famous “chief” was himself educated in a mission school. Many of the tribes appreciated the Christian settlers who ventured to their land. The relationships were friendly and cooperative.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for gold-seekers, outlaws, frontiersmen, gamblers, and politicians with greed (not God) on their minds to spark problems. Skirmishes between the Indian and whites increased, and new infectious “white” diseases were introduced. Lacking immunity, these deadly viruses spread quickly among the Indians.
Marcus Whitman doctored and healed many of the sick Indians but eventually the nearby Cayuse tribe grew desperately angry. Their tribe had been decimated by measles and they blamed the “medicine man” Whitman. On November 29, 1847, Cayuse warriors massacred Marcus and Narcissa Whitman along with 12 other settlers. They torched buildings, destroyed property, and kidnapped 53 women and children – holding them hostage for a month.
The Whitman mission was gone.
But his legacy was not.
Twelve years later, a seminary to train ministers was established in his name. Today that college still exists as Whitman College in Spokane, Wash. In his youth Marcus dreamed of becoming a clergyman but family and money dissuaded him. Instead, he apprenticed medicine for two years to become a doctor. God used Marcus’s medical skills and Narcissa’s teaching abilities to serve the Indian. Ultimately, they’d become notable missionaries too.
This is why the Oregon Trail was pioneered. It wasn’t carved by gold seekers, outlaws or easterners seeking new land as much as an army of Christians committed to serve, teach and nurse the Indians. They came to settle Oregon and Washington for God.
Many modern western histories miss this spiritual element. And too many historians blame all white men for atrocities against the Indian, but these claims are false. In reality, the West was also settled by Christians who came not for gold, land, or escape…but rather to evangelize, minister, and educate those in need…particularly the Indian.
In 1923, President Warren G. Harding summarized this first emigrant expedition: “Never in the history of the world has there been a finer example of civilization following Christianity. The missionaries led under the banner of the cross, and the settlers moved close behind under the star-spangled symbol of the nation.”
Now that’s how the West was really won.
- Warren G. Harding’s “Address in Meacham, Oregon” on July 3, 1923: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-meacham-oregon
- How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon by Oliver W. Nixon, M.D., LL.D. (Chicago: Star Publishing Company, 1895). Available for download at Google books.
- Marcus Whitman: Pathfinder and Patriot by Rev. Myron Eells, D.D. (Seatte: The Alice Harriman Company, 1909). Available for download at Google books.
Dr. Rick Chromey helps people interpret history, navigate culture and explore faith. He’s an author, historian, professor, and founder/president of MANNA! Educational Services International. Rick and his wife Linda live in Star. Rick is available to speak and train for your event. Readers are also invited to subscribe to the Morning MANNA! inspirational and educational (M-F) email. Visit www.mannasolutions.org.