Once the pioneers got well into Oregon, they kept going north to the Columbia River. Water sources were more reliable on this route and it was easier to cross the Cascades near the river. When they got near present day Portland, they proceeded south to settle in the Willamette Valley.
When I planned this RV trip, I decided that my journey following the Oregon Trail would end near Pendleton, OR. I wanted to avoid the busy urban areas surrounding Portland. I also wanted a turning point where I could avoid retracing terrain that I had already traveled.
Pendleton turned out to be a great choice and a place where I would learn a new perspective about the Oregon Trail. The town of Pendleton sits in a narrow valley that is cut into the treeless plains of western Oregon by the Umatilla River. This area is wheat country. It’s a vast plain of wheat as far as you can see. When you’re on the plain, you can’t see the town until you exit the highway and descend into the valley.
Pendleton is a very western town of 16,000 people. It’s famous for its annual rodeo called the Pendleton Roundup and for Pendleton woolen products. The biggest store in down town Pendleton is a western wear and horse tack shop.
Just outside of town is the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Before Euro-American’s arrived, this vast area was homeland to the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people. These tribes were friendly to the newly arriving pioneers. They traded with them, helped supply them with food, and guided them. Today they have just 154,000 acres to call their own.
While in Pendleton, I stayed at the Wildhorse Casino RV Park which is on the reservation. Like many recognized tribes, the Umatila have used gaming and tourism as a way to provide economic benefit to their people. The casino is a destination complex with a large hotel, casino, cinema, golf course, and RV park. The RV park is just a short walk to the casino. Good luck at the roulette wheel helped pay for the 2 nights I spent there.
Tamastslikt Cultural Institute
But the best feature of this complex is the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute. This a museum of sorts that tells the story of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people and their culture. I spent 2 hours going through it and found it to be one of the best museums on a specific native culture. It’s good because it tells a compelling story.
There are no photographs or video recording allowed inside the Institute so my words will have to suffice. The museum takes you through their beginnings, early way of life, interaction with the pioneers, conflicts with the Euro-American settlers, reservation treaties, and preserving their culture today. It was riveting reading all the placards and going through the displays.
When planning my Oregon Trail trip, all of the reading and what I learned before undertaking my trip was based on journals and books from Euro-American’s who did the trail. But, at the Cultural Institute, I got to see and hear a small part of some Trail history through the words of some native people who lived along the Trail. It’s a much different perspective. And where this can be seen most clearly is in the story of the Whitman Mission.
Whitman Mission and Tragedy
Narcissa and Marcus Whitman were early pioneers who crossed the Oregon Trail in 1836. They were young Protestant Missionaries from New York who came west with the intent to teach Christianity to the Native Cayuse. They came to save the Cayuse, to teach them how to live a civilized life by adopting agriculture, and to believe in and worship the Christian God.
The Cayuse were peaceful hunter gatherers. They were a horse based culture and moved along the western Oregon plains following the seasons for their food supply. They were at peace with neighboring tribes and had been doing fine with their way of life for hundreds of years.
The Whitman’s formed a mission among the Cayuse just north of Pendleton near present day Walla Walla. They settled on 200 acres and built a house, barns, and a blacksmith shop. Their mission became an early stop on the Oregon Trail and thousands would stop there on their way to the Willamette Valley. Today, the site is a National Historic Site.
The Whitman’s lived a peaceful coexistence with the Cayuse. Some of the Cayuse even came to settle near the Mission. But the Whitman’s were never successful in getting the Cayuse to give up their nomadic way of life and settle on farms. The Cayuse still left to gather berries, to hunt, and to fish for salmon according to the seasons. But, they become wary of the all the new settlers arriving to the area.
Tragedy stuck in the form of a measles outbreak in the fall of 1847. Dr. Whitman treated both the pioneers and the Cayuse for the disease. Most pioneers responded to treatment. But the Cayuse had no resistance to the disease and it decimated them. Half their people died from the outbreak. This made them even more distrustful of the Whitman’s.
In November, the Cayuse attacked the mission and killed the Whitman’s and 12 others. This action spawned a short war against the Cayuse and other tribes. Eventually, the Cayuse gave up 5 of their members who confessed to the killings. These 5 members were tried and hung in Oregon City. This event was used as one reason to establish the Oregon Territory, to take Native lands away, and provide more security to the settlers. All of this is depicted at the Whitman Mission Historic Site.
It was interesting to read the Cayuse version of the events at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute. The Cayuse were very disturbed by the deaths of their people from the measles outbreak. They saw white settlers being treated and living. Yet when Dr. Whitman treated their people, they died. They thought he was trying to kill them off and take their land for the white settlers.
In November, they held a council about what to do. There was talk about killing the Whitman’s. Many did not want to undertake this type of serious action. As we know today, killing was not the proper response. But one man, whose complete family had died, said he would take the action. It was not an act of war, vengeance, or hate. He fully knew that he would sacrifice his life. But his reasons where simple. He said that the Whitman’s taught him that Christ had died to save his people. So, he too would die to save the Cayuse.
Once the guilty were hung and the war ended it was the end of the Cayuse. When the Whitman’s arrived, the Cayuse numbered over 400 people. After the measles outbreak and the war, just a handful were left.
The Whitman’s had come to save a people. But in just 11 short years, by settling among them, creating distrust, and having disease arrive from all the pioneers who stopped at the mission, their efforts and presence unwittingly and indirectly contributed to destroying a people.
Two Stories of the Oregon Trail
And here’s what came into focus for me after visiting the sites in Pendleton. The Oregon Trail is not just a story about the pioneers who made the trek. There are two very different stories.
For most of the Euro-Americans who made it across the Oregon Trail, it was a story of heroic determination, epic suffering, hard work, all driven by dreams and hopes for a better life. The culmination of their hard efforts was a story with a happy ending. It was about beginning a new life, a new Zion, new freedom, all in a new and beautiful land.
For most of the Native Americans they encountered along their way, the Oregon Trail was a story with a bad ending. The Native People had their food supplies depleted, land taken away, and they were decimated by disease. It was a story that culminated with the end of their way of life.
Regardless of the outcomes, the Oregon Trail is a story about a great a change in our country. There always seems to be winners and losers in every major historical change or conflict. And its been said that the winners always get to write the history of an event. That’s true for much of what is written about the Oregon Trail and what I saw along the way at many of the historical sites.
But I’m glad that the Umatilla people have preserved and displayed their story, and the story of the Cayuse, and made it available to those that seek it out. Their story is most likely very similar to those of the Kiowa, Pawnee, Arikara, Lakota, Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Hidatsa, Mandan, and several others.
I’ll post one more present day summation of my Oregon Trail trip and my final thoughts.