We Who Survived - 3 - Note from Catherine - part 1
Notes from Catherine Pringle about her first experiences
at Whitman Mission part 1.
We reached Umatilla on October 15th, 1844, and lay by while Captain Shaw went on to Whitman's
station to see if the doctor would take care of us. We purchased of the Indians the first potatoes we had eaten since we started on our long and sad journey. October 17th we started for our destination,
leaving the baby very sick, with doubts of its recovery. Mrs. Shaw took an affectionate leave of us all, and stood looking after us as long as we were in sight. Speaking of it in later years, she said she never saw a more pitiful sight than that cartful of orphans going to find a home among strangers.
We reached the station in the forenoon. For weeks this place had been a subject for our talk by day and formed our dreams at night. We expected to see log houses, occupied by Indians and such people as we had seen about the forts. Instead we saw a large white house whitewashed with a mixture made of fresh water shells which gave the building a very imposing appearance surrounded
with palisades. (see above)
Between the two houses were the blacksmith shop and the corral, enclosed with slabs set up endways. The garden lay between the mill and the house, and a large field was on the opposite side. A good-sized ditch passed in front of the house, connecting with the mill pond, intersecting other ditches all around the farm, for the purpose of irrigating the land.
We drove up and halted near this ditch. Captain Shaw was in the house conversing with Mrs.
Whitman. Glancing through the window, he saw us, and turning to her said: "Your children have come; will you go out and see them?" He then came out and told the boys to help the girls out and get their bonnets. Alas! it was easy to talk of bonnets, but not to find them! But one or two were finally discovered by the time Mrs. Whitman had come out. Here was a scene for an artist to describe! Foremost stood the little cart, with the tired oxen that had been unyoked lying near it. Sitting in the front end of the cart was John, weeping bitterly; on the opposite side stood Francis, his arms on the wheel and his head resting on his arms, sobbing aloud; on the near side the
little girls were huddled together, bareheaded and barefooted, looking at the boys and then at the house, dreading we knew not what. By the oxen stood the good German doctor, with his whip in his hand, regarding the scene with suppressed emotion.
Thus Mrs. Whitman found us. She was a large, well-formed woman, fair complexioned, with beautiful
auburn hair, nose rather large, and large gray eyes. She had on a dark calico dress and gingham sunbonnet. We thought as we shyly looked at her that she was the prettiest woman we had ever seen. She spoke kindly to us as she came up, but like frightened things we ran behind the cart, peeping shyly around at her. She then addressed the boys, asking why they wept, adding: "Poor boys. no wonder you weep!" She then began to arrange things as we threw them out, at
the same time conversing with an Indian woman sitting on the ground near by.
A little girl about seven years old soon came and stood regarding us with a timid look. This was
little Helen Mar Meek, and though a half-breed, she looked very pretty to us in her green dress and white apron and neat sunbonnet.
Having arranged everything in compact form Mrs. Whitman directed the doctor and the boys where to carry them, and told Helen to show the little girls the way to the house. Seeing my lameness, she kindly took me by the hand and my little sister by the other hand, and thus led us in. As we reached
the steps, Captain Shaw asked if she had children of her own. Pointing to a grave at the foot of the hill not far off, she said: "All the child I ever had sleeps yonder." She added that it was a great pleasure to her that she could see the grave from the door. The doctor and boys having deposited the things as directed, went over to the mansion. As we entered the house we saw a girl about
nine years old washing dishes. Mrs. Whitman spoke cheerfully to her and said: "Well, Mary Ann, how do you think you will like all these sisters?" Seated in her arm-chair, she placed the youngest
on her lap, and calling us round her, asked our names, about our parents, and the baby, often exclaiming as we told our artless story, "Poor children!"
Dr. Whitman came in from the mill and stood in the door, looking as though surprised at the large
addition so suddenly made to the family. He was tall but rather spare in stature, with a large but well formed head, dark brown hair interspersed with blocks of white which tended to give him a rather
striking appearance. His eyes were of sparkling blue set far back under a prominent brow; his mouth was noticeably large, and the outlines of his face denoted sternness. He kept his upper lip shaved. Once we knew him better we recognized that he was every inch a frontiersman. He
would do things such as dipping water from the running stream with his hand to drink, using but a hunter's knife without a fork to eat, and he could rough it without qualms of stomach. He was dressed in skins.
We were a sight calculated to excite surprise, dirty and sunburned until we looked more like
Indians than white children. Added to this, John had cropped our hair so that it hung in uneven locks and added to our uncouth appearance. Seeing her husband standing there, Mrs. Whitman said, with a laugh: "Come in, doctor, and see your children." He sat down and tried to take little Louisa in his arms, but she ran screaming to me, much to the discomfiture of the doctor and amusement of his wife. She then related to him what we had told her in reference to the baby, and expressed her fears lest it should die, saying it was the baby she wanted most of all.
Our mother had asked that we might not he separated, so Captain Shaw now urged the doctor to take charge of us all. The doctor feared the Board might object, as he was sent as a missionary to the Indians. The captain argued that a missionary's duty was to do good, and we certainly were objects worthy of missionary charity. He was finally persuaded to keep us all until spring. His wife did not readily consent, but he told her he wanted boys as well as she girls. Finding the boys willing to stay, he made a written agreement with Captain Shaw that he would take charge of them. Before Captain Shaw reached the valley, Dr. Whitman overtook him and told him he was pleased with the children and he need give himself no further care concerning them. The baby was brought over in
few days. It was very sick, but under Mrs. Whitman's judicious care was soon restored to health.
Our faithful friend, the German doctor, left us at last, safe in the motherly care of Mrs. Whitman.
Well had he kept his promise to our dying mother.
For a week or two the house at Waiilatpu was full of company. Having no help, Mrs. Whitman was too much engaged in household affairs to pay any attention to us. Very lonely did that large house seem to me during that time. Being a cripple, I was not able to join the other children in their pastimes, and they were too busy enjoying themselves to attend to me. Seated by the cradle, I plied my needle at simple sewing. I saw my brothers only at meal-time. Mrs. Whitman came occasionally to bring the baby her milk. I thought I could never be happy where everything was so strange, and shed many tears in solitude. I became so timid as to cry if addressed by the doctor or any one.
School commenced soon after our arrival, and most of the children attended. In course of time the company left the home; help was hired to do the housework, and Mrs. Whitman, having more time to herself, paid more to us. Gathering us around her in the evening, she amused us with anecdotes, distributing pieces of calico and showing us how to make patchwork and rag dolls, conversing with us in a kind and familiar way. On one of these occasions she gave each of us a string of beads
to wear, with the understanding that any one who had to be reproved for doing wrong must return the beads to her. We had been long without restraint, so that we had become quite unruly and difficult
to manage. They were strict disciplinarians, and held the reins with steady hands. Any deviation from the rules met with instant and severe chastisement.
Every effort to merit their approval was rewarded with smiles. While we were held under strict subjection, every effort was made to render us comfortable and happy and to win our love and confidence. Mrs. Whitman was particularly adapted to raising children, having the art of uniting instruction and pleasure. She was a fine singer. I have never known any one who excelled her in this respect. She soon commenced teaching us vocal music. Refined and accomplished herself,
she exercised over our rude natures that influence that refines and beautifies a home. We soon formed a warm attachment for her, and fell into the practice of calling her and Dr. Whitman mother and father, as the other children did, and continued it while they lived. They were careful to have us remember our parents, and would speak of them with affection and respect. When necessary to administer punishment, she would set our fault before us and her own responsibility, and show that all was done for our own good, and would ask what we thought our parents would wish her to do.
Dr. Whitman's family, before we came, consisted of himself and wife, Perrin P. Whitman, his nephew, who came out with him in 1843, when fourteen years old; Mary Ann Bridger, nine years old; Helen Mar Meek, seven years old, who had been raised from infancy by Mrs. Whitman, and David M. Cortez, seven years old. This boy's father was a Spaniard, his mother a Walla Walla Indian. Becoming tired of the infant, she cast it into a hole to perish. His grandmother rescued him and took him to Mrs. Whitman, naked, except a small piece of skin tied over his shoulders.
We were in the schoolroom from Monday morning until Saturday noon. The afternoon was a holiday. If the weather was pleasant, the preparations for the Sabbath being completed, Mrs. Whitman took us out for a ramble over the hills. In inclement weather we were provided amusement in the house; the doctor believed in young folks having plenty of exercise. The Sabbath was always strictly observed, yet made so pleasant that we hailed its dawn with delight. Every preparation was made the day before, and perfect stillness pervaded the house Sabbath morning. In the winter season a Bible class met on Saturday night. All the family attended, and no effort was spared to make it interesting. A subject was given us to prove from the Bible, and Mrs. Whitman saw that each child had a proof to bring in. They were commented on, a chapter was read, each one reading a verse and giving their thoughts on it. These exercises closed by singing some Bible hymn. Sabbath morning we were reminded of the day and all kept still. Each sat with a book, and those too small to read were handed pictures. After breakfast we prepared for Sunday school, that met at 11 o'clock, while the doctor held his service with the natives. Each got seven verses, one being learned every morning during the week. This was an interesting hour spent together, especially when the doctor could spend some moments with us. At 3 P.M. we met for the regular afternoon service, when Dr.
Whitman read a sermon. He was not a preacher, but a physician. We had to find the text after the service was over and repeat it to him. The evening was spent in reading, reciting the commandments, etc.
One evening in the week Mrs. Whitman would collect the young around her, holding a prayer meeting
with them and conversing on religious subjects. The first Monday night in each month a meeting was held in behalf of missions, and Monday after New Year's was observed as a fast day.
The housework was hired done in winter, so the children could follow their studies without hindrance;
Mrs. Whitman and the girls did the work in the summer. Each of us had her allotted task and was expected to promptly do her duty. At 11 we bathed in the river; dinner was served at 12. When the work was done we all sat in a large room at our sewing, save one of us, who read aloud to the rest. Supper was at 5 o'clock, and after that was over time until retiring for the night was devoted to recreation. In the spring the evenings were spent in the garden putting in seeds; otherwise we did as we pleased. Sometimes the boys would bring horses for us to ride; at times we would go with the doctor to visit the lodges, where Indians were sick. Mrs. Whitman was always with us in all these occupations, adding to our enjoyment. She was very fond of flowers, and we assisted in taking care of her flower garden each season. Our time flowed on in one uninterrupted stream of pleasure;
we were kept constantly gaining knowledge, and from morning until night our adopted parents labored to promote our happiness. The family was larger in the winter. From twenty to twenty-five,
including children, sat around the table at meals. Besides the adopted children, there were others who came to attend the mission school. Summers the doctor was gone most of the time, so there was only Mrs. Whitman and the children. Mr. Spalding's daughter attended school with us over the winter. She came on horseback, in charge of an Indian woman, 120 miles.
Our manner of living was simple. In winter we had beef, and in summer mutton and fish. Pork
seldom came on the table. Dr. Whitman ignored fine flour, and wheat flour and corn meal were used unbolted. Tea and coffee came to the table only on rare occasions. This was a matter of economy as delicacies were not easy to get in the country at that time. There was an abundance of wild fruit to be purchased of the natives; a good garden supplied plenty of vegetables. Cake and pastry only were seen on holidays. Milk, butter and cheese were in full supply, and thus you have our mode of living at Waiilatpu.
Some may ask how the washing for so large a family was managed. As early as 4 o'clock all hands
were mustered for work in the kitchen, Mrs. Whitman at the head. Tubs and barrels were put in use, and all the implements needed were at hand. The boys, with long aprons tied around them, brought the water and did the pounding, while the women rubbed the clothes. Jokes were current and all were in good humor. By school time (9 o'clock) the clothes were on the line. It fell to the lot of myself and my brother to get breakfast on wash days.
(to be continued)