Fort Walla Walla gives visitors glimpse of life on the frontier
- Mark Highberger
For The Observer
FORT WALLA WALLA - Before there was an Oregon, before the first emigrant wagon turned a wheel or the first cabin's log lay cut and peeled, there was the Walla Walla country. It was a busy place.
The Walla Walla Valley in today's Southeast Washington was first the home of the Cayuse and Wallawalla people, then the destination of trappers, missionaries, emigrants, and soldiers seeking beavers, souls, land, or victory. Yet in spite of this long march of history, much of it pulls together at the Fort Walla Walla Museum Complex.
"We generally depict the horse-drawn era," says Glenda Friesen of the museum, which lies a short distance from the old fort's site.
Because that era can include everything from the arrival of Lewis and Clark to the coming of the automobile, it gives you a lot to see. In fact, in its attempt to tell the story of the area, the museum has collected more than 26,000 artifacts since opening to the public more than 30 years ago.
Part of that story presents itself even before you walk through the museum's gate, for on its edge lies a National Historic cemetery, the burial site of "officers, soldiers, and others whose devotion and courage played an important part in the defense and development of the Pacific Northwest."
The army, however, was not the builder of the area's first fort. That distinction goes to the famous fur trader and explorer Donald McKenzie, who in 1818 built a trading post 30 miles away, near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers. It wasn't until the Yakima Indian War of 1856 that the army built Fort Walla Walla as a base of operations for the Inland Northwest.
This original post was located on what is today Walla Walla's Main Street, but it was moved in 1858 to a site now occupied by the Veterans Medical Center, a short distance northeast of the museum. At the time, however, it was on the edge of the frontier. Life could be hard Â— trails long and supplies short.
"In a three-year period," says a history of the area, "no less than 700 horses were eaten for food at Fort Walla Walla" In spite of the hardships, the infantry and cavalry stationed here played a critical role in both the Yakima and the Nez Perce wars.
It was the 1877 Nez Perce war that resulted in the cemetery's major monument, a dedication to those killed during the battle of White Bird Canyon Â— the soldiers of Companies F and H, First Cavalry, Captain (brevet rank: Colonel) David Perry commanding.
"Good-bye, General," Perry said to his commanding officer, General Oliver Otis Howard, as Perry and his troops prepared to leave Idaho's Fort Lapwai and ride after the Nez Perce.
"Good-bye, Colonel," Howard said. "You must not get whipped."
"There is no danger of that, sir," Perry said.
But whipped they were. Fiercely. During the June battle, 34 men of the First Cavalry died. "The fight resulted most disastrously to us," Perry wrote to Howard the evening of the battle, "in fact scarcely exceeded by the magnitude of the Custer Mas(sacre) in proportion to the numbers engaged."
Then how did Fort Lapwai soldiers come to rest in the Fort Walla Walla cemetery? Through a long process that saw the soldiers' bodies buried four times.
The first burial was in shallow battlefield graves, scraped out with bayonets nine days after the battle; the second, in deeper battlefield graves, dug about four months later; the third, in the Fort Lapwai cemetery after the remains were moved from White Bird in 1880; and the fourth, in the Fort Walla Walla cemetery, after the army closed Fort Lapwai. The final re-interment took place in the winter of 1890, more than 13 years after the battle. The next year, the survivors of Perry's command donated most of the 225 dollars needed to build the 15-foot high shaft of Vermont Marble now marking the single grave.
(In addition, the nearby headstone of one officer contains a sadly memorable epitaph, said to be written by his wife: "Oh how sad to see you die/And now I'll see those/Bright brown eyes, and/Dear face no more.")
Once the day of the soldier passed Â— the fort closed in 1910 Â— this land came to know more about combines and schools than it ever did about carbines and sabers. This becomes evident when you walk through the gate and into the museum's Pioneer Village.
This replica settlement contains 17 original or reconstructed buildings dating from 1859 to the turn of the 20th century. A stroll down the street and a step through the doors of pioneer cabins and railroad stations, schools and stores give you a peek into the past, to the tools and trappings, the gear and gadgets that made work possible and life bearable on the 19th century frontier of the Pacific Northwest.
The big stuff, however, is up on the hill, above the village, where a trail leads to a collection of five exhibit buildings containing 20,000 square feet of what the museum advertises as "the largest horse era agricultural display in the West." It's centerpiece is a wheat combine "pulled" by a team of 33 fiberglass mules.
Arranged in a pattern designed to resemble a broken wagon wheel, the buildings are home to both permanent and changing collections. "There's so much new this year that it's hard to list it all," Friesen says, though she mentions the 33-foot diorama of a life-size Lewis and Clark Expedition as a significant addition to the museum.
This project was a labor of love, for volunteers did most of the work. In fact, Friesen estimates that volunteers are responsible for 90 percent of the labor at the site. "If we didn't have volunteers," she says, "we wouldn't have the museum."
Yet the museum and its adjacent cemetery are only part of the complex, which also includes a 200-acre city park with picnicking and camping areas; a one-mile recreation trail paved for bicyclists and walkers; and a nature trail that lets you roam through the Fort Walla Walla Natural Area, a 65-acre wildlife preserve.
Like the museum, the nature trail is a step back to a more basic time. Its network of grass or dirt paths circles ponds, crosses streams, and wanders past clumps of cottonwoods, dogwoods, and locusts. Even at mid-day, cottontail rabbits dash from blackberries and mallard ducks flush from marshes. And from the grass beyond the trees rise the cackles of pheasants.
A walk along the trail is a fitting farewell to this place that remembers the 19th century, a time that was both simpler and harder than our own. And in this corner of the Walla Walla country, you have a chance to visit the way we once lived, and the things we once fought for.