History of Whitman: (the abridged version)

Derek Thurber

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As one of the oldest institutions west of the Rocky Mountains, Whitman has a long and varied past. But its foundation and history have not been as simple as one might suspect for a small school such as Whitman. Here are some common misconceptions and general facts that have fallen through the cracks about our school’s past.

“It is kind of hard to get your mind around what things were like in the Northwest then,” Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Michael Paulus said. “It is amazing that they could keep the school around long enough for it to last.”

Whitman was founded in honor of Marcus Whitman, the renowned missionary, by his colleague Cushing Eells. Eells was a missionary at a site in what is now northern Washington State. After Marcus and Narcissa’s death, he came down to the Walla Walla area to honor his good friends and fellow missionaries.

“He felt that an appropriate monument to the Whitmans would be to start a school,” Paulus said.

In 1859, Eells achieved the first great step in his dream: he received a charter from the state of Washington to start the Whitman Seminary. Though many people believe Whitman had its beginnings as a religious school, in fact the opposite was true. Seminary was a term broadly used in the 19th century to describe high school level academies for learning.  

Whitman was started as a secular high school and has remained without religious affiliation since its formation.  

A few decades later, the Whitman Seminary found itself in trouble financially. They were faced with a decision between radically changing the school or closing forever. So, in 1882, Whitman became a school for higher education.

In 1886 the first class, two men and two women, graduated from Whitman College. Though many people think mixed gender education was unique for the time, it in fact was not for the northwest.  

“Many [people] today may view the early co-educational nature of the institution as something radical or progressive, but it wasn’t,” Paulus said. “It would have been back East, but it was more of a practical matter in the Northwest.”

Though Whitman became a college in 1882, it still experienced its share of challenges. By 1894, the school was on the verge of collapse again, and probably would have died had it not been for its third president, Stephen B. L. Penrose.  

Penrose was a trustee of the college when he took office and his legacy is what made the college into what it is today. Under his presidency, the Memorial building was built, survived the great depression and almost became a large research university.

In the early part of the 20th century, Whitman began a major campaign to raise several million dollars to turn into a large university. There were even elaborate plans drawn up for the purpose of expanding campus.

For better or worse, that campaign failed horribly. After this failed attempt the school soon found itself in the worst of times during the depression. In many ways, Whitman should never have survived. In 1933 and ’34, most of the faculty and staff went without being paid at all.  

But Whitman did survive and after the depression never suffered other major setbacks. Our beloved school has had a rocky past but it is has made it from Seminar to College and from past to present.

To celebrate this great achievement and the foundation of the city of Walla Walla, remember that this year marks the 150-year anniversary of the original charter of the school.

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