July 4th 1836
One hundred and 80 years ago, on July 4, 1836, a party made up of men from The American Fur Company and a small group of missionaries crossed over the Rocky Mountains through South Pass in what is now the state of Wyoming. As we know, among the missionary group were two young wives, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, and they changed everything.
When Narcissa and Eliza crossed the Rockies through South Pass, they were the first two non-Indian women to do so, at a time when it was unimaginable that a woman from the East would survive the trip. Their achievement was to open the west for women and children and, ultimately, settlement. For the first time, men believed they could go west and not leave their families behind. The predominance of American settlements in the Oregon Country, which was jointly administered by the British and Americans, would be an important factor in 1848 when Congress created the Oregon Territory below the 49th Parallel.
Narcissa did not comment in her journal; Eliza only noted ”July 4. Crossed a ridge of land today; called the divide, which separates the waters that flow into the Atlantic from those that flow into the Pacific.”
Oregon Country scholar and biographer Clifford M. Drury wrote “the successful crossing of the Rockies through South Pass by Mrs. Whitman and Mrs. Spalding on July 4, 1836, unlocked the mountain gateway for men who wanted to take their families with them to Oregon.” Families could now make the trip and establish new homes in the fertile valleys of Oregon, thus expanding the number of settlements.
After news of the successful crossing through South Pass reached him, Senator Lewis F. Linn of Missouri spoke in the U.S. Senate on June 7 1838: “Thus has vanished the great obstacle to a direct and facile communication between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.”
An anonymous admirer in Oregon wrote in 1841 “The simple act of these two females, sustained by others who have followed them on a similar enterprise, has contributed more to the present occupancy of Oregon than all the fine-spun speeches and high-sounding words that had yet issued from the executive branch at Washington.”