Spalding Eliza Hart

Eliza Hart Spalding (1807-1851), 3rd cousin 7x removed

Spalding-Whitman Historical Marker on the Oregon Trail, South Pass, Wyoming

Spalding-Whitman Historical Marker on the Oregon Trail, South Pass, Wyoming

Eliza Hart Spalding (and her traveling companion, Narcissa Whitman) were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains.  Leonard J. Arrington wrote in his book, History of Idaho: “what Plymouth Rock was to New England, the Spalding Mission was to Idaho.”  She changed the history of the West by blazing the trail for women to migrate by land over the Rocky Mountains and helping form the first white settlement in Idaho.

Eliza Hart was born 11 Aug 1807 to Levi Hart and Martha Hart (her parents were 3rd cousins 1x removed[1]) in Kensington, Connecticut.   In 1820 the family moved to Oneida County, New York.  She was introduced to her future husband, Henry Spalding, by a mutual acquaintance who said that Henry “wanted to correspond with a young lady.”  The couple were pen pals for about a year, and the relationship quickly deepened after they met in the fall of 1831.  They were married on 13 Oct 1833 in Hudson, New York.

Henry H. Spalding (1803-1874)

Henry H. Spalding (1803-1874)

Henry Harmon Spalding[2] (1803–1874), and his wife Eliza Hart Spalding (1807–1851) were prominent Presbyterian missionaries and educators working primarily with the Nez Perce in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.  The Spaldings and their fellow missionaries were among the earliest Americans to travel across the western plains, through the Rocky Mountains and into the lands of the Pacific Northwest to their religious missions in what would become the states of Idaho and Washington.  Their missionary party of five, including Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa and William H. Gray, joined with a group of fur traders to create the first wagon train along the Oregon Trail.  Whitman, a physician, and Spalding, a newly ordained Presbyterian minister, and their wives undertook a difficult and unprecedented journey in order to “save the heathen” – that is, to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and persuade them to abandon their traditional way of life and adopt white culture instead. They believed they had a divine mandate to bring “the blessings of civilization and religion” to the Indians (Diary of Eliza Spalding[3], May 27, 1836).  However, frustrated by the Indians’ indifference and even hostility toward their teachings, the missionaries eventually shifted their focus to supporting and encouraging immigration by whites.  Their relationships with the people they had come to “save” deteriorated as an increasing number of white settlers moved into the region, leading to what writer William Dietrich has called a “tragic collision of cultures”[4].

The two couples began their journey separately in mid-February 1836.  The Whitmans joined the Spaldings in Cincinnati, Ohio, in mid-March.  From there, they traveled together by steamboat to St. Louis, Missouri, the last large town on the frontier.  “It seems to me now that we are on the very borders of civilization,” Narcissa Whitman wrote in her journal on 30 Mar 1836.  If she had any fears or second thoughts about what lay ahead, she did not express them.  Instead, she struck a positive note: “I have not one feeling of regret at the step which I have taken, but count it a privilege to go forth in the name of my Master, cheerfully bearing the toil and privation that we expect to encounter.”

A week later, the party arrived in Liberty, Missouri, where they acquired the equipment, supplies, and livestock they would need to establish their new homes in the West.  They bought a sturdy farm wagon, a dozen horses, six mules, 17 cattle, and four milk cows, life preservers made of India rubber, for a measure of safety when crossing rivers, tools, furniture, clothing, blankets, barrels of flour and other provisions.  They also bought enough bedticking to make a tent, handsewn by Narcissa and Eliza, that could shelter up to 10 people sleeping on the ground.  The total bill came to $3,063.96 (about $60,000 in 2010 dollars), paid by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Boston-based organization that directed the efforts of Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries in “foreign” lands, including Indian territory.

An old photograpsh of the Spalding-Whitman marker (South Pass, Wyoming)

An old photograph of the Spalding-Whitman marker (South Pass, Wyoming)

The caravan’s route followed river valleys westward toward the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountains.  The journey was long and tedious, covering only 15 miles or so in a good day.  They crossed the Rockies at South Pass in Wyoming on 4 Jul 1836.  Eliza noted in her diary that day: “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,” showing no sign of excitement at having just become one of the first two white women to travel over the Continental Divide.  Narcissa made no mention of the milestone at all.  In 1906, when trail veteran Ezra Meeker began marking the Oregon Trail, he placed a monument at South Pass recognizing the crossing by Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman.  It is located on one segment of the trail through the broad open pass, although the missionary party is believed to have crossed the Continental Divide farther to the north on another of the trail segments.  Herman G. Nickerson of Wyoming’s Oregon Trail Commission raised the second monument at the summit of South Pass in June 1916.  This black monolith commemorates Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding as the “FIRST WHITE WOMEN TO CROSS THIS PASS July.4.1836” (Since Whitman and Spalding were traveling with a fur-trade caravan that was bound for the Rendezvous on the Green River near today’s Pinedale, they did not actually cross South Pass on what later became the emigrant road; instead, they crossed some twenty-three miles to the northwest, where the Lander Cutoff crosses the divide between Lander Creek and the Little Sandy.)  When Nickerson erected his monument, he righted Meeker’s toppled 1906 marker and set both in concrete.

On August 29, after crossing the Blue Mountains (which Narcissa described as “one of the most terrible mountains for steepness & length I have yet seen”), they camped at a spot overlooking the Walla Walla Valley.  The day was clear enough to provide distant views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens.  It was, Narcissa wrote, “enchanting & quite diverted my mind from the fatigue under which I was labouring” (Letters, 29 Aug 1836).

The Whitmans arrived at Fort Walla Walla on 1 Sep 1836.  The Spaldings followed two days later. Leaving the livestock at the fort, the five missionaries and several escorts traveled by boat down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver.  Eliza and Narcissa spent almost eight weeks at Fort Vancouver while their husbands explored possible mission sites.  They helped out in the school, which had about 50 students, most of them the children of French fathers and Indian mothers.  Spalding chose a mission site at Lapwai in Nez Perce territory on the Clearwater River in Idaho.  Whitman, ignoring McLoughlin’s advice, settled on a place about 150 miles from Lapwai, amid the Cayuse at Waiilatpu, or “The Place of the Rye Grass.”  Whitman remained at Waiilatpu, building a rough cabin, while Spalding returned to Fort Vancouver to escort the women and supplies on the trip upriver.  They left the fort on 3 Nov 1836.

When the Spaldings established their mission to the Nez Perce, they also established the first white home in what is today the state of Idaho.  They were also responsible, in 1839, for bringing the first printing press into the territory.  Spalding was generally successful in his interaction with the Nez Perce, baptizing several of their leaders and teaching tribal members.  He developed an appropriate written script for the Nez Perce language, and translated parts of the Bible, including the entire book of Matthew, for the use of his congregation.

On 29 Nov 1847, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and twelve male residents (ten adult men and two boys of 15 and 18) of their mission at Waiilatpu, Washington were murdered at the hands of several Cayuse Indians.  The natives blamed them for introducing deadly diseases, including the measles, as the tribe had experienced a recent epidemic and a number of children had died.  The Spalding’s daughter Eliza, who was staying at the Whitman’s mission school, escaped injury along with 45 other women and children.  Little Eliza served as a translator, as she was the only survivor knowing Nez Perce.  Henry Spalding learned of the murders two days later en route to the Whitman’s, and narrowly escaped being killed himself during his five day trip home.  After a tense month negotiating the release of the massacre survivors, protected by some friendly Nez Perce, the Spaulding family evacuated down the Columbia to Oregon City, Oregon.  The Spaldings were brought into the home of Alvin T. Smith in what is now Forest Grove, Oregon.  They stayed with the Smiths for a few months while the ABCFM was notified (via ship).  Concerned over continuing violence between Native Americans and settlers in the area, and against Spalding’s wishes, the ABCFM decided to make the abandonment of the mission permanent.

Eliza Hart Spalding Monument, Spalding Park, Nez Perce County, Idaho

Eliza Hart Spalding Monument, Spalding Park, Nez Perce County, Idaho

The Spaldings built a small home in the area, while Eliza became the first teacher at Tualatin Academy, which eventually grew into Pacific University.  Henry served as an academy trustee for many years.  In May 1849 they relocated to Brownsville, Oregon in the south end of the Willamette Valley and established a homestead in modern North Brownsville.  Spalding served as pastor of the Congregational Church.  He was also postmaster and acted as commissioner of common schools for Oregon from 1850-55.  Eliza died on 7 Jan 1851.  Eliza  was originally buried in the Brownsville Pioneer Cemetery, and over sixty years later, her remains were disinterred for reburial beside her husband at Lapwai, Idaho.  On 15 May 1853 Henry married Rachel Smith, the sister-in-law of Oregon missionary John Smith Griffin, who had arrived the previous fall.  In his last years, Henry’s employment depended on his church funding sponsorships and relations with the US Indian Affairs agent.  To his great delight, he returned to the Nez Perce in September 1859, and to Lapwai in 1862.  He died at Lapwai, Idaho on 3 Aug 1874.  The village of Spalding, Idaho, located in Nez Perce County, was named after Spalding who taught the Nez Perce, among other things, how to use irrigation and cultivate the potato.

Plaque on the Spalding Monument, Spalding Park, Nez Perce County, Idaho

Plaque on the Spalding Monument, Spalding Park, Nez Perce County, Idaho

Eliza Hart (1807 – 1851), 3rd cousin 7x removed – Martha Hart (1772 – 1844) – Zachariah Hart (1733 – 1811)
Hezekiah Hart (1684 – 1752) – 
Thomas Hart (1644 – 1726) – 
Mary Hart (1666 – 1752) – 
John Newell (1693 – 1777) – 
Elizabeth Newell (1721 – 1791) – 
Elizabeth Clark (1758 – 1840) – 
Betsy Andrews (1783 – 1856) – 
David Handley (1809 – 1895)
Elizabeth Handley (1835 – 1917) – 
Florence Henderson (1869 – 1956) – Florence Eugenie Watkins (1903 – 1985) – 
Penelope Jane Walholm (1939 – ) – 
Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom


  • Arrington, Leonard J.  History of Idaho (Boise and Moscow, Idaho: Idaho State Historical Society and University of Idaho) 1994.
  • Clay, Claud Alfred. “The First Woman Born in the West: The Extraordinary Story of the Oldest Living White Woman Born West of the Rock Mountains.”  The Ladies’ Home Journal, August, 1913.
  • Dawson, Deborah Lynn.  Laboring in My Savior’s Vineyard: The Mission of Eliza Hart Spalding (Bowling Green State University, August 1988).
  • Drury, Clifford Merrill. Henry Harmon Spalding: Pioneer of Old Oregon (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers) 1936.
  • Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest  (New Haven, Connectict: Yale University Press) 1965.
  • McBeth, Kate C.  The Nez Perces Since Lewis and Clark (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company) 1908.

[1] Levi Hart (1765 – 1846), 3rd cousin 1x removed – Isaac Hart (1724 – 1776) – Isaac Hart (1686 – 1777) – John Hart (1655 – 1714) – John Hart (1627 – 1666) – Stephen Hart (1603 – 1683) – Thomas Hart (1644 – 1726) – Hezekiah Hart (1684 – 1752) – Zachariah Hart (1733 – 1811) – Martha Hart (1772- )

[2] Henry Spalding was born in Bath, New York, in either 1803 or 1804.  He graduated from Western Reserve College in 1833, and entered Lane Theological Seminary in the class of 1837.  He left, without graduation, upon his appointment in 1836 by the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) as a missionary to the Nez Perce Indians of Idaho.

[3] Eliza Hart Spalding, Diary of Eliza Hart Spalding, in Clifford M. Drury, Where Wagons Could Go (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books Edition) 1997.

[4] William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (New York: Simon & Schuster) 1995.



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