ELKANAH AND MARY WALKER – EMIGRANTS OF 1838
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions maintained three principal missionary outposts in the Oregon Country: in 1836-37, the missions at Waiilatpu and Lapwai (near the modern cities of Walla Walla, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho, respectively) were built, and in 1838 the ABCFM reinforced its presence by sending the Reverend Elkanah Walker and his wife to establish the third mission at Tshimakain (about 25 miles northwest of Spokane, Washington).
The ABCFM had a policy of preferring married missionaries, and the wives were expected to be able to assist their husbands. Mary Richardson was an educated woman with a doctor’s knowledge of medicine and experience as a teacher, making her well qualified for missionary work in foreign lands. When the ABCFM decided to send Elkanah into the field, they authorized his assignment to South Africa to work with Mary Richardson among the Zulu — if they chose to marry. However, tribal wars in South Africa and the need to reinforce the ABCFM’s presence in the Oregon Country changed their plans. On February 14, 1838, Elkanah Walker was ordained to the gospel ministry of the First Congregational Church of Brewer, Maine. On March 5, 1838, Elkanah Walker and Mary Richardson Walker were married and immediately set out for Oregon on horseback. Accompanying them were the Reverend and Mrs. Cushing Eells. The Walkers and Eells would be constant companions for the next ten years and friends for the rest of their lives.
They arrived safely at the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu on August 29, not quite crossing the entire North American continent in a six-month journey from Maine to what is now southeastern Washington. On December 7, 1838, Cyrus Hamlin Walker was born to the couple, the first white child born in Oregon to live to maturity. Five more children would be born to the couple in their years at Tshimakain.
With the help of the Spokane Indians and the blessing of their chief, the menfolk raised the walls of the new mission in the fall of 1838 and returned to finish the job the following spring. The Walkers and Eells kept the Tshimakain station open for nine years and were perhaps the most successful of the ABCFM missionaries in the Oregon Country. They did not win many lasting converts, but they maintained good relations with the tribe and many of the elders. Elkanah spent much of his time trying to bridge the language barrier by making a detailed study of Flathead, the language spoken by the Spokanes. He collected his work in a small primer on the language which was printed on the press at the Lapwai mission. This is believed to be the only book ever published in the Flathead tongue. Meanwhile, Mary Walker found time to indulge her natural curiosity and scientific training by, among other things, teaching herself taxidermy. Though her husband was not fond of her new skill, she delighted in preserving specimens of fish, birds, and other animals by stuffing and mounting them. The few travelers to stop at the Tshimakain mission over the years found Mrs. Walker to be a font of knowledge about the geology, natural history, and natives of the area.
Following the killings at the Whitman Mission on November 27, 1847, the Walkers and Eells stayed on at Tshimakain until the following March, when they traveled to Fort Colville. There, they enjoyed the protection of the Hudson’s Bay Company until June, when they were escorted to Oregon City by the Oregon Infantry, the volunteer militia organized to make war on the Cayuse Indians in retaliation for the Whitman Massacre. The Walkers remained in Oregon City for over a year before moving to Forest Grove in October, 1849. Under the Donation Land Act of 1850, they filed a claim on 640 acres in the Forest Grove area. Elkanah and Mary Walker had two more children in Forest Grove and lived there for the rest of their lives.
After the hostages taken by the Cayuse were freed and the fighting wound down, Rev. Walker toured eastern Oregon and visited Tshimakain. The Spokane tribe remained friendly toward Walker and invited him to return, but he decided that his calling lay in western Oregon, where he had helped found a Congregational church in Oregon City and a school, Tualatin Academy, in Forest Grove. Both of these were among the earliest such institutions in Oregon.
From 1852 to 1856, Rev. Walker served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Forest Grove. With the exception of about 3 1/2 years all told, he then served as pastor or joint pastor of the local Congregationalist church from 1856 to 1875. When the Tualatin Academy became Pacific University in 1866, Walker donated land for the new campus and served as a university trustee until his death eleven years later.
Elkanah Walker died at the Forest Grove homestead on November 21, 1877, at the age of 72. He lived long enough to see four of his eight children engaged in missionary work at different times, and one of his sons accepted a missionary post in China in 1872. Mary Richardson Walker died on December 5, 1897, at the age of 86.