To tell the story of Walla Walla’s history is to tell a story that combines geologic marvel, ancestral inhabitants, early settlers, tremendous wealth, agricultural riches, and a diversified economy. Nowhere is this story better told than at some of the Walla Walla Valley’s top museums and cultural sites, including Fort Walla Walla Museum, Kirkman House Museum, Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Frenchtown Historic Site, and the nearby Tamástslikt Cultural Institute.
Each one educational, moving, and relevant in its own right, collectively these museums and historic sites combine to recant and memorialize the region’s past, while informing, educating, and even inspiring present day visitors.
The relevant history of the region dates back tens of thousands of years, when the geologic foundation of the Walla Walla Valley was laid. This was followed by the arrival of the region’s first Native American inhabitants, the region’s first Euro-American explorers with the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1805, French-Canadian fur trappers, and the first permanent white settlers in the 1830s.
Long before early explorers and settlers set foot in the Walla Walla Valley, an assortment of Plateau Indian peoples including the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla inhabited the region known in the native Sahaptin language as Walla Walla, or “place of many waters” due to the area’s many rivers, lakes and streams. The abundant fish, wildlife, and plants of this region provided a bounty of food. The tribes’ first recorded contact with the outside world came in 1805, when the Lewis & Clark Expedition passed through the area on their journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Following the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the Canadian North West Fur Company established the first trading post in the area – Fort Nez Perce – in 1818. Subsequent early settlers included a population of largely French fur traders and trappers, many of who took Native American brides and settled the community of Frenchtown, not far from present day Walla Walla, in 1823. Shortly after, missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established the Whitman Mission in 1836, providing religious instruction and medical services to the local Cayuse Indians. Whitman Mission would serve as a wayside for migrating settlers along the Oregon Trail until 1847 when the Whitmans and 11 other settlers were killed and the mission was burned down.
The regional geology and climate were conducive to crop growing. Due in large part to the nearby discovery of gold, and to the region’s agricultural prowess, Walla Walla was a booming town in its early days and was once the largest city in the Washington Territory. Walla Walla’s prosperity spawned tremendous wealth, and the Territory’s first bank, Baker Boyer Bank, opened in 1869. Once slated to become the capital of Washington State, Walla Walla’s historic wealth is still evident today in the form of the Marcus Whitman Hotel and numerous historic mansions near downtown.
The aforementioned geologic events that deposited vast amounts of fertile soils in the Walla Walla Valley created one of the most productive agricultural areas in America. Once referred to as a ‘Bread Basket of the World,’ due to the bountiful dry land wheat production, the Walla Walla Valley produces a diverse range of crops including the famous Walla Walla Sweet Onion, apples, asparagus, strawberries and many other commercial crops. More recently, Walla Walla has evolved as one of the finest wine producing areas in the world.