Walla Walla Before Wine

Posted in General News on Monday, June 06, 2022

Walla Walla Before Wine

There’s a lot of history behind the popular vineyard region.


It’s a gorgeous spring morning in the Walla Walla Valley, with a chance of rain that you can smell. The air is fresh with the scent of cut grass, the first blooms of flowers, and smoky campfires. Among the seemingly endless vineyards and wine tasting rooms, you can see exactly why pioneers in prairie schooners stopped right here nearly 200 years ago. This place seems special, like someone plucked it out of a Western movie—for better or worse.


The First Peoples of the Cayuse, Walla Walla, Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes occupied this region, their territory stretching over 6.4 million acres in Washington and Oregon. For more than 10,000 years, they subsisted off the land and the bounty it provided them with berries, fish and large game. However, as time pressed forward and Manifest Destiny drew settlers to the West, their way of life soon changed.


Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark were tasked with exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, traveling for two years on foot and by boat to find a river route to the Pacific Ocean. In late September 1805, after the long trek through the Rocky Mountains, the expedition camped and traded with the Nez Perce before their final push to the ocean, establishing the first written contact with Columbia Plateau tribes. On their return trip in 1806, Lewis and Clark’s men camped near the mouth of the “Wallahwollah river” on the Columbia and encountered the “honest and friendly…Wallah wallahs.” 


As more explorers and trappers headed to the Northwest, fur trade posts were established as meeting spots for settlers and tribes. The North West Company created Fort Nez Percés near the site of Lewis and Clark’s camp in 1818. The company was absorbed into the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 and became Fort Walla Walla. The Fort Walla Walla Museum is an incredible stop for a living history experience with historical and cultural exhibits and 17 reconstructed pioneer village buildings displaying early life in the valley. The museum highlights the rich agricultural history with one of the largest collections in the nation of horse-era agricultural equipment circa 1859 to the 1930s. 


The amazing farming bounty of the Walla Walla Valley attracted many settlers and missionaries. In 1833, an article in The Christian Advocate inspired a wave of missionaries to settle in Oregon Country. Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, answered the call to establish a Christian mission for the tribes of the valley. As the tribes called it, Waiilatpu—“Place of the Rye Grasses”—was a scenic spot near the confluence of two small rivers, and the welcoming tribes allowed them to build their homestead nearby. 


The trickle of settlers to the Walla Walla Valley soon became a flood—more than 1,000 new residents in the first three years of establishing the mission, with thousands more settling in the next decade. The influx of newcomers brought diseases to which indigenous people had no immunity. When a measles epidemic broke out, over 250 of the 500-strong Cayuse people died of the illness or resulting dysentery. Although Marcus Whitman was a medical doctor and his treatment of white children successfully cured them, his treatments did not work for Native children with lowered immunity. This catastrophe led to killing of the 

Whitmans and, ultimately, the Cayuse War.


During the 1840s and beyond, Waiilatpu became a stopping point and trading post for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail and even the end destination of 2,000 miles of travel for European settlers.


The town of Walla Walla was officially founded in 1862, after gold was discovered nearby. The booming market for provisions, equipment and animals brought farmers, ranchers and merchants to the town. When the gold rush ended, the town emerged as the leading agricultural producer of wheat, apples and grapes. Over the next two decades, settlers would crowd the Walla Walla Valley, establishing farms, homesteads, schools, businesses and newspapers to become the largest city in all of Washington territory by 1880.


By the time of Washington’s statehood in 1889 and the turn of the century, farmers were growing dozens of different commodities, raising animals, and brewing beer and wine. Mining and timber created thousands of good-paying jobs, and transcontinental rail travel brought thousands more immigrants to the West and to Walla Walla each year. 


The first 100 years of settlement in the region brought tremendous changes socially and economically, but the next 100 years—until the end of the 20th century—would prove how crucial agriculture is to Walla Walla.


As you sit down with your glass of wine or hand-crafted beer on Walla Walla’s idyllic Main Street or take a walk through the gorgeous landscape of Waiilatpu near Whitman Mission, think about the complex history of the place and reflect on what the valley has become. We often see ourselves reflected in the settlers and indigenous people and wonder how anything was possible in such a wild place with few resources. The mythic stories of the West still draw people today. Visitors from all over the world come to the Walla Walla Valley for wine, world-class scenery and history you can see firsthand.