Whitman College opens in Walla Walla on September 4, 1882.

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 10/17/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8312
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On September 4, 1882, classes begin at Whitman College on the campus of Whitman Seminary in Walla Walla, Washington Territory. Originally chartered in 1859 as a coeducational pre-collegiate academy to memorialize missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Whitman Seminary had begun offering classes in Walla Walla in 1866 but struggled to remain open.  By 1882, trustees decided that if the school were to survive it needed to expand into a college. Through local and national support, particularly through the Congregational American College and Education Society, Whitman College will establish itself as a traditional liberal arts college. After its first 25 years, Whitman will separate itself from the Congregational Church. In time, it will develop into a distinguished liberal arts college.

A Pioneer College 

In 1882, the trustees of Whitman Seminary decided to expand their school into a liberal arts college.  Whitman Seminary, a coeducational pre-collegiate academy, had been charted in 1859 by Cushing Eells (1810-1893) to memorialize his missionary colleagues Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who had been killed by a group of Cayuse Indians in 1847.  The school had opened in 1866, after local merchant Dorsey Syng Baker (1823-1888) had donated land and a building had been built in Walla Walla.  Like many pioneer academies, Whitman Seminary struggled to sustain continuous operations.  The trustees realized that the area could not support another stand-alone academy, but it might be able to support a college.

For the college’s first president, Whitman trustees called Alexander J. Anderson (1832-1903), an experienced builder of schools in the Pacific Northwest.  Anderson, who had recently resigned the presidency of the Territorial University (later the University of Washington) because of a lack of support from the territorial government, thought a privately supported college might have better prospects.  Anderson developed curricula for the college and aligned the school with the American College and Education Society, a Boston organization that helped remote Congregational colleges gain financial assistance.  College classes began on September 4, 1882, Marcus Whitman’s birthday.  A new charter for the school was obtained in November 1883.  

Liberal Arts in the Pacific Northwest

Anderson and his successors worked to bring the benefits of a traditional liberal arts college, modeled on New England colleges such as Williams, to the remote and rugged Northwest.  Whitman also adapted to the conditions and needs of the region.  In 1907, seeking broader support, Whitman ended its affiliation with the Congregational Church and attempted to transform itself into a regional center for advanced technical training.  But this ambitious plan failed and Whitman settled into its identity as a small, independent liberal arts college. 

The greatest influence on the development of Whitman College during its first 50 years was the college’s third president, Stephen B. L. Penrose (1864-1947), whose presidency lasted from 1894 to 1934.  Penrose promoted the school by promoting the school’s namesake, Marcus Whitman. Penrose left his mark on the school’s structure, curriculum, and social life.  Despite persistent financial struggles, especially during the Great Depression, Whitman College emerged as a premier liberal arts college in the Northwest.  By the end of the twentieth century, the quality of Whitman’s exclusively undergraduate educational program was receiving national recognition.  

Sources: G. Thomas Edwards, The Triumph of Tradition: The Emergence of Whitman College, 1859-1924 (Walla Walla: Whitman College, 1992); Myron Eells, Father Eells, or, The Results of Fifty-Five Years of Missionary Labors in Washington and Oregon (Boston: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, 1894); Stephen B. L. Penrose, Whitman: An Unfinished Story (Walla Walla: Whitman Publishing Co., 1935).
Note: This essay replaces a previous timeline essay on the same subject.

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