Pioneer pageant in Walla Walla, beginning on June 6, 1923, marks 75th anniversary of Whitman Mission killings.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 11/05/2007
  • Essay 8355
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On June 6 and 7, 1923, 2,506 residents of Walla Walla and communities nearby, led by Whitman College president Stephen B. L. Penrose (1864-1947), present How The West Was Won: A Pioneer Pageant, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Whitman mission killings. An audience drawn from throughout the region gathers to watch this distinctly onesided rendition of Walla Walla's early history.

History As Pageant

The actual 75th anniversary of the 1847 killings of Christian missionaries Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808-1847) and 11 others by a group of Cayuse Indians was November 29, 1922. Dr. Penrose apparently feared that Walla Walla's usual weather in November might prove inhospitable and deter potential audience members. The Pioneer Pageant, therefore, was moved to June when weather appropriate to an outdoor performance would be more likely. 

Dr. Penrose wrote the script, endorsing a wholeheartedly pioneer-centric position. Bostonian Percy Jewett Burrell (1877-1964), well known at the time for his ability to marshal huge numbers of non-actors and use them to stage community-building historical spectacles, was hired to direct the pageant. The Walla Walla Pageant Association, Inc., was organized to produce the event.  Residents throughout Walla Walla and its neighboring communities underwrote the event.

"Their Glorious Pioneer Heritage"

Walla Walla historian Robert A. Bennett describes the civic mood that boosted the Pioneer Pageant from dream to reality: "The people of Walla Walla were ready to celebrate, not only the Whitman story alone, but the entire breadth of their glorious pioneer heritage. This was to be a lesson in Americanism, designed to give boys and girls an appreciation of their precious heritage -- a legacy that their forefathers had worked so hard to achieve to improve the lives of future generations" (Walla Walla..., p. 38).

The Walla Walla Bulletin published a commemorative booklet about the pageant that included the entire text of the play.  The Bulletin advised readers, "Dr. Penrose expressed himself as being delighted with the proofs and felt that every person who expects to attend the pageant will wish to read the script first in order to fully understand the action" ("Book of Pageant..."). Walla Walla Boy Scouts sold the book and kept 25 percent of the proceeds to fund their summer camp.

Cast of Thousands 

The Walla Walla Pageant Association had a five-member fulltime staff working under the direction of president Pat Clark to oversee the efforts of hundreds of volunteers. These volunteers in turn solicited, cast, and organized the 2,506 actors, dancers, and singers who performed in the event.

While the many performers prepared to tread the boards (or the field), hundreds more volunteers labored behind the scenes sewing costumes for the cast of thousands. Seattle costume shops were tapped for wigs, beards, and specialty costumes beyond the scope of local seamstresses. 

The rehearsal schedule became frenzied as opening night approached. Under the heading "Indian Wars To Be Rehearsed On Field At 10 A.M.," the Walla Walla Bulletin reported:

"Indian wars will be fought over again this morning at pageant field under Col. Paul Weyrauch, impersonating Col. Steptoe, will ride forth, be surprised by the redskins and finally fall back, leaving the victory to be won by Col. Wright and his band ... Rehearsal of the Juvenile chorus will be at 2 o'clock followed by the chorus at 3 o'clock ... All symbolic figures and groups will rehearse under Director Burrell at 1:15 when the "Voice of the Valley" and the three boys will be present.  At 2:30 a complete rehearsal of movement four will take place and all symbolic groups will be arranged for the final tableaux" (June 3, 1923). 

The Voice of the Valley was the pageant's main narrator. The role was played by Marjorie Bacon Smith.

Another article the same day reported that William Card, chief cameraman for the Hal Film Company, had arrived in town to film the pageant.

Red Paint and War Whoops

The first dress rehearsal was held on June 4, 1923. The Walla Walla Bulletin noted delicately, "Making cohesive the story of the big production for the first time naturally required much thought and work" (June 5, 1923). 

The article went on to report the early arrival of

"Indians -- white men who are to augment the crowds of real Red Men that the pageant committee has secured from various reservations ... . The 'Indians' are sent forward at once to the old pioneer cabin ... . Clothes are discarded and soon white skins are turned to red. Wigs are donned -- the white man is an 'Indian.'  Horses are mounted.  War whoops are in order.  Americans love to be that which they are not" (June 5, 1923). 

Direction by Wigwag

The pageant was divided into four sections: 

  • Movement One, 1805-1847, "The Coming of the White Man," began with the October 16, 1805, arrival of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and concluded with the Whitman killings.
  • Movement Two, 1847-1858, "The Indian Wars," was subdivided into three episodes: "The Great Council,"  "War," and ""Victory."
  • Movement Three, 1859-1875 covered "The Building of Walla Walla."
  • Movement Four, "The Coming Day," presented a dream-like visitation or vision in four parts: "The Fruits of the Earth,"  "The Fruits of Civilization,"  "The Fruits of the Spirit,"  and "The Future Glorious."

Under the heading "Direction of Big Spectacle Is Silent; Wig-Wag Is Used," the Walla Walla Bulletin reported the secret to regulating entrances and exits with a cast of thousands:

"A system of signaling, with the Boy Scouts as signalers, has been worked out ... . On top of the grandstand is built a large, covered stand where the director and his assistants will work.  Large numbers are flashed to waiting participants giving them warning that they are to be ready to enter.  Then when the time for the cue arrives, a scout wig-wags to other scouts who inform the performers to move onto the stage.  In the case of the actors who are behind the scenery or those who are distances away, relays are necessary.  Boy Scout messengers are at the beck and call of the director while telephones are strung to several parts of the stage.  The action will move in silence.  This is one of the greatest features of the entire production" (June 6, 1923). 

Wigwag was the term used for so-called Indian hand signals. 

Robert Bennett notes that one of the most remarkable facts about this event was that the roles of many of the early Walla Walla pioneers were taken on by actual descendants or even by the pioneers themselves:

"The conductor of Dr. Baker's famous rawhide railroad, E. E. Babb, was still alive and living in Spokane.  He came back to recreate his part, while Felix Warren, veteran stage driver of pioneer days, also returned once again to handle the reins.  The part of Dr. Baker was played by his grandson, D. F. Baker, while the part of A. H. Reynolds was played by his son, H. A. Reynolds.  One actor, Sam Pambrun of Athena, even got to play two roles -- one was his grandfather, who was a factor at Fort Walla Walla, and the other his father, A. D. Pambrun, who was interpreter for Governor Stevens at the 1855 council" (p. 39).

A closing dance at the armory on Colville Street in downtown Walla Walla marked the end of the pageant weekend. Jess Mann's Orchestra, from Lewiston, Idaho, provided the music.

Witness To History

The Walla Walla Bulletin reported that two survivors of the Whitman killings were in the audience to watch the closing performance: "Photographers and moving picture men on the grounds yesterday were delighted in being able to take a picture of the two survivors of the Whitman massacre who were present at the pageant -- John Hyde Braly of Glendale, California, and Nancy Osborne Jacobs of Portland. Mr. Braly is 88 years of age and Mrs. Jacobs is 86. As they rose in their seats yesterday to go down to the photographer, the crowd cheered and moved restlessly in an endeavor to get a glimpse of two persons who remember clearly the historical events which are being portrayed in the pageant" (June 7, 1923). 

Nancy Osborne, then 9, and members of her family had been among those stricken with measles and staying at the Whitman Mission compound at the time of the killings. Her family managed to escape and flee to Fort Walla Walla and were later evacuated by boat with other massacre survivors. John Hyde Braly, then 11, was not actually present at Whitman Mission when the killings occurred, but he and his family had spent about a month there, and had left 10 days before the tragedy.

How The West Was Won proved so popular that it was produced again the following year on May 28-29, 1924.


Robert A. Bennett, Walla Walla: A Nice Place To Raise A Family 1920-1949 (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press Books, 1988); Stephen Penrose, How The West Was Won: An Historical Pageant (Walla Walla: Inland Printing and Publishing Company, 1927); Stephen Penrose, The Pioneer Pageant: How The West Was Won (S.I.: s.n., 1924?), ca. 1923,  available at University of Washington Libraries Special Collections; "Battery Dance To Be Closing Event Of Pageant June 8," The Walla Walla Bulletin, June 3, 1923; "Book of Pageant Will Be Ready For Sale Monday, Ibid., June 3, 1923; "Cameraman Ready To Film Pageant During Next Week," Ibid., June 3, 1923; "First Rehearsal In Costume Is Great Success," Ibid., June 5, 1923; "Direction of Big Spectacle Is Silent; Wig-Wag Is Used," Ibid.,  June 6, 1923; "Pioneer Pageant Shows Dauntless Spirit of Past," Ibid., June 7, 1923; "Honored Pioneers Photographed At Pageant Today," Ibid., June 7, 1923; John Hyde Braly, Memory Pictures: An Autobiography (Los Angeles: Neuner Co., 1912), 73; Erwin N. Thompson, Shallow Grave At Waiilatpu: The Sagers' West (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1973).

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