Walla Walla presents The Pioneer Pageant for the second time on May 28 and 29, 1924.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 11/07/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8358
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On May 28 and 29, 1924, Walla Walla residents and other performers from the region present The Pioneer Pageant: How The West Was Won for the second consecutive year.  The cast of 3,150, directed by noted historical pageant director Percy Jewett Burrell (1877-1964) of Boston, again draws tens of thousands of spectators to Pageant Field.

The first presentation of the pageant was intended as a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the killing by a group of Cayuse Indians of Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808-1847), and 11 others on November 29, 1847.  Whitman College president Stephen Penrose (1864-1947) wrote the script and Percy Jewett Burrell was hired to direct. Burrell was a Boston resident who made his name as the director of community-building historical pageants with casts of mostly non-actors numbering in the thousands. 

In two months and with intense community effort, How The West Was Won had mounted  two well-attended performances on June 6 and 7, 1923.  A sub-headline above an article in the Walla Walla Bulletin about the 1923 production's first dress rehearsal revealed that despite the rigorous volunteer work it took to produce this enormous pageant, there were compensations: "Participants Have Lots Of Fun" (June 5, 1923).

Inventing Historical Tourism

Whereas newspaper accounts of the first production document a growing community enthusiasm building to something that must have approached barely controlled hysteria in the days before opening night, the newspaper stories leading up to the second 1924 production suggest that Walla Walla businesses and residents were counting on a massive influx of tourism and were calculating sales pitches to meet an audience interested in what might in later days have been called historical tourism.  Walla Walla hotels and restaurants braced for the arrival of pageant-goers.

The Pageant Association had a 10-minute slot to publicize the event during the May 21, 1924, dedication of the Central Ferry Bridge.  The dedication drew 10,000 people.

As they had in 1923, Walla Walla merchants displayed what the Walla Walla Daily Bulletin described as "relics" in their windows during the weeks leading up to the pageant ("Merchants Urged...").  Local businesses also agreed to close at noon on pageant days.

A full page advertisement in the Walla Walla Daily Bulletin on May 22, 1924, promised:

"Pioneer Pageant will re-enact the glorious romance of the Northwest before your eyes! ... You see Dr. Marcus Whitman's heroic workers take up their task and abode at Waiilatpu, with Mrs. Whitman teaching eager Indian children while the doctor goes back East to impress upon the President and Congress the danger of losing the Northwest to the British.  His return, accompanied by the picturesque train of covered wagons, with their precious freight of pioneer families and sundry possessions -- will indelibly stamp on your memory the year of 1843 and make you THRILL WITH PRIDE THAT YOU ARE AN AMERICAN!" (p. 11).

Massive Cast Constantly Moving

The text of the 1924 production appears to have been identical to the production mounted in 1923.  The pageant consisted of four sections, called movements, divided by historical periods and entitled "The Coming of the White Man,"  "The Indian Wars,"  "The Building of Walla Walla," and "The Coming Day."  This last section was a dreamlike series of tableaux forecasting a glorious future for the Walla Walla valley and its inhabitants.  Percy Jewett Burrell again arrived to direct the spectacle. 

As in the 1923 production, the descendants of many of the actual persons portrayed their ancestors.  Walter Eells, a grandson of missionaries and Whitman College founders Cushing (1810-1893) and Myra Fairbanks Eells (1805-1878), took the part of his grandfather.  The Walla Walla Daily Bulletin noted, "It is indeed especially fitting that the work of Dr. Eells should be recalled this spring when the endowment campaign by which Whitman College is raising, $1,500,000 is expected to put the institution on such a firm financial basis that its future years will be unhampered" ("Cushing Eells Honored...").

Keeping the massive cast organized, and moving large groups of performers on and off the stage required planning and delegation.  On May 22 the Walla Walla Daily Union announced the names of those residents who had been given the honor and responsibility of serving as captains and lieutenants in charge of each pageant episode: 

"Dan Dayton will be captain of actors in Movement 1 ... Mrs. Keezel will be captain of the dancers in Movement 4 with the following as leaders: Alma Bracht, Spirits of Light; Mrs. J.E. Heath, Demons of Darkness ... . In charge of the Fruits of Civilization will be Miss Mercedes Dow, supervising Education, Science, Art, and Religion and Miss Cleora Fouts, Agriculture, Health, Labor, and Law.  Miss Jessie Drumheller will be in charge of the mounted Fruits of the Spirit" ("Pageant Field Leaders Chosen").

Playing Indian

Within the context of Pioneer Pageant: How The West Was Won, local Indian tribes existed exclusively in order to be vanquished. Indian characters were portrayed in wigs and war paint both by members of local tribes and by non-Indian residents.

The one Indian character considered praiseworthy within the context of the drama was Sacagawea, a member of the Shoshone Tribe and the only female member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As the Expedition was mythologized, the moniker "Indian Guide" had been firmly affixed to Sacagawea (variously spelled Sacagawea, Sakakawea, and Sacajawea), to the exclusion of other aspects of her life and character. On May 22, 1924, the Walla Walla Daily Bulletin announced:

"Esther Motanic, beautiful, talented, educated -- the daughter of one of the wealthiest leaders of the Umatilla tribe living on the reservation near Pendleton, Oregon -- has been selected to enact the role of the famous Sacajawea ... . Esther Motanic is an outstanding figure among Indian girls of the present generation, even as the Indian girl she is to portray was outstanding in her time. Champion of oratory in the entire Pendleton high school in 1922; an accomplished violinist and pianist; possessor of a mezzo soprano voice of unusual quality ... she is a leader in Christian life among the Indians of her reservation, where her father, Parson Motanic -- owner of 600 acres of finest wheat land -- perpetuates the mission work which his ancestors tried to stamp out with the Whitman massacre in 1847" ("Ester Motanic Chosen...").

Important Visitors Enthralled

Portland, Seattle, and Spokane sent large delegations of dignitaries to view the pageant.  The Seattle delegation arrived by special train and marched to the Grand Hotel through the streets of Walla Walla behind the Royal Scotch Piper's Band.  The Walla Walla Daily Bulletin stated that the crowd exhibited "enthusiasm unquenched by rain" ("Pioneer Pageant Again Enthralls ...").  Further coverage in the Bulletin stated, "Visitors from Seattle, Spokane, and Portland were taken around the city and then to the state penitentiary where they enjoyed a band concert given by the state penitentiary organization" ("Visitors Crowd Into This City...").

Oregon Governor Walter E. Pierce (1861-1954) and Washington Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) were also in town to see the pageant. Hart had been in the audience for both 1923 performances and would again attend both shows in 1924.  He told the Walla Walla Daily Bulletin that he "became more enthralled at each performance" ("Seattle Visitors Declare").

New Costumes, New Scenery, New Songs 

Despite an overwhelmingly positive response from the 30,000 people who attended the 1923 pageant, organizers of the 1924 show planned improvements.  The Walla Walla Daily Bulletin reported, "It was felt last year that the music used during the last movement was not quite in keeping with the wonder of the spectacle and the beauty of the various tableaux.  To appropriately depict in music the beauty of 'The Coming Day,' the best in musical writings was chosen this year and the chorus will sing Handel's 'Messiah' as a closing number" (Pageant Music Much Changed..."). 

The progress of the wagon trains along the trail to Oregon was accompanied by the choir of over 600 singing "Onward Christian Soldiers."

500 new costumes were created for the 1924 production.  The costume workshop opened May 1, 1924, and by May 22 the Walla Walla Daily Bulletin reported that costume construction was nearly complete.  Last-minute crises necessitated increased effort, however: "Work on the 'Spirits of Light' costumes was being held up, waiting for additional tinsel which must be ordered from out-of-town.  When this arrives an S-O-S call will doubtless be sent out for sewers to attach the tinsel to 20 of the costumes" ("Costume Beauty ...").

The scenery was new and improved as well.  The Walla Walla Union Bulletin reported:

"Scenery for pageantry in the past has often consisted of draperies, a series of steps upon which groupings and tableaux could be arranged, and colored light effects but never before has an entire massive set been built, capable of supporting hundreds of actors and horses; never before have reversible flats been used for scenic changes in the open air; never before has the natural scenery of a country been copied so exactly in painted scenery" ("Pageant Scenery...").

After both the May 28 and May 29 performances the audience was invited to dance to the music of Mann Brother's Famous Orchestra at the Walla Walla Armory.  Proceeds from the Pioneer Pageant Dance benefited the American Legion Convention Fund.

The pageant was a powerful magnet for tourism during the weekend it was presented and possibly Walla Walla was beginning to envision it as an annual event. It was produced once more, in 1927. 

In 1936 Walla Walla residents produced a different pageant, Wagons West, to mark the centennial of the arrival of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and to raise money toward purchasing the Waiilatpu property for preservation by the National Park Service.


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 in University of Washington Special Collections; "First Rehearsal In Costume Is A Great Success," Walla Walla Union Bulletin, June 5, 1923; "Cushing Eells Honored By Pageant As Builder of Whitman College," Walla Walla Daily Bulletin, May 22, 1924; "Pageant Field Leaders Chosen," Ibid., May 22, 1924; "Esther Motanic Chosen For Part of Famous Sacajawea," Ibid., May 22, 1924; Display Ad, Ibid., May 22, 1924, p. 11; "Pioneer Pageant Again Enthralls Those Who See It," Ibid., May 29, 1924; "Visitors Crowd Into This City To View Pageant," Ibid., May 29, 1924; "Seattle Visitors Declare Pageant Great Spectacle,"Ibid., May 30, 1924; "Pageant Music Much Changed An Improved This Year," Ibid., May 22, 1924; "Costume Beauty To Add Much To Coming Pageant,"Ibid., May 22, 1924; "Pageant Advertised At Bridge Opening," Ibid., May 22, 1924; "Merchants Urged To Secure More Relics," ibid., May 22, 1924; "Pageantry Scenery Much Improved For This Year," Ibid., May 23, 1924; Frances Copeland Stickles, Another Sort of Pioneer: Mary Shipman Penrose ( [S.l.]: Castle Island Pub., ca. 2007), p. 257; William Huntington, email to Paula Becker, December 4, 2007, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was corrected on December 4, 2007, and revised slightly on January 9, 2017.

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