In 1836, a few miles from the current city of Walla Walla, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established a Christian mission and a school to teach the Cayuse Indians to read and write their native language. Later, the Whitmans provided assistance to Oregon Trail travelers. After the Whitmans were killed by Indians in 1847, Rev. Cushing Eells resolved to establish a school in the Whitmans' honor. The Washington Territorial Legislature granted a charter to Whitman Seminary on December 20, 1859. On November 28, 1883, the legislature issued a new charter, changing the seminary into a four-year, degree-granting college.
From its beginning, Whitman College has prized its independence from sectarian and political control. Whitman has remained small in order to facilitate the close faculty-student interaction that is essential to exceptional higher education. In 1913, Whitman became the first college or university in the nation to require undergraduate students to complete comprehensive examinations in their major fields. The installation of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1919, the first for any Northwest college, marked Whitman's growing reputation.
Whitman College has had thirteen presidents. The first, Alexander J. Anderson, resigned the presidency of the University of Washington in 1882 to come to Walla Walla. He was succeeded by James F. Eaton in 1891 and Stephen B. L. Penrose in 1894. Penrose served for 40 years, retiring from the presidency in 1934. He remained for eight more years as head of the department of philosophy, serving under presidents Rudolf A. Clemen, 1934-36; Walter Andrew Bratton, 1936-42; and Winslow S. Anderson, 1942-48. Chester C. Maxey, a 1912 Whitman graduate, led the college from 1948 to 1959. Louis B. Perry was president through 1967, followed by Donald Sheehan, 1968-74; Robert Allen Skotheim, 1975-88; David Evans Maxwell, 1989-93; Thomas E. Cronin, 1993-2005. George Bridges was Whitman College's thirteenth president; he served in that capacity from 2005 until June, 2015. Kathleen M. Murray is Whitman's current president.
Visit Whitman's Portraits of the Past digital exhibit, which features an exploratory collection of photographs of the College's history over the past 125 years, to see an interactive timeline of Whitman College's history.