Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman begin their journey to the Northwest, one day after their wedding, on February 19, 1836.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 5/08/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10777

On February 19, 1836 -- one day after their wedding -- missionaries Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808-1847) begin a seven-month, 3,000-mile journey from New York State to the Pacific Northwest. Their goal is to Christianize and "civilize" Indians in what is then known as Oregon Country. After arriving, they will establish a Protestant mission on Cayuse land at Waiilatpu, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Eleven years later, a group of Cayuses will attack the mission, killing the Whitmans and 11 others in what will become known as the "Whitman Massacre."

"I Have Found Some Missionaries"

Marcus Whitman was a 32-year-old physician in the small town of Wheeler, in western New York, when he responded to an appeal for missionaries from Rev. Samuel Parker (1779-1866). Parker, a Congregational minister from Middlefield, Massachusetts, had been commissioned by the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to raise money and recruit volunteers for missions west of the Rocky Mountains. He spent the summer and fall of 1834 on a speaking tour of churches in New England and upstate New York, arriving in Wheeler in late November. Whitman was among those who heard him speak at the Wheeler Presbyterian Church and later met with him privately.

Whitman had applied to the American Board for a position as a medical missionary in June 1834 but had been rejected, partly on the grounds that he was single (the board preferred to send only married men to its missions, hoping to shield them from temptations involving native women). Parker encouraged him to find a wife and reapply.

After leaving Wheeler, Parker traveled about 45 miles west to Amity, a village on the Genesee River, where he made another plea for missionaries. His audience there included Narcissa Prentiss, a pious 26-year-old Sunday school teacher who was living in Amity with her parents and siblings. She, too, volunteered. "I have found some missionaries," Parker wrote to his family on December 5, 1834. "Dr. Whitman of Wheeler, Steuben County, New York, has agreed to offer himself to the Board to go beyond the mountains. He has no family." He also reported that "a daughter of Judge Prentiss of Amity" was willing to go (Nelson, 202).

Parker encouraged Narcissa Prentiss to apply even though he was not certain that the American Board would accept an unmarried woman. "Are females wanted?" he asked Rev. David Greene, the board secretary, in a letter dated December 17, 1834. "A Miss Narcissa Prentiss of Amity is very anxious to go to the heathen. Her education is good -- piety conspicuous ... She will offer herself if needed." Greene demurred: "I don't think we have missions among the Indians where unmarried females are valuable just now," he replied on December 24, 1834 (ABCFM Archives).

Hurried Engagement

In mid-January 1835, Whitman learned that he had received an appointment as an assistant missionary. He was to accompany Parker on a scouting expedition to determine which Indian tribes in Oregon Country would be most receptive to missionaries, locate potential sites for the missions, and decide whether it was feasible for women to make the journey overland rather than by sea. Whitman closed his medical practice in Wheeler and traveled to Ithaca, New York, to meet with Parker and discuss details of the trip in person. While he was there, Parker told him about the unmarried Sunday school teacher and aspiring missionary in Amity.

Whitman had already indicated his willingness to get married if necessary to become a missionary. "I think I should wish to take a wife, if the service of the board would admit," he wrote in his original application to the American Board, on June 3, 1834 (ABCFM Archives). Historian Clifford M. Drury speculates that once Whitman found out that Narcissa Prentiss also wanted to go to Oregon as a missionary, then "Providence might be intending that they go as husband and wife" (Drury, 111). In any case, Marcus made plans to visit Amity and call on Narcissa before leaving with Parker for the Northwest.

Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Prentiss had been born within 25 miles of each other and had spent most of their lives in the same general area of New York but they apparently did not meet each other until February 21, 1835, when Marcus arrived in Amity. They spent only a few hours together, spread out over the next two days, but by the time Marcus left town, on February 23, they were engaged. They would not see each other again for nearly a year.

Change of Plans

Whitman traveled on to St. Louis, where he and Parker joined traders from the American Fur Company for the journey west. The two planned to travel with the traders to the company's annual rendezvous site on the Green River in Wyoming and go on from there with Indian guides to the coast. But when they reached the rendezvous, in mid-August 1835, they decided to part company. Parker would continue on the westward journey while Whitman would return to St. Louis with the fur caravan and make arrangements to bring a party of missionaries to Oregon the next year.

Whitman stayed at the rendezvous for about two weeks. During that time, he met a Nez Perce boy named Tackitonitis (also written Tack-i-too-tis) who spoke a little English. Whitman wanted to take him back east so he could learn more English and then serve as an interpreter for the missionaries. After some discussion, the boy's father agreed. Whitman immediately began trying to acculturate the youth, renaming him "Richard." A few days later, another Nez Perce father asked if his son, Ais, could go too. Whitman agreed; he called this boy "John."

Whitman and the two young Nez Perces left the rendezvous with the caravan on August 27, 1835. They arrived in Amity about four and a half months later. Once there, Whitman learned that the Prentiss family had moved six miles north to the small village of Angelica. He and the boys reached Angelica around December 10. After a brief visit with Narcissa, he sent the boys to one of Parker's relatives in Ithaca and hurried on to his mother's home in Rushville, 60 miles north of Angelica. He spent the rest of the winter in Rushville, working on arrangements for what was now officially the American Board's Oregon Mission.

Whitman's most pressing concern was to find at least one other couple who could go to Oregon. Board secretary David Greene provided him with a few names, including Rev. and Mrs. Oliver S. Powell of Amity, who were friends of Narcissa Prentiss. They were ruled out because Mrs. Powell had recently given birth. Another missionary couple expressed an interest but decided instead to go to Astoria, on the Northwest coast. In a letter dated December 30, 1835, Greene offered Whitman some advice about the qualifications of suitable companions but didn't give him any more names (ABCFM Archives). Whitman would have to do his own recruiting.

"I Am Ready"

Possibly while visiting Narcissa in Angelica, Marcus heard about Rev. Henry Harmon Spalding (1803-1874), a newly ordained Presbyterian minister who had just been appointed by the American Board as a missionary to the Osage Indians in Missouri. Spalding had been born in Wheeler, where Whitman later practiced medicine, and he had once attended the same school and been a member of the same church as Narcissa Prentiss, in Prattsburg. He had left Prattsburg to attend Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio (where he wrote a senior thesis titled "Claims of the Heathen on American Churches"). Like Whitman, he had long wanted to become a missionary and had deliberately sought a wife who would join him in that work. "Now where can I find a suitable person who will be willing to accompany me to a foreign field, and devote her life to educate the heathen?" he reportedly asked an acquaintance in 1830 (Wakeman, 4). The acquaintance introduced him to Eliza Hart (1807-1851). The two were married in 1833 and moved to Cincinnati, where Spalding attended Lane Theological Seminary. He completed his studies there in May 1835; was ordained at the end of August, and was accepted by the American Board that fall.

The Spaldings were in Prattsburg making final arrangements before leaving for their assignment with the Osages when they received a letter from Whitman, begging them to go to Oregon instead.

Whitman made his desperation clear to Spalding. The American Board would not send a mission to Oregon unless at least one member of the party was an ordained minister. Further, it was imperative that the party leave within a few weeks, in order to connect with the fur company's caravan in St. Louis: The caravan would not adjust its schedule to accommodate any missionaries, and the missionaries would not be able to make the journey without the guidance and protection of the caravan. Spalding continued to plan for his original post but notified the board that he would join the Whitman party if necessary. "If the Board and Dr. Whitman wish me to go to the Rocky Mountains with him, I am ready," he wrote to Greene on December 28, 1835. "Act your pleasure" (ABCFM Archives).

Greene expressed some reservations about Spalding's suitability for a mission in Oregon. "I have some doubt whether his temperament well fits him for intercourse with the traders and travellers in that region," he wrote to Whitman in a letter dated February 12, 1836. However: "As to laboriousness, self-denial, energy and perseverance, I presume that few men are better qualified than he" (ABCFM Archives). By the time Whitman received that letter, the Spaldings had already left Prattsburg for what they still assumed would be a mission in Missouri. Whitman raced after them, caught up with them on February 14, 1836, and persuaded them to change their plans. The Spaldings agreed to wait for the Whitmans in Cincinnati and travel together across the continent. Marcus then returned to Angelica to marry Narcissa.

Native Land, Farewell 

Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Prentiss were married on the evening of February 18, 1836, in the Angelica Presbyterian Church. She was almost 28; he was 33. She wore a dress of black bombazine (a fabric made of tightly woven silk and wool); she took it with her to Oregon. Tackitonitis, the Nez Perce youth that Whitman had renamed "Richard," was among the wedding guests. The couple had been engaged for a year but had spent only a few hours in each other's company. They had agreed to marry "somewhat abruptly," Narcissa reportedly told an acquaintance later, "and must do our courtship now we are married" (Eells, 28).

The ceremony ended with a hymn titled "Yes, My Native Land! I Love Thee!" As the song built, through stanzas that included the refrain "Can I leave thee, can I leave thee / Far in heathen lands to dwell?" the congregation was overcome with emotion. In the morning the couple would set out for a distant land that was not yet part of the United States. No white woman had yet made the journey across the continent. It seemed unlikely that either Marcus or Narcissa would ever be able to return to their "native land" again. One by one, according to a story that was told later, the voices faltered, until only Narcissa could be heard, in a clear soprano, singing the last verse: "Let me hasten, let me hasten / Far in heathen lands to dwell" (Drury, 163).

The next day, the Whitmans left on the first leg of their long journey to Oregon.


Sources: The Church at Home and Abroad: Presbyterian Church in the USA, Vol. 17, ed. by Henry A. Nelson (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1895); Joel Wakeman, "A Venerable Name from Old Franklin," Prattsburg News, August 10, 1893, in Joel Wakeman Papers, Washington State University, Pullman; American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) Archives, 1810-1961, Boxes 18.3-18.8, Missions to the North American Indians, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, Vol. 1 (Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, 1986); Myron Eells, Marcus Whitman, Pathfinder and Patriot (Seattle: Alice Harriman Company, 1909).

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