Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss (1808-1847)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 4/13/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10088
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Narcissa Whitman might have lived out her life in historical obscurity but for two developments. The first was her decision, in 1836, to marry a missionary named Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and travel with him to what was then called Oregon Country, some 3,000 miles from her home in upstate New York. The second was her death 11 years later, at the hands of Cayuse Indians at the mission she and her husband had established near Walla Walla. The Whitmans set out to Christianize and "civilize" a people they considered "heathen." They soon gave up trying to convert Indians and instead turned their mission into a way station for white emigrants on the Oregon Trail. Tensions built up over time and finally erupted on November 29, 1847, when a group of Cayuses attacked the mission, killing the Whitmans and 11 others. The attack accelerated efforts to extend federal authority over the present-day states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon and parts of Montana and Wyoming. It also helped make Narcissa -- the only woman to be killed -- a symbol of the cultural clashes that played out between whites and Indians throughout the West.

Burned-Over District

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman was born on March 14, 1808, in Prattsburg (now spelled Prattsburgh), New York, in a region known as the "Burned-Over District" because of the waves of evangelistic fervor that swept over it in the early nineteenth century -- like forest fires, it was said, burning everything in their path. Intense religious revivals were held at periodic intervals throughout the region. They were characterized by fiery sermons, public confessions of sin, and collective conversions. The minister of the Prattsburg Presbyterian Church was pleased to see widespread weeping and trembling among the people attending one such revival in 1819. At the end of it, he welcomed 59 new members into the church. One of them was 11-year-old Narcissa Prentiss.

Narcissa was the third of nine children (and the eldest daughter) of Stephen (1777-1862) and Clarissa Ward Prentiss. Her parents were among the first settlers in Prattsburg. Her father cleared land for a small farm there in 1805, just a few years after the town was established; later, he took over the operation of a sawmill and gristmill. He was also a carpenter, and used lumber from the mill to build houses for the community. Sometime before Narcissa’s birth, he built a modest frame house, a story and a half high, for his growing family. The house is still standing, although in a different location, and maintained as a historic site in Prattsburg.

Rev. Joel Wakeman (1809-1898), who knew the family well, described Prentiss as being tall, "a little inclined to corpulency," and "remarkably reticent for a man of his intelligence and standing." He served one term as a county judge and thereafter claimed the title Judge Prentiss. Clarissa Prentiss was also tall, "fleshy and queenly in her deportment," someone who "possessed great weight of Christian character." Both were reserved and solemn in public. "It was a rare thing," Wakeman wrote, for either to "indulge in laughter" (Prattsburg News, January 20, 1898).

Clarissa Prentiss took the lead in her family’s religious life. She herself had been converted in a revival shortly before Narcissa’s birth. She became a charter member of the Prattsburg Presbyterian Church when it was built in 1807. She later helped organize the Female Home Missionary Society of Prattsburg and enrolled all her children in the local Youth Missionary Society. Stephen Prentiss helped build the church but did not join it until 1817. He left after just a few years, in a tussle that may have involved the issue of temperance (his business activities included, for a while, a distillery), and did not return to the fold until 1831.

As the eldest daughter in a large family, Narcissa had many household responsibilities and few idle hours. She found emotional release and comfort in the church, especially during what she called "the melting seasons" or "the harvest seasons," when souls would be harvested for Christ and sins melted away by the tears of the congregation. She experienced a second spiritual awakening during one of these highly charged revivals, when she was 16. It was then, she wrote later, that she decided to "consecrate myself without reserve" and some day "go to the heathen" as a missionary (February 23, 1835, ABCFM Collection).

"Leadings of Providence"

Prattsburg in the 1820s was a fairly isolated community. Roads were primitive; manufactured goods hard to come by. Families had to be self-sufficient. Narcissa learned how to weave and spin, sew, cook over an open fire, and make soap and candles -- skills that would prove useful on the frontier.

She was comparatively well educated for a woman of her generation. In 1827, at age 19, she was a member of the first class of women to be enrolled in the Franklin Academy, a church-affiliated secondary school in Prattsburg. She completed one 21-week term in April 1828 and returned for a second term two years later. Among her fellow students at that time was an aspiring missionary named Henry Harmon Spalding (1803-1874). When Marcus and Narcissa Whitman set out for Oregon Country in 1836, Spalding and his wife, Eliza, went with them.

Narcissa’s surviving letters and journal show that she was a graceful, accomplished writer. In different circumstances she might have found literary success. But her options were limited. She taught kindergarten in nearby schools on an intermittent basis for a few years. By 1833, she was living at home and helping her mother with household chores. She spent most of her twenties "waiting the leadings of Providence concerning me," as she put it (February 23, 1835, ABCFM Collection).

She continued to dream of becoming a missionary in some exotic place, far from home. She was not allowed to read novels -- which her mother considered "light and vain trash" -- but she found stimulation and escape in romanticized biographies of women such as Harriet Newell (1793-1812), who went to India with her missionary husband and died an early, noble death. She also avidly read the letters from missionaries that were published monthly in the Missionary Journal, published by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the governing agency for missions sponsored by Presbyterian and Congregational churches. Still, she could do little to shape her own future beyond hope for a marriage proposal from a man who shared her values. Single women did not receive appointments from the American Board. If Narcissa were to "go to the heathen," she would have to do so as the wife of a missionary. 

Doctor Whitman

Like Narcissa Prentiss, Marcus Whitman had thought about becoming a missionary for many years. Born in Rushville (about 30 miles north of Prattsburg), he had been sent to live with relatives in Massachusetts after his father died, when he was 8. He was raised in the Calvinistic tradition by an uncle and a grandfather who gave him what he described as "constant religious instruction and care" (June 3, 1834, ABCFM Collection). He explored the possibility of becoming a minister -- the usual route for a man who wanted to enter the missionary field -- at age 18 but his family discouraged him. Instead he went to work in his stepfather’s tannery and shoe shop in Rushville.

At 21, Whitman left the family business and apprenticed himself to a local doctor -- the first step toward becoming a physician. After two years of "riding" with the doctor and one 16-week term at a medical school, he received a license and began practicing medicine. He later returned to medical school for another 16-week term, earning a Doctorate of Medicine. He worked as an country doctor in Pennsylvania and Canada before establishing a practice in Wheeler, New York (eight miles south of Prattsburg), in 1832. He joined the Wheeler Presbyterian Church, serving as a trustee, an elder, and a Sunday School superintendent. He was perhaps even more deeply devout than Narcissa.

Whitman applied to the American Board for a commission as a medical missionary in early June 1834. He was rejected because of concerns about his health. Five months later, he met Rev. Samuel Parker (1779-1866), who was on a one-man campaign to send missionaries to Indians in the American West. Parker had been galvanized by a widely circulated account of four Flatheads who had traveled to St. Louis in 1831, supposedly seeking "the white man’s Book of Heaven." The American Board was less enthusiastic than Parker was about the possibility of establishing a new mission in Oregon Country, and agreed to sponsor his efforts only if he could raise most of the money himself. He was on a tour of churches in central New York, asking for donations and trying to recruit missionaries, when he arrived in Wheeler in late November 1834.

Parker’s appeal "opened a door for Whitman" (Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Vol. 1, 93). Whitman’s eagerness to be accepted by the board was matched by Parker’s desire to have someone go with him on an exploratory trip to scout possible mission sites the next spring. Whitman reapplied to the board in a letter dated December 2, 1834. "I have had an interview with the Rev. Samuel Parker upon the subject of Missions and have determined to offer myself to the Am. Board to accompany him on his Mission beyond the Rocky Mountains," he wrote, adding, "My health is so much restored that I think it will offer no impediment" (ABCFM Collection).

"Are Females Wanted?"

After leaving Wheeler, Parker traveled about 45 miles west to the newly settled village of Amity (now Belmont). The Prentiss family had moved there in June 1834 so that Stephen Prentiss could get more work as a carpenter. Speaking in a log building that served as both schoolhouse and church, Parker repeated his plea for missionaries to go to Oregon. Narcissa volunteered. Parker wasn’t certain that the American Board would accept her. "Are females wanted?" he asked in a letter to David Greene, secretary of the board. "A Miss Narcissa Prentiss of Amity is very anxious to go to the heathen. Her education is good -- piety conspicuous ... . " Greene demurred. "I don’t think we have missions among the Indians where unmarried females are valuable just now," he wrote (December 17 and 24, 1834, ABCFM Collection).

Both Whitman and Parker knew that the board preferred married men over bachelors, believing that wives could protect their missionary husbands from any undue temptations while living among the unsaved. In his first application to the board, Whitman had said he was willing to "take a wife, if the service of the board would admit" (June 3, 1834, ABCFM Collection). When he learned, from Parker, that Narcissa had volunteered to go to Oregon as a missionary, he took it as a sign that Providence intended them to go as husband and wife.

Whitman was slightly acquainted with the Prentiss family. He had attended a prayer meeting in their home in Prattsburg some years earlier, but Narcissa was teaching kindergarten in another community at that time and the two apparently had never met. Whitman arrived in Amity on February 21, 1835. By the time he left, two days later, he and Narcissa were engaged. It would be nearly a year before they would see each other again.

Native Land, Farewell

Narcissa Prentiss married Marcus Whitman on February 18, 1836, in the Presbyterian Church in Angelica, six miles north of Amity (her family had moved there while Whitman was on his journey west). She was 27; he, 33.

More is imagined than is known about her appearance. She was said to be of medium height, about five feet, five inches, and somewhat "fleshy." She had fair skin, gray-blue eyes, and thick, tawny hair, which she parted in the middle and wore in a tight bun at the back of her neck. On her wedding day, she clipped a lock of her hair and gave it to one of her friends; it eventually ended up in a display case at Whitman College in Walla Walla. Her eyes often troubled her; she needed glasses for reading and sewing. She had erect posture and usually dressed severely, in high necked, long sleeved, full skirted dresses. She was widely admired for the quality of her voice, a clear strong soprano, which she used to great effect in church services. "She was not a beauty," wrote Rev. Joel Wakeman, "and yet, when engaged in singing or conversation there was something in her appearance very attractive" (Prattsburg News, February 3, 1898).

Some of Whitman’s contemporaries described him as being tall; others said he was of medium height. Some remember his eyes as being blue; others, gray. He was by all accounts lean and muscular. Friends said there was a strong family resemblance between Whitman and his brother and nephews. They are shown in photos as having deep-set eyes, high cheek bones, thin lips, and prominent, angular noses. Whitman had a strong sense of duty and what many thought a stern demeanor. "His appearance among respectable people is rather forbidding at first," wrote Rev. Henry P. Strong, pastor of Whitman’s church in Rushville (August 12, 1836, ABCFM Collection).

The wedding took place on a Thursday evening. Narcissa wore a dress of black bombazine (tightly woven silk and wool) -- probably one she had made earlier for wearing to funerals. Among the guests was one of two Nez Perce boys that Whitman had brought back with him from his journey west, in hopes they would learn enough English to serve as translators once the new mission was established. He was the first Native American Narcissa had ever seen.

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 / Far in heathen lands to dwell?" the congregation was overcome with emotion. No white woman had yet crossed over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast. Even if Narcissa survived the dangers of the journey, it seemed unlikely she would ever be able to return to her "native land" again. One by one, according to the story that was told later, the voices in the choir faltered, until only Narcissa’s lovely soprano could be heard above the sobs, singing the last line: "Glad I bid thee / Native land! Farewell! Farewell!" (Drury, Whitman, 123-24).

The next day, the Whitmans left for Oregon.

Traveling Companions

It turned out that few prospective missionaries were as willing to accept an assignment in Oregon as the Whitmans. Only two other couples showed any interest at all. One withdrew; the other was ruled out because they had recently had a child; the American Board stipulated that people with children could not go. Samuel Parker said a young woman he identified only as "a Miss McCoy" had volunteered but nothing came of it. With the deadline for departure approaching, Whitman was desperate to find at least one other couple for the Oregon mission. He finally persuaded Henry Spalding, by then an ordained Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Eliza Hart Spalding (1807-1851), to give up an assignment to an Osage mission in western Missouri and go to Oregon instead.

Many years after the deaths of all the principals, a story emerged that Spalding had once been in love with Narcissa Prentiss, had proposed to her, and been spurned. It’s clear that the two knew each other. They had attended the same school in Prattsburg and were members of the same church. But the evidence of a thwarted romance is ambiguous at best.

Clifford M. Drury, dean of the historians of the missionary era, flatly dismissed the idea in his biography of Spalding, published in 1936, but found it credible when he published a biography of Whitman, one year later. He said he changed his mind largely on the basis of a newly discovered letter written by one of Narcissa’s sisters. Spalding, she wrote, had "wished to make Narcissa his wife, and her refusal of him caused the wicked feeling he cherished toward them (Marcus and Narcissa) both." The letter was written in 1893, more than 60 years after the purported proposal, by a sister who would have been too young to know much about events at the time. Nonetheless, it convinced Drury that "Henry was indeed a rejected suitor" (Whitman, 84).

Drury also reinterpreted a remark that Spalding had made when he first heard that Narcissa was engaged to Whitman and planning to become a missionary in Oregon. By his own account, Spalding told friends at the time that he would not go on any mission with her because he questioned her judgment. Drury decided the remark meant that Spalding was still jealous and bitter because Narcissa had refused his proposal. But it could have meant simply that he thought Narcissa wasn’t suited for life as a missionary -- and indeed, it would turn out that she was not.

In any case, relationships among all the members of the Oregon Mission -- including four couples who arrived as "reinforcements" in 1838 – were marked by resentment and contentiousness. None of them got along. They quarreled about everything from how to load a wagon to how to pray. As writer William Dietrich put it, "The same strong-minded idealism that fired people with Christian zeal made it difficult for them to cooperate" (163). The six couples ended up establishing four separate mission stations, hundreds of miles apart.

Westward Ho

The 3,000-mile journey to Oregon took about seven months. For most of the first half of the trip, the missionaries traveled in relative comfort on Missouri River steamboats. Narcissa reveled in the luxury of "servants, who stand at our elbows ready to supply every want" on one boat (March 28, 1836). She seemed invigorated by the changing landscape and the new experiences. "Can scarcely resist the temptation to stand out to view the shores of the majestic river," she wrote as the boat approached St. Louis. "Varied scenes present themselves as we pass up -- beautiful landscapes -- on the one side high and rugged bluffs, and on the other low plains" (March 28, 1836). She was in good spirits. "I think I shall endure the journey well -- perhaps better than any of the rest of us," she wrote on April 7, 1836, near the halfway point.

Ahead lay some 1,900 miles of prairie, mountain, and desert. To cross in safety, the small missionary party needed to join the American Fur Company’s caravan of 70 or so traders and travel with them to the annual rendezvous in Green River, Wyoming. The missionaries were late setting out and ended up having to make several forced marches before they caught up with the caravan, on May 26, 1836. The next day, they encountered their first Indian villages. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women the Indians had ever seen. "We ladies were such a curiosity to them," Narcissa wrote. "They would come in and stand around our tent, peep in, and grin in their astonishment to see such looking objects" (June 27, 1836).

The caravan’s route followed river valleys westward toward the Rocky Mountains. This part of the journey was long and tedious, covering only 15 miles or so in a good day. The diet by that point consisted mostly of buffalo meat (supplied by the caravan’s hunters), supplemented with milk from the missionaries’ cows. Buffalo dung was the only source of fuel for cooking. Despite the hardships, Narcissa seemed to relish the experience. "I never was so contented and happy before, neither have I enjoyed such health for years," she wrote (June 4, 1836).

Crossing the plains, the two women often rode in a wagon. The wagon had no springs but they sat on baggage and found it comfortable enough. Approaching the mountains, the trail became rougher. They rode the rest of the way on horseback, on sidesaddles, sitting with their legs on one side of their horses (left foot in a stirrup, right leg resting over a hook on the side of the saddle, shoulders facing forward, spine twisted). With their weight distributed so unevenly, they were at risk of being thrown anytime their horses bolted or jumped to one side. Riding astride would have been more comfortable and more secure but would have been a breach of decorum for women of their backgrounds. The four women who joined the Oregon Mission in 1838 also traveled overland in sidesaddles; one of the saddles is on display in the Oregon Historical Society’s museum in Portland.

The caravan stopped for a week at Fort William, later known as Fort Laramie, in present-day Wyoming. The women had a chance to wash their clothes for the first time in months. Narcissa met some Pawnee Indians. She thought them "noble," and said they had "large, athletic frames, dignified countenances bespeaking an immortale exhistance within" (June 27, 1836). Sometime during this break, she became pregnant.

They reached the fur company’s rendezvous on the Green River in early July. The two white women created something of a sensation at the gathering of some 200 trappers and traders and large numbers of Flatheads and Nez Perces. Narcissa enjoyed entertaining some of the caravan’s leaders at tea; Eliza concentrated on learning the Indians’ languages.

The missionaries parted company with the caravan at Green River and traveled on to the Columbia River with an escort of Nez Perce. The trip soon lost much of its romance. The heat was oppressive, the routine tedious, the diet monotonous. One month earlier Narcissa had exulted about eating buffalo: "I never saw anything like buffalo meat to satisfy hunger. We do not want anything else with it" (June 3, 1836). Now she complained: "Have been living on fresh meat for two months exclusively. Am cloyed with it. I do not know how I shall endure this part of the journey" (July 23, 1836).

Journey’s End

The Whitmans traveled on a little ahead of the Spaldings and arrived at Fort Walla Walla, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, on September 1, 1836. Breakfast was waiting for them: fresh salmon, potatoes, tea, bread, and butter. Narcissa marveled at the luxury of sitting in a cushioned arm chair for the first time in months. She was charmed by a rooster that perched on a doorsill and crowed, in apparent welcome. "No one knows the feelings occasioned by seeing objects once familiar after a long deprivation," she wrote (September 1, 1836).

From Walla Walla it was a relatively short 300 miles by boat down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver, headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast Columbia District. Under the leadership of Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857) -- whose title was Chief Factor -- the fort had become a bustling commercial center and supply depot. Its orchards, fields, and pastures stretched for 15 miles along the Columbia and five miles inland. Inside the central stockade were some 40 buildings, including warehouses, a school, a library, a chapel, a rudimentary hospital, and housing for British officers and company officials. Outside was a multicultural village with inhabitants from more than 35 different ethnic and tribal groups. McLoughlin himself came out to greet the missionaries at the fort’s main gate, ushered them into his large white house, and then took them on a tour of the gardens and other facilities. "What a delightful place this is," Narcissa gushed (September 12, 1836).

By the time they reached Fort Vancouver, Whitman and Spalding had made up their minds to establish separate missions. Narcissa and Eliza spent almost eight weeks at the fort while their husbands looked for locations. Spalding chose a site at Lapwai in Nez Perce territory on the Clearwater River in present-day Idaho. Whitman settled on a place about 120 miles away, amid the Cayuse at Waiilatpu, or "Place of the Rye Grass." It was a pleasant site, next to a branch of the Walla Walla River, but it was miles from good timber and McLoughlin warned him that the Cayuse were less tractable than the Nez Perce.

Whitman ignored the warning. He and Narcissa (who was by then heavily pregnant) moved into a crude cabin at Waiilatpu in mid-December. There was a wood floor and a fireplace but no windows and only a blanket to cover the door. Arriving at a time when food was scarce, they had to kill and eat 10 wild horses that winter to survive.

Narcissa gave birth in that cabin to her only child, on the evening of March 14, 1837, her own 29th birthday. Named Alice Clarissa after her grandmothers, the child was the first to be born of American parents in what is now Washington state. The Cayuse were intrigued by the baby’s pale skin and light brown hair. "The little stranger is visited daily by the chiefs and principal men in camp, and the women throng the house continually, waiting an opportunity to see her," Narcissa reported in a letter to her family. Tiloukaikt, a "kind, friendly Indian" and a headman of the band that wintered near the mission, pronounced the child a "Cayuse te-mi" (Cayuse girl) because she was born on Cayuse land. "The whole tribe are highly pleased because we allow her to be called a Cayuse girl," she wrote (March 30, 1837).

It was the last time that Narcissa would write approvingly of having Indians "throng" her house.


The final decade of Narcissa Whitman’s life was marked by self-imposed isolation and loneliness. She yearned for the company of other white women but she disliked the four who arrived, with their husbands, on assignment from the American Board in 1838. They were not like the "warm-hearted revival Christians" she had grown up with. She felt more comfortable with the Methodists who had established missions in the Willamette Valley, but she was rarely able to see them. She had occasional contact with the mixed-race wives of Hudson’s Bay Company officials, but she drew no emotional support from those relationships. She never attempted to establish friendships with Native women.

She found it hard to reconcile the reality of the life she was living with the one she had envisioned, back in Prattsburg. She had imagined herself living among attentive, well-behaved "dear heathen" who would be eager to master the finer points of Congregational-Presbyterian doctrine, undergo spiritual conversion, take up farming, and adopt the customs and behavior of upright Christians like herself. She was repelled by the Indians she actually encountered. She thought they were dirty, lazy, and sinful. They ignored her standards of privacy and cleanliness. She complained bitterly that they peeked in her windows and wouldn’t stay out of her house. They were "savages" and she was "alone."

Much of the conflict centered on the issue of property. Accustomed to free access to one another's lodges, the Cayuse resented Narcissa's effort to keep them out of her house. They were used to dealing with whites at trading posts; they expected the missionaries to provide the same kind of material goods that the traders had. To Narcissa, they seemed avaricious, always demanding handouts. Both she and Whitman were outraged when a headman named Umtippe said the mission was on his land and they should pay him for it (in keeping with white notions about property). "He is a mortal beggar as all Indians are," she said, in a letter to her mother (December 5, 1836).

As historian Julie Roy Jeffrey has pointed out, the Cayuse had adopted some aspects of white culture by the time the Whitmans arrived. A few wore articles of European clothing and raised cattle as well as horses. Many prayed twice a day and on Sundays -- practices taught to them by French-Canadian, Catholic fur traders working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. They enjoyed hearing stories from the Old Testament. But their cultural borrowing was selective, and they had no interest in jettisoning their entire way of life. Their initial curiosity about the Whitmans’ Protestant message soon faded into indifference and then hostility.

Narcissa never learned the native language and she found it frustrating that so few Cayuse spoke English. "You have no idea how difficult it is to realize any benefit from those who do not understand you," she wrote to her family (May 2, 1837). Nonetheless, she managed to communicate her contempt for them very effectively. In turn, they thought her haughty and proud.

Redefining the Mission

In contrast to her mother, young Alice Clarissa quickly picked up Nez Perce, the primary language of the Cayuse. "She is a great talker," Narcissa bragged in a letter to her sister, adding that the Indians were "very much pleased to think she is going to speak their language so readily. They appear to love her much" (September 18, 1838). By age 2, the child was fluent in both English and Nez Perce. She might have served as a bond, to help mediate the relationship between the missionaries and their hosts. But on June 23, 1839, at the age of 2 years, three months, and nine days, she toddled into the river behind the mission house at Waiilatpu and drowned.

Narcissa had been a doting and anxious mother. Lacking friends, separated from her family, with a husband who was often called away from the mission for weeks at a time, her daughter was "the joy and comfort" of her "lonely situation" (September 30, 1839). She hardly let the child out of her arms until she was almost a year old. She slept with her until just a week before she drowned, when Clarissa asked for a bed of her own. Narcissa reluctantly agreed but put the bed right next to her own, so that she could reach out and touch her at any time.

She was overcome with grief and guilt when her daughter died. She sank into almost suicidal depression, retreating into illness and rarely leaving her room. She wondered if God was punishing her because she had loved the child too much. Eventually, she decided that "the Lord saw fit to take her from us" because "most of my time should be spent in teaching school" -- and she could not do that without neglecting Clarissa and having her "exposed to the contaminating influence of heathenism" (Letters, April 30, 1840).

She compensated by taking in foster children, beginning with three children of mixed Indian and European heritage and finally, in 1844, the seven orphaned children of Henry and Naomi Sager, emigrants who had died on the Oregon Trail. She kept all the children away from the Cayuse and did not allow any of them to speak a word of Nez Perce.

When the Whitmans moved into a large, T-shaped mission house in late 1840, Narcissa said Indians could enter through only one door and use only one room, called "Indian Hall." The house included a schoolroom, but apart from her three mixed-race foster children, only white pupils were allowed to attend. Emotionally and physically, Narcissa redefined her role in a way that cut her off from nearly all contact with the Cayuse.

Trading Post and Hotel

In February 1842, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions --  impatient with the lack of converts among the Indians and the almost constant stream of complaints from the missionaries about each other -- voted to close the missions at Waiilatpu and Lapwai, send Spalding and two other missionaries home, and reassign the Whitmans to a station at Tshimakain, near Spokane. It took about seven months for the news to reach the Oregon Mission. The missionaries set aside their quarrels long enough to agree that Whitman should leave immediately for Boston and try to persuade the board to change its mind. His objective, Eliza Spalding wrote in a letter to her family, "is to either get this mission reinforced or to obtain settlers to come & establish a colony" (April 28, 1843, cited in Drury, Spalding, 286).

Whitman was gone for a year. Narcissa left Waiilatpu three days after he did, saying an Indian had tried to break into her room one night and only her alertness and the grace of God had "delivered me from the hand of a savage man" (October 7, 1842). She spent the year as a guest of Methodist missionaries at The Dalles and at Willamette Falls, interspersed with a lengthy sojourn at Fort Vancouver. It would turn out to be "the pleasantest portion of her Oregon life," one of her hosts, Rev. Henry K. W. Perkins (1814-1884), wrote in a letter to Narcissa’s sister Jane, after her death (cited in Drury, Marcus Whitman, 460).

When Whitman returned, in September 1843, he came with a wagon train of about 800 emigrants. "I am happy to have been the means of landing so large an emigration on to the shores of the Columbia," he said in a letter to Narcissa’s parents. "I have no doubt our greatest work is to be to aid the white settlement of this country." As for the original inhabitants: "The Indians have in no case obeyed the command to multiply and replenish the earth, and they cannot stand in the way of others doing so" (April 12, 1844).

Having given up all pretense of serving as missionaries, the Whitmans began operating what was essentially a hotel and trading post for white immigrants.

Escalating Tension

Relations between the Whitmans and the Cayuse, uneasy from the outset, deteriorated as more and more whites moved into Oregon Country. The Cayuse were aware that settlers elsewhere had taken over Indian lands. Elijah White (1806-1879), a former Methodist missionary and newly appointed Indian Agent, reported in 1843 that they were "in a great state of excitement, and under much apprehension" because "such numbers of whites were coming in, as they were informed, to take possession of their land and country" (Drury, Spalding, 303). Narcissa also noticed their unease. "The Indians are roused a good deal at seeing so many emigrants," she commented in a letter dated May 20, 1844. About 1,500 immigrants arrived that fall; twice that number came the next year.

Dozens of exhausted families wintered at Waiilatpu, resting up before continuing on to the Willamette Valley in the spring. The Cayuse watched with alarm as more outbuildings were added to the mission complex, more fields fenced off, and more whites moved in.

Tribal leaders made several efforts to get the Whitmans to leave, to the point of physical confrontations. Whitman was shoved and hit on the chest on one occasion. He was cuffed and had his ears pulled another time. One day, angered by Whitman’s insistence that they couldn’t come and go in the mission house as they pleased, a group of Cayuse forced their way into the dining room by breaking a door with an ax. Then one of them hit Whitman with his fist while another threatened him with a club.

The tension reached a peak in the fall of 1847, when more than 4,000 immigrants arrived in Oregon. The emigration that year coincided with an outbreak of measles among the Indians. The source is not clear -- possibly one of the wagon trains, possibly a trading party that had recently returned from California -- but the effects were devastating, since the Indians lacked immunity to the disease. By some estimates, half the Cayuse living near the Whitman mission died within a period of two months. Some of the survivors blamed Whitman, saying he was poisoning Indians to make way for whites.

Violent End

There were more than 70 people living at the Whitman mission on the morning of November 29, 1847, including the Whitmans, their 10 adopted children, a man who had been hired to teach at the mission’s school, about a dozen laborers, and eight emigrant families.

The attack began after lunch. Marcus Whitman was the first to be struck, by a tomahawk in the back of the head. Narcissa was shot and later whipped and finally dumped in the mud outside her house. Nine other whites were killed that day and two more a few days later. A 14th is believed to have drowned in the Walla Walla River while attempting to escape. The Indians captured 49 people -- mostly women and children -- and held them as hostages for a month, until they were ransomed by Peter Skene Ogden (1790-1854), who had replaced McLoughlin as chief factor at Fort Vancouver.

Estimates of the number of Cayuse who took part in what became known, almost immediately, as the Whitman Massacre range from 14 to 40. Some survivors said that one of them was Tiloukaikt, the "kind, friendly Indian" who had welcomed the Whitmans’ newborn daughter as a "Cayuse girl" 11 years earlier. Whether he was guilty or not, he was one of the five Cayuse who surrendered to officials of the newly organized Oregon Territory in 1850. They were convicted and hanged after a four day trial. Tiloukaikt "gave his final comment on the Protestant missionary effort by accepting Catholic baptism just before his death" (Jeffrey).

"Unfitted for the Work"

Had Narcissa Whitman been more flexible -- more willing to meet the Cayuse on their own terms, to speak their language, enter their lodges, accept them freely into her own world -- she might not have ended up dying in the mud at age 39. But nothing in her background had prepared her for the cultural adaptability she needed to succeed in her vocation. She put Venetian blinds on her windows as soon as she could, to keep the Indians from peeking in; she created physical lines of demarcation by enclosing the mission house with a fence; she confined the Indians to a single room in that house because they were "filthy" and "we have come to elevate them and not to suffer ourselves to sink down to their standard" (Letters, May 2, 1840).

In one unusually reflective, self-analytical letter home, Narcissa herself expressed doubts about her suitability for the role she had chosen for herself. "I am entirely unfitted for the work, and have many gloomy, desponding hours," she confessed. She questioned her own motives for becoming a missionary. Had she done it "with a single eye for the glory of God or from some selfish principle"? She insisted she didn’t regret the decision to come to Oregon, but added: "I find one of my most difficult studies is to know my own heart" (October 6, 1841).

Both of the Whitmans were "out of their proper sphere," Rev. Henry Perkins wrote in a lengthy letter to Narcissa’s sister, Jane Prentiss, after her death. "They were not adapted to their work." Perkins may have known the Whitmans better than anyone else. Narcissa spent many months with him and his wife at the Methodist mission at The Dalles during Whitman’s year-long journey east. "The truth is," he wrote, "your lamented sister was far from happy in the situation she had chosen to occupy." She wanted "something exalted ... . She longed for society, refined society." He thought she never should have left her home. "She loved company, society, excitement & ought always to have enjoyed it," he concluded. "The self-denial that took her away from it was suicidal" (October 19, 1849, cited in Drury, Whitman, 458-460).


Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, Vols. 1 and 2 (Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, [1974] 1994); Drury, Henry Harmon Spalding (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1936); Drury, Marcus Whitman, M.D (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1937); Joel Wakeman, "Pleasant Memories," Prattsburg News, January 20, February 3, 1898 (typescript in Joel Wakeman Papers, Washington State University, Pullman); Narcissa Prentiss to American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, February 23, 1835, Box 18.5.3, ABCFM Collection, North American Indian Missions Records, Houghton Library, Harvard University; Narcissa Whitman, The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, 1836-1847 (Fairfield, Washington; Ye Galleon Press, 1986); William H. Gray, A History of Oregon, 1792-1849 (Portland: Harris and Holman, 1870); Julie Roy Jeffrey, "Empty Harvest at Waiilatpu: The Mission Life of Narcissa Whitman," Columbia Magazine, Fall 1992, pp. 22-32 (www.columbia.washingtonhistory.org); William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Cameron Addis, "The Whitman Massacre: Religion and Manifest Destiny on the Columbia Plateau, 1809-1858," Journal of the Early Republic, Summer 2005, pp. 221-258; Genevieve J. Long, "Laboring in the Desert: The Letters and Diaries of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Ida Hunt Udall," (Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 2002). See Also: Julie Roy Jeffrey, Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1991).

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