Elementary Level: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman -- Missionaries of the Walla Walla Valley

  • Posted 10/21/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10954
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Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were missionaries who came to the Walla Walla Valley from New York. They wanted to teach Indians about their religion. They also wanted the Indians to change the way they were living and become more like white people. Over time, instead of creating friendships, the Whitmans were unable to gain the trust of the Cayuse Indians. When Dr. Whitman was unable to stop an outbreak of measles, the Indians decided that he was trying to poison them. Some attacked the mission, killing the Whitmans and 11 other adults. (This essay was written for students in third and fourth grade who are studying Washington State History and for all beginning readers who want to learn more about Washington. It is one of a set of essays called HistoryLink Elementary, all based on existing HistoryLink essays.) 

Missionary Dreams 

Narcissa Prentiss was born in New York. She was the eldest daughter in a family of nine children, so she had many responsibilities. She learned to weave, sew, cook, and make soap and candles -- all skills that would prove useful later in her life, when she became a missionary. She was well-educated for a woman of her generation. She loved to read and write. But ever since she was a young girl, Narcissa had dreamed of becoming a missionary. Single women were not allowed to become missionaries in those days. So Narcissa realized the only way she could meet her goals was to become the wife of a missionary.  

Marcus Whitman also had wanted to be a missionary when he was growing up. When he was eight years old, his father died, and Marcus was raised by religious relatives. He worked in the family shoe store and studied to become a country doctor. When he volunteered to become a medical missionary, he met Reverend Samuel Parker, who was trying to raise money to establish a mission among the Indians in Oregon Country. Whitman knew that married men were preferred as missionaries so he agreed to find a wife. He was told that Narcissa Prentiss wanted to go to Oregon as a missionary too, so he arranged to meet her. Within a few months, they had wedding plans. 

Soon after their marriage, Marcus and Narcissa began to prepare for their trip to Oregon. Marcus Whitman encouraged Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza to come to Oregon with them. Spalding was a Presbyterian minister. He had already accepted an assignment to a mission in western Missouri. Eliza Spalding was not in good health. But after careful thought, the Spaldings decided to go west with the Whitmans. 

The 3,000-mile journey to Oregon took about seven months. For the first half of the trip the missionaries traveled comfortably by riverboat. Narcissa enjoyed the changing scenery and new adventures. When they arrived in Liberty, Missouri, the Whitmans and Spaldings purchased the equipment, supplies, and livestock needed to start their new homes in the West. They bought a sturdy farm wagon, a dozen horses, six mules, 17 cattle, and four milk cows. They bought tools, furniture, clothing, blankets, barrels of flour, and food. The bill came to $3,063.96. It was paid for by the organization that was sending them and other missionaries to Indian territories.  

Ahead of them now were 1,900 miles of prairie, mountain, and desert. To travel this part of the journey safely, the missionaries joined a group of traders from the American Fur Company. The route followed river valleys toward the Rocky Mountains. Sometimes they were able to travel only 15 miles a day. They ate mostly buffalo meat and drank milk from their cows. Sometimes there was no wood for their cooking fires, and they burned buffalo dung instead. It was very hot during the summer months and the flies and mosquitoes bit them and the livestock constantly. 

While crossing the plains, the women rode in a lightweight wagon that Spalding's father-in-law had given to him for the trip. It was the first wheeled vehicle that was taken over the Rockies. But as they got nearer to the mountains, the trail became rougher. The wagon got stuck in creeks, sometimes tipped over on steep trails, and needed constant repairs. Whitman and Spalding finally turned it into a two-wheeled cart when the axle broke. Without the wagon, Narcissa and Eliza were forced to ride on horseback. They rode on sidesaddles, which meant both of their legs were on the same side of the horse's back. It was uncomfortable, but to them it was more modest and lady-like than riding on regular saddles.  

The missionaries met many Indians along the trail, including Nez Perce and Pawnee. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women that many of the Indians had ever seen. Eliza took advantage of these meetings to try to learn their languages. 

They were relieved to arrive 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 noted in her journal that she sat in a comfortable armchair for the first time in months. A few days later, they traveled by boat down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. Eliza and Narcissa spent eight weeks at the fort while their husbands looked for locations for their missions. The women helped out in the school at the fort. They also shopped in the fort's warehouses and picked out china, blankets, cookware, furniture, and other things they would need in their new homes. Much of what they had started their trip with in New York and Missouri had been left along the trail in order to lighten the weight on the wagons and horses.  

By this time, the men had decided that they would establish separate missions. Spalding selected a site at Lapwai in Nez Perce territory in present-day Idaho. Whitman decided on a place about 150 miles away at Waiilatpu ("Place of the Rye Grass"). Marcus and Narcissa would live among the Cayuse Indians. The manager of Fort Vancouver warned Whitman. He told him that the Cayuse were less friendly towards whites than the Nez Perce, but Whitman ignored him.

Narcissa and Marcus moved to their new cabin in mid-December. It was very crude. They had to use blankets to cover the openings for the door and windows. They had to kill and eat 10 wild horses to survive because there was little other food that winter.

In March -- on her 29th birthday -- Narcissa gave birth to a little girl. She named her Alice Clarissa. She was the first child born of Caucasian parents in present-day Washington. The Cayuse were amazed by the baby's pale skin and light-brown hair. Tiloukaikt later became head of the band of Indians that lived near the mission during winter months. He was friendly to the Whitmans and called Alice a "Cayuse girl" because she was born on Cayuse land.

Even with baby Alice, life at Waiilatpu was lonely for Narcissa. She missed visiting with other adults who shared her interests. She did not learn the Cayuse language. To the Indians, she seemed proud and unfriendly. She did not like some of the Indian customs, especially how some of them came into her house without being invited. Then a terrible tragedy happened. Baby Alice wandered away from the mission and drowned in the river. Narcissa was very sad. She felt guilty about the accident and began to fill her time by taking care of orphans and foster children. She kept these children away from the Cayuse and did not allow them to learn the Cayuse language.

As years passed, very few of the Indians converted to Christianity. The organization that sent the Whitmans to Oregon decided that the Waiilatpu mission should be closed. Whitman traveled back to Boston to see if he could keep it open. He was gone almost a year. Meanwhile, Narcissa and the foster children moved to Fort Vancouver for safety and support. When Marcus returned, he came with a wagon train of about 800 new settlers. Now instead of trying to convert Indians, the Whitmans concentrated on helping white emigrants.

As more and more white people moved into their country, the Cayuse became worried that their land would be taken from them. They were angry that Whitman was adding new buildings and fences to the mission. More than half of the Cayuse living near the mission died after being exposed to measles, brought in by some sick people on one of the wagon trains. Indians had no natural immunity or protection from that disease. Some of them blamed Whitman, and said that he was poisoning the Indians so there would be more room for whites. 

Finally, on November 29, 1847, a small group of Cayuse had had enough. They attacked the Waiilatpu mission and killed Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and seven other adults. The attack continued over the next few days. Four more men were killed; another man disappeared and may have drowned trying to escape. Narcissa was the only woman to be killed. About 50 people -- mostly women and children -- were taken captive. The Cayuse said they would let them go for a ransom of blankets, shirts, guns, and ammunition. The ransom was paid by the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver. Sadly, two children died of the measles while being held captive.

After the attack, Congress made Oregon a territory of the United States (the territory included the present-day states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, and parts of Montana and Wyoming). The Cayuse hid in the mountains until 1850, when five members of the tribe surrendered. A jury found them guilty of attacking the mission and a judge ordered them to be hung. One of the five men was Tiloukaikt, the Cayuse who had admired baby Alice Clarissa Whitman.


This essay is based on the following HistoryLink essays: "Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss (1808-1847)" (Essay 10088); "Whitman-Spalding missionary party arrives at Fort Vancouver on September 12, 1836" (Essay 9700); "Dr. Marcus Whitman establishes a mission at Waiilatpu on October 16, 1836" (Essay 5191); "Cayuse attack mission in what becomes known as the Whitman Massacre on November 29, 1847" (Essay 5192); and "Trial of five Cayuse accused of Whitman murder begins on May 21, 1850" (Essay 9401). It is one of a suite of essays (called HistoryLink Elementary) that focus on important people, places, and events in Washington State History, and that align with elementary school textbooks and state academic standards. All the HistoryLink Elementary essays are included in the HistoryLink People's Histories library, and the HistoryLink Elementary suite and related curricular activities can also be found on HistoryLink's Education Page (http://www.historylink.org/Index.cfm?DisplayPage=education/index.cfm). The HistoryLink Elementary project is supported in part by the Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and Federal Highway Administration.

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