Marcus Whitman dies to reach the Indians

This is the day that … Marcus Whitman was born in Massachusetts, in 1802. (Other sources say Rushville, N.Y.)

After studying medicine for eight years (four in Canada and four in New York), he heard Rev. Samuel Parker plead for missionaries to work on America’s western coast. He travelled to Oregon with Parker and at the Green River rendezvous they met several Indian tribes who so fervently requested missionary help that the two men returned east to ready men to go west.

Whitman married Narcissa Prentiss, who was born on 14 March, 1808, who had heard the same preacher and felt the same divine call, and off they set on a 2000-mile trek across the Rocky Mountains to a new world, to take the gospel to the Red Indians. That was in 1836.

They journeyed with a fur trading caravan and another missionary couple, Rev. Henry Spaulding and his wife. The fact that Narcissa had once been engaged to Henry Spaulding “was not an ideal situation”(!) (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, by Ruth Tucker, page 99).

On this overland trip, Whitman drove a light cart from Ft. Hall to Ft. Boise, thereby opening a portion of the Oregon Trail to wagon traffic. Mrs Whitman and Mrs Spaulding were the first American women to cross the Rockies overland.

In Oregon the Whitmans established their mission compound, baby Alice was born … and accidentally drowned in a nearby river two years later. Whitman taught irrigated farming, ranching, construction and civilization to the Indians. A dynamic, vigorous, resourceful, even stubborn man, he was often overly optimistic.

Problems with the Red Indians surfaced. Not to mention problems with the mission board back on the east coast. Marcus Whitman found it essential to make a return visit and sort things out with the home board.

He left, with a companion, on 2 October, 1842, upon what has been described as “one of the most difficult rides in American history” (Great Women of the Faith, by E. Deen, page 211). Hostile Indians and fording flooded rivers nearly cost them their lives. At one stage, “their food gave out … and they had to eat their pack mules and dog” (page 212).

Having pacified the mission leaders, Marcus Whitman returned to Oregon, and Narcissa. But the new settlers who made the 1500-mile return trip with him brought an epidemic of measles. “In the space of eight weeks nearly half the 400 member tribe (of Cayuse Indians) suffered painful deaths…” (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, by Ruth Tucker, page 103).

On 29 November, 1847, five angry Indians attacked the mission station, massacred the Whitmans and 12 others, and burned the buildings, thus initiating a long and savage war between Indians and whites. Marcus was 45 years of age and his wife was 39.

Joe Meek carried news of the Indian war to Washington, pleading for protection so eloquently that Congress created the territory of Oregon and sent troops to it – just at the time the American Board for Foreign Missions was abandoning the region.

The Whitmans are described as “two of the most consecrated, successful and heroic missionaries ever sent out by any missionary society” (Great Missionaries, by T. Creegan, page 366).

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at