Narcissa and Marcus Whitman were massacred on November 29, 1847.
This dedicated missionary couple both hailed from upstate New York. Marcus was born in 1802 in Rushville and Narcissa in 1808 in Prattsburgh. Narcissa, born into a devout Presbyterian family, committed herself to the mission field at the age of 16. Upon completion of her own education she taught primary school in Prattsburgh. Then in 1834 she moved with her family to Belmont, New York, still awaiting the opportunity to fulfil her missionary pledge
Marcus studied medicine under a local doctor and received his medical degree in 1832. After practicing medicine for four years in Canada he returned to New York and became an elder in a Presbyterian church. He then felt the call to reach the Indians of Oregon, prompting his trip in 1835 to seek out potential sites.
Narcissa could not get backing from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions since they did not support the notion of unmarried women being sent to the mission field. Marcus and Narcissa solved her problem by deciding to be wed in 1836.
The day after their wedding they left for Missouri in the company of another couple, Henry and Eliza Spaulding. Some years previously Narcissa had rejected Henry’s marriage proposal, nor did Henry have a ‘personality suited to teamwork’.
The group travelled with fur traders for most of the 2,000 miles of ‘gruelling hardship’ and took wagons farther West than any American expedition before them. Along the way, Narcissa and Eliza became the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. Reaching the Walla Walla River on September 1, 1836, the Whitmans decided to found a mission to the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu in the Walla Walla Valley. Henry and Eliza travelled on to present-day Idaho where they founded a mission to the Nez Percé indian tribe at Lapwai.
Narcissa and Marcus built a “rough lean-to with a mud roof … and only blankets for doors …” There, three months later, a baby daughter was born.
The Whitmans threw themselves into their mission, with Marcus taking church services, practicing medicine and constructing numerous buildings. Narcissa taught in the mission school, while also running their household and assisting in the religious ceremonies. Initially optimism prevailed, as reflected in Narcissa’s letter home, “We never had greater encouragement about the Indians than at the present time.”
Optimism soon faded when the Whitman’s two-year-old daughter drowned in a nearby stream in 1839 and Narcissa’s eyesight gradually failed almost to the point of blindness. Their isolation dragged on year after year and the Cayuse continued to resist their preaching of the gospel.
From the perspective of the Cayuse, whose souls the Whitmans felt they were destined to “save,” the mission was at first a strange sight, and soon a threatening one. The Whitmans did not see the need to make the gospel culturally relevant to the Indians. While the Cayuse saw gifts as an essential part of social and political life the Whitmans thought of it as a form of extortion. While the Cayuse linked religion and domestic life, Narcissa rejected the idea of allowing the natives into their domestic life. Even a sympathetic biographer admits that “her attitude toward those among whom she lived came to verge on outright repugnance.”
As the mission station began to grow “it resembled an inn for immigrants” and prices at the Whitman store – justly or unjustly? – were spoken of as being exploitive. The Indians resented the missionaries’ ‘prosperity’. The mission board 2000 miles away heard rumours and censured them.
Due to the lack of fruit the American Missionary Board decided in 1842 to close the mission and transfer the Whitmans elsewhere. Marcus returned East, undaunted by the coming winter, determined to convince the board to reverse its decision. He was successful and on his return journey in 1843, helped lead the first “Great Migration” to the West, guiding a wagon train of one thousand pioneers up the Oregon Trail.
This influx, however, soon had the Whitmans spending more time assisting settlers than ministering to the Cayuse. They took in eleven orphaned children and their mission also served as a kind of boarding school for early Oregon settlers like Joe Meek, whose daughter lived there for a time.
The mission’s close connection with the influx of white settlers further strained relations with the Cayuse. Narcissa observed in a letter of July 1847 that “the poor Indians are amazed at the overwhelming numbers of Americans coming into the country… They seem not to know what to make of it.”
In late 1847 an epidemic of measles, brought by the white man, struck immigrant and indian alike. However the white children survived, while half of the Cayuse, including most of their children, died.
So it was that on November 29, 1847, several Cayuse, under the leadership of the chief Tiloukaikt, took revenge for what they saw as treachery on the part of doctor Whitman. Of the 72 people living on the mission they killed fourteen, including the Whitmans, and burnt the mission buildings to the ground.
Narcissa was 39 years of age; Marcus was 45.
This event sparked Indian wars which were long remembered. Weakened by disease and subjected to continued white raids, what remained of the Cayuse were assimilated into nearby tribes, especially the Nez Percé and Yakima. Thus the Whitmans’ missionary efforts ended in their own deaths and also the end of the Cayuse as an independent people.
A post referring to to these events and adding other detail has already been posted on September 4, 2008. The link is: http://chrisfieldblog.com/manhood/marcus-whitman-dies-to-reach-the-indians
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 www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.