Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur, Women
“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.” —Narcissa Whitman
The letters of Narcissa Whitman constitute the earliest writings by any woman from the Pacific Northwest to appear as a book. But her notoriety has more to do with her death than her life.
Narcissa Whitman’s stubborn desire to serve as a missionary near Fort Walla Walla, at Waiilatpu, six miles from the present site of Walla Walla, Washington, resulted in her murder at the hands of Cayuse and Umatilla Indians on November 29, 1847. Although Whitman was a victim of her own hubris and not a heroine, her life is sometimes lauded for her bold resolve to accompany her husband as one of the first two white women to pass through the Rocky Mountains in 1836.
Narcissa Whitman was born Narcissa Prentiss on March 14, 1808, the third of nine children, in Prattsburg, Steuben County, New York. She was the eldest daughter of a distiller, miller and carpenter whose ancestor Henry Prentice emigrated from England prior to 1640. At age eleven she joined the Congregational Church after her religious awakening during a revival meeting in 1819. Inspired by reading about the missionary life of Harriet Boardman in India, she decided at age sixteen to “consecrate myself without reserve to the Missionary work waiting the leadings of Providence.” After Narcissa Prentiss providentially rejected the marriage proposal of Henry Harmon Spalding, a fellow student at Franklin Academy in Prattsburg, she taught kindergarten and school in both Prattsburg and Bath, New York. Upon her family’s move to Amity, New York, she attended a lecture by Reverend Samuel Parker in 1834 about the need for missionaries on the west side of the continent. On her behalf, Parker wrote to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions but her gender and her status as a single woman prevented her from gaining a posting.
Only two months later, Narcissa Prentiss became engaged to Marcus Whitman, a physician who had also been recruited by Parker as a potential missionary. Possibly this arrangement had more to do with pragmatism than providence. Born in Rushville, New York, on September 4, 1802, only 25 miles from Prentiss’ birthplace, Whitman had practised medicine for four years in Canada prior to his becoming an elder of the Presbyterian church. After their betrothal, Narcissa Prentiss successfully applied to the ABCFM in March of 1835 and Marcus Whitman scouted for potential mission sites. They were married on February 18, 1836. The next day they left New York, never to return.
In the spring of 1836, the newlyweds departed from Liberty, Missouri, in one of two covered wagons, escorted by trappers from the American Fur Company. In the other wagon was Narcissa’s former suitor, Henry Harmon Spalding, along with his own new wife, Eliza Hart Spalding. By July, Narcissa Whitman was pregnant. That same summer, their entourage, including prospective missionary William H. Gray, was escorted through the Rockies by Hudson’s Bay Company trappers, placing Eliza Hart Spalding and Narcissa Whitman in the history books as the first white women to cross the continent overland. They reached Fort Walla Walla in September and proceeded to Fort Vancouver where they were warmly received by John McLoughlin.
With McLoughlin’s assistance, Marcus Whitman established a mission site at Waiilatpu, “the place of the rye grass,” to offer his medical and religious service to the Cayuse Indians. Narcissa joined him there in December, resisting McLoughlin’s invitation to spend her first winter in the relative comfort of Fort Vancouver. At the same time Eliza Hart Spalding joined her husband at Lapwai among the Nez Percé, in present-day Idaho, about 125 miles from Waiilatpu.
At first the Whitmans were fuelled by optimism with other missions being created by incoming missionaries in 1838. But gradually they realized their conversion rate among the Cayuse was negligible.
On Narcissa’s birthday, she gave birth to Alice Clarissa Whitman, reputedly the first child born of American parents west of the Rocky Mountains, but the joy of her life was short-lived.
About two years later, the beloved child drowned in the Walla Walla River on June 23, 1839. Narcissa Whitman’s evangelical spirit temporarily drowned with the child. She became depressed, retreated to her room, increasingly wrote to her family, suffered near-blindness and a nervous breakdown. As an antidote, she adopted four children of deceased migrants, then added seven more migrating orphans from the Sager family in 1844. For the next three years she would raise these children as her own while managing the drudgery of pioneer chores.
Narcissa Whitman was approximately five feet, six inches tall with beautiful light-blonde hair, she dressed severely, and she wore a sunbonnet outdoors. A fellow minister once described her as “very graceful in her deportment and general carriage, slightly sandy complexion, a brilliant, sparkling eye, perculiarly [sic] so when engaged in animated conversation.” It has been suggested that her apparently formal manner might have been interpreted by the Cayuse Indians as haughtiness. Certainly, as the Oregon Trail attracted more white settlers every year, the Cayuse become less conciliatory. Squabbles between Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding hardly benefitted Narcissa Whitman’s mental health either. This friction, possibly exacerbated by Henry Spalding’s sexual jealousy and pique, led ABCFM authorities to threaten to close both missions. Marcus Whitman was obliged to travel back to ABCFM headquarters and gain re-approval, thereby abandoning his wife to greater loneliness in the interim. On his return journey to the west, he guided a wagon train of one thousand migrants up the Oregon Trail. As his stature among new settlers increased, his stature among the Cayuse decreased.
The so-called Whitman massacre, or Walla Walla massacre, occurred in response to a measles epidemic that swept through the Oregon territories in 1847, killing approximately half of the children among the Cayuse, who recognized that a much higher percentage of white children were able to overcome the disease. As the epidemic worsened, and more white settlers streamed into the area, the Cayuse and other tribes became increasingly distraught and belligerent. The Whitmans chose to ignore various warning signs and overt threats from the Cayuse. Marcus Whitman’s inability as a physician to counteract the measles was problematic enough, but their situation became dire with the malevolent rumour-mongering of a newly arrived settler, Joe Lewis, who apparently suggested to the Cayuse that Dr. Whitman was not really trying to save them at all, but poisoning them instead. It is possible rival Catholic clerics (Pierre Jean de Smet, John Baptist Brouillet, Joseph Cataldo) might have maliciously supported such rumours. Other motivations for the vicious attack of November 29, 1847, include the recent killing of a Walla Walla chief’s son and the plain fact that both Whitmans were increasingly active in providing services to incoming settlers.
Cayuse Chiefs Tiloukaikt and Tomahas, along with Kiamsupkin, Iaiachalakis and Klokomas, allegedly led the massacre in which Dr. Whitman’s body was dismembered. Other murder victims included Andrew Rogers, Jacob Hoffman, L.W. Sanders, Mr. Marsh, John Sager, Nathan Kimball, Isaac Gilliland, James Young, Frank Sager, Crockett Blewley and Amos Sales. The attackers burned down the mission buildings and held approximately 50 women and children for ransom. Peter Skene Ogden retrieved the prisoners in exchange for 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, twelve Hudson’s Bay rifles, 600 rounds of ammunition, seven pounds of tobacco and twelve flints. Deadly retaliations made by whites in 1848 on innocent Aboriginals led to the so-called Cayuse War. Possibly the Walla Walla killings were exploited as a convenient excuse to liberate more territories for the influx of settlers. Eventually Tiloukaikt and Tomahas, along with three other men, agreed to be taken to Oregon City for trial in order to save their tribe from annihilation. Newly appointed Territorial Marshall Joseph Meek found them all guilty. Just before Tiloukaikt, Tomahas, Kiamsupkin, Iaiachalakis and Klokomas were publicly hanged on June 3, 1850, Tiloukaikt reportedly said, “Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people.”
The severely weakened Cayuse were forced to amalgamate with the Nez Percé and Yakima, so the ultimate outcome of the Whitmans’ missionary work was the disappearance of the Cayuse tribe. The lives of Narcissa Whitman and Marcus Whitman are commemorated by the Whitman Mission National Historic Site in eastern Washington.
Narcissa Whitman never ventured into British Columbia, but her brutal murder, presented as martyrdom, drew national attention in the United States. It hastened the impetus for the United States to better organize their control of the Oregon Territory in keeping with the newly signed Oregon Treaty of 1846 that formalized the present-day border between Washington State and British Columbia.
Less than one year after the Whitman Massacre, the U.S. portion of the western region below the 49th parallel north was recognized by an Act of the U.S. Congress as Oregon Territory on August 14, 1848. It included Idaho, Oregon and Washington as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming, west of the Continental Divide.
A section of that territory located north of the lower Columbia River, as well as north of the 46th parallel east of the Columbia River, was subsequently designated to constitute the Washington Territory in 1853.
There are no authenticated portraits of Narcissa Whitman, but artist Paul Kane visited the Whitmans’ mission at Waiilatpu, in July of 1847. He sketched a woman who is generally presumed to have been Narcissa Whitman. These sketches, now in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, were used as the basis for idealized portraits of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman (as shown on this page, courtesy of National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior) made by artist Drury Haight.
Whitman, Narcissa. A Journey Across the Plains in 1836 (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Pioneer Association, 1891, 1893).
Whitman, Narcissa. My Journal, 1836 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1982, 1984, 1994, 2000). Lawrence L. Dodd, ed.
Whitman, Narcissa. The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, 1836-1847 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1986. 1997).
Whitman, Narcissa & Eliza Spalding & Clifford Merrill Drury. Where Wagons Could Go: Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding (University of Nebraska Press, 1997).
Whitman, Narcissa & Marcus Whitman & Clifford M. Drury. More About the Whitmans: Four Hitherto Unpublished Letters of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman (Washington State Historical Society
Allen, Opal Sweazea. Narcissa Whitman, an Historical Biography (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1959).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur" "Women"
Text of the Indictment
In 1859, five members of the Cayuse tribe were brought more than two hundred miles from their homes in eastern Washington State to Oregon City for one of the earliest, well-documented murder trials in the Oregon Territory. Here follows the indictment for the trial:
The Jurors of the United States, within and for said District, on their oath present: That on the twenty ninth day of November in the year of our Lord on thousand eight hundred and forty seven, at Wai-it-at-pu in said county, the said place being then and there in the Indian country certain Indians named Telakite, Tomahas, otherwise called the murder, Clokomas, Isiaasheluckas, Isholhot, and Kiamasumkin, Indictmentwith certain other Indians whose names to the Jurors are unknown, with force and arms , in and upon one Narcissa Whitman, she not then and there being an Indian, feloniously, wilfully, and of their malice aforethought, did make an assault, and that the said Indians, certain guns, muskets, and pistols, each of the same then and there being loaded and charged with gunpowder and bullets, which guns, muskets, and pistols, they the said Indians in their hands then and there had and held to, against, and upon the body of the said Naricissa Whitman, then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of their malice aforethought did shoot and discharge, and that the said Indians with the bullets aforesaid, out of the muskets, guns and pistols aforesaid, then and there by force of the gunpowder shot and sent forth as aforesaid, the said Narcissa Whitman, in and upon the body of her the said Narcissa Whitman, then and there wilfully, feloniously, and of their malice aforethought, did strike, penetrate and wound, giving to the said Narcissa Whitman then and there with bullets aforesaid so as aforesaid, shot, discharged an sent forth out of the muskets, guns, and pistols aforesaid, by the said Indians in and upon the body of the said Narcissa Whitman, several mortal wounds. of which said mortal wounds, the said Narcissa Whitman then and there died. And so the jurors aforesaid upon their oath aforesaid do say that the said Telakite, Tomahas, otherwise called the murderer, Clokomas, Isiaasheluckas, Isholhot, and Kiamasumkin, with certain Indians whose names to the said Jurors are unknown, her the said Narcissa Whitman did then and there in manner and form aforesaid feloniusly, wilfully and of their malice aforethought,kill and murder, and then and there in and upon the body of said Narcissa Whitman, did commit the crime of wilful murder, in manner and form aforesaid, against the peace and dignity of the said United States, and contrary to the fore of the statute in such case made and provided. And the Jurors aforesaid, on their oath aforesaid, do further present, that on the twenty ninth day of November in the year of our Lord on thousand eight hundred and forty seven, at Wai-it-at-pu in said county and district , the said place being then and there in the Indian country, certain Indians named Telakite, Tomahas, otherwise called the murder, Clokomas, Isiaasheluckas, Isholhot, and Kiamasumkin, with certain other Indians whose names to the said Jurors are unknown, with force and arms, in and upon one Narcissa Whitman, she not then and there being an Indian, feloniously, wilfully, and of their malice aforethought, did make an assault, and that the said Indians, with certain knives, tomahawks, and other weapons as yet unknown to said Jurors, which said knives, tomahawks, and weapons, the said Indians then and there in their hands had and held, her the said Narcissa Whitman, in and upon her head, neck, shoulders, breast, and back, then and there feloniously, wilfully and of their malice aforesaid did strike, cut, and thrust, giving to the said Narcissa Whitman then and there with the knives, tomahawks and weapons aforesaid, in and upon the body of her the said Narcissa Whitman, several mortal wounds, of which said mortal wounds the said Narcissa Whitman then and there died: and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oath aforesaid, do say that the said Telakite, Tomahas otherwise called the murderer, Clokomas, Isiaasheluckas, Isholhot, and Kiamasumkin, with certain other Indians whose names to said Jurors are unknown, her the said Narcissa Whitman , in manner and form aforesaid , then and there feloniously wilfully and of their malice aforethought did kill and murder, and did then and there, upon the body of the said Narcissa Whitman, in manner and form aforesaid, commit the crime of wilful murder,
Against the Peace and Dignity of the said United States, and contrary to the form of the Statute in such case made and provided.
A true Bill.
F.W. Pettygrove Foreman
Amory Holbrook U.S. Attorney, for District of Oregon