Pioneer and Missionary in Oregon Country
Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) traveled some 3,000 miles from her home in upstate New York to Oregon Country. She was the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in 1836 on her way to found the Whitman Mission among the Cayuse Indians near modern day Walla Walla, Washington. She became one of the best known figures of the 19th century through her diaries and the many letters she wrote to family and friends in the east.
Childhood and Early Years
Narcissa Prentiss was born on March 14, 1808 in Prattsburgh, New York, the third of nine children of Stephen and Clarissa Prentiss and the oldest of their five daughters. Her father cleared land for a small farm there in 1805, and later took over the operation of a sawmill and gristmill. He was also a carpenter and used lumber from the mill to build a modest frame house, a story and a half high, for his growing family.
Prattsburgh is 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. Intense religious revivals characterized by fiery sermons, public confessions of sin and collective conversions were held throughout the region.
The minister of the Prattsburgh Presbyterian Church was pleased to see 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. She experienced a second spiritual awakening during one of these revivals at age 16, and decided that her true calling was to become a missionary.
Narcissa was 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 Prattsburgh. She completed one 21-week term in April 1828 and returned for a second term two years later.
At age 21, Marcus Whitman left his family business and apprenticed himself to a doctor – the first step toward becoming a physician. He worked as an country doctor in Pennsylvania and Canada before establishing a practice in Wheeler, New York (eight miles south of Prattsburgh), in 1832. He joined the Wheeler Presbyterian Church, serving as a trustee, an elder and a Sunday School superintendent.
Whitman applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) 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 Reverend Samuel Parker, who was on a one-man campaign to send missionaries to Indians in the American West.
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.
Whitman’s eagerness to be accepted by the ABCFM was matched by Parker’s desire to have someone go with him on an exploratory trip to the West to scout possible mission sites the following spring. Whitman reapplied to the board in a letter dated December 2, 1834, adding, “My health is so much restored that I think it will offer no impediment.”
After leaving Wheeler, Parker traveled about 45 miles west to the newly settled village of Amity. 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 Country. Narcissa volunteered.
When Marcus Whitman learned that Narcissa had volunteered to go to Oregon Country as a missionary, he took it as a sign that Providence intended them to go as husband and wife. He had attended a prayer meeting in the Prentiss home in Prattsburgh 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 22, 1835. By the time he left the next day, he and Narcissa were engaged. Marcus had agreed to accompany Parker on his journey to the West, and it would be nearly a year before they would see each other again. In the meantime the Board offered them positions as missionaries as soon as they were married.
The following winter, with the deadline for departure approaching, Marcus Whitman was desperate to find at least one other couple for the Oregon mission. He finally persuaded Henry Spalding, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Eliza Hart Spalding, to give up an assignment to an Osage mission in western Missouri and go to Oregon Country instead.
To the West
Narcissa Prentiss married Marcus Whitman on February 18, 1836. She was 27; he, 33. Among the guests was one of two Nez Perce boys that Marcus had brought back with him, 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 Whitmans left for Oregon Country in March 1836 to begin their missionary activities among the Native Americans there. The 3,000-mile journey – made by sleigh, canal barge, wagon, river sternwheeler, on horseback and on foot – took about seven months. As 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” (March 28, 1836).
“Can scarcely resist the temptation to stand out to view the shores of the majestic river,” she wrote in her diary 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” (April 7, 1836).
Ahead lay some 1,900 miles of prairie, mountain and desert. To cross in safety, the small missionary party joined the American Fur Company’s caravan of 70 or so traders on their way 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. 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, with their legs on one side (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 great 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 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 1836. The two white women created something of a sensation at the gathering of some 200 trappers and traders and large numbers of Flathead and Nez Perce. Narcissa enjoyed entertaining some of the caravan’s leaders at tea; Eliza concentrated on learning the Indians’ languages.
The missionaries 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. 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).
The Whitmans traveled on a little ahead of the Spaldings and arrived at Old Fort Walla Walla, a trading post on the Columbia River, 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. “No one knows the feelings occasioned by seeing objects once familiar after a long deprivation,” she wrote.
They then decided to visit Fort Vancouver, a relatively short 300 miles by boat down the Columbia River. This was the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast Columbia District. Under the leadership of Dr. John McLoughlin, 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.
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 place. Inside the central stockade were some 40 buildings, including warehouses, a school, a library, a chapel and a rudimentary hospital. Outside was a multicultural village with inhabitants from more than 35 different ethnic and tribal groups. “What a delightful place this is,” Narcissa noted (September 12, 1836).
By the time they reached Fort Vancouver, the Whitmans and the Spaldings 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.
The Whitmans settled on a place about 150 miles away, amid the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu, Place of the Rye Grass. It was a pleasant site in the Walla Walla Valley, next to a branch of the Walla Walla River, but it was miles from good timber and McLoughlin had told them that the Cayuse were not as cooperative as the Nez Perce. The Whitmans ignored the warning.
Narcissa was one of the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains and the first to live in the area that is now Washington state. She was something of a novel addition to the community for the Cayuse. Arriving at a time when food was scarce, they had to kill and eat ten wild horses that winter to survive.
Marcus 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 only blankets to cover the door and windows. In that cabin Narcissa gave birth 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 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 Whitman Mission
The mission began to take shape in 1837, and the Whitmans worked hard to make their mission a success. At first the couple were optimistic and seemed almost thrilled by the challenges of their new life. Marcus held church services, practiced medicine and constructed numerous buildings; Narcissa ran their household, assisted in the religious ceremonies and taught the natives in the mission school.
But the bloom was soon off the rose. Narcissa became repelled by the Indians, and thought they were dirty, lazy and sinful. Above all, the Cayuse were unreceptive to their preaching. However, the Whitmans made little effort to offer their religious message in terms familiar to the Cayuse, or to accommodate themselves even partially to Cayuse religious practices.
For the Cayuse, religion and domestic life were closely entwined, but when they suggested a worship service inside the Whitman home, Narcissa reacted with scorn and complained bitterly that they peeked in her windows. Accustomed to free access to one another’s lodges, the Cayuse resented Narcissa’s effort to keep them out of her house.
To Narcissa, they seemed avaricious, always demanding handouts. Both she and Marcus 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 wrote in a letter to her mother.
According to historian Julie Roy Jeffrey, author of Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman (1991), the Cayuse had adopted some aspects of white culture by the time the Whitmans arrived. A few wore articles of European clothing. Many prayed twice a day and on Sundays – practices taught to them by French-Canadian, Catholic fur traders. They enjoyed hearing stories from the Old Testament, but they had no interest in jettisoning their entire way of life.
Narcissa found it hard to reconcile the reality of the life she was living with the one she had envisioned, back in Prattsburgh. She had imagined herself living among attentive, well-behaved “dear heathens” who would be eager to master the finer points of Protestant doctrine, undergo spiritual conversion, take up farming, and adopt the customs and behavior of upright Christians like herself.
|Whitman Mission as it may have looked in the 1840s, by William Henry Jackson|
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 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 helped mediate the relationship between the missionaries and their hosts. But on June 23, 1839, little Alice Clarissa Whitman went down to the river bank behind the mission house to fill her cup with water, fell in and drowned. Though her body was found shortly after, all attempts to revive her failed.
Lacking friends, separated from her family, with a husband who was often gone for weeks at a time, her daughter was “the joy and comfort” of her “lonely situation” (September 30, 1839). 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.
Narcissa was overcome with grief and guilt, and 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).
When the Whitmans moved into the large, T-shaped mission house in 1840, Narcissa redefined her role in a way that cut her off from nearly all contact with the Cayuse. They were allowed to enter through only one door and use only one room, called ‘Indian Hall,’ because they were “filthy” and “we have come to elevate them and not to suffer ourselves to sink down to their standard” (May 2, 1840).
Narcissa created physical lines of demarcation by enclosing the mission house with a fence, and put Venetian blinds on the windows to keep the Cayuse from peeking in. Narcissa’s eyesight was gradually failing, almost to the point of blindness in her later years, and their isolation dragged on year after year.
Therefore the last years of Narcissa Whitman’s life were marked by self-imposed isolation and loneliness. She yearned for the company of other white women but she disliked the four who arrived on assignment from the ABCFM in 1838. They were not like the “warm-hearted revival Christians” she had grown up with. She never attempted to establish friendships with Native women.
Relationships among all the members of the Oregon Mission 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. The six couples sent to Oregon Country by the Board of Commissioners ended up establishing four separate mission stations, hundreds of miles apart.
In one unusually reflective 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. She insisted she did not 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).
Marcus Goes East
In February 1842, the Board of Commissioners became impatient with the lack of converts among the Indians and the almost constant stream of complaints from the missionaries about each other. The ABCFM voted to close the mission at Waiilatpu, send Spalding and two other missionaries home, and reassign the Whitmans to Lapwai. It took about seven months for the news to reach the Oregon Country.
The missionaries set aside their quarrels long enough to agree that Marcus 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 and establish a colony.”
Narcissa left Waiilatpu three days after Marcus did, after reporting that an Indian had tried to break into her bedroom one night and only her alertness and the grace of God had “delivered me from the hand of a savage man” (October 7, 1842).
During the year Marcus was away, Narcissa visited other outposts in the territory including Fort Vancouver, Jason Lee’s Methodist Mission near present day Salem, Oregon, and another mission near Astoria, Oregon. It would turn out to be “the pleasantest portion of her Oregon life,” one of her hosts later wrote.
On Marcus Whitman’s return trip West in 1843, he helped lead the first ‘Great Migration’ to the West, a long wagon train of about 800 pioneers. Marcus wrote on April 12, 1844:
I am happy to have been the means of landing so large an emigration on to the shores of the Columbia. I have no doubt our greatest work is to be to aid the white settlement of this country. 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.
Childless since their daughter had drowned, the Whitmans began to take orphaned children into their own home in 1844, including the seven orphaned children of Henry and Naomi Sager, immigrants who had died on the Oregon Trail. Their mission also served as a kind of boarding school for the children of early settlers. Narcissa kept the children away from the Cayuse, not allowing any of them to speak a word of Nez Perce.
Relations between the Whitmans and the Cayuse deteriorated as more and more whites moved into the area. Narcissa noticed their unease. “The Indians are roused a good deal at seeing so many immigrants” (May 20, 1844). About 1,500 immigrants arrived that fall; twice that number came the next year. As more newcomers arrived, the natives struggled to feed their families as the once-plentiful game they hunted grew scarce, along with their traditional grazing lands for livestock.
Having given up all pretense of serving as missionaries, the Whitmans began operating what was essentially a hotel and trading post for white immigrants on the Oregon Trail. Tribal leaders then made several efforts to get the Whitmans to leave their ancestral homeland, to the point of physical confrontations.
Tensions reached a peak in the fall of 1847, when more than 5,000 immigrants arrived in Oregon. A measles epidemic, brought by the new settlers, spread quickly among the natives, who lacked immunity to the disease. The Whitmans cared for both Cayuse and whites, but half of the Cayuse died and nearly all of their children, and they blamed the Whitmans.
The Whitman Massacre
The strained relationship turned to violence on the morning of November 29, 1847. At that time more than 70 people were living at the Whitman mission, including the Whitmans, their 10 adopted children, a man who had been hired to teach at the mission school, about a dozen laborers, and eight immigrant families.
Several Cayuse were in the outer room of the Whitman house, and saw Narcissa getting some milk; they demanded it, but she refused and firmly shut the door in their face. One began pounding on the door, asking for medicine, and when Dr. Whitman came into the outer room, he was 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. More Cayuse arrived, and in the melee nine other whites were killed, including three of the Sager children. Two more were slain a few days later, and a 14th is believed to have drowned in the Walla Walla River while attempting to escape. Warriors destroyed most of the mission buildings.
Harsh reprisals against the Cayuse and Nez Perce followed, escalating the conflict into a war. Two years after the attack, Tiloukaikt, turned himself in to authorities, in an effort to avoid the destruction of the entire tribe. He was one of five Cayuse sentenced to death. At his hanging he said, “Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people.”
Reverend Henry Perkins wrote in a lengthy letter to Narcissa’s sister after her death:
The truth is, your lamented sister was far from happy in the situation she had chosen to occupy. She longed for society, refined society… She loved company… excitement and ought always to have enjoyed it. The self-denial that took her away from it was suicidal (October 19, 1849).