In 1836, American missionary Narcissa Whitman (1808–1847) became the first woman of European heritage to cross the Rocky Mountains into the western United States. She and her husband were on anarduous journey westward, hoping to bring Christianity to Native American tribes in the Columbia Plateau region in what is present-day Washington state. They built one of the first permanent settlements in the area, but 11 years later their mission was attacked after long-simmering tensions with the Cayuse erupted into violence, and both were killed.
The daughter of a carpenter, Whitman was born Narcissa Prentiss on March 14, 1808, in Prattsburgh, New York, and was one of nine children in her family. The Prentisses were Presbyterians, but at the age of 11 Whitman converted to the Congregationalist faith, the Protestant group whose earliest American adherents were the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. The conversion had come as a result of her contact with religious groups that were part of the Second Great Awakening, a renewal of evangelical fervor that swept through New England in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Whitman was schooled at the Franklin Academy in Prattsburgh, and later went on to train as a teacher at the Female Academy in Troy, New York. She was active in various church groups, and in the Amity, New York, area, to which her family had moved around 1834. There she attended a lecture by a minister in which he urged young people to become missionaries out West. There was a widely repeated story of the time, which circulated in Protestant groups, that in 1831 a mixed-blood Wyandot Indian who had converted to the Methodist faith had come to St. Louis, looking for a copy of the Bible to bring back to his Native American community. The largely apocryphal tale seemed to be aimed at arousing sympathy and raising money for Christian missionary groups who were focused on converting the vast communities of indigenous Americans who were living somewhat unbothered in the wide-open lands of the Western United States.
Whitman decided to join that missionary brigade. She applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the first American Christian foreign mission agency. At the time, the lands west of the Mississippi River were technically called "foreign," because they were populated by Spanish settlers, indigenous peoples, and sparse communities of fur traders. The ABCFM would not allow single men or women to serve as missionaries, however, and the same quandary was faced by a physician from Wheeler, New York, named Marcus Whitman. When he heard of her attempt, he contacted her by letter, and they began corresponding with one another; he proposed marriage, she accepted, and they were wed on February 18, 1836, in Angelica, New York.
By that time, Dr. Whitman had already made one scouting trip out West with another missionary, reaching the Nez Percé in Montana and Idaho. Shortly after the wedding, he and his new bride set off again on a trip that was notable for being the first large contingent of European Americans to head west by wagon train. They traveled with a pair of other newlywed missionaries, Henry and Eliza Spalding. The trip took more than five months, with the first major leg of it undertaken on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers. From Kansas they traveled by horse with fur traders who already knew the route, camping at night and feasting on fresh buffalo. For some of the Native American communities they encountered, Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first white women they had ever seen. The journey was a long one, covering 15 miles or so in a good day, but as Whitman wrote to her sisters back in New York, "I never was so contented and happy before; neither have I enjoyed such health for years," she enthused, according to the PBS.org website New Perspectives on the West .
Whitman's party was the first major party to use the Oregon Trail, which followed river valleys westward from Kansas City, Missouri, to present-day Oregon. It avoided areas known for communities hostile to European encroachment—such as South Dakota's Blackfoot tribe—and stretched more than 2,100 miles through Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon; U.S. Highway 26 was later constructed over much of the same path. The Trail's most daunting obstacle was the Continental Divide, the immense mountain range that bisected the continent and proved notoriously difficult for large wagons to cross. Earlier traders, however, had discovered the Rocky Mountains' South Pass, a broad valley in southwestern Wyoming. When Whitman's party went through this, she and Eliza Spalding became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide.
The Whitmans and their party arrived at Walla Walla Fort, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, on September 1, 1836. This was an outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company, the major fur trading enterprise in the region, and soon she and her husband had settled on a site some six miles away. It was called Waiilatpu, or "place of the rye grass" in Cayuse, the language of the Plateau Indians who initially greeted the new arrivals with enthusiasm. Both the Cayuse and the Nez Percé were the majority population in the area, and lived a nomadic lifestyle dictated by the availability of seasonal food resources such as bison and salmon.
Over the next several months the two families built a small house and various outbuildings for their mission, and set to work converting the Native Americans, urging them to adopt a more settled, farming-centered lifestyle. Whitman taught bible study classes at the mission, but neither she nor her husband ever learned the native languages, which hampered their efforts considerably. They also found some of the indigenous customs distasteful or ridiculous, such as the practice of elaborate gift-giving, which they considered a form of extortion foisted on the recipient.
In letters home to her family, Whitman wrote of the lack of privacy at the mission after four other missionary couples arrived in 1838. She was also uneasy with the Cayuse and Nez Percé at their mission, who held different beliefs about the sanctity of a home as exclusively for the use of a single family; the tribes saw less of a distinction between host and guest, and furthermore considered a home the optimum setting for spiritual worship in their own religious practices. To them, a separate church building seemed superfluous, and they ignored the Whitmans' suggestions to build their own church. "They are so filthy they make a great deal of cleaning wherever they go, and this wears out a woman very fast," Whitman complained in one letter to her mother about the locals using her home as their favorite gathering place, according to the book American Eras .
The early promise of Whitman's life on the frontier was diminished by hardship and tragedy. She was pregnant when they had arrived in Oregon, and on March 14, 1837, her twenty-ninth birthday, a daughter was born to her and her husband, whom they named Alice Clarissa after their own mothers. The girl was the first white American child born in Oregon Country, but she drowned in the Walla Walla River at the age of two. Whitman sank into a depression, and spent hours writing in her journal and chronicling her difficulties in letters to her family back East. Her husband built a larger house in 1840, but their banishment of the Cayuse from its more delineated family quarters intensified the dislike the locals felt toward them and especially Whitman, whom they considered haughty.
An influx of nearly a thousand new settlers in 1843, brought back by Whitman's husband, served to increase hostilities between the missionaries and their Cayuse and Nez Percé neighbors. The natives felt that the white settlers received preferential treatment at the mission, and struggled to feed their families as the once-plentiful game in the area they hunted grew scarce, along with their traditional grazing lands for livestock, as the newcomers settled in. Some in the tribe began to hint that they had not been paid for the use of the land, and Whitman voiced her displeasure in another letter to her family. "They are an exceedingly proud, haughty and insolent people, and keep us constantly upon the stretch after patience and forbearance. We feed them far more than any of our associates do their people, yet they will not be satisfied." Nevertheless, she continued to maintain her optimistic attitude about their missionary goals. "Notwithstanding all this, there are many redeeming qualities in them, else we should have been discouraged long ago. We are more and more encouraged the longer we stay among them."
Whitman seemed to have come out of her grief over the death of their toddler when she began taking in other children. She and her husband informally adopted a Nez Percé girl named Helen Mar Meek, who had been abandoned by her mother, in 1840, followed by an Indian/Spanish boy they named David. In 1844, seven children of the Sager family appeared at the mission after having lost both parents on the Oregon Trail, and Whitman and her husband took them in. In letters to her family back in New York, she still extolled the virtues of life in Oregon. "This is a fine, healthy climate," she wrote in a letter to her brother, Edward, dated April 13, 1846. "I wish you were here to enjoy it with me, and pa and ma, too. We have as happy a family as the world affords. I do not wish to be in a better situation than this."
The following winter, of 1846–47, was an unusually cold one, and the Native Americans suffered the brunt of it, losing large numbers of their cattle. Later that year a measles epidemic swept through the mission, and the Cayuse and Nez Percé, who had no natural immunities to the disease, were also hardest hit by this. They suspected a deliberate plot to kill off their people and take their land, and accused Dr. Whitman of aiding the whites who were sick instead of their own stricken. The strained relationship turned to violence on November 29, 1847: several Cayuse were in the outer room of the Whitman house, and saw Narcissa getting some milk; they demanded it, but she told them it was for one of the children and firmly shut the door on them. One began pounding on it, asking for medicine, and when Dr. Whitman came into the outer room, he was struck from behind by a tomahawk blow. More Cayuse arrived, and in the melee 13 settlers were slain, including three of the Sager boys. Fifty whites were taken hostage, and after a discussion, a decision was made to avoid any further bloodshed—except for Narcissa Whitman, who was taken outside and hacked to death.
The siege at the mission lasted a month, and the hostages were eventually released for a ransom. Harsh reprisals against the Cayuse and Nez Percé followed, and finally the local chief, Tiloukaikt, turned himself in to authorities as a last resort, hoping to save his tribe from being killed off one by one. He was one of five Cayuse sentenced to death, and said, according to the New Perspectives on the West website, "Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people." The event was a turning point for Oregon Country, with white settlers so fearful of further uprisings that federal troops began to be permanently deployed in the area.
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"Biography of Narcissa Whitman," Whitman Mission NHS—History & Culture, http://www.nps.gov/archive/whmi/history/narcbio.htm (December 23, 2006).
"The Letters and Journals of Narcissa Whitman 1836–1847," New Perspectives on the West , PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/two/whitman1.htm (December 30, 2006).
"Marcus Whitman (1802–1847), Narcissa Whitman (1808–1847)," New Perspectives on the West , PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/whitman.htm (December 30, 2006).