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Cayuse attack mission in what becomes known as the Whitman Massacre on November 29, 1847.

HistoryLink.org Essay 5192 : Printer-Friendly Format

On November 29, 1847, Cayuse tribal members attack white settlers and missionaries at Waiilatpu in what will become known as the Whitman Massacre. Thirteen whites are killed during three days of bloodshed, most of them on the first day; another is believed to have drowned after escaping the initial attack.

Waiilatpu was a Christian mission on the Walla Walla River operated by Dr. Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and his wife Narcissa (Prentiss) Whitman (1808-1847). The mission served as an important rest stop for immigrants on the Oregon Trail. The Cayuse attackers may have acted in retaliation for tribal members killed by whites, in an effort to stop increased immigration into the Walla Walla Valley, or most likely, out of the belief that Marcus Whitman was an evil shaman using measles to kill people. The physician was unsuccessfully treating the Cayuse, who lacked immunity, and measles was killing them but not the whites. The massacre led to the Cayuse War and helped spur the U.S. Congress to create Oregon Territory.

The Waiilatpu and Lapwai missions were established in 1836 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston, which believed that the Native Americans of the Oregon country desired conversion to Christianity. Marcus Whitman was a Presbyterian elder trained as a physician. Waiilatpu was on the Walla Walla River near Fort Walla Walla. Whitman built a gristmill and developed a large farm there. The mission converted few Indians, but it served as an important rest stop for immigrants from the United States using the Oregon Trail. The mill burned in 1844; tribal members were blamed. Whitman rebuilt the operation 20 miles away and added a sawmill.

By 1847, Waiilatpu had grown to a community of 50 to 75 persons including a number of orphans left with the Whitmans. Word of threats against the settlement reached Whitman, but he refused to evacuate. On November 29, Tilaukait and Tamsuky of the Cayuse called Whitman into his kitchen and killed him with a tomahawk. Cayuse warriors then embarked on a killing spree, catching some men at their places of work. Narcissa Whitman was wounded in the shoulder by a bullet. Narcissa and others barricaded themselves into a second floor room, then surrendered when they were assured that they would be safe. The warriors renewed the attacks and killed Narcissa and other prisoners. Those who did not escape were taken hostage. Some of the wounded hostages were killed later. The hostages were ransomed with blankets, shirts, guns, and ammunition supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Walla Walla.

Those killed -- all adult (by the standards of the time) and all male except for Narcissa Whitman -- were:

  • Marcus Whitman, age 44
  • Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, age 39
  • John Sager, age 17
  • Francis "Frank" Sager, age 15
  • Andrew Rogers, adult
  • Crocket Bewley, age 18
  • W. L. Saunders, adult
  • Peter D. Hall, adult (died after escaping to Fort Walla Walla and being refused entry)
  • Nathan Kimball, adult
  • Walter Marsh, adult
  • Isaac Gilliland, adult
  • Jacob Hoffmann, adult
  • Amos Sales, adult
  • James Young, 24
In addition, two children, Louise Sager, 6, and Helen Mar Meek, 10, died of measles during captivity.

Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander write in Exploring Washington's Past that it was common practice throughout the Columbia Plateau to kill a person believed to be misusing his or her spirit power. In the early 1890s a Nez Perce whose brother lived at Waiilatpu at the time of the massacre told photographer Edward Curtis:

"[A man] was crying because his wife had died of the sickness: she had taken some of the Doctor's medicine, and spots came out on her face .... One of the Indians made himself sick in order to test the Doctor, saying that if the Doctor's medicine killed him they would know he was the cause of the deaths of the others.

"He took the medicine and died. Then the headmen met in council and made an agreement that the Doctor should be killed because two hundred of the people had died after taking his medicine" (Kirk and Alexander).

Retaliation

Settlers in the Willamette Valley responded by raising a force of volunteers. Settler Joe Meek, whose daughter had been taken hostage and had died of measles during captivity, was dispatched overland to Washington, D.C., to plead for assistance. Meek arrived in May 1848 with the story of the massacre. After much debate over the issue of slavery, Congress created Oregon Territory -- without slaves -- on August 13, 1848.

The Oregon Volunteers scattered the Cayuse tribe into the mountains. Other tribes refused to join the conflict with the settlers. Eventually, five Cayuse surrendered to territorial officials and were tried on charges of murder in connection with the attack on the mission. They were convicted and hanged on June 3, 1850. The Cayuse tribe was removed to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon and absorbed among other tribes, eventually losing its language and much of its separate identity.

In 1936, Congress established the Whitman Mission National Historic Site at Waiilatpu.

Sources:
George W. Fuller, A History of the Pacific Northwest (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), 143-169; Whitman Mission National Historic Site website, (www.nps.gov/whmi/history/timeline9.htm); "History and Culture of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Indians," Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation website (http://www.umatilla.nsn.us/hist1.html#conflict); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 186-187; Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, Vol, 2 (Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, [1986], 1994), 202.
Note: This essay was expanded slightly on April 24, 2006, corrected on March 5, 2009, and revised further on January 13, 2014.


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Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu, ca. 1847
Painting by William Henry Jackson, Courtesy National Park Service


Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), idealized portrait based on 1847 sketch
Courtesy National Park Service


Narcissa (Prentiss) Whitman (1808-1847), idealized portrait based on 1847 sketch
Courtesy National Park Service


Site of killings of Marcus (1802-1847) and Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847), Mission House site, Waiilatpu, Whitman Mission Historical Site, Walla Walla, April 19, 2006
HistoryLink.org Photo by Paula Becker


Mound of earth marking mass burial site of 1847 Whitman Massacre victims, ca. 1880, Waiilatpu, Walla Walla
Courtesy Shallow Grave At Waiilatpu: The Sagers' West


Whitman Massacre survivors and others at dedication of marble slab over mass grave of those killed during 1847 Whitman Massacre, Waiilatpu, Walla Walla, 1897
Courtesy Waiilatpu


Great Grave containing remains of those killed during the attack on the Whitman Mission on November 29, 1847, Waiilatpu, Whitman Mission Historic Site, Walla Walla, April 19, 2006
HistoryLink.org photo by Paula Becker


 
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