Whitman, Marcus (1802-1847)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 8/18/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10912
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Marcus Whitman, a man with unwavering cultural and religious convictions, was one of the first missionaries in the Northwest. He and his wife, Narcissa, established a mission on Cayuse land near Walla Walla in 1836. Their goal was to Christianize and "civilize" Indians. Relations between the couple and their hosts were initially cordial but deteriorated in the face of mutual distrust and disappointment. Whitman soon gave up the idea of ministering to Indians and focused instead on helping white emigrants. Long-simmering tensions erupted on November 29, 1847, when a group of Cayuses attacked the mission, killing the Whitmans and 11 others. The "Whitman Massacre" spurred Congress to establish federal control over the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Whitman, who might otherwise have faded into obscurity, instead became one of the most memorialized figures in Washington history. His statue stands in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.; his birthday is a state holiday; his former mission is a National Historic Site; and a county, a college, a forest, a dozen public schools, and numerous other enterprises -- from an upscale hotel in Walla Walla to a church in Des Moines -- carry his name. 

Log Cabin Beginnings 

Whitman was born in a log cabin in Federal Hollow (later renamed Rushville), New York, on September 4, 1802, the second of five children of Beza Whitman (1773-1810) and Alice Green Whitman (1777-1857). Beza Whitman, a shoemaker and tanner, was prosperous enough to be able to build a large frame house shortly after Marcus's birth. The building included a tavern, which was managed by Alice. According to historian Clifford M. Drury, Whitman made only one reference to his early childhood in any of his 175 surviving letters. "I was accustomed to tend a carding machine when I was a boy," he wrote in a letter dated April 13, 1846 (ABCFM Collection). A carding machine was used to prepare wool for spinning. Federal Hollow, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, had been settled only a few years before Whitman was born. He grew up in conditions that mandated self-sufficiency, acquiring skills that would serve him well on the Western frontier. 

Beza Whitman died on April 7, 1810, at age 37, leaving Alice with five children under age 12. A few months later she sent Marcus, then 8, to live with his grandfather, Samuel Whitman, and uncle, Freedom Whitman, in the village of Cumminton, in western Massachusetts. Both men were devout Baptists. "My Grand Father and Uncle were both pious & gave me constant religious instruction and care," Whitman wrote (June 3, 1834, ABCFM Collection). 

Whitman lived with his relatives for five years. He was 13 when he returned to Federal Hollow for the first time since leaving home. Meanwhile, his mother had remarried and given birth to two more children. His stepfather, Calvin Loomis (1766-1840), had taken over Beza Whitman's businesses: the tannery, the shoe shop, and the tavern. Marcus stayed only about three weeks, and then went back to Massachusetts. His grandfather arranged for him to live with a family in Plainfield, near Cummington, where he attended a school taught by the pastor of the local Congregational Church. It was during this period that Whitman embraced the Calvinistic theology that would govern the rest of his life.

Ministerial Ambitions 

Whitman got caught up in the religious revivalism that swept across New England and western New York in the early nineteenth century. At age 17, "I was awakened to a sense of my sin and danger and brought by Divine grace to rely on the Lord Jesus for pardon and salvation" (June 3, 1834, ABCFM Collection). He wanted to become a minister. However, both the Congregational and the related Presbyterian denominations required that their ministers be well-educated, with four years of college and three years in a theological seminary before they could be ordained. Seven years of schooling would be expensive, and Whitman’s family could give him little, if any, financial help. In addition, Whitman’s mother, who was not particularly devout and never joined a church, was not sympathetic to his ministerial ambitions. He would later chastise his mother for insufficient piety. "I feel most desirous to know that my Dear Mother has determined to live the rest of her days witnessing a good profession of godliness," he wrote in a letter dated May 27, 1843. "What keeps you from this? ... is it that you have not too long refused & neglected to love & obey him?" (Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Vol. 1, 71). 

When he was 18, Whitman moved back to his hometown (which had by then been renamed Rushville). He lived in his mother's house and worked in his stepfather's tannery and shoe shop until he "attained his majority" (in the terminology of the day), on his 21st birthday. At that point, he left the family business and apprenticed himself to a local doctor -- the first step toward becoming a physician. 

In contrast to the lengthy training needed to become an ordained minister, a license to practice medicine could be obtained after only two years of "riding" with a doctor and a 16-week session at a medical school. Whitman completed his apprenticeship and enrolled for the fall term at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Fairfield, New York, in 1825. His education there consisted mostly of reading textbooks and listening to lectures. Students had virtually no laboratory facilities and there was no hospital or clinic nearby where they could gain practical experience. Strong cultural taboos restricted the use of human bodies for dissection. Medical students sometimes resorted to digging up newly buried bodies for the purpose, a practice called "resurrectionism" that risked both criminal prosecution and, at many schools, expulsion. Under a law passed by the New York State Legislature in 1820, unclaimed bodies of convicts who had died in the Auburn State Prison could be given to Fairfield College for dissection, but it was still rare for students to have legal access to a cadaver. Anatomy, like other subjects in the medical school, was taught mostly by lectures.

Whitman finished his term on January 23, 1826, and was granted a medical license the following May. He had not yet earned the right to put "M.D." behind his name: the Doctor of Medicine degree required a second 16-week course at a medical school. He would return to Fairfield for a second term in 1831. Meanwhile, he temporarily took over a medical practice in Pennsylvania for a former classmate, who was ill, and then established a practice of his own in a village west of Niagara Falls in Canada. 

He did not, however, give up his dream of becoming a minister. After less than two years in Canada, he returned to Rushville and began studying theology under Reverend Joseph Brackett (1781-1832), pastor of the Rushville Congregational Church. "I had not continued long when for want of active exercise I found my health become impaired by a pain in the left side which I attributed to an inflammation of the spleen," he wrote. He "resorted to remidies [sic] with apparently full relief" and resumed his studies, but the pain persisted. Eventually, "I found I was not able to study & returned to the practice of my profession" (June 27, 1834, ABCFM Collection). Clifford Drury speculates that it was not ill health but poor finances that led Whitman to return to medicine -- that he realized he was too old, at 28, to spend years studying for the ministry. He could go back to medical school for another 16 weeks, earn his M.D. degree, and make a better living as a doctor. 

Doctor Whitman  

Whitman re-enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Fairfield in the fall of 1831. With 205 students at that time, the college was the third largest medical school in the country. He completed another course of lectures; submitted a thesis on the topic of “Caloric” (referring to the causes of heat in the body), and, on January 24, 1832, was awarded his degree. By the standards of his day, he was a well-trained physician. He was licensed in both New York state and in Canada, had spent several years practicing medicine in frontier communities, and was now a fully credentialed Doctor of Medicine. 

After receiving his degree, Whitman established a practice in Wheeler, New York -- a hamlet of about 25 families, 40 miles south of Rushville. He lived at first in the home of one of the elders of the Wheeler Presbyterian Church. At some point, he bought a farm of 150 acres, about midway between Wheeler and the nearby town of Prattsburg, and built a log cabin there. As an itinerate country doctor, he traveled widely around the region, on horseback, with his medical supplies in saddlebags. (The saddlebags, discovered in the attic of a house in Wheeler in 1936, are now in the collections of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.) 

At 30, Whitman was about six feet tall, muscular and sinewy, with what many thought a stern demeanor. Reverend Henry P. Strong (1785-1835), one of his admirers, described his appearance as "rather forbidding at first" (August 12, 1836, ABCFM Collection). He was never photographed, but acquaintances said he resembled his brothers. They are shown in photos as having deep-set eyes, high cheek bones, thin lips, and large, angular noses. His surviving letters, both personal and professional, reflect a man with a strong sense of purpose. He could also be thin-skinned, defensive, and, especially in his later years, self-aggrandizing. He wrote well but spelled badly. 

Whitman's deep Christian faith was the organizing principle of his life. He joined the Rushville Congregational Church at age 18 and transferred his membership to the Presbyterian Church when he moved to Wheeler (the two denominations are essentially identical in doctrine although governed differently). He became a trustee of the Wheeler church in December 1832 and later an elder and Sunday school superintendent. He taught Sunday school, was active in the American Bible Society, and regularly attended sunrise prayer meetings. He was "a strong temperance man" who campaigned tirelessly against the use of alcohol (Wakeman). He probably did not approve of his mother's tavern business. 

Not long after moving to Wheeler, Whitman began to consider the possibility of becoming a medical missionary. He was heavily influenced by Elisha Loomis (1799-1836), a native of Rushville who had served as a missionary in Hawaii for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions -- a  Boston-based organization that sponsored Presbyterian and Congregational missions around the world. Loomis returned to Rushville in 1832. He often spoke in area churches, proselytizing about mission life. He found a receptive listener in Marcus Whitman. 

"More than Ordinary Piety" 

Whitman applied for a position as a missionary with the American Board for the first time in the spring of 1834. His application was endorsed by Elisha Loomis and by Henry Strong, pastor of the Rushville Congregational Church. In a letter to the board, Strong described Whitman as "a young man ... of solid, judicious mind, of, as I hope & believe, more than ordinary piety and perseverance, a regular bred Physician" who was interested in "a station with some of our western Indians" (April 25, 1834, ABCFM Collection). The board asked Whitman if he would accept an appointment to the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. He declined, saying he had "some fears of a hot climate" (June 27, 1834, ABCFM Collection). After several exchanges of letters, the board rejected his application, partly because of concerns about his health. 

He reapplied some six months later, at the urging of Reverend Samuel Parker (1779-1866), who was on a one-man campaign to send missionaries to Indians in what was then called Oregon Country, west of the Rocky Mountains. Parker had been galvanized by a report about four "Flathead Indians" who had traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1831, supposedly in search of "the white man's Book." Three of the Indians were actually Nez Perce; the fourth was of mixed Nez Perce and Flathead heritage; none had flattened heads; and the real purpose of their visit is unknown. They met briefly with William Clark (1770-1838), the famed explorer, who was serving as Indian Agent at the time. Clark understood very little of their language, and they spoke none of his. Nonetheless, a year and a half later a story began to circulate that Indians in the West wanted missionaries to bring them Bibles and teach them about Protestantism. 

The American Board was less enthusiastic than Parker about establishing an Oregon mission, and agreed to sponsor his efforts only if he could raise most of the money and recruit volunteers himself. He arrived in Wheeler in late November 1834, near the end of a mostly fruitless tour of churches in western New York. Whitman was among those who heard him speak and later met with him privately. Parker’s appeal for volunteers "brought to a focus the unfulfilled dreams and aspirations of Marcus Whitman," Drury commented. "Whitman's eagerness to be accepted by the board was matched by Parker's desire to have someone go with him to the Rockies the next spring" (Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Vol. 1, 93). 

Parker told Whitman he could strengthen his standing with the missionary board by soliciting testimonials from all the pastors with whom he was acquainted. He also suggested that Whitman find a wife: The American Board preferred to send only married couples to its missions (in the belief that wives would shield male missionaries from temptations involving Native women).

After leaving Wheeler, Parker traveled about 45 miles west to Amity, a village on the Genesee River, where he made another plea for missionaries. His audience there included Narcissa Prentiss (1808-1847), a 26-year-old unmarried Sunday school teacher who had recently moved to Amity with her parents and siblings. She, too, volunteered. Parker thought it unlikely that the American Board would accept an application from a single woman. Nonetheless, he sent a query to David Greene, secretary of the board. "Are females wanted?" he asked. "A Miss Narcissa Prentiss of Amity is very anxious to go to the heathen. Her education is good -- piety conspicuous ... ." Greene demurred. "I don’t think we have missions among the Indians where unmarried females are valuable just now," he wrote (December 17 and 24, 1834, ABCFM Collection). 

A Hurried Engagement 

In mid-January 1835, Whitman learned that the American Board had accepted his application and assigned him to accompany Parker on a scouting expedition to the West in the spring. He made arrangements to sell his farm and close his medical practice in Wheeler. Meanwhile, he traveled to Ithaca, New York, to meet with Parker and discuss details of the trip in person. While he was there, Parker told him about the unmarried, aspiring female missionary in Amity. 

Whitman had already indicated a willingness to get married if necessary to become a missionary. "I think I should wish to take a wife, if the service of the board would admit," he wrote in his original application, on June 3, 1834 (ABCFM Collection). Once he learned that Narcissa Prentiss also wanted to go to Oregon as a missionary, he may have taken it as a sign that they were divinely ordained to go together as husband and wife. He made plans to call on her before leaving with Parker on their exploratory journey to the West. 

Narcissa Prentiss had been born and lived most of her life in Prattsburg. She was one of nine children (and the eldest daughter) of Stephen Prentiss (1777-1862), a carpenter and mill operator, and Clarissa Ward Prentiss, a deeply devout woman. Whitman, whose professional and religious activities often took him to Prattsburg, had once attended a prayer meeting in the Prentiss home. However, Narcissa had been away at the time and the two had never met.

As Parker noted, Narcissa was conspicuously pious. She experienced her first spiritual awakening at age 11 and a second at age 16. It was then, she wrote to the American Board, that she decided to "consecrate myself without reserve" to missionary work and someday "go to the heathen" (February 23, 1835, ABCFM Collection). She was close to her family but found her greatest emotional release in religious revivals and prayer meetings. At 26, she was considered something of a spinster and might have been resigned to spending the rest of her life caring for her siblings and other family members. Whitman offered her a different path. He arrived in Amity on February 21, 1835. They spent only a few hours together, spread out over the next two days, but by the time he left, they were engaged.

Journey to the Rendezvous 

Whitman and Parker met in St. Louis in early April 1835 and traveled together via steamboat to Liberty, Missouri, where they joined the American Fur Company's caravan to the annual Rocky Mountain rendezvous in western Wyoming. The caravan included about 50 rough-edged, hard-drinking, unchurched fur traders and voyageurs. The missionaries disapproved of their intemperate habits, and the men, in turn, resented the presence of the missionaries. "Very evident tokens gave us to understand that our company was not agreeable, such as the throwing of rotten eggs at me," Whitman wrote to David Greene (May 10, 1839, ABCFM Collection). 

Whitman gained a measure of respect after an outbreak of cholera forced the caravan to halt for about three weeks near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. More than a dozen men, including the caravan's commander, were sickened, and three eventually died. Whitman had had no direct experience treating the disease -- a severe infection of the intestines, spread by contaminated food or water -- but he had learned enough to associate it with lack of cleanliness. He recommended that the men be moved from a camp in a low-lying area adjacent to the Missouri River to "a clean and healthy situation" on a nearby bluff. In a letter to Narcissa, he attributed the outbreak to the traders' consumption of alcohol and dirty water. "It is not strange that they should have the cholera, because of their intemperance, their sunken and filthy situation," he wrote (June 21, 1835, cited in Mowry, 60). 

The caravan reached the rendezvous site on August 12, 1835. News that a doctor had arrived spread quickly. The day after his arrival, Whitman removed a three-inch iron arrowhead from the back of famed mountain man Jim Bridger (1804-1881). The arrowhead had been there for three years, a reminder of a skirmish with Blackfeet Indians. Its removal impressed both the fur trappers and the Indians who had gathered for the rendezvous. After that, "calls for medical and surgical aid were almost incessant," Parker wrote (Journal, 80). Both Jim Bridger and another mountain man, Joseph L. Meek (1810-1875) would later send their young, mixed-race daughters to school at the Whitman Mission. 

Whitman and Parker were encouraged by the reception they received at the rendezvous. They decided that Whitman would return with the fur company to the East, to organize a missionary party to travel to Oregon Country the next year, while Parker would continue westward with Nez Perce guides to locate mission sites. 

Traveling Companions 

Whitman left the rendezvous in late August and arrived in Amity about four months later. He learned that Narcissa and her family had moved again, about six miles north to the small village of Angelica. He traveled there for a brief visit and then hurried on to his mother's home in Rushville, some 60 miles north. He spent the rest of the winter there, working on arrangements for what was now officially the American Board's Oregon Mission. 

His most pressing concern was to find at least one other couple willing to go to Oregon. The timing was critical: The party would have to leave upstate New York by late February in order to join the fur company's caravan before it left Missouri. It would not be safe to cross the country without the caravan's protection. Only two couples showed any interest at all. One withdrew; the other decided to go instead by sea to Astoria, on the Northwest coast. Increasingly desperate, Whitman turned to Reverend Henry Harmon Spalding (1803-1874) and his wife, Eliza Hart Spalding (1807-1851). Spalding was a newly ordained Presbyterian minister who had just been appointed a missionary to the Osage Indians in Missouri. He was also an acquaintance of Narcissa Prentiss: he had once lived in her hometown of Prattsburg and the two had briefly attended the same church and school. 

The Spaldings were in Prattsburg, visiting friends before leaving for Missouri, when they received a letter from Whitman, begging them to go to Oregon instead. Whitman made his situation clear. The American Board would not send a mission to Oregon unless at least one member of the party was an ordained minister. Spalding continued to plan for his original post but notified the board that he would join Whitman if necessary. "If the Board and Dr. Whitman wish me to go to the Rocky Mountains with him, I am ready," he wrote (December 28, 1835, ABCFM Collection). 

Whitman received news that the board had approved the change in assignment in early February 1836. By that time, the Spaldings had already left Prattsburg for what they still assumed would be a mission in Missouri. Whitman raced after them, catching up with them on February 14. Henry left the final decision up to Eliza. She had had a miscarriage less than four weeks earlier, and he wondered if she was strong enough for a trip across the continent. No other white women had yet made that journey. She deferred to the Bible, specifically Mark 16:15: "And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." The Spaldings agreed to go with the Whitmans to Oregon Country. Marcus then returned to Angelica. He and Narcissa were married in the Angelica Presbyterian Church on the evening of February 19, 1836. They left for the West the next day. 

"Place of the Rye Grass" 

The American Board expected Whitman and Spalding to establish one joint mission, aided by William Henry Gray (1810-1889), a carpenter from Utica, New York, who joined the party in St. Louis. But personality differences made that impossible. Whitman was demanding and inflexible; Spalding, self-righteous and quick-tempered; and Gray was universally disliked. In fact, relations among all the members of the American Board's Oregon Mission -- including four couples who arrived as reinforcements in 1838 -- were contentious. None of them got along. They quarreled about everything from how to load a wagon to how to pray. As writer William Dietrich has pointed out, "The same strong-minded idealism that fired people with Christian zeal made it difficult for them to cooperate" (163). The six couples ended up establishing four missions, hundreds of miles apart.

By the time they reached Fort Vancouver, western headquarters for the Hudson's Bay Company, in September 1836, Whitman and Spalding were barely speaking. Narcissa and Eliza stayed behind at the fort while their husbands scouted separate locations. Whitman chose a site on Cayuse land next to the Walla Walla River, about 25 miles east of Fort Walla Walla (a Hudson's Bay fur-trading post). The Cayuse called it Waiilatpu, or "Place of the Rye Grass." He ignored a warning from John McLoughlin (1784-1857), chief factor at Fort Vancouver, that the Cayuses were arrogant and unpredictable. Spalding picked a site about 120 miles to the northeast, at Lapwai, among the Nez Perce in present-day Idaho. 

Spalding returned to Fort Vancouver while Whitman, Gray, and two Hudson's Bay Company laborers began building a rudimentary cabin with an attached lean-to at Waiilatpu. The Cayuses were puzzled to see men putting up a shelter. In Cayuse culture, that was women's work. It was the first of many cultural misunderstandings between the Whitmans and their hosts. 

When Narcissa arrived, in mid-December, only the lean-to had been completed. There was a chimney and fireplace but no windows and only blankets to cover the door. The couple's only child -- Alice Clarissa -- was born there on March 14, 1837. The Cayuses were intrigued by the baby's pale skin and light brown hair. Tiloukaikt, headman of the band that wintered near the mission, welcomed her as a "Cayuse te-mi" (Cayuse girl) because she was born on Cayuse land. "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 wrote to her family. "The whole tribe are highly pleased because we allow her to be called a Cayuse girl" (Letters, March 30, 1837). 

By the time she was a year and a half old, Alice Clarissa was babbling in both English and Nez Perce -- the primary language spoken by the Cayuses. The Indians were "very much pleased to think she is going to speak their language so readily," Narcissa reported. "They appear to love her much" (Letters, September 18, 1838). But on June 23, 1839, at the age of 27 months, the child toddled into the river behind the mission and drowned. With her death, an important bond between the missionaries and the Cayuses was broken. 

A Field "White" for Harvest  

Whitman selected Waiilatpu as a mission site partly because of its potential for agriculture. "We have far more good land for cultivation here ... than at any other place on the uper [sic] Columbia," he told the board (May 5, 1837, ABCFM Collection). The mission would need to produce enough food to feed its residents and visitors and possibly supply other outposts. Additionally, Whitman believed it was essential that the Cayuses abandon their traditional way of life and take up farming. Until "the benighted Indians" adopted a settled, agrarian lifestyle, they could not be exposed to "the benefit of constant instruction" from the missionaries. "The field is emphatically white for the harvest," he wrote, referring to the harvesting of souls, but first the Indians would have to be "attracted and retained by the plough and hoe" (May 8, 1838, ABCFM Collection). 

It was arduous work to break through the thick mantle of rye grass that gave Waiilatpu its name. In the early years Whitman had one plough for his own use but only hoes to offer the Cayuses. Still, he was encouraged by their initial willingness to clear the ground and plant crops. By 1840, about 50 families were cultivating small plots of land around the mission. However, the Cayuses resisted Whitman's efforts to turn them into fulltime farmers. They raised only those crops -- such as potatoes, corn, beans, and melons -- that required relatively little tending and did not interfere with hunting, fishing, and root-gathering cycles. They continued to spend months each year away from the mission, moving from place to place as the seasons and sources of food changed, as their ancestors had for generations. "Their being absent so much of the time is exceedingly trying to us,"  Narcissa complained (Letters, January 1, 1840). 

The Cayuses also were selective in responding to Whitman's brand of Christianity. They enjoyed hearing stories from the Old Testament and chanting along with Christian hymns and prayers. But they rejected what they understood about the Calvinistic concepts of original sin and predestination. Whitman, who had only a limited command of Nez Perce, relied on Chinook trade jargon to tell the Cayuses they were "lost ruined & condemned" and could not be saved by prayer alone (October 15, 1840, ABCFM Collection). Narcissa summarized their reaction in a letter to her father:

"They feel so bad, disappointed, and some of them angry, because husband tells them that none of them are Christians; that they are all of them in the broad road to destruction, and that worshipping will not save them. They try to persuade him not to talk such bad talk to them ... Some threaten to whip him and to destroy our crops, and for a long time their cattle were turned into our potato field every night to see if they could not compel him to change his course of instruction with them" (Letters, October 19, 1840). 

There were other sources of conflict. The Cayuses were accustomed to free access to one another's lodges; the Whitmans put up fences and locked their doors to keep the Indians out. Gift-giving was an essential part of social and political interaction in Cayuse life; the missionaries regarded the practice as extortion. When Cayuse headmen demanded payment for their land and timber, in keeping with white notions about private property, Whitman was offended and refused.

Change in Focus

Meanwhile, discord within the missionary community was reaching a crisis point. The arrival of reinforcements in 1838 had brought the number of American Board missionaries in Oregon to 13 (six couples and one bachelor), living on four widely separated stations: the original two, at Waiilatpu and Lapwai; one at Tshimakain, near Spokane; another at Kamiah, 60 miles east of Lapwai. The board received a steady stream of letters from various missionaries complaining about each other. In February 1842, exasperated by the griping and by the lack of converts among the Indians, the board ordered the closure of all the stations except the one at Tshimakain; reassigned Whitman to that station; and recalled Spalding and two other missionaries. 

The news reached Waiilatpu seven months later. Whitman, stunned, convened an emergency meeting of his colleagues. He proposed, and they agreed, that he leave immediately for Boston to try to persuade the board to change its mind. After a dangerous mid-winter ride across the Rockies, he arrived in Boston at the end of March 1843. David Greene, the board secretary, was so shocked at his weather-beaten appearance that he gave him some money to buy new clothes. 

Whitman met with members of the board in a special session on April 4. He argued that Waiilatpu was the most strategically located of all the missions. Without it, he said, "papists" (Catholic missionaries) would have free rein among the Indians. He also said that Spalding should be retained at Lapwai; that three of the most quarrelsome missionaries had already withdrawn, and the others -- including himself and Spalding -- had reconciled. The board agreed to rescind its order and allow Whitman to continue his work at Waiilatpu. 

Whitman visited briefly with friends and relatives in upstate New York and then traveled to St. Louis, where he joined the first major wagon train on the Oregon Trail, consisting of about 120 wagons and more than 800 emigrants. His 13-year-old nephew, Perrin Whitman, came with him. Whitman helped guide the emigrants through the Blue Mountains to Fort Walla Walla and from there to Waiilatpu. He would devote the rest of his life to promoting and supporting white immigration to Oregon Country. "I have no doubt our greatest work is to be to aid the white settlement of this country," he wrote to his father-in-law, Stephen Prentiss. "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" (Letters, May 16, 1844). 

Escalating Conflict 

The last few years of the Whitman Mission were marked by escalating conflict between the missionaries and the people they had come to "save." One point of contention was the death of Elijah Hedding, eldest son of Peo-peo-mox-mox (1880?-1855), a prominent Walla Walla chief. Elijah had been educated (and given a Christian name) by Methodist missionaries at The Dalles. He was killed by a white man while on a cattle-trading expedition to California in the summer of 1844. The following spring, a delegation of Walla Walla, Nez Perce, and Cayuse headmen met with Whitman and other missionaries to demand that the death be avenged by the killing of an American of equal stature -- specifically, either Whitman or Spalding. Since "Elijah was educated and was a leader in religious worship and learning," Whitman wrote to David Greene, "one of the same grade must be killed of the Americans & Mr. Spalding or myself were proposed as suitable victims" (May 20, 1845, ABCFM Collection). The chiefs eventually agreed that they themselves would not take action against the missionaries but they would no longer take responsibility for whatever their young men might do. 

A key issue involved Whitman's role as a physician. In Cayuse culture, a medicine man ("te-wat," or shaman) whose patients died could be suspected of sorcery and subject to death himself. Whitman was well aware of this practice. Just a few months after establishing the mission, he was called to treat the wife of a Cayuse head chief. The chief told Whitman that he would kill him if his wife died. That patient died but two others, in 1844, did not. "Two important Indians have died," Narcissa wrote to her family, "and they have ventured to say and intimate that the doctor has killed them by his magical power, in the same way they accuse their own sorcerers and kill them for it" (Letters, October 9, 1844). Another death in the spring of 1845 again focused suspicion on Whitman. "They have been saying I caused the death of [a] young man who died of apoplexy," Whitman wrote to Greene. "You are aware already of their habit to kill their own Medicine men as they are commonly called when an excuse offers by the death of some of their friends" (April 8, 1845, ABCFM Collection). 

The ever-increasing stream of immigrants from the East added to the tension. About 1,500 passed through Cayuse land on the Oregon Trail in 1844; twice that many came the next year. On one occasion, Whitman was insulted and physically threatened by a subchief named Tomahas, who told him to leave Waiilatpu. Whitman didn't take Tomahas seriously but he was deeply disturbed by a meeting in late November 1845 with Tauitau (sometimes spelled "Tawatoe," also known as Young Chief), one of the most influential of the Cayuse leaders. Tauitau accused Whitman of being willing to use poison and spread disease in order to help whites take possession of Indian lands and property. Describing the encounter in a letter to a fellow missionary the next day, Whitman was still so unsettled that his handwriting was shaky. "I am so nervous that I cannot govern my hand," he wrote (November 25, 1845, cited in Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Vol. 2, 154).

Whitman began to consider relocating to the Willamette Valley but was torn between his desire to leave and his belief that he had a duty to stay. In one of his last surviving letters to the American Board, he said he was planning to file a claim for a homestead on the lower Columbia "to be ready in case of retirement." He also said he wished he felt as certain that he was right in leaving "as I was in coming among the Indians" (April 1, 1847, ABCFM Collection). 

Breaking Point

In the fall of 1847, a measles epidemic brought Whitman's relations with the Cayuses to the breaking point. At least 30 of the 200 or so Cayuses living near the mission died between the first of October and the end of November and the sick could be found in almost every lodge. More than a dozen white people at the mission also were sickened by measles, but only one -- a 6-year-old girl from an emigrant family -- died. Narcissa showed the child's body to a Cayuse headman, in an effort to prove the disease was claiming white as well as Indian lives, but the gesture failed to allay suspicions that Whitman, the medicine man, was practicing sorcery against the Cayuses. 

Six Cayuses were buried on November 28 and three more on the morning of the 29th. That afternoon, a small group (14 to 18, by most estimates) armed themselves with clubs, tomahawks, and guns; covered the weapons with blankets, and went to the mission. Two Indians pushed their way into the kitchen of the main house and demanded medicine. When Whitman turned to get it, one of them buried a tomahawk in the back of his head. By the end of the day, both Marcus and Narcissa (the only woman to be attacked) were dead, along with seven others. Four more men were killed during the next few days. Another escaped to Fort Walla Walla, bringing the first news of the attack to the outside world, but is believed to have drowned while trying later to go on to Fort Vancouver. He is counted as the 14th victim of the "Whitman Massacre." 

More than 70 people were living at the mission at the time of the attack, including eight emigrant families, a school teacher, several laborers, and 10 children who had been taken in by the Whitmans over the years (including seven orphans whose parents -- Henry and Naomi Sager -- had died on the Oregon Trail in 1844). An emigrant family of five hid and then managed to escape. Another man escaped and made his way to Lapwai. A French-Canadian hired hand and three mixed-race boys (including one who had been raised by the Whitmans) were allowed to leave. Two children died of measles in the days after the initial attack: Louise Sager, age 6; and Helen Mar Meek, 10, daughter of former mountain man Joseph Meek. The remaining survivors -- mostly women and children -- were held as hostages for a month and then ransomed by Hudson's Bay company officials from Fort Vancouver. 


A few weeks after the killings, four Cayuse chiefs sent a message to George Abernethy (1807-1877), the provisional governor of Oregon, asking "That the Americans not go to war with the Cayuses" and that they "forget the lately committed murders, as the Cayuses will forget the murder of the son of the great chief of Walla Walla" and other grievances (Brouillet, 61-62). The message, dated December 20, 1847, was prepared with the help of two Catholic priests: Augustin M. A. Blanchet (1797-1887), the newly appointed Bishop of Walla Walla, and J. B. A. Brouillet (1813-1884), who had helped bury the dead at the Whitman Mission. By the time it reached Abernethy at the provisional capital, in Oregon City, he had already sent a militia of about 500 men on a punitive expedition against the Cayuses. 

Meanwhile, Joseph Meek, newly elected as a member of the provisional legislature, carried word of the attack to Washington, D.C. Congress responded by passing a long-stalled bill creating the Territory of Oregon in August 1848. President James K. Polk (1795-1849) -- whose wife was one of Meek's cousins -- appointed the first slate of territorial officers, including Meek as U.S. Marshal. Two years later, Meek would serve as bailiff, jailer, and executioner for five Cayuses who were tried, convicted, and hanged for the murder of Marcus Whitman. 

Whitman set out to "save" a people he considered "heathen" by converting them to Christianity and inducing them to adopt a Euro-American culture. He failed. In a frank appraisal written a year after the attack, Reverend Henry K. Perkins (1812-1884), a Methodist missionary who had known him well, said Whitman was too impatient and arrogant to succeed as a missionary. He regarded the Cayuses "as an inferior race & doomed at no distant day to give place to a settlement of enterprising Americans," Perkins wrote in a letter to one of Narcissa's sisters. The Cayuses, in turn, "feared the Doctor," but "did not love him." Perkins doubted whether Whitman ever felt as much interest in the Indians as he did in the prospective white population. "He wanted to see the country settled," he wrote. "Where were scattered a few Indian huts, he wanted to see thrifty farm houses. Where stalked abroad a few broken-down Indian horses, cropping the rich grasses of the surrounding plain, he wanted to see grazing the cow, the ox, & the sheep of a happy Yankee community" (Perkins to Jane Prentiss, October 19, 1849, reprinted in Drury, Marcus Whitman, M.D., 458-60). 

Whitman himself took pride in his contributions to American expansionism. "If I never do more than to have been one of the first to take white women across the mountains" and to have established "the first wagon road across to the border of the Columbia River," he wrote, "I am satisfied" (November 1, 1843, ABCFM Collection). Later, he claimed that if he had not been on hand to "superintend the immigration" of 1843, which laid "the foundation for the speedy settlement of the country," Oregon might have been claimed by the British and, even worse, fallen into the grip of Catholics. The "Jesuit Papists" would have "routed us, and then the country might have slept in their hands forever" (Letters, Marcus Whitman to L. P. Judson, November 5, 1846). 

In 1949, the Washington State Legislature recognized Whitman's "fame and historic services as a great Washingtonian" by selecting him as the state's first honoree in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. (In fact, Whitman was never a "Washingtonian" -- the state was not created until 1889 -- 42 years after his death.) Each state is entitled to just two representatives in the national statue collection. Washington added its second in 1980: Mother Joseph (1823-1902), a nun who designed and built schools and hospitals. Whitman, whose suspicion and distrust of "papists" ran deep, would no doubt have been appalled to find himself sharing company in a hall of honor with a Catholic.


American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) Collection, North American Missions Records (ABC 18.5.5), Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon (Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2 vols., [1973], 1986, 1994); Drury, Marcus Whitman, M.D. (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1937); Robert E. Moody, America's First Rushville (Rushville: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1991); Joel Wakeman, "Pleasant Memories," Prattsburg News, January 27, 1898 (typescript in the Joel Wakeman Papers, Washington State University, Pullman); William A. Mowry, Marcus Whitman and the Early Days of Oregon (New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1901); Miles Cannon, Waiilatpu: Its Rise and Fall, 1836-1847 (Boise: Capitol News Job Rooms, 1915); William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Cameron Addis, "The Whitman Massacre: Religion and Manifest Destiny on the Columbia Plateau, 1809-1858," Journal of the Early Republic, Summer 2005, pp. 221-258; William I. Marshall, Acquisition of Oregon and the Long Suppressed Evidence About Marcus Whitman (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1911); J. B. A. Brouillet, Authentic Account of the Murder of Dr. Whitman and Other Missionaries, by the Cayuse Indians of Oregon (Portland, Oregon: S. J. McCormick, second edition, 1869 available at (https://archive.org/details/authenticaccount00brou).

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