- Historic Sites
Murder At The Place Of Rye Grass
The call to convert the heathen brought gentle Narcissa Whitman and her husband to Oregon Territory—and a brutal death
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
In July of the year 1847, only four months before their murder at the hands of the Indians they had crossed the American continent to Christianize, Dr. Marcus Whitman and his high-minded, high-spirited wife, Narcissa, entertained a wandering Canadian artist at their little mission in the wilds of the Oregon territory, just west of present-day Walla Walla, Washington. The artist was a painter from Toronto named Paul Kane, who aspired—like the American George Catlin—to leave a record of Indian physiological types and Indian ways of life before alcohol, gunpowder, white men’s diseases, and white men’s customs forever altered them. It was through this chance visit that portraits have been preserved of the two men who killed Marcus Whitman, and incited their fellow tribesmen to the heartless massacre of his wife and other innocent residents in the lonely settlement at Waiilatpu, “the place of rye grass.”
In Kane’s journal, Wanderings of an Artist , we learn that it was Whitman himself who suggested the Cayuse braves, Tilaukait and Tamahas, as subjects for the artist’s sketch book. Few uglier or more ominous visages were ever put on canvas. Certainly Kane, in his years of wandering among primitive tribes, painted no other portraits of aborigines that convey quite the same expression of brooding cruelty. Their long black hair, parted in the middle and hanging lankly down over naked shoulders, frames high, protuberant cheekbones, narrow, suspicious eyes, outjutting chins, and mouths shut in a tight, vicious line. Both Indians look exactly what they proved to be--in spite of all the Whitmans’ long-enduring optimism—dangerous, confused, and irrationally violent men.
The Whitmans’ long journey to their tragic fate had begun back in the year 1834, when a persuasive Congregational pastor named Samuel Parker came riding through the back roads of western New York State with an inspiring message about far distant red men and their fervent wish to be saved. Marcus Whitman, 32 years of age, a doctor in the village of Wheeler, heard Dr. Parker’s appeal and was fired by it. So also was Narcissa Prentiss of Amity, an unusually gifted and attractive young woman not yet married--mysteriously enough—though 26 years old.
Narcissa, the daughter of Stephen Prentiss, an eminent judge and housebuilder, had been fired to “go to the heathen” as early as her sixteenth year. Perhaps it was her dream of missionary life that had kept her single until she was 26, an advanced age that in those times classified her as a spinster. Apparently, however, there was little that was spinsterish about her. Friends have left descriptions in glowing terms. She had golden hair and a golden voice, “sweet and musical as a chime of bells.” She was also “symmetrically formed, very graceful in her voice and carriage,” and the possessor of a “brilliant sparkling eye—peculiarly so when engaged in animated conversation.” In addition to these attributes, she had received an exceptional education for a girl of her day and, as a school-teacher herself, had the ability and audacity to give a class in “natural philosophy”—which we know today as physics—and even to attempt the teaching of chemistry.
That such a formidable array of charms and talents should be sacrificed in some rough, dangerous, and remote outpost of the Lord’s vineyard did not seem as tragic to her friends and family as it did to some of the worldly gentlemen she was later to meet, for a great wave of Christian conversion was then sweeping rural America. There was no shame attached to rising,flooded with tears, in a respectable congregation and crying out in anguish of spirit, “What shall I do to be saved?” Narcissa had been “saved” at the age of eleven, and after she heard the Reverend Dr. Parker’s inspirational appeal in the spring of 1834, she had made her first formal try at becoming a missionary. Among Parker’s papers is a letter to the mission board asking, “Are females wanted? A Miss Narcissa Prentiss of Amity is very anxious to go to the heathen. Her education is good—piety conspicuous. …”
To Dr. Parker’s cautious question the board replied with a polite but firm No. Female missionary teachers could not, it was believed, be “employed tactfully except at boarding schools.” Narcissa’s only chance lay, therefore, in the unlikely event that she would find a husband with the same burning zeal to go west and with qualifications as exceptional as her own. By a most extraordinary turn of fate just such a young man appeared.
Marcus Whitman too was well past the usual marrying age. He had had to make his way alone against frequent financial difficulties and recurrent bouts of ill health—a combination of misfortunes that also accounted for his being a doctor not of divinity but of medicine, a status considerably lower in the prevailing social scale of the period. Marcus was not even a Reverend. He had, to his deep regret, been unable to finance the seven years required for earning a minister’s degree, though he had fulfilled more than the usual period of training then expected of doctors.