- 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
While the special circumstances surrounding the fateful meeting of Narcissa Prentiss and Marcus Whitman are not known, it can be assumed that the persuasive Dr. Parker had a hand in the romance. As soon as their troth was plighted, Marcus—over Narcissa’s protests, for she wanted to be married at once and accompany him—set off with Parker on an exploratory trip to the western side of the Rockies. But he cut short his journey and came back to claim his bride long before he was expected, bringing with him two Indian boys picked up at the mountain rendezvous of the fur companies, as living proof of the red man’s need for salvation. And so on a day in February, 1836—almost two years after Parker’s first stirring “Macedonian appeals”—Narcissa and Marcus stood up together in the little church at Angelica, New York, where the Prentisses were then living, and made their solemn marriage vows.
Certain details of the ceremony lend themselves to a macabre and prophetic symbolism. All Narcissa’s female relatives were garbed in black, and even the bride had chosen black bombazine, the hue and material of formal mourning, for her wedding dress. Throughout the entire ceremony people could be heard weeping, and when it came to the last hymn--chosen by Narcissa herself—the little church was filled with sobbing. Familiar voices joined Narcissa’s flawless soprano in the first stanza:
As the singing progressed, these poignant sentiments overcame the assembled guests. “Home—thy joys are passing lovely—Happy home!—’tis sure I love thee! … Scenes of sacred peace and pleasure, Holy days and Sabbath bell. …” One by one the voices grew muffled and died out. When it came to the last stanza, brave Narcissa was singing solo:
One of the most baffling details of the story is the selection of Henry and Eliza Spalding to accompany the Whitmans and share their evangelical tasks. Those two fervent toilers in the early mission field were equally fitted for the high demands of their vocation —with one vital exception. Henry was a rejected suitor of Narcissa’s. A man of touchy pride and smoldering resentments, overquick to place blame on others, Henry Spalding had never forgiven Narcissa Prentiss for rejecting his suit. Did Narcissa underestimate the full extent of his resentment? Was Marcus not acquainted at the time with all the facts? Or did they both decide, with true Christian spirit, to let bygones be bygones? We will never know.
Narcissa’s detailed and informative letters describing the trip across the continent reveal, however, that on the whole she enjoyed the great adventure. For one thing, she was in love, and though the decorum of the period, and her own natural modesty, prevented her from writing any garrulous confidences, it is clear that she was happy. To her austere but affectionate mother, quite straightforwardly she writes, “I think I should like to whisper in mother’s ear many things which I cannot write. If I could only see her in her room for one half hour. This much I can [say], I have one of the kindest husbands and the very best every way.”
Narcissa was extremely fortunate on the western trip, for she was in good health at the time. Although before the journey ended she had become pregnant--like countless women who were to follow her westward in the years ahead—she was able to continue riding her horse and to keep up with the stiff time schedule the travelers had to set themselves in their race against the weather. By the greatest good fortune she could also “take hold of” buffalo meat with “good relish,” and since this was the staple of their diet on the plains, her plight would have been serious had buffalo flesh repelled her. Poor Eliza, who literally could not stomach the fresh meat or the “jerky” either, nearly died of malnutrition.