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
Through the intervention of what the missionaries devoutly took for the hand of Providence, they had been able to catch up with the annual fur caravan from St. Louis, bound for the summer rendezvous at the Green River in the foothills of the Rockies, carrying supplies for the beaver-trapping mountain men. Otherwise they might never have made it to Oregon. What is more, had not Marcus already taken that earlier trip across the plains with Dr. Parker in this same rough company, it is quite likely that the missionaries would have been rudely refused the privilege of accompanying the caravan. For the men of this annual expedition were, in the main, wild and rough adventurers, many of them voluntary exiles from civilization, in revolt against cramping association with pious men and women.
Whitman, on that earlier trip, had had the good fortune to encounter one of the most famous of the mountain men, Jim Bridger, who had heard that a doctor was traveling with the caravan and came to ask Marcus to remove an arrowhead lodged in his back. Marcus agreed to try, and Bridger, after generously belting himself with whiskey, lay down in the midst of an interested audience of trappers and Indians while Marcus, with the crude instruments at hand, removed the arrowhead. (Some years later, when the Whitmans were established at Waiilatpu, Jim Bridger sent his half-breed daughter to live with them.) After this successful operation, other mountain men and even Indians with embedded arrowheads had come to seek Whitman’s help, and therefore when he reappeared among them a year later with a wife and two missionary companions, the fur caravan was ready to accept his presence.
It was by no means easy for the Whitmans and the Spaldings to associate with men of this caliber. The cursing and drinking, the unsanctified bonds with Indian women, the general filth and corruption, were very hard to tolerate. Mrs. Whitman was later to suffer greatly from the lack of her own kind of society. As the Reverend H. K. W. Perkins, a missionary acquaintance of Narcissa’s, was to write to her sister Jane, Narcissa should never have gone to the Far West in the first place. It was plainly a kind of “suicide,” for she belonged by nature in a “polished and exalted sphere.”
Yet some degree of admiration for her must surely have stirred in the breasts of the rough men she met along the way. Her fine carriage, her animation, above all her glorious singing voice, were the wonder of many who encountered her. Joe Meek, a mountain man of Bridger’s fame and stature, often recalled in later years the radiant vision that had come riding toward him across the wild land. Like Bridger, Meek too was to send his little half-breed daughter to the Whitman mission to be cared for by Narcissa, and her small body was among the other mutilated ones which Meek had to find and bury after the massacre.
When the party arrived at Fort Vancouver, Marcus and Henry went on up the Columbia River, to locate land for their missions, while Narcissa and Eliza stayed behind and were royally pampered by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s famous factor, John McLoughlin. Gentlemen insisted nightly on toasting them in wine—over their blushing protests as members of the “Tetotal Society.” Narcissa dwelt at some length in her letters home on the food they enjoyed at Vancouver--a not-surprising emphasis after the diet they had tolerated for so many months. Roast duck was an everyday dish, also salmon, sturgeon, boiled pork, and tripe, every diner to make his choice—and “at every new dish a clean plate.” It was all very high style indeed, and a memory on which Narcissa must often have dwelt in the years to come when she became virtually a slave to domestic drudgery, with hardly a single moment of peace in her own kitchen, due to the constant presence of the curious—and dirty—Cayuses, and later of exhausted, travel-weary emigrants.
When Marcus came back down the Columbia to say that he and Spalding had selected their home sites—a very injudicious 120 miles apart, at Henry’s insistence—Narcissa, though now in her fourth month of pregnancy, refused McLoughlin’s pressing invitation to remain at least through the winter. With reluctance and obvious apprehension, this “most sympathetic man” saw both women set off with Marcus in a pouring rain in a small open boat.
Though Marcus did not realize it at the time, he had invited bad luck when he chose to settle among the Cayuses. To begin with, when there had been competition between the various tribes over the honor of having on their own land these strange white people who did not come to trade but to teach, the Cayuses had begged hard for the privilege of being their hosts. Yet only a short time has passed before we find Narcissa writing about a Chief Umtippe, “full of all manner of hypocracy, deceit and guile,” who had decided that the missionaries must pay the Indians for the privilege of learning to speak the Cayuse tongue I
The Cayuses’ initial eagerness to learn about the white man’s God and the teachings in the sacred “Black Book” was not long-lived. Unlike the more intelligent and devout Nez Percés, whom Henry Spalding had chosen, the Cayuses were soon angered by Whitman’s demands for a “change of heart.” Narcissa’s own words convey a very good idea of what soon began to go on in the Indian mind: