- 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
Some feel almost to blame us for telling them about eternal realities. One said it was good when they knew nothing but to hunt, eat, drink and sleep; now it was bad.... Of late my heart yearns over them more than usual. 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, as they say, but talk good talk, or tell some story, or history, so that they may have some Scripture names to learn. 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 compel him to change his course of instruction with them.
These ominous difficulties sank into at least temporary insignificance for Narcissa with the arrival, on her own twenty-ninth birthday, of a little blonde, blue-eyed girl whom they named Alice Clarissa after her Prentiss and Whitman grandmothers. Narcissa did not have a difficult labor and—greatest of all blessings for a frontier woman—she had abundant milk with which to nurse the infant. The appearance of this first white child seemed for a time a hopeful augury of better relations with the Indians, for her birth was an event of great excitement and pride to the Cayuses. None among them was more delighted than Tilaukait, the eventual murderer, who told the Whitmans that they should call the child “Cayuse te-mi ” (girl) because she was born on “Cayuse wai-tis ” (ground).
The child was an indescribable joy to lonely Narcissa, left so much in solitude while Marcus went off among the Indians. It is difficult to account for the neglect of Narcissa at this time by her apparently devoted family. Even allowing for the slowness and general chanciness of mail delivery in the Far West--where letters came addressed simply to “So and so, west of the Rocky Mountains”—how could two years and five months have passed before a single word from loved ones reached Marcus and Narcissa? Yet she, though so singularly neglected, went right on generously sending detailed accounts of her strange new life—something for which all historians of the Pacific Northwest should forever offer their grateful thanks. Early in the Waiilatpu days we find her writing in desperation, “Who will come over and help us? Weak, frail nature cannot endure excessive care and anxiety any great length of time, without falling under it. I refer more particularly to my husband. His labor this spring has affected his health considerably. His old complaint in his side affects him occasionally.”
And in truth there was no end to the sheer drudgery. First off, there was their own house to make, from the simplest of materials and with the crudest of implements. Domestic stock had to be purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Indians instructed in the feeding and care of pigs, chickens, and cows. They must also be taught, for the first time, the most elementary principles of agriculture; for instance, how to employ such a simple tool as a hoe. The Whitmans had also to set about learning the Cayuse language to ease the problem of their personal relations. They must immediately set up a school—without books or a building—and they must, above all, establish a pattern of divine service for the Indians. All this they must do against an increasingly resistant wall of laziness, abysmal ignorance, and indifference, hardening slowly into active antipathy.
At the end of two years, to the great surprise and joy of the Whitmans, nine missionaries arrived at Waiilatpu, coming on from the East to establish other teaching centers among the various Indian tribes. Their arrival swelled to thirteen the number of Presbyterian workers in the Oregon mission field. It was never to grow any larger. However, although they had prayed for this reinforcement, the arrival of so many people to crowd the inadequate living quarters at Waiilatpu became a source of strain and irritation--particularly to overburdened Narcissa, already beginning to show the first evidence of the frayed nerves that the hard life and unbroken strain were to produce in her delicate and sensitive nature.
While the somewhat ill-assorted missionary brothers went scouting for their separate mission sites, guided by Whitman and Spalding, the sisters, left behind at crowded Waiilatpu, failed to steer an unvaryingly serene course in their dealings with one another. Mary Richardson Walker, from Maine, waiting in natural anxiety for her first child to be born, was irked by her living quarters—a little lean-to room with no heat in it. Without any opportunity whatsoever for “collecting herself” among the six white families and the eternal presence of the inquisitive Cayuses, Mary characteristically took to her journal and has left us some pithy comment, not only on her own shortcomings but on those of Narcissa as well: of the latter … “in a worry about something, cross with everyone; went out and blustered around and succeeded in melting over her tallow. … Mrs. W. has dealt … largely in powder and balls of late.”