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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
There is touching evidence that poor, beset Narcissa was often repentant and tried to make amends. So much did she deplore her own faults that on one occasion she wrote a letter home that seems excessive in its self-condemnation: “Perhaps never in my whole life have I been led to see so distinctly the hidden iniquity and secret evils of my heart....Of all persons I see myself to be the most unfit for the place I occupy on heathen ground.” Narcissa, alas, was quite right in this statement of her essential unfitness for the life she had chosen, but entirely wrong in her diagnosis of the reasons for her small daily failures. She was already asking of her nature something that it could not supply.
To anyone who reads Narcissa’s intimate, revealing letters and journal, it becomes almost unbearable to face the great tragedy that now visited her—the loss of her only child, the one bright and shining spot in a deprived and burdensome existence.
The day of Alice Clarissa’s death was the Sabbath, which to one of Narcissa’s faith must have seemed a special grace, helping her to bear the agony. On that Sunday, Alice had been playing in and out of the open door, but when it came time for dinner and she was not around, Narcissa sent Margaret, the young Indian housemaid, to get her ready for the meal. The little Indian did not find her but, without coming back to say so, went on into the garden to get vegetables for dinner. While she was gone, Mungo, a Hawaiian servant at the mission, came into the kitchen to report the odd fact that he had seen two cups floating in the river. Marcus, intent on his Bible-reading, said only: “Let them be and get them out to-morrow because of the Sabbath.” But Narcissa suddenly remembered her child taking two cups from the kitchen some time that morning. She cried out in terror. Where was Alice? Where was the Indian girl who had been sent to find her? So great was Narcissa’s sudden fear that everyone ran from the house at once in a frantic search. Finally an old Indian entered the stream and found the child’s body under a root. Narcissa, in a letter to the grandparents, re-created the full horror of that moment:
- I ran to grasp her to my breast, but husband outran me and took her up from the river, and in taking her into his arms and pulling her dress from her face we thought she struggled for breath, but found afterwards that it was only the effect of the atmosphere upon her after being in the water.
Narcissa made the child’s shroud herself. Some have it that she made it from her wedding dress, but the truth seems to be that it was made from the same gray dress she wore for the long journey west. Narcissa confessed to her parents that they kept the child for four days before burial.
She did not begin to change in her appearance much for the three first days. This proved to be a great comfort to me, for so long as she looked natural and was so sweet and I could caress her, I could not bear to have her out of my sight.
Narcissa was never to bear another child, and it is clear that some heart for the evangelical enterprise went out of her after she sustained this loss. True to their unquestioning faith, however, both Whitmans accepted the inscrutable will of God. They even found ways to justify it, in believing that their loss had “softened” them so that they could take into their lives unwanted children born to others, a little Indian boy and two neglected half-breed daughters of the mountain men, Bridger and Joe Meek. Later they adopted seven orphaned emigrant children who had lost both father and mother en route to Oregon.
After Alice Clarissa’s death, eight difficult years were to pass before the end at Waiilatpu. Within the mission frequent disagreements arose, born of divergent viewpoints on policy and procedure toward the Indians. Some of the missionaries wanted more prayer and formal worship, longer seasons of soul-saving. Others felt that it would be wiser to emphasize practical matters: growing crops, weaving cloth, milling grain, raising sheep and cattle, teaching the English tongue. Throughout this time there is little doubt that Henry Spalding was getting in his licks at the Whitmans. In a letter to her father in 1840 Narcissa wrote to say of Henry, “Every mind in the mission that he has had access to, he has tried to prejudice against us.”
Trouble with the moody and insolent Cayuses was constantly increasing—a situation quite unlike that of the Spaldings among the intelligent Nez Percés, or the Walkers and Eells among the more tractable Spokanes. Marcus’ patience and Christian forbearance often seem remarkable. He has left a description of one encounter that shows the length to which he was prepared to go in demonstrating a humble and Christ-like spirit: