- 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
He [the Cayuse] then took hold of my ear and pulled it and struck me on the breast ordering me to hear—as much as to say, we must let them do as they pleased.... When he let go I turned the other to him and he pulled that, and in this way I let him pull first one and then the other until he gave over and took my hat and threw it into the mud. I called on the Indians who were at work … to give it to me and I put it on my head—when he took it off again … and threw it in the mud and water, of which it dipped plentifully. Once more the Indians gave it back to me and I put it on all mud as it was, and said to him “Perhaps you are playing.”
To be sure, the Whitmans were not always so forbearing. That invaluable and analytical Mr. Perkins, who appraised Narcissa’s character so shrewdly for her sister, did not feel that either of the two Whitmans was a natural “missionary” to the Indians. They were, he thought, too civilized, too proud, too aware of their own superiority. The Reverend Mr. Perkins, in his long letter to Jane Prentiss, used an interesting modern word to explain the Whitmans’ failure and final tragedy. They did not “identify” themselves with their Indian charges.
Within Marcus Whitman there was a constant conflict between his vision of an Americanized Far West and his Christian duty to the original inhabitants of this lovely land; Narcissa too was forever torn between her natural yearnings for the companionship of her equals—for “something exalted—communion with mind ,” as Perkins put it—and her earnest, fervent wish to start an ignorant race on its long, slow climb to the civilization she so greatly valued. Parson Perkins summed her up quite adequately and honestly when he wrote that she “was not a missionary but a woman, a highly gifted, polished American lady.”
Eventually the recurrent internecine strife among the missionaries died out, thanks to earnest sessions of repentance and forgiveness among the persons most concerned, with renewed pledges of better behavior on Henry Spalding’s part. What was more, the first emigrants had begun to trickle past the Whitmans’ door, and Marcus rightly judged this to be a hopeful sign of that great flood of settlers he had for so long anticipated. By this time, however, so many divergent reports of trouble among the isolated missions had reached the mission board in Boston that one day, out of the blue, to the dismay of them all—the Whitmans and Spaldings in particular—an official letter was received, ordering Henry and Marcus to dissolve their missions, Spalding to return at once to the States, and Whitman to join the Walkers and Eells at Tshimakain. Marcus bravely volunteered to go back across America in the dead of winter to plead the mission cause, to save Henry Spalding from expulsion, and to set the board straight on the real state of affairs in distant Oregon.
While he was gone, ailing, distraught Narcissa, now rapidly declining in strength, though only in her thirty-fifth year, was able to enjoy another brief period of comparative comfort and peace—her last. After an attempted assault on her by an Indian who tried to enter her bedroom at night, every white “neighbor” at Fort Walla Walla 25 miles away and at the scattered missions insisted that she leave Waiilatpu for the duration of her husband’s absence. She finally agreed to spend the winter at The Dalles with a congenial family of Methodist missionaries.
Narcissa herself, in her letters, begins to admit to increasingly poor health: “My eyes are almost gone … writing is very injurious to me.” She had an internal growth of some kind. Though she had stoutly urged on Marcus the necessity of the journey, she missed him cruelly. It was impossible for her to keep from vivid imaginings of the dangers of a wintertime journey overland and the final outcome of his conference with the mission board in Boston.
She began to suffer at this time too from melancholy fears of the future: “I am restless and uneasy, numbering the past, anxiously looking forward, struggling between hope and fear.” She lived in the vain hope that her adored sister Jane and her husband would accompany Marcus back across the plains and mountains to Waiilatpu.
Marcus, after an exhausting journey, succeeded in persuading the board to extend the western mission venture until it had more time to prove its worth. He returned safely—and in comparatively good health—in the spring of 1843, having hastened his departure in order to join, and thereby lend valuable aid and counsel to, the first great train of emigrants crossing the plains to Oregon. This was the Great Migration of 1843, an important signpost on the widening road of western expansion.
Sister Jane and her husband did not come to Oregon with the doctor. We do not know why. Together, thankful to be reunited once more, the Whitmans returned to their mission. Although everything seemed peaceful, the charred ruins of their gristmill, which had been burned before Narcissa had left for The Dalles, must have spoken to them both of the turbulent, unplumbed depths of Indian suspicion and malice.