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
The Cayuses were, in fact, further than ever from a state of grace. Disturbed and agitated by the increasing number of white people, they were quite ready to listen to the propaganda of one or two “eastern educated” half-breeds who circulated among them telling them what was, in fact, the bitter truth—that their days as free men were numbered.
The measles epidemic was the fuse that lit the powder keg. Not only did Dr. Whitman not cure the sick—virtually an impossibility, no matter how he wore himself out in the attempt, since the Indians had no immunity to this white man’s disease—but also an ugly rumor had begun to circulate among the Cayuses that he was actually causing deaths by administering poison instead of medicine.
Whitman had been away from home tending the sick in his own parish and outside it, visiting Spalding, even calling on some Catholic missionaries to discuss the growing tensions, not only between white and red but also between Protestants and Catholics, both contending for the souls of the aborigines in their respective ways.
The twenty-ninth of November, 1847, dawned cold and foggy. It began like every other normal day among the regular mission group, grown somewhat larger now with volunteers and hired hands and swollen besides with emigrants stopping over at this welcome oasis on the long, exhausting trail to the gentle valleys of lower Oregon. (So strategically located was the Waiilatpu mission that it had, in fact, become almost a hospital for sick and weary travelers, thus adding immeasurably to the Whitmans’ already heavy burden.) On this gray early-winter morning people were coming down with measles or slowly recovering from them, just as were the Indians in their nearby lodges. Men were at work as usual in the rebuilt gristmill. John Sager, one of the seven emigrant orphans adopted by the Whitmans, was winding twine in the kitchen to be made into brooms. Others were studying, sewing, cooking, caring for the sick.
The school had just reopened after an enforced vacation due to the measles epidemic. A tailor was making a much-needed suit of clothes for Dr. Whitman. A floor was being laid. They were preparing to butcher beef. Mrs. Whitman had not appeared for breakfast that morning, and when one of the young girls took her meal to her room, she found her weeping terribly with a handkerchief pressed against her face. In silence she motioned the girl to leave. She did not touch the food. Word had come at dawn that another child had died the night before in the lodge of Tilaukait. The doctor had already gone to perform the burial service. Did Narcissa sense the doom that was then almost upon them?
The midday meal came and went. It was in the afternoon that Tilaukait and Tamahas appeared at the mission house. On a pretext of securing medicine, they tomahawked the doctor without warning. As always with firsthand accounts of shocking experiences, the stories vary, but it seems likely that Marcus tried to escape—at least he managed to get outdoors- perhaps hoping thus to save the others from harm. After striking him several deadly, mutilating blows that he vainly tried to dodge, and after having killed the only male witness, the two Cayuses fled. Mrs. Whitman, who had been bathing one of the convalescent children in another part of the mission, rushed to her husband at the news of the assault, and with the aid of two women managed to drag the doctor indoors, where they lifted him to a settee and tried vainly to stanch his bleeding.
Almost at once, from all sides, the Indians began to attack. One mission worker, who had been shot and tomahawked near the river, managed to make the house to give warning, but by the time he burst into the room where the doctor already lay bleeding to death, the massacre had begun. Mrs. Whitman went to the door to look out. Perhaps she desperately hoped for some friendly face. She was immediately shot in the side under her left arm, and though she fell to the floor with a scream, she managed at once to stagger to her feet and take charge of the terrified group that by now had gathered in the sitting room. Forced to leave Marcus behind—still breathing but now unconscious and plainly beyond hope—she herded them all up the stairs to a second-story bedroom.