- 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
They had hardly reached this room when the Indians burst in below. The broken end of an empty gun, held strategically at the top of the narrow stairwell at Mrs. Whitman’s suggestion, held them temporarily at bay. And then a friendly Indian named Tamsucky appeared and urged them all to come down, offering them full protection and safe guidance to the nearest fort. Mrs. Whitman was not immediately reassured. She urged Tamsucky to come upstairs and after some hesitation, from fear that he might be shot, Tamsucky mounted the stairs. He was able then to persuade her of his good intentions; so much so that she cried, “God has raised us up a friendl” It was arranged that the adults would leave first, while some of the children, promised full protection by Tamsucky, remained behind for the time being, perhaps to spare them exposure in the wintry fields.
Mrs. Whitman, by now too weak to walk from loss of blood, was carried from the house on a settee. Hardly had she appeared in the open than the shooting began again. Tamsucky had been a traitor. The men carrying Narcissa were shot at once, and a number of bullets entered her body as the settee dropped to the ground. An Indian rushed up, overturned it, and thrust her down into the thick November mud, while another Indian lifted her head by its long, pale hair and struck her face viciously with his leather quirt. No one knows how long it took her to die. For her, however, death came sooner than for Marcus. Some of the terrified occupants of the mission house, still in hiding, heard the doctor’s groans far on into the night.
When the Indians had fully satisfied their thirst for revenge—and apparently the murder of the Whitmans served as some appeasement, since Narcissa was the only woman they killed—they withdrew to their own lodges. The next day and on days thereafter they returned, however, to feast on the mission stores, forcing the remaining white women to cook for them. To what other indignities these women were subjected the record is not clear. Altogether, fourteen people had been killed at the mission; 47 were taken captive and later had to be ransomed.
The first outsider to reach this hideous scene was a Catholic priest named Brouillet. On November 30 he visited Tilaukait’s camp and heard of the massacre at Waiilatpu. He went at once to the mission and helped one of the few survivors wash and bury the dead, still lying in the open in all their ghastly mutilation; he read the burial service with quaking knees, the Indians standing at a little distance, painted and armed. It was Brouillet also, on his way back from Waiilatpu, who probably saved Spalding’s life, for he encountered Henry en route to the Whitmans to pick up his little daughter, Eliza, and warned him to return with all speed to the friendly Nez Percés. Although Eliza Spalding’s life had been spared by the Cayuses, Henry, uncertain of his daughter’s fate, did go a little later to Waiilatpu, and it was there that he sat down and wrote in its full horror a detailed description for Narcissa’s parents of her last hours on earth--and thus it is that Henry, the repentant troublemaker, passes from the Whitmans’ scene.
The anxious settlers in lower Oregon were quick to pursue the murderers. The Cayuses, who had looted all they could loot and seemed now to be intent on running the mission plant for their own use, fled into the mountains at the coming of fifty avenging riflemen. After two years of desperate wandering, five of them voluntarily gave themselves up to justice, among them Tilaukait and Tamahas. It is reported that Tilaukait, when asked why he had surrendered, answered: “Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people.” Perhaps he hoped to save himself death by hanging—the most terrible of all deaths for an Indian. If so, the hope was vain. He, Tamahas, and three others went to the scaffold. In the end the fate they had feared overtook the Cayuses. They not only lost their land and their freedom, but they lost standing with other Indians like the Spokanes and Nez Percés and were for a long time thereafter anathema to all far western whites.
It was following the flight of the Cayuses from Waiilatpu that Joseph Meek, along with other riflemen from the Willamette Valley, undertook the task of removing the dead from their shallow grave, where wolves had already been making their grisly meals, and reburying them. Shortly after, Meek set off for Washington as a one-man embassy from Oregon to plead with his cousin, President James K. Polk, for government protection for the settlers and for the admission of Oregon as a territory.
The massacre of the Whitmans, when made public through Meek’s mission, horrified the nation. Polk determined to settle the matter of Oregon while he was still President. This was not too easy, for England still had certain claims. Moreover, Southern interests in Congress had long been blocking the territorial admission of this distant land, hoping to delay until Oregon would enter the Union with the status of another “slave state.” It was not until the very day before Folk’s term expired that Oregon was officially proclaimed a territory.