August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
The call to convert the heathen brought gentle Narcissa Whitman and her husband to Oregon Territory—and a brutal death
In July of the year 1847, only four months before their murder at the hands of the Indians they had crossed the American continent to Christianize, Dr. Marcus Whitman and his high-minded, high-spirited wife, Narcissa, entertained a wandering Canadian artist at their little mission in the wilds of the Oregon territory, just west of present-day Walla Walla, Washington. The artist was a painter from Toronto named Paul Kane, who aspired—like the American George Catlin—to leave a record of Indian physiological types and Indian ways of life before alcohol, gunpowder, white men’s diseases, and white men’s customs forever altered them. It was through this chance visit that portraits have been preserved of the two men who killed Marcus Whitman, and incited their fellow tribesmen to the heartless massacre of his wife and other innocent residents in the lonely settlement at Waiilatpu, “the place of rye grass.”
In Kane’s journal, Wanderings of an Artist , we learn that it was Whitman himself who suggested the Cayuse braves, Tilaukait and Tamahas, as subjects for the artist’s sketch book. Few uglier or more ominous visages were ever put on canvas. Certainly Kane, in his years of wandering among primitive tribes, painted no other portraits of aborigines that convey quite the same expression of brooding cruelty. Their long black hair, parted in the middle and hanging lankly down over naked shoulders, frames high, protuberant cheekbones, narrow, suspicious eyes, outjutting chins, and mouths shut in a tight, vicious line. Both Indians look exactly what they proved to be--in spite of all the Whitmans’ long-enduring optimism—dangerous, confused, and irrationally violent men.
The Whitmans’ long journey to their tragic fate had begun back in the year 1834, when a persuasive Congregational pastor named Samuel Parker came riding through the back roads of western New York State with an inspiring message about far distant red men and their fervent wish to be saved. Marcus Whitman, 32 years of age, a doctor in the village of Wheeler, heard Dr. Parker’s appeal and was fired by it. So also was Narcissa Prentiss of Amity, an unusually gifted and attractive young woman not yet married--mysteriously enough—though 26 years old.
Narcissa, the daughter of Stephen Prentiss, an eminent judge and housebuilder, had been fired to “go to the heathen” as early as her sixteenth year. Perhaps it was her dream of missionary life that had kept her single until she was 26, an advanced age that in those times classified her as a spinster. Apparently, however, there was little that was spinsterish about her. Friends have left descriptions in glowing terms. She had golden hair and a golden voice, “sweet and musical as a chime of bells.” She was also “symmetrically formed, very graceful in her voice and carriage,” and the possessor of a “brilliant sparkling eye—peculiarly so when engaged in animated conversation.” In addition to these attributes, she had received an exceptional education for a girl of her day and, as a school-teacher herself, had the ability and audacity to give a class in “natural philosophy”—which we know today as physics—and even to attempt the teaching of chemistry.
That such a formidable array of charms and talents should be sacrificed in some rough, dangerous, and remote outpost of the Lord’s vineyard did not seem as tragic to her friends and family as it did to some of the worldly gentlemen she was later to meet, for a great wave of Christian conversion was then sweeping rural America. There was no shame attached to rising,flooded with tears, in a respectable congregation and crying out in anguish of spirit, “What shall I do to be saved?” Narcissa had been “saved” at the age of eleven, and after she heard the Reverend Dr. Parker’s inspirational appeal in the spring of 1834, she had made her first formal try at becoming a missionary. Among Parker’s papers is a letter to the mission board asking, “Are females wanted? A Miss Narcissa Prentiss of Amity is very anxious to go to the heathen. Her education is good—piety conspicuous. …”
To Dr. Parker’s cautious question the board replied with a polite but firm No. Female missionary teachers could not, it was believed, be “employed tactfully except at boarding schools.” Narcissa’s only chance lay, therefore, in the unlikely event that she would find a husband with the same burning zeal to go west and with qualifications as exceptional as her own. By a most extraordinary turn of fate just such a young man appeared.
Marcus Whitman too was well past the usual marrying age. He had had to make his way alone against frequent financial difficulties and recurrent bouts of ill health—a combination of misfortunes that also accounted for his being a doctor not of divinity but of medicine, a status considerably lower in the prevailing social scale of the period. Marcus was not even a Reverend. He had, to his deep regret, been unable to finance the seven years required for earning a minister’s degree, though he had fulfilled more than the usual period of training then expected of doctors.
While the special circumstances surrounding the fateful meeting of Narcissa Prentiss and Marcus Whitman are not known, it can be assumed that the persuasive Dr. Parker had a hand in the romance. As soon as their troth was plighted, Marcus—over Narcissa’s protests, for she wanted to be married at once and accompany him—set off with Parker on an exploratory trip to the western side of the Rockies. But he cut short his journey and came back to claim his bride long before he was expected, bringing with him two Indian boys picked up at the mountain rendezvous of the fur companies, as living proof of the red man’s need for salvation. And so on a day in February, 1836—almost two years after Parker’s first stirring “Macedonian appeals”—Narcissa and Marcus stood up together in the little church at Angelica, New York, where the Prentisses were then living, and made their solemn marriage vows.
Certain details of the ceremony lend themselves to a macabre and prophetic symbolism. All Narcissa’s female relatives were garbed in black, and even the bride had chosen black bombazine, the hue and material of formal mourning, for her wedding dress. Throughout the entire ceremony people could be heard weeping, and when it came to the last hymn--chosen by Narcissa herself—the little church was filled with sobbing. Familiar voices joined Narcissa’s flawless soprano in the first stanza:
As the singing progressed, these poignant sentiments overcame the assembled guests. “Home—thy joys are passing lovely—Happy home!—’tis sure I love thee! … Scenes of sacred peace and pleasure, Holy days and Sabbath bell. …” One by one the voices grew muffled and died out. When it came to the last stanza, brave Narcissa was singing solo:
One of the most baffling details of the story is the selection of Henry and Eliza Spalding to accompany the Whitmans and share their evangelical tasks. Those two fervent toilers in the early mission field were equally fitted for the high demands of their vocation —with one vital exception. Henry was a rejected suitor of Narcissa’s. A man of touchy pride and smoldering resentments, overquick to place blame on others, Henry Spalding had never forgiven Narcissa Prentiss for rejecting his suit. Did Narcissa underestimate the full extent of his resentment? Was Marcus not acquainted at the time with all the facts? Or did they both decide, with true Christian spirit, to let bygones be bygones? We will never know.
Narcissa’s detailed and informative letters describing the trip across the continent reveal, however, that on the whole she enjoyed the great adventure. For one thing, she was in love, and though the decorum of the period, and her own natural modesty, prevented her from writing any garrulous confidences, it is clear that she was happy. To her austere but affectionate mother, quite straightforwardly she writes, “I think I should like to whisper in mother’s ear many things which I cannot write. If I could only see her in her room for one half hour. This much I can [say], I have one of the kindest husbands and the very best every way.”
Narcissa was extremely fortunate on the western trip, for she was in good health at the time. Although before the journey ended she had become pregnant--like countless women who were to follow her westward in the years ahead—she was able to continue riding her horse and to keep up with the stiff time schedule the travelers had to set themselves in their race against the weather. By the greatest good fortune she could also “take hold of” buffalo meat with “good relish,” and since this was the staple of their diet on the plains, her plight would have been serious had buffalo flesh repelled her. Poor Eliza, who literally could not stomach the fresh meat or the “jerky” either, nearly died of malnutrition.
Through the intervention of what the missionaries devoutly took for the hand of Providence, they had been able to catch up with the annual fur caravan from St. Louis, bound for the summer rendezvous at the Green River in the foothills of the Rockies, carrying supplies for the beaver-trapping mountain men. Otherwise they might never have made it to Oregon. What is more, had not Marcus already taken that earlier trip across the plains with Dr. Parker in this same rough company, it is quite likely that the missionaries would have been rudely refused the privilege of accompanying the caravan. For the men of this annual expedition were, in the main, wild and rough adventurers, many of them voluntary exiles from civilization, in revolt against cramping association with pious men and women.
Whitman, on that earlier trip, had had the good fortune to encounter one of the most famous of the mountain men, Jim Bridger, who had heard that a doctor was traveling with the caravan and came to ask Marcus to remove an arrowhead lodged in his back. Marcus agreed to try, and Bridger, after generously belting himself with whiskey, lay down in the midst of an interested audience of trappers and Indians while Marcus, with the crude instruments at hand, removed the arrowhead. (Some years later, when the Whitmans were established at Waiilatpu, Jim Bridger sent his half-breed daughter to live with them.) After this successful operation, other mountain men and even Indians with embedded arrowheads had come to seek Whitman’s help, and therefore when he reappeared among them a year later with a wife and two missionary companions, the fur caravan was ready to accept his presence.
It was by no means easy for the Whitmans and the Spaldings to associate with men of this caliber. The cursing and drinking, the unsanctified bonds with Indian women, the general filth and corruption, were very hard to tolerate. Mrs. Whitman was later to suffer greatly from the lack of her own kind of society. As the Reverend H. K. W. Perkins, a missionary acquaintance of Narcissa’s, was to write to her sister Jane, Narcissa should never have gone to the Far West in the first place. It was plainly a kind of “suicide,” for she belonged by nature in a “polished and exalted sphere.”
Yet some degree of admiration for her must surely have stirred in the breasts of the rough men she met along the way. Her fine carriage, her animation, above all her glorious singing voice, were the wonder of many who encountered her. Joe Meek, a mountain man of Bridger’s fame and stature, often recalled in later years the radiant vision that had come riding toward him across the wild land. Like Bridger, Meek too was to send his little half-breed daughter to the Whitman mission to be cared for by Narcissa, and her small body was among the other mutilated ones which Meek had to find and bury after the massacre.
When the party arrived at Fort Vancouver, Marcus and Henry went on up the Columbia River, to locate land for their missions, while Narcissa and Eliza stayed behind and were royally pampered by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s famous factor, John McLoughlin. Gentlemen insisted nightly on toasting them in wine—over their blushing protests as members of the “Tetotal Society.” Narcissa dwelt at some length in her letters home on the food they enjoyed at Vancouver--a not-surprising emphasis after the diet they had tolerated for so many months. Roast duck was an everyday dish, also salmon, sturgeon, boiled pork, and tripe, every diner to make his choice—and “at every new dish a clean plate.” It was all very high style indeed, and a memory on which Narcissa must often have dwelt in the years to come when she became virtually a slave to domestic drudgery, with hardly a single moment of peace in her own kitchen, due to the constant presence of the curious—and dirty—Cayuses, and later of exhausted, travel-weary emigrants.
When Marcus came back down the Columbia to say that he and Spalding had selected their home sites—a very injudicious 120 miles apart, at Henry’s insistence—Narcissa, though now in her fourth month of pregnancy, refused McLoughlin’s pressing invitation to remain at least through the winter. With reluctance and obvious apprehension, this “most sympathetic man” saw both women set off with Marcus in a pouring rain in a small open boat.
Though Marcus did not realize it at the time, he had invited bad luck when he chose to settle among the Cayuses. To begin with, when there had been competition between the various tribes over the honor of having on their own land these strange white people who did not come to trade but to teach, the Cayuses had begged hard for the privilege of being their hosts. Yet only a short time has passed before we find Narcissa writing about a Chief Umtippe, “full of all manner of hypocracy, deceit and guile,” who had decided that the missionaries must pay the Indians for the privilege of learning to speak the Cayuse tongue I
The Cayuses’ initial eagerness to learn about the white man’s God and the teachings in the sacred “Black Book” was not long-lived. Unlike the more intelligent and devout Nez Percés, whom Henry Spalding had chosen, the Cayuses were soon angered by Whitman’s demands for a “change of heart.” Narcissa’s own words convey a very good idea of what soon began to go on in the Indian mind:
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Undoubtedly the martyrdom of the Whitmans helped settle the fate of this portion of the American West. Today, historical museums treasure not only Narcissa’s remarkable letters, and other documents from early mission days, but even locks of her bright hair, cut from the mangled body that poor Joe Meek had to help rebury in Waiilatpu ground. The mission precincts have been made a national monument under the supervision of the National Park Service.
The site of the ruins has been carefully excavated and plainly marked for all to see, and there is even a small museum that houses artifacts excavated from the site. Every year thousands of visitors come out from Walla Walla to climb the hill of the rye grass and gaze down at the shaft that marks the grave of the victims. Perhaps they wonder, as they stand there in the clear bright light, where on the green plains below lie the bones of little Alice Clarissa Whitman, that “treasure invaluable” who briefly gladdened the daily cares of the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains.