Narcissa Whitman – Doomed Missionary to the Indians

Did you read about the young missionary who was killed by a remote tribe on an island in the Bay of Bengal? Against many warnings and official sanctions against his going, John Chau went to one of these islands and was shot with arrows on the beach as he landed. His story reminded me of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, missionaries in Oregon territory in 1836 who tried to convert the Cayuse Indians. They, too, didn’t heed warnings and their fates were tragic.

Narcissa Whitman/ Mwanner at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been reading about and studying the Whitmans for several years now. Their story fascinates me, but I’m not sure why. In this post, I’ll tell you about Narcissa’s bravery in traveling to the mission in Oregon territory and living there in what was wilderness. She and another missionary wife, Eliza Spaulding, were the first white women to travel across the country to the West.

Narcissa’s Early Life and Marriage

Narcissa Prentiss was born in March 1808 in Plattsville, New York, the oldest of nine children. The U.S. at the time was in the middle of what has been called the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revivals and fervor. Her mother was over-the-top religious (Presbyterian), and the children were totally under her thumb. Narcissa was converted at age 11, and by age 15 she committed to becoming a missionary.

I can’t think of anyone who was less likely to succeed as a missionary than Narcissa Prentiss Whitman.

Marcus Whitman /Paul Kane [Public domain] wikicommons
Young women of the time were rigidly controlled and Narcissa’s life was circumscribed by church activities. She had no contact with any other people of different cultural or racial backgrounds. She lived a cultivated and organized life, in “refined society.” She was an advocate of abstinence and the newly-formed women’s movement had no effect on her.

She was going to found a mission in Oregon, in what was then a foreign country, working with native Americans whose culture was totally different. But the mission movement needed married men, so Narcissa was paired with Marcus Whitman, a doctor and a missionary, and they were married in February 1836 after having met only a handful of times.

Narcissa’s Trip to Oregon Territory

In March 1836 they began their journey to the Walla Walla Valley in today’s eastern Oregon, along with Henry and Eliza Spaulding, also newlyweds, who were going to start a mission near the Whitmans. (Henry Spaulding had been a suitor of Narcissa, and she had refused his offer of marriage. He was not happy about going west with her and said, “I question her judgment.”)

They traveled down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and to St. Louis, leaving there in early April. The women could not ride horses side-saddle all the way to Oregon, and they were not allowed to ride astride, so wagons were waiting to take them on their journey. The first strange thing I saw that gave me a clue as to their rigidity was that the missionaries refused to travel on Sunday, even though they were traveling with fur traders and non-Christian guides.

Hunting buffalo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Narcissa was a good traveler, enjoying the scenery and not minding the early inconveniences. She was also getting used to being married (some honeymoon!). She was appalled when Marcus got rid of his best clothes, and she had to work to keep him “relatively clean.” (Strange to worry about that on the trail, but it gives a clue to her rigidity.)Hun

Along the way, they met Indians, and Eliza was quick to spend time with them, learning their language and speaking with the women. Narcissa, although she seemed to like the women, spent little time with them and made no attempt to learn to speak with them.

After Ft. Hall in Idaho, the became more difficult, more rugged and mountainous. They had to give up the wagons, the women were forced to walk, the heat was oppressive, food became scarce, and they had to live on buffalo and occasionally small animals. Because Narcissa downplayed the rigors of the journey in her journals and letters home, it’s hard to say how difficult the journey.

The Whitmans Among the Cayuse Indians

When the Whitmans and Spauldings arrived in Oregon territory, Eliza immediately went with her husband to the mission because she was eager to start ministering to the Indians. Narcissa stayed behind at Ft. Vancouver for several months, enjoyed the more civilized surroundings. She was pregnant and she used that and her need to order home goods for her delay in moving. She criticized the religious practices of the Americans at the fort, believing apparently that only Presbyterians were possessed of the true religion.

Cayuse Indian (John Cutmouth) ca. 1865 / Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Cayuse Indians were semi-nomadic hunters and horsemen. They had little use for homes, spent much time on horseback, and they traded furs with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were everything Narcissa abhorred – dirty, polygamous, alcohol drinkers, gamblers. The dark-skinned Indians painted their faces and lived communally.

She moved to her new home at Waiilatpu in December, but it took her several months before she went to visit the Cayuse. in her diary, she called this visit “a day spent…in heathen lands, widely separated from kindred souls, alone, in the thick darkness of heathenism.”  

Trouble started when Narcissa refused them access to her home; she didn’t want the dirty heathen in her private space. Troubles seemed to multiply, although both Whitmans didn’t see the danger. The church services were full of Marcus preaching of hellfire and damnation, which angered the Indians. In a documentary about the Whitmans produced by the Whitman Museum Historical Society, you can see several scenes where Marcus is preaching or leading singing and the Indians are looking confused and angry.

Whitman Mission, Waiilatpu / Samuel A. Clarke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Julie Roy Jeffery, the author of Converting the West, says the Whitmans confused faith and culture. The Indians were worried about the changes to their culture, but the Whitmans saw everything in terms of religion. The Whitmans saw the nomadic lifestyle of the Cayuse as a barrier to their conversion and wanted them to become farmers, settled and Christian. It was an essential difference that proved impossible to overcome.

In the 10 years the Whitmans were at the Waiilatpu mission they were not able to convert any Cayuse to Christianity. Not one.

The Tragic Outcome

All through the time of the mission, the Indians were at times angry with the Whitmans for a variety of problems, but at the end, two things were the sparks that set off the smoldering blaze of their anger. The first spark was the increasing presence of many more settlers at the mission. During the last few years, the Whitmans took in settlers who would spend the winter and sometimes, like the orphaned Sager children, The Cayuse became more worried that the settlers would take over their land and push them out.

Grave at Whitman Mission / National Park Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The final spark was the diseases brought by the settlers. The measles was the worst. Indian children died at higher rates than the whites. Marcus Whitman doctored these Indian children, and the Cayuse became convinced he was killing them. It was common for Indians to kill a doctor when a patient died.

Marcus Whitman had been warned many times that their lives were in danger, but he chose to stay, not willing to admit defeat.

On the morning of November 29, 1847, several Indians entered the house and slaughtered Marcus and Narcissa and 11 others. They took 54 captives for a month, eventually trading them with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Cayuse who carried out the massacre were caught, tried, and hanged publicly.

Thoughts about Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

As I mentioned in the beginning, I have been fascinated by this story of courage, but also of its tragic outcome. The term “tragedy” has been overdone, but I’m talking about Tragedy in the classical Greek sense, “a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character.” According to Aristotle, a tragedy should arouse both fear and pity from the audience.

Marcus Whitman was a tragic character, limited by his fatal character flaws from fulfilling his calling. He had an earnest desire to convert and heal, but he couldn’t do it. Narcissa certainly elicits pity from those who hear her story. She was a tragic character, a prisoner of her upbringing and unable to change. That doesn’t make her any less brave and steadfast.

I’ll be writing more about the massacre and about other women who traveled with the Whitmans and later to be missionaries in Oregon.





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