Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss

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Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss

Born March 14, 1808

Prattsburg, New York

Died November 29, 1847

Waiilatpu, Washington (near present-day

Walla Walla, Washington)


"The missionary work is hard, up-hill work, even the best of it. There are no flowery beds of ease here."

Narcissa Whitman in a letter to her parents, October 6, 1841, quoted in Where Wagons Could Go

Though many emigrants moved west in the nineteenth century to establish farms, trap beaver, or dig for gold, others came on a holy mission to convert western Native Americans to Christianity. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, along with her husband, Marcus Whitman, established their mission in Oregon Country in 1836, making Whitman the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains. The missionaries helped prepare the way for the great migration west along the Oregon Trail in later years, but they never succeeded at converting many Indians to their religion. In 1847 Indians slaughtered the Whitmans in their home.

A pious family

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman was born March 14, 1808, in Prattsburg, New York. Her parents had settled in the area when it was still the frontier (the western edge of American settlement), though by 1808 a number of towns had sprung up in the region. Whitman's mother was an enthusiastic Presbyterian, and many of Whitman's childhood memories were of Presbyterian services. Growing up, Whitman took special pleasure in singing hymns. Her voice would later become an important part of her missionary work; Indians from miles around would bring their children to hear her sing.

Women in the West

Women often played an important role in the settling of the West. As more and more families braved the dangers of the Oregon Trail and settled in the West, women came to play key roles in the building of western communities. In 1849, for example, Sarah Bayliss Royce established the first school in California in the mining camp of Grass Valley, using the Bible, a volume of John Milton's poetry, and a children's storybook for texts. The female members of Roman Catholic religious orders were also very active in establishing schools throughout the West in the 1870s.

Many western women opened businesses to serve the various mining and cattle towns that sprang up throughout the region. Doing work that men wanted to avoid, such as cooking and laundry, these women could often make more money than a man could, especially those men who searched fruitlessly for gold. Clara Brown, a former slave from Kentucky, earned so much money washing the clothes of California gold rush miners that she was able to purchase the freedom of her enslaved relatives in the East. Of course, many women also earned money as prostitutes serving the predominately male towns of the West. Though law-abiding and religious people condemned prostitution, brothels (houses of prostitution) were thriving businesses, offering some women a chance to earn more money than they could make any other way.

By her own account, Whitman decided to become a missionary when she was fifteen. She joined the Female Mite Society, one of several religious women's groups in Prattsburg, and began teaching Sunday school. At the same time, she pursued her own studies, first at Auburn Academy in nearby Auburn and then at Franklin Academy in Prattsburg. Later, in her mid-twenties, she taught school for a few years. In 1834 when her family moved to Amity, New York, a small village deep in the woods, she threw herself into church and Sunday school affairs. But she dreamed of becoming a missionary.

Are females wanted?

In 1834 Whitman heard a visiting Congregational minister, Samuel Parker, speak about his desire to gather missionaries and money to establish a mission, or religious outpost, among the Native Americans in Oregon Country. Whitman longed to join the mission, but Parker told her it was unlikely that the missionary board would authorize a woman for the journey. In December Parker wrote to the missionary board on Narcissa's behalf, asking, "Are females wanted? A Miss Narcissa Prentiss of Amity is very anxious....," according to Clifford M. Drury in Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. As Whitman and Parker expected, the application was rejected.

Nearby, however, a young doctor named Marcus Whitman had heard the same call for missionaries and had eagerly signed on. Learning that Narcissa—whom he had once met at a prayer meeting in the Prentiss home—was also interested, Marcus wrote to her and then visited Amity. Caught up in their shared enthusiasm for missionary work, the pair decided to marry. Their engagement, quickly decided upon in January 1835, was based not on love, but on a dream of the future that looked better if they pursued it together. Now twenty-seven years old, the tall and pretty Whitman was about to achieve her dream of becoming a missionary.

Thanks to her engagement with Marcus Whitman, Narcissa was accepted as a missionary. But she was not able to leave right away. Marcus had traveled west with Parker to survey the prospects for a mission. Joining with a party of trappers from the American Fur Company, Marcus traveled through the wilderness beyond the Rocky Mountains to the Green River in present-day Wyoming. In August 1835 he met with Nez Percé and Cayuse Indians from Oregon, who said they were eager to welcome missionaries among them. Excited by this news, Marcus Whitman returned to the East to help organize the party of missionaries to leave a year earlier than he and Narcissa had first planned.

Where wagons could go, women could go

Marcus and Narcissa began to make plans for their departure, but first they had to find other missionaries to go along with them. After a fruitless search, Narcissa suggested a friend of hers named Henry Spalding, a minister who was already organizing a mission among the Osage Indians of Nebraska. Spalding had once asked Narcissa to marry him, but she turned him down. He and his new wife, Eliza, agreed to go to Oregon instead of Nebraska.

Marcus and Narcissa were married on February 18, 1836, before a large crowd of family and friends. Quickly gathering supplies for their journey, the newlyweds embarked on their trip west in early March. The party traveled first by riverboat and then in a wagon train. Whitman found the going easier than she had expected. It helped that they were protected and guided by a large group of American Fur Company trappers. On July 4, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide, the dividing line between the eastern and western watersheds of the Rockies.

The party of missionaries abandoned their wagons at Fort Boise (present-day Boise, Idaho) and proceeded on horseback for the remainder of their journey. They arrived at Fort Vancouver, near where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean, on September 12, 1836. They had covered more than 3,000 miles in 207 days, taking wagons further west than any party had before and opening an important stretch of what would soon be the famous Oregon Trail.


While the women stayed at Fort Vancouver, Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding searched out suitable places for building their missions. In order to ease the increasing tensions between the two couples, the men chose separate locations for their missions. Marcus Whitman located a fertile spot east of Fort Vancouver on the Walla Walla River, twenty-five miles upstream from the Columbia and below the wooded slopes of the Blue Mountains. The Indians called the area Waiilatpu (pronounced wy-eee-laht-poo), or Place of the Rye Grass. (Spalding chose a spot in Nez Percé territory, about one hundred miles farther inland, on Lapwai—or Butterfly Valley—Creek.) After four weeks at Fort Vancouver, the women traveled east to join their husbands.

For two years, the Whitmans' missionary work went slowly but without major problems. They built a small house out of adobe (mud bricks mixed with grass and baked in the sun), set up a mill for grinding wheat into flour, and brought in farm animals. They both took pride in their newborn daughter, Alice Clarissa. Caring for the new baby helped ease Narcissa's growing homesickness. The mission soon became a popular stopping point for the travelers—mostly mountain men, fur company officials, and a few early settlers—who ventured through the region. Workers at the missions began the hard work of farming, building irrigation systems, and teaching the Cayuse and Nez Percé Indians about agriculture.

Troubles at the mission

By 1840, frequent disputes between the Whitmans and the Spaldings made life increasingly difficult. The rivalry between the two missions was made worse by the arrival of additional missionaries sent by the missionary board. Soon even small decisions, such as whether to pray aloud or silently, became the cause for endless debate and argument. Though all shared in such problems, Narcissa was especially affected. She escaped to her room in tears when others expected her to make household decisions. The missionaries had expected to reach agreement in a spirit of Christian harmony; instead, they bickered and squabbled.

Equally troubling was the growing divide between white culture and Indian culture. Both sides expected something of the other that they did not receive. The Cayuse hoped they could share in the whites' technology, which seemed mysterious and powerful, without giving up their own ways. They did not wish to settle down on farms, for they were used to roaming widely in search of their food. And they could not comprehend the white notion of owning the land. The Indians believed that the land belonged to everyone and to no one.

The missionaries thought that the Indians should abandon Indian culture and embrace white ways, especially the Christian religion. At first the Cayuse had no trouble accepting the white man's god. They worshiped many spirits—tree spirits, river spirits, and the like—so they found it easy to add a new god to the list. But they did not like it when the missionaries expected the new god to become their only god. Their discomfort soon turned into resistance, and that resistance grew in the face of the Whitmans' increasing impatience with Indian ways.

Tragedy and survival

In June 1839 the Whitmans' beloved daughter Alice Clarissa had drowned in the nearby Walla Walla River. Narcissa fell into a deep depression, which made it even harder for her to deal with the Indians. According to Carlos Schwantes in The Pacific Northwest, Narcissa began to view the Native Americans as "filthy savages," ungrateful for what the Whitmans were trying to do for them. They in turn saw her as conceited.

The Whitmans' difficulties were compounded by the fact that they had been unable to convert many Indians to Christianity. In the fall of 1842, the missionary board decided to close the missions and transfer the Whitmans elsewhere. Unwilling to give up, Marcus traveled east to persuade the board to keep the missions open. He was convinced that the mission must remain a bastion of Christianity in the wilderness; the board agreed, and the mission remained open.

Reports of fertile, unclaimed land began to draw numbers of settlers westward by the early 1840s. The Whitmans and Spaldings had proven that women could survive the trip, and now whole families could consider moving to the West. Each year brought more settlers; by 1847 nearly five thousand settlers flooded across the Blue Mountains on their way west. The Whitman mission was a welcome outpost for weary travelers, who used it as a resting point on their way further west. The Cayuse, however, feared that the white people were an invading party eager to take Cayuse land.

The Indians also feared white diseases, against which they were defenseless. In 1847, in two months alone, a measles epidemic killed half the Cayuse. Whitman's efforts to nurse the Indians back to health met with little success. Children were hit especially hard by the disease. The white children who fell ill seemed to recover, but the Indian children did not. The Indians feared that the Whitmans might actually be poisoning their children. Their fears soon grew into open hostility, and they began committing aggressive acts against the mission, including throwing stones through mission windows.

Bloody end

On a cold, foggy November morning in 1847, the Indians decided to take their revenge on the hated missionaries. After a group of pioneer wagons had left the mission, a number of Cayuse entered the mission compound. While one Indian engaged Marcus Whitman in an argument about land, another crept up behind Whitman and beat him across the skull with a tomahawk; Whitman died within minutes. At the same time other Cayuse raided other parts of the house; one attacker shot Narcissa Whitman in the chest, and she died immediately. Eleven other whites were killed, and more than forty (mostly immigrants who had stayed there to rest) were captured.

The Whitmans' legacy

In the end, the Whitmans were unsuccessful missionaries, converting only about twenty Native Americans to Christianity in their decade of work. However, the Whitmans did serve as an example and a guide to the thousands of white settlers who came west after them. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman proved in particular that white women could survive the trip and prosper in the West, a land that until her arrival had been visited and populated almost entirely by men (who often married Indian women).

For More Information


Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 2 vols. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1973.

Drury, Clifford M., ed. Where Wagons Could Go: Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Jeffrey, Julie Roy. Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Sabin, Louis. Narcissa Whitman: Brave Pioneer. Mahwah, NJ: Troll, 1997.

Schwantes, Carlos A. The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Web Sites

"Narcissa Prentiss, American Martyr." [Online] http://www.prenticenet.com/roots/prentice/bios/narcissa.htm (accessed June 15, 2000).

"Whitman Mission National Historic Site." [Online] http://www.nps.gov/whmi (accessed June 15, 2000).

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