The Waiilatpu Mission and the Whitmans
The Waiilatpu Mission and the Whitmans
A Historic Journey. In 1836 Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding accompanied their husbands, Marcus and Henry, respectively, on a momentous journey to the Pacific Northwest in order to set up missions among the indigenous peoples of the region. They were the first Euro-American women to cross the Rocky Mountains, and their evangelical motivation seemed to ennoble Westward expansion to the Eastern establishment. Similarly, the murder of the Whitmans eleven years later marked the severance of any lingering connection between Indian evangelization and national destiny. The Whitmans’ role in the opening of the West and Northwest to white settlement gave them a place in history, yet it is their personal story that offers closer insight into the nature of sacred encounters in the Columbia Plateau.
The Whitmans and Spaldings. Narcissa Prentiss had been swept up in the revivals of Western New York during the 1830s, and her parents’ home had been a center for the young people in her Presbyterian church. Narcissa had heard a visiting preacher tell of the Indians who had come to St. Louis in search of the Bible. With her family’s approval, she had determined to dedicate herself to missionary work among the heathen. However, the sponsoring agency, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), informed her that single women were not being accepted into the foreign mission field. Meanwhile, at a neighboring church Dr. Marcus Whitman had made a similar commitment to mission service and soon learned of Narcissa’s application. After an exchange of letters and a brief meeting, Marcus obtained Narcissa’s pledge of marriage, after which he immediately set out with the Reverend Samuel Parker to explore the prospects for a mission. Henry and Eliza Spalding had been living in Cincinnati, attending Lane Seminary, and had already accepted a mission assignment with the Osages. When that plan proved abortive, Henry agreed to go instead to the Oregon Territory, albeit reluctantly, because he had once proposed to Narcissa and been rejected. This sensitive issue often resurfaced in conjunction with other disputes between the two couples.
At Waiilatpu Mission. For several years Narcissa’s letters to her sister and parents spoke of her evangelical aspirations and her desire to teach Indian children. Since she had little knowledge of the language, and since the Cayuses were on the move during their hunting season, however, there were few indications that she found her efforts rewarding. Marcus’s duties were extensive: farming, raising stock, producing the planks and adobe bricks for construction, and practicing medicine, which often required him to travel long distances in response to a call for assistance. Neither of the Whitmans had the time or skill to uncover the secrets of the native tongue. The pair taught the Cayuses songs as part of their religious instruction, and the image of the Indians repeating the words with no knowledge of their meaning was perhaps symbolic of the mission’s overall impact on the spiritual life of the natives.
Reinforcements. In 1837 Narcissa gave birth to her only child, Alice, and the Cayuses seemed charmed by the sight of a white baby in their midst. When Alice drowned before her second birthday, Narcissa fell into a depression. She was thus overjoyed to learn that four
couples were being sent as reinforcements for the Oregon mission, and she anticipated the companionship of other women. The Walkers, Grays, Eells, and Smiths arrived in 1838, but they soon wore out their welcome in the cramped quarters of Waiilatpu. Though all the missionaries were either Presbyterian or Congregational, differences in religious practice caused tensions. In Narcissa’s church women were encouraged to pray in public, but for most of the men this was regarded as unbecoming. The Whitmans favored grape juice in communion while the others preferred fermented wine. As Narcissa wrote to her sister, “Now how do you think I have lived with such folks right in my kitchen for the whole winter? If you can imagine my feelings you will do more than I can describe it.” Mary Walker, wife of Elkanah, presented another side to the experience, which revealed much about Narcissa’s personality. Still grieving the loss of her daughter, Narcissa criticized Mary for not nursing her own infant as frequently as Narcissa thought she should, adding that Mary must not love the child much. When she was upset, Narcissa would closet herself in her room and remain there all day, leaving her guests at a loss as to what to do, or she would find some secluded spot outside where she would weep openly. One day Mary confronted her, but she reported that Narcissa “was disposed to justify her conduct in every particular. She said we did not know her heart. That we thought her out of humor when it was anxiety for the salvation of sinners caused her to appear as she did…. This rather stumbled us & we almost felt that she designed to make a cloak of Religion. Can it be, we thought, that anxiety for sinners can cause one to appear so petulant, morose & crabbed?” Mary was glad to be sent with Cushing and Myra Eells to the Spokanes at Tshimakain.
Tensions Mount. The arrival of the 1838 contingent seemed to generate more conflict than Christian zeal, and the missionaries sent many letters to the ABCFM detailing their grievances against one another. In 1842 Marcus received the board’s response, which was to reorganize the Oregon stations. Yet circumstances had changed in the year it had taken to obtain that communication. The Grays had become settlers in the Willamette River valley while the Smiths had begun an independent station at Kamiah among the Nez Perces. (The Indians apparently disliked them so much that they demanded their removal; the ABCFM transferred the couple to a Hawaii mission.) To salvage the situation Marcus sped to Boston to intercede directly with the board. When he returned in 1843, he came with two hundred wagons and one thousand settlers, the largest contingent of immigrants to date and a clear sign to the Indians of an unfavorable wind. It was only the beginning, for more than ten thousand settlers moved along the Oregon Trail during the 1840s. As Narcissa Whitman wrote to her mother, “The poor Indians are amazed at the overwhelming numbers of Americans coming into the country. They seem not to know what to make of it.”
The Whitman Household. The diaries of several of the missionary women indicated the competing demands of mission work and family life. While some balanced the two or found their interest in the welfare of the Indians overwhelmed by the preoccupations of managing a mission household, Narcissa seemed to develop a real feeling of repugnance toward the Indians. Lack of privacy was the bane of her existence, especially because the Indians were always wandering in and out of the house. Though they tried to persuade the Cayuses to build a place of worship, the Indians insisted on using the Whitman house. Narcissa wrote to her mother,
The greatest trial to a woman’s feelings is to have her cooking and eating room always filled with four or five or more Indians—men—especially at meal time—but we hope this trial is nearly done, for when we get into our other house we have a room there we devote to them especially, and shall not permit them to go into the other part of the house at all. They are so filthy they make a great deal of cleaning wherever they go, and this wears out a woman very fast. We must clean after them, for we have come to elevate them and not to suffer ourselves to sink down to their standard. I hardly know how to describe my feelings at the prospect of a clean, comfortable house, and one large enough so that I can find a closet to pray in.
Mary Walker: From Missionary to Martriarch
Elkanah and Mary Walker, missionaries of the American Board for the Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), worked for nine years among the Spokanes at Tshimakain in the Oregon Territory. Through her extensive diary Mary offered a portrait of the antebellum woman caught in the tides of evangelicalism. Born in Maine in 1811, Mary attended a Congregational church but had her conversion experience during a Methodist revival. She came from an educated family and was ambitious for greater adventure than the dull prospect of life as a New England farmer’s wife. In her missionary application, one of her teachers offered the following recommendation:
Her intellectual acquirements are more than respectable. She has a strong love for natural science and mathematics, in which her attainments are valuable. She is a chemist and practical botanist .… The powers of her mind are strong and masculine, quick for observation and fond of investigation. Her moral courage is conspicuous from which has grown out real independence of character, which combined with energy, perseverance, industry and a robust physical constitution admirably qualify her to meet the exigencies and bear the trials and privations of a missionary life.
Mary, however, was turned down by the ABCFM because she was single. In 1837 a mutual acquaintance wrote privately to Mary about Elkanah Walker, who was seeking a missionary post in South Africa. “I think you can love the man. But you must judge for yourself. A husband is a husband notwithstanding the fact he may be a missionary.” Their courtship involved arranged meetings over a forty-eight hour period, at the conclusion of which Mary accepted Elkanah’s proposal. Though in appearance an odd couple—Mary could stand beneath Elkanah’s outstretched arm—theirs was a story of growing affection. Because of the financial crisis of 1837 and a tribal war in South Africa, the board decided to send the Walkers to the Oregon mission in 1838. Once settled among the Spokanes, Mary’s writings recorded a continual round of household activities, especially as her family grew. Elkanah held regular worship with the Indians, and they seemed interested in following the outward forms, but, as Mary reported: “They are very anxious to devise some way to get to heaven without repenting and renouncing their sins.” By 1839 she was already aware that for her the adventure had taken on a life of its own. “I have desired to become a missionary and why? Perhaps only to avoid duties at home. If I felt a sincere interest in the salvation of the heathen, should I not be more engaged in acquiring the language that I might be able to instruct them? But instead of engaging with interest in its acquisition, I am more ready to engage in almost anything else…. May I realize now the awful responsibility that rests on me. I have great reason to fear that the object of pursuit with me is not to glorify God but to please myself and my husband.” Mary’s candor was perhaps verified in the impact of their efforts on the Indians since by 1846 it seemed apparent that the Indians had returned to the medicine men and their “superstitions.” With the massacre of their fellow missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1847, the Walkers chose to devote themselves to family rather than the salvation of Indians. They left the isolation of Tshimakain with their six children in tow and settled in the populated Willamette River valley, where they lived comfortably by farming and preaching. Mary survived Elkanah by twenty years, and in their marriage she remained her own person to the end, refusing her husband’s deathbed plea that she promise not to remarry. Mary Walker, matriarch, lived to the age of eighty-six.
Sources Clifford Drury, First White Women over the Rockies: Diaries, Letters, and Biographical Sketches of the Six Women of the Oregon Mission Who Made the Overland Journey in 1836 and 1838, volume 2 (Glendale, Cal: Arthur Clark, 1963);
Drury, Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: The Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker (Glendale, Cal: Arthur Clark, 1976).
A new house was finished in June 1840, and the separate Indian room made Narcissa happy. However, the Cayuses were insulted and began increasingly to refer to her as haughty. The contents of the Whitman house showed a comfortable lifestyle for that time and place, leading the Indians to suspect that the missionaries prospered at their expense. Narcissa wrote, “It is difficult for them to feel but that we are rich and getting richer by the houses we dwell in and the clothes we wear and hang out to dry after washing from week to week, and the grain we consume in our families.” By 1845 the mission complex included a blacksmith shop, “mansion house,” mission building, sawmill, and surrounding Indian lodges. Immigrant families camped around the station, trying to recover from the overland journey before continuing westward. By the fall of 1847 Narcissa had found a new purpose for her life in caring for a large family of foster children. Left at their door were seven children whose parents had died along the trail. The mission also became a repository for five children of Indian and white parentage, including Jim Bridger’s daughter. As a result Narcissa’s time was consumed by household and maternal chores, and the conversion and education of the Indians receded further into the background.
The Massacre. By November 1847 many Indians around Waiilatpu were showing signs of hostility to the missionaries, as developments over several years reached a crescendo. The mission had become a rest stop for settlers traveling the Oregon Trail, and more attention was given over to their needs than to the Indians. The winter of 1846-1847 had been unusually severe, killing possibly one-half of the area’s cattle and horses. Immigrants brought a virulent form of measles to the Plateau, and more Indians were affected than whites, which lent credence to the rumor that Dr. Whitman was deliberately poisoning the Indians to get their land and horses. Animosity came to a head on 28 November. A group of Cayuses forced their way into the main house, fatally attacked the doctor, and began shooting others as they fled. As the fury subsided, the Indians gathered about fifty hostages into the Indian room and contemplated what to do next. It was finally decided that there would be no further killings, with the exception of Narcissa, who was taken outside and hacked to death. The hostages were eventually released unharmed, but the violence escalated as militia troops determined to punish all Cayuses, regardless of their involvement in the massacre. The so-called Cayuse War dragged on for two years.
Understanding the Attack. In 1849 the Reverend H. K. W. Perkins, a Methodist missionary in Oregon, provided a moving epitaph on the Whitman story. Jane, Narcissa’s sister, had written him to ask why the Indians had killed people “who had done so much for them.” Perkins replied as kindly as honesty would permit:
The truth is Miss Prentiss your lamented sister was far from happy in the situation she had chosen to occupy…. I should say, unhesitatingly that both herself and husband were out of their proper sphere. They were not adapted to their work. They could not possibly interest and gain the affections of the natives. I know for a long time before the tragedy that closed their final career that many of the natives around them looked upon them suspiciously. Though they feared the Doctor they did not love him. They did not love your sister. They appreciated neither the one nor the other.
Marcus, said Perkins, had “never identified himself with the natives as to make their interests paramount” and instead had been overly attentive to the needs of the white settlers. Narcissa, continued the Methodist preacher,
was not adapted to savage but civilized life. She would have done honor to her sex in a polished and exalted sphere. The natives esteemed her as proud, haughty, as far above them. No doubt she really seemed so. It was her misfortune, not her fault…. She wanted something exalted—communion with mind. She longed for society, refined society. She was intellectually and by association fitted to do good only in such a sphere…. She loved company, society, excitement and ought always to have enjoyed it. The self-denial that took her away from it was suicidal…. Certain it is that we needed such minds to keep us in love with civilized life, to remind us occasionally of home. As for myself, I could as easily have become an Indian as not… I could gladly have made the wigwam my home for life if duty had called. But it was not so with Mrs. W. She had nothing apparently with them in common. She kept in her original sphere to the last. She was not a missionary but a woman, an American highly gifted, polished American lady. And such she died.
Legacy of Waiilatpu. After the massacre the remaining ABCFM missionaries gave up their evangelical aspirations and melded into immigrant communities. The missions to the Northwest had been motivated by evangelical ideals, but it turned out to be easier to mourn the fate of the heathen from a distance than to care for them as people. What role denominational background played in the failure of the Oregon missions is unknown, but it seems a fair statement that New England Presbyterians were, as a group, singularly out of place among the Plateau Indians. Add to the mix an abrasive personality, and the outcome could be disastrous. On both sides the expectation of a signal sacred encounter had been disappointed, and relations between Indians and whites on the Columbia plateau reverted to the sad and familiar course of betrayal, hostility, retribution, and dispossession.
Clifford Drury, First White Women over the Rockies: Diaries, Letters, and Biographical Sketches of the Six Women of the Oregon Mission Who Made the Overland Journey in 1836 and 1838, 3 volumes (Glendale, Cal.: Arthur Clark, 1963);
Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, 2 volumes (Glendale, Cal.: Arthur Clark, 1973).
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