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The Whitman Massacre Trial: 1850

The Whitman Massacre Trial: 1850

Defendants: Telokite, Tomahas, Kiamasumkin, Isiaasheluckas, Clokomas
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Kintzing Pritchette
Chief Prosecutor: Amory Holbrook
Judge: Orville C. Pratt
Place: Oregon City, Oregon Territory
Dates of Trial: May 21-24, 1850
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: This trial was the foremost attempt by the newly created Oregon Territory to move away from makeshift, frontier justice and to conduct a disciplined trial following formal court procedures such as: a written summary of proceedings, appointment of defense counsel, pretrial motions, organized selection of jurors, provision for interpreters, right of cross-examination, and observance of other decorum and safeguards. In spite of these protocols, former folkways surfaced and the trial reflected just the beginnings of a new order yet to be fully embraced. The trial also foreshadowed the degree to which U.S. courts would go in prosecuting Indians for crimes committed against U.S. citizens on Indian lands.

On November 29, 1847, deep in the wilds of the so-called "Oregon Country,"13 missionaries and white settlers were brutally murdered at a mission located off the Oregon Trail and near the Waiilatpu Camp of the Cayuse Indian nation. Eight months later, Congress and President Polk made Oregon a U.S. territory and sent officials (including Governor Joe Lane, Secretary Kintzing Pritchette, U.S. Attorney Amory Holbrook, Judge Orville C. Pratt, U.S. Marshall Joe Meek and a mounted rifle regiment) to bring U.S. government to the Pacific northwest and more specifically to try and punish the murderers.

Five Cayuse Braves Arrested

Two more years passed before U.S. troopers arrested Chief Telokite and four other Cayuse braves and brought them over two hundred miles to Oregon City to be tried for the murder of Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and the other victims. On Tuesday, May 21, 1850, Judge Pratt appointed three defense counsel (Secretary Pritchette and two calvary officers) to represent the five prisoners, who remained in chains throughout the trial. Two interpreters were also there to assist the defense.

On Wednesday, defense counsel presented three separate motions to the court. The first pleaded for a dismissal because the United States had no jurisdiction over an alleged crime that occurred eight months prior to U.S. takeover and that was committed on lands of the Cayuse nation. Judge Pratt denied the motion. The second motion asked that the trial be moved because townsfolk in Oregon City were hostile and sought vengeance against the prisoners. The motion was denied. The third motion sought a postponement of the trial in order to gain time for a defense witness (over two hundred miles away in Waiilatpu) to get to Oregon City. The judge denied the motion and ordered that the trial begin the next morning.

The Trial Begins

On Thursday morning, in selecting a jury, prosecutor Holbrook dismissed two of the 24 summoned prospects and the defense eliminated 20. So, Marshall Meek had to collar more prospects from the spectators. Although Cayuse tribesmen were in the audience, all of the 12 jurors chosen were white men, as was required by law.

The prosecutor called four witnesses: all former white residents at the mission and survivors of the massacre and a month of captivity. The purpose of their testimonies was to identify the five defendants as being tribesmen involved in the violence of that tragic day.

The defense called three witnesses: John McLoughlin, head of the Hudson's Bay trading company in Oregon; Reverend Henry Spalding, a fellow missionary of the Whitmans; and Stickus, a Cayuse Indian chief. McLoughlin testified that for years prior to the incident he had warned Whitman to leave the mission because the Cayuse were increasingly angered by his inability to cure them of the white man's diseases and by the shifting of his attention and care away from the tribe and toward the growing number of his fellow countrymen who brought those diseases along the ever-invasive Oregon Trail. Spalding testified that he and Whitman (visiting down the Columbia River) were warned on the day prior to the killings not to return to Cayuse country. Chief Stickus would have testified about the Cayuse custom of killing medicine men when their cures proved ineffective. But Judge Pratt refused to allow Cayuse law to be injected in a case tried under U.S. law. None of the defendants testified.

Passionate Closing Arguments

The closing arguments to the jury took over three hours. The defense counsel used the greatest amount of time. Indeed, one of the army officers took up half the time and broke two water tumblers in the process. In an era of fiery oratory, so-called "summations" typically took longer than the testimony.

On Friday morning, Judge Pratt took 70 minutes to instruct the jurymen as to the law. He told them that is was proper to infer guilt of each defendant from the fact that it was the tribe who had surrendered them to be triedthe tribe "knowing best who the murderers were." It was an immensely devastating and blatantly illicit bit of hearsay about a fact never proven at trial. The tribe had made the surrender in order to call off the pursuit of the troopers, who had hounded them for the last two years. Chief Telokite had told his captors, "Your Christ died to save his people? So die we to save our people."

During the jury deliberations, one of the jurymen, Jacob Hunsaker, felt that defendant Kiamasumkin was innocent because no witness had ever testified to seeing him do harm. So, the jury returned into court with their problem. Thereupon, Judge Pratt told them that there was evidence that all of the defendants were seen "armed" at the mission that day and that fact alone would be enough to satisfy a finding of Kiamasumkin's guilt.

The jury deliberated for 75 minutes and finally reached a verdict of guilty as to each defendant. Defense counsel moved for "an arrest of judgment," then for a new trial, and then for an appeal to the territorial supreme court. Judge Pratt denied all three motions.

The Sentence Is Death

On Friday afternoon, Judge Pratt pronounced the sentence: On June 3, 1850 " you are to be taken by the Marshall to the gallows to be erected in Oregon City and there be hung by the neck until you are dead."

During the 10 days between the trial and the execution date, defense counsel Pritchette had one last card to play on behalf of the prisoners. Governor Lane had left Oregon City for California immediately after the trial. The territorial law stated that the secretary of the territory was to assume the governorship whenever the governor was out of the territory. Pritchette figured that he now had the power to pardon convicts. So, he ordered Marshal Meek to cancel the hanging and release the prisoners.

But Meek went to Judge Pratt and told him of the conflicting ordersone from the executive branch and the other from the judicial branch. Was he supposed to free the prisoners or hang them? Pratt ruled that Pritchette was not the acting governor until Lane had crossed the Oregon-California border three hundred miles away; and as of yet there was no evidence that Lane's journey (at best a 10-day horseback ride) had reached that crossing.

And so, on June 3, the marshal led the five Cayuse to a gallows erected in the dirt streets of Oregon City, placed hoods over their heads, five nooses around their necks, and hanged them en masse before a crowd of spectators. The last of them died after 15 minutes on the end of the rope. Before the trapdoor was sprung, one of the prisoners had called out to the crowd, "Wawko sixto wah! Wawko sixto wah!" Translated loosely, it meant now we can be friends.

Ronald B. Lansing

Suggestions for Further Reading

Lansing, Ronald B. Juggernaut: The Whitman Massacre Trial 1850. Pasadena, Calif.: Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, 1993.

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