Whitman, Narcissa (1808–1847)

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Whitman, Narcissa (1808–1847)

First white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains by wagon train on the Oregon Trail, who established a Protestant mission in eastern Oregon Territory among the Cayuse Indians with her husband Dr. Marcus Whitman . Born Narcissa Prentiss on March 14, 1808, in Prattsburg, New York; killed on November 29, 1847, in Oregon Territory (now eastern Washington State); one of nine children of Stephen Prentiss (a landowner) and Clarissa (Ward) Prentiss (active in evangelical movement); attended Prattsburg common school through childhood; attended Auburn Academy for six months at age 15, and Franklin Academy in late teens and early 20s; married Dr. Marcus Whitman, in February 1836; children: Alice Clarissa (b. March 13, 1837, who died by drowning June 1839).

Had religious conversion at age 11; committed to missionary work with Presbyterian Church at age 15; in early 20s, taught in district schools but remained determined to become a missionary; active in local evangelical work; established infant school with her sister Jane in Bath, New York (1834); family moved to Angelica, New York (1835); encouraged through church connections to consider marriage to Dr. Marcus Whitman, newly commissioned missionary from neighboring village; applied independently to, and was accepted by, missionary board; married at age 27 and immediately began seven-month journey to Pacific Northwest (1836); Whitman mission, Waiilatpu, established among Cayuse Indians in eastern Oregon Territory (1836); daughter drowned in Walla Walla River (1839); took on care of seven orphaned Sager children (1844); rising unrest among Cayuse Indians, due to increasing waves of white settlers, and measles epidemic (1847); killed along with husband and 12 settlers in what came to be known as the Whitman Massacre (November 29, 1847).

On a gray morning in November 1847, 41 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition opened up the American West, Narcissa Whitman found the kitchen of her Protestant mission in a remote corner of Oregon Territory filled with angry Cayuse Indians. The small tribe she and her doctor husband had come to convert to

Christianity 11 years before had recently been decimated by a measles epidemic brought by white settlers. The Cayuse, noting that only one white child had died, believed the many deaths of their people to be the result of the "bad medicine" of Dr. Marcus Whitman, and their tribal customs demanded retribution. This most recent tragedy added fuel to other long-simmering conflicts between the missionaries and the Cayuse. A small group of chiefs and warriors, convinced that the very survival of their tribe was at stake, decided to take action. When Narcissa called her husband into the kitchen, he was struck down with tomahawks. Within hours, she too was dead, the only woman killed among 13 others over the course of several days in what came to be known as the Whitman Massacre. Narcissa Whitman was born on March 14, 1808, in Prattsburg, New York, the third of nine children born to Stephen and Clarissa Prentiss . Whitman's parents had married in 1803 and settled in a newly formed township in western New York on what was then the frontier of the United States. The Prentisses quickly prospered with landholdings and mills and, by the time their first daughter was born, were becoming a wellestablished, middle-class family in a bustling community that was no longer on the western boundary of the United States.

Clarissa Prentiss was deeply influenced by a Christian evangelical movement of the early 19th century, the Second Great Awakening, that encouraged women to assume new roles of spiritual authority within their families and communities. Among the basic tenets of the movement was the belief that women were naturally pious and moral, and especially suited to religious work. Clarissa gave particular attention to the religious progress and salvation of her first daughter, Narcissa, born not long after her own religious conversion. Responding to her mother's influence, Narcissa believed from childhood that she was destined for a useful religious life. Within the large Prentiss family, she helped her mother maintain a religious routine of prayer meetings, revivals, and church activities. At age 11, Whitman was converted during a revival meeting, and, at age 15, pledged herself "without reserve" to missionary work.

Some [Cayuse Indians] feel almost to blame us for telling about eternal realities. One said it was good when they knew nothing but to hunt, eat, drink and sleep; now it was bad.

—Narcissa Whitman

In a period when few options were open to women other than marriage and domestic life, missionary field work represented a "heroic" and romantic alternative that appealed to independent, pious young women like Whitman. The Protestant Church saw its role as nothing less than converting the world to Christ, and during Narcissa's youth there was great excitement in church circles about the possibility of serving the Indians "beyond the Rocky Mountains." Although she had little notion of how to prepare in any practical sense for such a life, Narcissa throughout her youth read religious tracts and missionary biographies, assisted at revivals that came through Prattsburg, and followed her mother's example of doing "good works" in the community, such as visiting the poor and distributing Bibles.

Whitman was well educated by 19th-century standards. Her early schooling took place in the local Prattsburg common school. During her teens and early 20s, she studied intermittently at two private secondary schools, Auburn Academy in a neighboring village and Franklin Academy in Prattsburg. Both schools had strong ties to the evangelical community, and Whitman's resolve to become a missionary remained strong during these years.

By her early 20s, she had completed her formal education. She was healthy, skilled in household management, and felt spiritually prepared to begin her life's work as a missionary. She faced one serious obstacle, however: she had no husband. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the interdenominational organization that directed the vast network of 19th-century foreign missionary activities, would not at the time consider unmarried women. It was unwise, the board felt, to send a single woman into "heathendom" without a husband to protect her virtue. Married women, however, could accompany their husbands into the field as "assistant missionaries."

Narcissa could only await the "leadings of Providence" to provide a good missionary husband. In the meantime, she taught for several years in district schools, and in 1834 she and her sister Jane Prentiss established for a short while an infant school in Bath, New York. Whitman enjoyed her teaching, and was good with children, but she felt she was only biding her time until her real life's work began. According to her biographer Julie Roy Jeffrey , it was during this period that Narcissa began to demonstrate characteristics that would affect her future relations with the Cayuse:

Revivalism and other evangelical activities reinforced what Narcissa had learned from her mother—that it was important to judge others, to draw distinctions between what was good and what was bad. While [her mother] had counseled charity and temperate speech at home, Narcissa developed a critical tongue.

An indicator of Whitman's strong, opinionated character was an event years earlier that was also to have future consequences in her life as a missionary. While a young woman attending Franklin Academy, Whitman had rejected the proposal of a fellow student, Henry Spalding. While he should have been an eminently suitable candidate for marriage—he was studying for the ministry and intended to enter the mission field—Narcissa viewed him as socially inferior because he was illegitimate and, she felt, lacked the middle-class manners and values she believed were so important to domestic life.

When Narcissa was 26, the "leadings of Providence," along with some behind-the-scenes matchmaking by church members, provided her with a husband. A doctor from a neighboring village, Marcus Whitman had been commissioned by the ABCFM the previous year to serve in the Indian mission field in Oregon Territory. He was seeking a missionary wife, and it is likely that a preacher traveling the revival circuit who had been instrumental in recruiting Dr. Whitman, suggested Narcissa Prentiss.

In February 1836, Marcus traveled to Narcissa's home, and in the course of a weekend visit they agreed to become engaged. There was no courtship nor pretense of romantic love between them; both saw marriage as a means of fulfilling their dreams to be missionaries. Marcus left immediately to make an exploratory trip west to the Oregon Territory, while Narcissa applied to, and was accepted by, the missionary board. One year later, having spent less than a week together, they were married. The next morning, Narcissa bid a sad farewell to her mother and the large family she would never see again, and the couple struck out on the initial leg of their missionary adventure. Their first destination was Cincinnati, where they were to join up with other missionaries heading West, among them Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza Spalding .

The seven-month journey through the Western plains and over the Rocky Mountains was the peak experience of Narcissa's life. From March to November 1836, her journal and letters reveal a woman thoroughly engaged in all that was happening around her, delighting in the novelty of new places, new people, and new experiences. In the early part of the journey, when the missionary party traveled leisurely by steamboat, Whitman had time to get to know her new husband, and she was pleased with what she found. "If you want to be happy," she wrote her sister, "get a good husband as I have got and be a missionary." It is also evident from her letters that she enjoyed her new status as a married woman, and basked in the attention she received as one of the first missionary women to cross the Rocky Mountains to save the "benighted heathen" of the West.

Curiously, in her letters home and in her journal, Narcissa rarely mentioned Eliza Spalding, the only other woman in the party headed for the Oregon Territory. Although their upbringings were similar, the two were very different, and there were no doubt some feelings of rivalry between them, at least on the part of Whitman. Narcissa was robust and proud of her good health and strength. "I think I shall endure the journey well, perhaps better than any of the rest of us," she wrote in a letter home. "[E]veryone who sees me compliments me as being the best able to endure the journey over the mountains from my looks." Of Eliza, she wrote: She "does not look nor feel quite healthy enough for our enterprise…. [R]iding affects her differently from what it does me." Eliza was indeed frail and often sick—she had given birth to a stillborn child the year before—but in missionary circles she was considered the better qualified of the two for missionary life. Eliza was an intensely spiritual young woman who had actively prepared for her vocation in a way that Narcissa had not, studying Greek and Latin and immersing herself in missionary-related activities.

Spalding, Eliza (1807–1851)

One of the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains by wagon train who, with her husband, established a Protestant mission among the Nez Percé Indians in eastern Oregon Territory, now Washington State . Born Eliza Hart on August 11, 1807, near Berlin, Connecticut; died of tuberculosis on January 7, 1851, near Brownsville, Oregon; eldest of three daughters of Levi Hart (a farmer) and Martha (Hart) Hart; married Henry Harmon Spalding, on October 13, 1833 (died 1874); children: stillborn daughter (b. October 1835); Eliza Spalding (b. 1837, the first white child born in what is now Idaho); Henry Hart Spalding (b. 1839); Martha Jane Spalding (b. 1845); Amelia Lorene Spalding (b. 1846).

Born in 1807, Eliza Spalding spent her early life in New York State, where she was educated in academies and taught school. Converted at age 19 during a revival, she dreamed of becoming a missionary and corresponded with Henry Spalding, who also intended to enter missionary service as an ordained minister. Following their marriage, the couple moved to Cincinnati where Eliza prepared to enter missionary service while Henry attended Lane Theological Seminary. In 1836, they traveled West with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman to establish Presbyterian missions in southeastern Oregon Territory. The Spalding mission, Lapwai, was established among the Nez Percé. During the Whitman Massacre in November 1847, the Nez Percé had such a high regard for Eliza that many of them protected her; Henry was absent at the time. The Spaldings later began to have serious trouble with the Nez Percé, however, and the family moved to the Willamette Valley, staking a claim on the Calapooya River, near present-day Brownsville, Oregon.

From St. Louis, then considered "the borders of civilization," the missionary party joined with other westward migrants to travel by wagon and horseback over the high prairies. Narcissa described their caravan as "a moving village—nearly four hundred animals with ours … and seventy men." Trail life agreed with her, and in letters home she enthusiastically described riding horseback, sleeping and eating out in the open, cooking over buffalo dung, and "wanting for nothing else" to eat but dried buffalo meat.

At a ten-day annual rendezvous of mountain men, traders, trappers, and native peoples in Green River, Wyoming, Whitman first met the Native Americans she had come to save. "I was met by a company of native women, one after the other, shaking hands and salluting [sic] me with a most hearty kiss," she wrote home. "This was unexpected and affected me very much." Nonetheless, she pitied "the poor Indian women" who were always on the move, and decided they were "complete slaves of their husbands." Biographer Jeffrey notes:

Narcissa's journal and letters suggested much about her character and concerns. Her energy, resilience, and interest in what was going on around her come through clearly. So too do feelings that she only unconsciously revealed, misgivings about her vocation, an increasing ambivalence about the Indians she had come to save.

In November 1836, after a difficult trip over the mountains, the Whitmans' arrived in southeastern Oregon Territory (present-day Washington State) where they were to establish their mission, called Waiilatpu, among the Cayuse Indians. Whitman, several months pregnant, chose to remain with a family at a nearby military fort while her husband built an adobe and log house. The Spaldings traveled six days farther north to establish their mission, Lapwai, among the Nez Percé.

The Cayuse, who called themselves teaw'ken, or "we the people," were a small, fierce tribe known by the fur companies as excellent horse breeders. Semi-nomadic, they followed an annual cycle of food-gathering activities, the men as hunters and fishers, the women as gatherers and processors. The Cayuse spent the winter months in small villages set up near water. Although they once had their own tribal language, by the time the Whitmans settled near their winter village on the banks of the Walla Walla River, they had adopted the language of the Nez Percé. (Whitman was never able to master Nez Percé, although Eliza Spalding did, and with her husband went on to write the first Nez Percé primer.)

In March 1837, Narcissa gave birth to a daughter, Alice Clarissa, and in her child she found the emotional sustenance she had missed in the year she had been separated from her family, and which her husband—increasingly preoccupied with the demands of the mission—was unable to provide. She reveled in her maternal role, and tried as best she could to keep up with the latest theories of child rearing. She worried about raising a Christian child in "heathen lands, among savages," and when Alice was a year old Narcissa made a commitment to "train her up for His glory," just as her mother had consecrated her to God.

The neighboring Cayuse, who were often at the mission house, were much taken with the missionary baby, and she with them as she grew older. Unlike her mother, Alice was quick to learn the language of the Cayuse, and she soon began to imitate them in other ways. Whitman was not pleased, and heeded other missionaries' warnings of "the evils of allowing a child to learn the native language" by trying to limit Alice's contact with the Cayuse.

In practical terms, the Whitman mission was a success. After five years, the small settlement on the banks of the river had grown to include two adobe houses, outbuildings, a sawmill and various gristmills. Narcissa and Marcus reported they had a thriving farm of 17 acres of wheat, corn, potatoes, and turnips, as well as a large vegetable garden. A herd of cattle provided meat, cheese, and milk.

The evangelical status of the mission was another matter. Despite an established routine of Christian education and worship, consisting of classes conducted in English by Narcissa in her kitchen, and evening and Sabbath worship led by Marcus, the Cayuse would not be converted. Communication remained a serious obstacle to Whitman's work with the Cayuse. She reported in 1839, three years into the mission, that she could not "converse satisfactorily with them hardly in the least degree."

Narcissa was also finding little satisfaction in the spiritual aspects of her work. Unable to suspend the middle-class, Christian values she held so dear, Whitman saw little to like in the people she had been sent to save. Her letters home are filled with negative descriptions of the Cayuse. They were "supremely selfish," she wrote, and "proud, haughty and insolent." The men invaded her house and made it dirty. She was repelled by their disregard for cleanliness and did not want them in her home. Applying her own standards to the women, she reported they were lazy workers, terrible housekeepers, and neglectful mothers. Her biographer writes:

Despite her years of picturing herself as a missionary laboring among the heathen, despite her earnest desire to bring the Cayuse to Christ, Narcissa was making the terrible discovery, if not admitting it, that she was not really suited for missionary life.

Both Whitmans believed that the Indians, in order to be educated and converted, had to give up their semi-nomadic life and become sedentary, the same policy the U.S. government had applied in its dealings with Native Americans in the eastern states. Although a few Cayuse complied, the idea of plowing the land and building fences violated their traditional relationship with "mother earth." The Cayuse men were reluctant to give up their seasonal hunting expeditions. The missionaries preached that the Cayuse, before they could be saved, had to abandon their traditional religious beliefs and give up their "sinful practices" of dancing, gambling, and horse racing. But what the Whitmans held out to the Indians in exchange was hardly appealing. Though they preached of salvation, eternal life and heaven, they seemed to offer the Cayuse only hell and eternal damnation. Understandably, the native people showed little interest.

In June 1839, tragedy struck. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, while her parents were reading, Alice Clarissa, a little over two years old, wandered alone down to the river bank, fell in and drowned. In that instant, Whitman lost the emotional focal point of her life. She sat with her child's body for three days, and after the funeral, without family or close friends to share her grief and assuage her feelings of guilt that she was partly responsible for Alice's death, she took to her room with depression and ill health. Although she tried to find solace in the fact that her child was in heaven, her intense grief lasted into the fall and winter.

In 1840, the famous Oregon Trail over the mountains was completed, passing just to the north of Waiilaptu mission. The next year, annual wagon trains began to arrive, the settlers attracted by propaganda about Oregon's climate and agricultural possibilities. Among the settlers were more missionaries, and Waiilaptu became a popular "wintering over" stop where the travelers recovered after the rigors of the overland trip. Although Whitman and her husband had urged more missionaries to come to Oregon, she indicated in her letters that she now found her home uncomfortably crowded, the extra household work onerous, and the tensions and bickering between the missionary families disillusioning.

Both Narcissa and her husband were enthusiastic about the prospect of increased emigration, Dr. Whitman because he thought only the white men could settle and develop the country, and Narcissa because it held the promise of the community and social life she missed. Little consideration was given to what the Indians thought, watching in alarm as succeeding waves of white settlers invaded their territory.

"A tide of immigration appears to be moving this way rapidly," Whitman wrote her mother, "what a few years will bring forth we know not." The ABCFM mission board in Boston began to see new possibilities in Oregon, however. With so few Native Americans converted, perhaps the missionaries could better serve the settlers.

In the fall of 1844, the annual wagon arrived late at the mission, and the exhausted emigrants brought with them a family of seven orphaned children named Sager. Both parents had died on the trail, the mother soon after giving birth and the father of "camp fever." The father's last request was that the children be kept together and brought to the Whitman mission. Narcissa was touched by the plight of all the children—dirty, hungry and frightened—but it was the five-month old infant girl, barely alive and the size of a three-week-old, who captured her heart. Here was a child to replace the one she had lost. After some disagreement—Narcissa wanted to keep the Sager girls and send the boys on with the emigrants—the Whitmans agreed to take on the care of all seven.

With the demands of her new family, Whitman found an honorable means of retreat from the missionary work she found so unsatisfying. Undernourished, ill educated, lacking regular habits and good manners, the Sager children allowed Narcissa to use all her organizational skills and educational training. She established a rigid routine of daily activities, much like the one she had grown up with, alternating work and school, household chores, and religious training. Although she naively assumed the Cayuse would be pleased to see children growing up on the mission, she did not allow her adopted children to learn Nez Percé or to interact with the Cayuse children. She wrote to her father in 1846: "Bringing up a family of children in a heathen land, where every influence tends to degrade rather than elevate, requires no small measure of faith and patience, as well as great care and prayerful watchfulness."

Given new purpose in life, Narcissa grew robust and energetic. In a letter home, she reported having traveled 180 miles by horseback to the annual mission meeting, something she had not done since Alice's death. These were the happiest years of Narcissa's life, during which she felt useful and contented. She had successfully recreated a large family like the one she had left behind in New York eight years before, and with the increasing number of immigrants settling around the mission, she enjoyed a sense of community that she had never found with the Cayuse.

By 1846, three great emigrations totaling about 5,000 people had passed through Cayuse country, and the Indians knew no good could come of these waves of white settlers. Not only were the Cayuse forced to share their grazing lands with the emigrants, but other scarce resources as well, such as wild game and the fuel on which they depended. They had heard what happened to their counterparts in the Eastern states, and they could see their world changing and disappearing in the same way. Even more devastating to their culture were the infectious diseases that came with the white people: dysentery, malaria and measles. Marcus reported that one Cayuse chief accused the white men of preparing, "with poison and infection," to kill off the Native Americans in order to gain possession of their lands and horses.

In the winter of 1847, the Whitmans found themselves responsible for the welfare of 75 people living at Waiilatpu, and the number of hostile incidents and disputes with the Cayuse increased. In one confrontation, a chief told Marcus to leave the country, that he was not wanted there. The Cayuse knew that Narcissa and her husband had promoted emigration and settlement, and they understood that the Whitmans felt "the Americans" had the right to be there. Each year the Cayuse had observed the missionaries who had purportedly come to serve them ride out to help guide white settlers to safety, and watched as they were fed, sheltered and cared for through the winter. No such concern was extended to the Cayuse. The settlers were given supplies, while the mission charged the Cayuse for plowing their land or milling their grain. The Cayuse had demanded but never received payment for the mission land. The white children went to school, while there was no school for the Cayuse children.

In the same year, a virulent form of measles spread through the Oregon Territory with devastating effects. Although both settlers and Indians were affected, many more Native Americans than whites died, their high mortality rate caused both by their lack of immunity to the virus and their traditional practice of using sweat baths to treat illness, which only hastened the course of the disease.

Many tribal members, having seen Marcus Whitman kill predatory wolves with poison, believed he was killing the Cayuse with his medicines. Only one child at the mission had died of measles, while an estimated 30 Cayuse succumbed, despite Dr. Whitman's efforts to treat them. According to Cayuse custom, the relatives of a deceased person had the right to kill a medicine man if the treated person died of "bad medicine." The Whitmans were aware of this practice, and in the months leading up to the massacre they were repeatedly warned, both by Indians friendly to them and by settlers and traders who had heard rumors of unrest, that they were in danger. But either they did not take these warnings seriously, or they remained at the mission through their faith in God and a sense of duty. Although not a single Cayuse had been converted in the ten years they had been at Waiilatpu, the Whitmans felt they must stay to serve the settlement community as well as those emigrants traveling through each year. Neither appeared to believe they were in imminent danger.

They were wrong. On November 29, when a small group of Cayuse men appeared at the mission on the pretext of asking for medicine, they had already made the decision to kill Dr. Whitman in retribution for his "bad medicine." When Narcissa called her husband into the kitchen, he was immediately struck down with tomahawks. Narcissa gathered the other children into the house, while outside the Cayuse warriors, painted and dressed in ritual war regalia, attacked and killed the men and older boys who were working around the mission. The tribal women danced and sang nearby. At some point during the confusion of the next few hours, Narcissa looked out the door of the mission and was shot and wounded in the arm or breast. As dusk fell, the Cayuse began to break the windows of the mission, demanding that the women and children leave so they could burn the house. When Narcissa was carried outside lying on a sofa, several Indians gathered around, then shot and killed her. Her body was mutilated, indicating the great anger the Cayuse felt towards this woman who had lived in their midst for over ten years and had failed, as they saw it, to bring any good to their lives. The following morning, the survivors could hear the Indians chanting the "Death Song."

Not all the Cayuse were in favor of the killings, and survivors told of witnessing grief and distress among some Cayuse. Still, four more men would die in the following days, bringing the death toll to 14. Narcissa, just short of her 40th birthday, was the only woman to die in the Whitman Massacre. "If Narcissa had ever dreamed of martyrdom when, as a young girl, she had imagined herself as a missionary," writes Jeffrey, "her dream had come true. She had called her vocation a sacrifice, and a sacrifice it had been…. Martyrdom came at a time in Nar cissa's life when she no longer desired to devote herself to the missionary cause."


Drury, Clifford. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. Vol. I and II. Seattle, WA: Pacific Northwest National Parks and Forest Association, 1986.

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

suggested reading:

Beaver, R. Pierce. American Protestant Women in World Mission: A History of the First Feminist Movement in North America. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1968.

Ginzberg, Lori D. Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Jessett, Thomas E. The Indian Side of the Whitman Massacre. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1973.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.

Miller, Christopher L. Prophetic Worlds: Indians and Whites on the Columbia Plateau. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

Sager, Matilda J. Delaney. A Survivor's Recollections of the Whitman Massacre. Seattle, WA: Shorey Bookstore, 1966.

The Whitman Massacre of 1847. Recollections of Catherine, Elizabeth and Matilda Sager. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1981.

Judy Blankenship , author of Scenes from Life: Views of Family, Marriage and Intimacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976)

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Whitman, Narcissa (1808–1847)

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