On November 29, 1847, several Cayuse Indians of eastern Washington-Oregon attacked their
uninvited Christian missionary neighbors, the Whitmans, for bringing plague,
white invasion and evil magic with them to the “Place of the Rye Grass.”

 Marcus Whitman  Narcissa Whitman Henry Spalding

The first long-suffering white women to make the Oregon Trail journey were Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, wives of Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding, devout Protestant missionaries. The 1836 Whitman party had grand goals.  Marcus wanted to prove that white women and wagons could make the trip.  He also favored development for Christian settlers over the uncertain business of converting heathens.  Narcissa and Eliza were innocents, dedicated to their faith and completely unaware of where they were going, or what they would endure.

NARCISSA, 1836: I hope to [work] among the heathen, if worthy. I thought of  Mother’s bread and butter many times as any child. I fancy pork and potatoes would relish well. Husband had a tedious time with the wagon today. [It] was upset twice. Did not wonder at [it]. It was a greater wonder that it was not turning a somerset continually. [S]ix weeks steady journeying before us. Will the Lord give me patience to endure it?
The Whitman party reached Fort Walla Walla in the southeast corner of future Washington State – in September, 1836 after 4,000 miles and 6 ½  months travel.  By spring 1837, the Whitmans celebrated the birth of their daughter Alice Clarissa in Waiilatpu as the Cayuse Indians called it, as the “People of the Place of the Rye Grass,” where they built a home and planted a garden. Marcus built a crude lean-to and later a 1-½ story adobe brick house, and the Spaldings went 110 miles east to Lapwai in Idaho to preach to the intelligent Nez Percé Indians. Their delighted Boston missionary board sent a third mission to the Spokane Indians, Protestant fervor aflame to Christianize the Indians before Catholic missionaries could do it.  However, they all failed to Christianize Indians.


Some almost blame us for telling them about eternal realties. One said it was good when they knew nothing but to hunt, eat, drink and sleep; now it was bad.

Narcissa would eventually ban the Cayuse from her house – even from the great room called “The Indian Room,” because she felt they were unclean and would bring dirt and fleas into her home.  The Cayuse men were highly insulted. They were chiefs and warriors, who did not listen seriously to women, much less obey them.  Marcus kept urging them to become farmers and homemakers too – a dreary prospect to fiercely independent hunting and fishing tribesmen, who did little between such exertions except smoke pipes and gossip.  The culture clash was open.


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.

H.K.W. PERKINS, 1849: That she felt a deep interest in the welfare of the natives, no one who was at all acquainted with her could doubt.  But the affection manifested under false views of Indian character.  Her carriage toward them was always considered haughty.  It was the common remark that Mrs. Whitman was “very proud.”  Mrs. Whitman 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.  It was her misfortune, not her fault.


As more and more emigrant trains rolled past, Marcus turned his energies utterly away from converting Indians to helping newcomers.  His mission became an important stop for exhausted travelers.  Then tragedy struck, little Alice Clarissa, aged two, fell into the Walla Walla River and drowned.   Narcissa may have gone mad for a time.  When she recovered she expanded their fledgling Indian school into an orphanage for emigrant children and began adopting orphans.

NARCISSA, 1840: I believe I have written very few letters since the doctor returned.  My health has been so poor, and my family has increased so rapidly, that it has been impossible.  You will be astonished to know that we have eleven children in our family, and not one of them our own by birth, but so it is.  Seven orphans were brought to our door in October, whose parents both died on the way to this country.  Destitute and friendless, there is no other alternative – we must take them in or they must perish.

The Cayuse viewed the influx of settlers and orphans with alarm.  They also brought measles – a terrible scourge for a people without natural immunity.  Four or five Cayuse children died each day at the height of the plague.  Within two months, half the local village of 350 people was dead.  In the fall of 1847, the Catholic Church established missions among the Indians and the teachings of the Protestant and Catholic faiths clashed over converts and territories.  The Cayuse suspected the white man had not come simply to preach to them, but to take permanent control of their ancestral land and enslave them.

CATHERINE SAGER PRINGLE, 1860: The Indian mind is so constructed that he cannot reconcile the two isms; consequently they became much worked up on the subject.  Owing to the sickness and these other causes, the natives began showing an insolent and hostile feeling.  Whitman’s large family were all sick, and the disease was raging fearfully among the Indians, who were rapidly dying.  I saw from five to six buried daily.  The field was open for creating mischief.

 This clash of isms weakened Whitman’s authority at a dangerous time.  Whitman feverishly tended his own family and the Indians until nearly worn out with fatigue, but the fatal die had been cast.

CATHERINE SAGER: Stickas, a friendly Christian Indian said, “Jo Lewis is making trouble: telling his people the doctor was poisoning Indians to give their country to the whites.”  Stickas said, “I do not believe him, but some do, and I fear they will do you harm; you better go away for awhile until my people have better hearts.”


Whitman returned home in late evening November 28th, exhausted and depressed.  He told Narcissa what Stickas had said.  He sent all those awake to bed and sat up in the kitchen all night.  The fatal morning of November 29th dawned cold and foggy. Whitman was serene, but more serious than usual.  In the bedroom Narcissa was weeping bitterly and ignored the breakfast brought by one of the children. In the kitchen, Marcus told his assistant Mr. Rogers that he might go away in the spring.  Catherine’s brother Francis and friend Jo Stanfield had driven a beef to the grist mill, where three men were butchering it.  The mill was running grist for the Indians.  A calmer Narcissa went to the kitchen for milk for one of the children.

 CATHERINE SAGER: The kitchen was full of Indians. [T]heir boisterous manner alarmed her. She fled to the sitting room, bolting the door in the face of the savages. She had not taken her hand from the lock when the Indians rapped and asked for the doctor. Dr. Whitman told his wife to bolt the door after him; she did so. Listening for a moment, she seemed to be reassured and sat down. She had scarcely sat down when we were all startled by an explosion that seemed to shake the house.


Propaganda version of Whitman’s death.  Wholly inaccurate.

NARCISSA: Oh, the Indians! The Indians! They have killed my husband and I am a widow!

NANCY.O. JACOBS: The sudden and continuous firing of guns was the first alarm.  Mrs. Whitman began to cry and the children to scream.  Mother said, “Mrs. Whitman, what is the matter?”  She replied, “The Indians are going to kill us all!”  -- massacre survivor.


Thirteen of 72 individuals at the mission were killed: 11 men, two older boys, and one woman, Narcissa. She was shot in the shoulder, and when later carried outside on a settee, dropped to the ground, and met with a volley of bullets. She was also beaten and stabbed. Marcus received one blow to the head and a single shot in the throat. The children and females became hostages to ransom, or enslave. Three more children soon died of measles.  One brave sexually assaulted several of the women and older girls.  A month later, Hudson’s Bay officials ransomed 47 survivors.

When the Whitman survivors, and all the other missionaries in eastern Oregon were evacuated, the Cayuse set fire to the Place of the Rye Grass, and left their ancestral land and children’s graves forever, dispersing into the mountains. Cayuse leaders Tiloukait and Tomahas and three others later surrendered to white justice.  When asked why, they replied that Dr. Whitman had taught that the leader of the whites gave his life to save his people and they were doing no less. The five were quickly tried and hung, and the whites swore to hunt down and punish every Cayuse connected to the attack.

News of the massacre struck settlers in the Willamette Valley hard.  Five hundred pioneers showed up with rifles to punish the Cayuse.  Joe Meek, the mountain man, went to Washington, D.C. and spoke to his cousin’s husband, President James Polk, to demand U.S. Territory status for Oregon, and got it, enabling a series of Indian wars in the Pacific Northwest, which resulted in the subjugation of most tribes by 1858.  The tribes were herded onto reservations, and the rest of their lands were thrown open to settlers.  Oregon became a state in 1859.

Seventy people had followed the Whitmans five years after 1836, and by 1843 there was a heralded Great Emigration with 1,000 pioneers in 120 wagons.  Despite the terrible and violent end of his mission, Marcus Whitman had accomplished his goal.  White women and wagons could make the trip, and Whitman's dream of white christian settlement was finally unstoppable.


Photographic Credits:  1 – Oregon Historical Society (OHS); OHS; OHS; Bancroft Library (BL).  2 – Ft. Walla Walla Historical Museum; Tana C. Legry (TCL); TCL; Photography Shari Clevenger (SC); 3 – Whitman Mission by Joseph Henry Jackson Scott’s Bluff National Monument Museum; 4 - TCL; TCL.  5 – From Marcus Whitman, M.D., Clifford Drury, published by Caxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho.  6 – TCL; TCL; BL. 

Additional Reading:
The Great Command: The Story of Marcus & Narcissa Whitman & the Oregon Country Pioneers
, N. Jones, Little-Brown, 1959.
Waiilatpu, Its Rise and Fall
, Miles Cannon.
Where Wagons Could Go
, ed. Clifford Merrill Drury, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1963.

 Web links:
  Up-to-date web links.
www.endoftheoregontrail.org  Interpretive Center.

www.nps.gov/whmi/index.htm  Whitman Mission, National Park Service.


The Model:
  Orphanage Main House at time of attack.
 Floor plan – Indian Room on lower right.  Based on drawing by
Narcissa Whitman in a letter to her mother.
* Developed for a video production.


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