Narcissa Whitman

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Narcissa Whitman
Narcissa whitman nps.jpg
Narcissa Whitman
BornMarch 14, 1808
DiedNovember 29, 1847(1847-11-29) (aged 39)
Spouse(s) Marcus Whitman

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (March 14, 1808 – November 29, 1847) was an American missionary in the Oregon Country of what would become the state of Washington. On their way to found the Protestant Whitman Mission in 1836 with her husband, Marcus, near modern-day Walla Walla, Washington, she and Eliza Hart Spalding (wife of Henry Spalding) became the first documented European-American women to cross the Rocky Mountains. [1]


Early life

Narcissa Prentiss was born in Prattsburgh, New York, on March 14, 1808. She was the third of nine children of Judge Stephen and Clarissa Prentiss, and the oldest of the five girls, followed by Clarissa, Mary Ann, Jane, and Harriet. She also had four brothers. For a time, she taught primary school in Prattsburgh. Like many young women of the era, she became caught up in the Second Great Awakening. She decided that her true calling was to become a missionary, and was accepted for missionary service in March 1835. [2] She was educated at the Franklin Academy in Prattsburgh before her marriage to Dr. Marcus Whitman on February 18, 1836 in Angelica, New York. [3] Her birthplace in Prattsburgh is open to the public as the Narcissa Prentiss House. [4]

Journey west

Shortly after their wedding, the Whitmans along with the also recently married Henry and Eliza Spalding headed west for the Oregon Country in March 1836 to begin their missionary activities amongst the natives. [3] The journey was by sleigh, canal barge, wagon, river sternwheeler, horseback, and foot. Narcissa kept a journal of the trip. The founder of Ogden, Utah, Miles Goodyear, traveled with them until Fort Hall. On September 1, 1836, they arrived at Fort Walla Walla, a Hudson's Bay Company outpost near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. They then traveled on to Fort Vancouver where they were hosted by Dr. John McLoughlin before returning to the Walla Walla area to build their mission. Whitman and Spalding were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains and live in the area. She was something of a novel addition to the community for the local Native Americans, the Cayuse. [5]

Whitman Mission

The Whitman Mission began to take shape in 1837, eventually growing into a major stopping point along the Oregon Trail. [3] Methodist missionary Jason Lee would stop off in 1838 at the mission on his way east to gather reinforcements in the United States for his mission in the Willamette Valley. Then, in 1840, mountain man Joseph Meek, whom the Whitmans met on their journey to the area, stopped off on his way to the Willamette Valley.

Built at Waiilatpu, the settlement was about six miles (10 km) from Fort Walla Walla and along the Walla Walla River. [3] At the mission, Whitman gave Bible classes to the native population, as well as teaching them Western domestic chores that were unknown to the Native Americans. Besides the missionary goals of converting the natives, she also ran the household. Her daily activities included cooking, washing and ironing clothes, churning butter, making candles and soap, and baking. Her letters home recounted her loneliness and life at the mission. [1]

On March 14, 1837, on her twenty-ninth birthday, Whitman gave birth to the first white American born in Oregon Country. [3] She named her Alice Clarissa after her grandmothers, and she would be their only natural child. Unfortunately, the child drowned in the Walla Walla River on June 23, 1839 at age two. Unattended for only a few moments, she had gone down to the river bank to fill her cup with water and fell in. Though her body was found shortly after, all attempts to revive her failed. However, other children came to the mission, including the Sager orphans, to whom Whitman became a second mother. [2]

Just before winter, in late 1842, Marcus traveled back east to recruit more missionaries for the mission. [3] During the time he was away, Whitman traveled west and visited other outposts in the territory including Fort Vancouver, Jason Lee's Methodist Mission near present-day Salem, Oregon, and another mission near Astoria, Oregon. Marcus returned with his nephew, Perrin, from his trip east in 1843.

Whitman massacre

Throughout their time in Oregon Country, the Whitmans periodically encountered trouble with the native tribes. [3] The Cayuse and the Nez Percé tribes were suspicious of the activities and the encroachment of the Americans. As early as 1841, Tiloukaikt had tried to force them to leave Waiilatpu and the ancestral homeland.

In 1847, a measles epidemic broke out among the native population, [3] which lacked immunity to the disease and it spread quickly. The American population had some limited immunity to measles which meant a lower mortality rate than the natives. This discrepancy stirred discontent among the natives who felt Marcus was only curing the white people while letting Indian children die. The resentment boiled over on November 29, 1847, when Tiloukaikt and others attacked the mission, killing both Whitmans. This event would be remembered as the Whitman massacre, in which eleven others were killed, including the young brothers John and Francis Sager. Many more were taken hostage. [6]


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According to author O. W. Nixon, who published a portrait of Whitman drawn after her death: "No authentic picture of Mrs. Whitman is in existence. This portrait of her has been drawn under the supervision of a gentleman familiar with her appearance and with suggestions from members of her family. It is considered a good likeness of her." [7]

Related Research Articles

Cayuse people ethnic group

The Cayuse are a Native American tribe in what is now the state of Oregon in the United States. The Cayuse tribe shares a reservation and government in northeastern Oregon with the Umatilla and the Walla Walla tribes as part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The reservation is located near Pendleton, Oregon, at the base of the Blue Mountains.

The Oregon missionaries were pioneers who settled in the Oregon Country of North America starting in the 1830s dedicated to bringing Christianity to local Native Americans. The Foreign Mission movement was already 15 years underway by 1820, but it was difficult to find missionaries willing to go to Oregon, as many wanted to go to the east, to India or China. It was not until the 1830s, when a schoolmaster from Connecticut, Hall Jackson Kelley, created his "American Society for the Settlement of the Oregon Country," that more interest and support for Oregon missionaries grew. Oregon missionaries played a political role, as well as a religious one, as their missions established US political power in an area in which the Hudson’s Bay Company, operating under the British government, maintained a political interest in the Oregon country. Such missionaries had an influential impact on the early settlement of the region, establishing institutions that became the foundation of United States settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

Marcus Whitman American physician and Oregon missionary

Marcus Whitman was an American physician. In 1836, Marcus Whitman led an overland party by wagon to the West. He and his wife, Narcissa, along with Reverend Henry Spalding and his wife, Eliza, and William Gray, founded a mission at present day Walla Walla, Washington in an effort to convert local Indians to Christianity. In the winter of 1842 Whitman returned east, returning the following summer with the first large wagon train across the Oregon Trail. The new settlers encroached on the Cayuse Indians living near the Whitman Mission and were unsuccessful in their efforts to Christianize the Tribe. Following the deaths of many nearby Cayuse from an outbreak of measles, some remaining Cayuse accused Whitman of murder, suggesting that he had administered poison and was a failed shaman. In retaliation, a group of Cayuse killed the Whitmans and twelve other settlers on November 29, 1847, an event that came to be known as the Whitman Massacre. Continuing warfare between settlers and Indians reduced the Cayuse numbers further.

Whitman massacre The 1847 massacre by Cayuse Indians of Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa and 11 other missionaries in the Pacific Northwest.

The Whitman massacre was the murder of Washington missionaries Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa, along with eleven others, on November 30th, 1847. They were killed by members of the Cayuse tribe who accused him of having poisoned 200 Cayuse in his medical care. The incident began the Cayuse War. It took place in southeastern Washington state near the town of Walla Walla, Washington and was one of the most notorious episodes in the U.S. settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Whitman had helped lead the first wagon train to cross Oregon's Blue Mountains and reach the Columbia River via the Oregon Trail, and this incident was the climax of several years of complex interaction between him and the local Indians. The story of the massacre shocked the United States Congress into action concerning the future territorial status of the Oregon Country, and the Oregon Territory was established on August 14, 1845.

The Cayuse War was an armed conflict that took place in the Northwestern United States from 1847 to 1855 between the Cayuse people of the region and the United States Government and local American settlers. Caused in part by the influx of disease and settlers to the region, the immediate start of the conflict occurred in 1847 when the Whitman Massacre took place at the Whitman Mission near present day Walla Walla, Washington when fourteen people were killed in and around the mission. Over the next few years the Provisional Government of Oregon and later the United States Army battled the Native Americans east of the Cascades. This was the first of several wars between the Native Americans and American settlers in that region that would lead to the negotiations between the United States and Native Americans of the Columbia Plateau, creating a number of Indian reservations.

Whitman Mission National Historic Site United States historic place

Whitman Mission National Historic Site is a United States National Historic Site located just west of Walla Walla, Washington, at the site of the former Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. On November 29, 1847, Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa Whitman, and 11 others were slain by Native Americans of the Cayuse. The site commemorates the Whitmans, their role in establishing the Oregon Trail, and the challenges encountered when two cultures meet.

Henry H. Spalding American pioneer minister

Henry Harmon Spalding (1803–1874), and his wife Eliza Hart Spalding (1807–1851) were prominent Presbyterian missionaries and educators working primarily with the Nez Perce in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The Spaldings and their fellow missionaries were among the earliest Americans to travel across the western plains, through the Rocky Mountains and into the lands of the Pacific Northwest to their religious missions in what would become the states of Idaho and Washington. Their missionary party of five, including Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa and William H. Gray, joined with a group of fur traders to create the first wagon train along the Oregon Trail.

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  1. 1 2 Edwards, G. Thomas. "Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847)". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Oregon Historical Society. Retrieved August 30, 2018.
  2. 1 2 "Biography of Narcissa Whitman". Whitman Mission National Historic Site. US National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Allen, Opal Sweazea. Narcissa Whitman: An Historical Biography. Binfords & Mort, 1959.
  4. Applebee, Lenora J., Around Prattsburgh, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing (2012), pp. 12, 13, 16.
  5. Nash, Gary, The American People, 6th concise ed., New York: Pearson Longman, p. 387.
  6. "Narcissa Biography". Whitman Mission National Historic Site. 2004-01-31. Archived from the original on 2010-03-05.
  7. Drury, Clifford Merrill (1937). Marcus Whitman, M. D.: Pioneer and Martyr. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers. p. 128.}}