Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,192

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,192


This is the grave of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, as well as others who died with them when the Cayuse struck against the missionary colonialists in 1847.

Born in 1802 in Federal Hollow, New York, Marcus Whitman mostly grew up in Massachusetts after the death of his parents. His uncle raised him. He moved back to New York as an adult and was taken by the ministry, but didn’t have money for that kind of education. He did however find the resources (perhaps he received some kind of assistance) to go to school as a doctor, or whatever passed for that in the early nineteenth century. He was able to practice for a few years in Canada, but he still wanted to become a minister. He was also very interested in the American West and wanted to have adventures.

So in 1835, he joined another missionary named Samuel Parker on a trip to evangelize among the Flathead and Nez Perce in what is today Montana and Idaho. This was pretty far out there for the 1830s. Mostly, the only whites going out there at that time were fur trappers, who were not exactly the greatest representation of American civilization to the tribes. Cholera broke out and he was able to treat people for it successfully. He made close friends with the Nez Perce–or so he believed–and said he would come back.

But first Whitman had to go back east and marry. He found a willing partner in Narcissa Prentiss, a science teacher. Born in 1808 in Plattsburgh, New York, she was the daughter of a judge. She, like many upstate New Yorkers, was totally caught up in the Second Great Awakening with all its revivals in the 1830s. She had already decided to leave education for missionary work when she met Whitman. They married in 1836 and headed west. On the way, they met up with another couple who were going to missionize the tribes–Henry and Eliza Spalding. They became fast friends. They slowly moved West and eventually arrived at Fort Vancouver, where John McLoughlin ran the Hudson’s Bay Company fort there. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to cross the Rockies to the west coast by land.

In 1837, the Whitmans decided to start their mission near Fort Walla Walla, another Hudson’s Bay post, just outside of the contemporary town of that same name. The Spaldings moved east, working with the Nez Perce. Both couples quickly became popular with the traders, missionaries, and eventually wagon trains moving into the Oregon Country. The point here, even for missionaries theoretically sympathetic with the tribes, was genocide, if more of the cultural side than the physical side. The goal was to erase Native culture and replace it with European culture. Narcissa set out to teach the tribes Christianity, how to read, proper early Victorian gender roles and culture. Marcus wanted them into the church and he wanted them to give up their hunting ways to become settled farmers under white control.

In March 1837, Narcissa gave birth to the first white child born in the Oregon Country, which is the kind of thing that gets whites in the Northwest excited even today. But the child drowned in the nearby river in 1839. They were also recruiting more missionaries and more settlers. In 1842, Marcus returned east on a recruiting trip for instance.

All of this made the tribes very suspicious. The Whitmans may have thought the Nez Perce were friendly with them, but this misread the situation very badly. The Cayuse were more openly hostile, highly suspicious of all the whites that kept coming and making demands upon them. The Cayuse were pressing the Whitmans to leave as early 1841, telling them to get out of the Cayuse homeland or there would be consequences. But of course they refused to listen. They thought Jesus was behind them and they consciously saw their work as promoting white Christian culture. They weren’t going to leave being the vanguard of civilization.

In 1847, another wave of disease struck the tribes. This time it wasn’t smallpox or cholera. It was measles. And it devastated tribes throughout the Northwest. At the Whitman’s mission, where several Native people lived, the whites survived and the Natives were dying. From the perspective of the tribes, this was evidence that the Whitmans were saving white people and letting them die. It was more accurate that whites had some immunity to the disease, as they brought it with them, and the tribes did not. But one can see why the Cayuse would think this. And one can see why they would act as they did.

On November 29, 1847, the Cayuse, under the leadership of Tiloukaikt, attacked the mission and wiped it out. They killed both Marcus and Narcissa Whitman as well as eleven others, many of whom were white children, as the Whitmans took in the kids of Oregon Trail travelers orphaned along the way, which was hardly uncommon.

And you know–good for the Cayuse. I have no problem with the historical actions of the tribes or other subjugated populations to engage in last ditch efforts to save themselves from the depredations of whites. That’s true of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, it’s true of the Haitian Rebellion, it’s true of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, it’s true of King Phillip’s War in 1676, it’s true of the Dakota War in 1862, and it’s true of the Cayuse at the Whitman Mission. In each of these cases, supposedly innocent white children died too. Well, Native and Black children were dying all the time due to white genocide, torture, slaughter, and indifference. No, this did not work out for the Cayuse. Five of their members were soon hanged for murder and the tribe was utterly overwhelmed by whites in coming years. But what were they supposed to do? The Whitmans absolutely were in the vanguard of genocide. This is just a really ugly history and there’s no easy way out for contemporary liberals who want to believe in both human rights and nonviolence to square the circle. People were dying and it caused a backlash that led to some white deaths. I cannot say anything against the actions of the Cayuse here.

Upon their deaths, Marcus Whitman was 45 years old and Narcissa Whitman was 39 years old.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman are buried at Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Walla Walla, Washington.

Today, the Whitman Mission site remains pretty boring and still told pretty much from a settler perspective. I visited in July, when I took this picture, and I don’t think much had changed since I would go there once or twice as a kid to break up the long drive from my parents house to my grandparents house near Lewiston, Idaho. But there were new signs on the old signs letting everyone know that the Park Service is redoing the park in collaboration with the descendants of the Cayuse. Today, the Cayuse are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and they are there with the Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples. I look forward to visiting again once this is done and the site represents the true complexity of what was going on there and isn’t just a place for whites to go see covered wagons and hear about “depredations” of Indians.

If you would like this series to visit other early missionaries to the American West, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jason Lee is in Salem, Oregon and Samuel Parker is in Ithaca, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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