Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), was a direct descendant of John Whitman who sailed from England in the ship Confidence, December, 1638. Old John “feared God, hated covetousness and did good continually…”
Marcus’ father, Beza Whitman, died in 1810, only 35 years old, leaving his young wife, Alice, to rear four sons and one daughter. Alice was not a professing Christian, but she was a bustling, breathing definition of that word, “pluck.” Marcus, her second son, inherited her strong frame and great endurance. After his father’s death, he was sent to his paternal grandfather, Samuel Whitman, of Plainfield, Massachusetts. There he was trained in the best schools the place afforded.
At seventeen, Marcus was converted and became active in the life of the church. Meanwhile, he studied medicine, then practiced for eight years.
In 1834, he began missionary work and in 1835, he and Samuel Parker explored as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Favorably impressed, Parker stayed to set up a suitable mission station, and Whitman returned to New York to report and recruit workers.
One of those workers Marcus recruited was Narcissa Prentiss. They wed in February of 1836. With William Gray and Henry and Eliza Spalding, they left for the new mission in the Oregon Territory (comprising what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming). Their work was among the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu, near the present-day Walla Walla, Washington. At first, the Nez Perce and Cayuse tribes eagerly received the teaching of the missionaries. But the Whitman’s brave work ended abruptly in 1847 with a brutal massacre. What had happened?
We surmise that one cause was envy. Whitman cultivated a farm, built a gristmill and a sawmill. His medical practice covered a wide area. It puzzled others how one man, with few helpers, did so much. The explorer Joseph Drayton, said, “All the premises looked comfortable; the garden had especially fine vegetables and melons in great variety. The wheat…was seven feet high and nearly ripe, and the corn nine feet…”
At the time of the massacre, the main building of the mission was one hundred feet in the front, and part of it two stories high. Visitors never expected such a clean, efficient facility in the wilderness. Whitman was a genius to conceive, and a workhorse to carry out. Seeing the fruit of his labor seems to have angered lazy onlookers. Some accused Marcus of profiteering from the new settlers. Some tribesmen demanded a division of his wealth. Actually, all his labors went to the mission. Henry Spalding said the Whitmans could have packed their personal belongings on the backs of two mules!
Superstition also motivated his assassins. In September of 1839, a great sorrow came when the Whitman’s only child, a girl just past two, drowned in the Walla Walla River. The Indians adored her, and came to hear her sing the Cayuse songs. The old chief had said: “When I die, I give everything I have to the ‘Little White Cayuse.'” Her death estranged the Indians from the Whitmans. They thought some evil omen had come on the mission. Friends begged Marcus to leave for a while until the Indians were more amenable, but there was his work and there he would remain.
Finance and politics may have influenced the assassins. The Hudson Bay Company, that had till then controlled the area, saw that the influx of American settlers interfered with their lucrative fur trade. Whitman encouraged the white settlers. He said that “the first battle was between the schoolhouse and civilization, and the tepee and savagery.” Running the risk of offending any anthropologist who might chance to read this article, I quote from a letter dated May 16, 1844, from Waiilatpui. Marcus says:
“It does not concern me so much what is to become of any particular set of Indians, as to give them the offer of salvation through the gospel and the opportunity of civilization, and then I am content to do good to all men as I have opportunity…”
But perhaps the most stubborn obstacle that the Whitmans and Spaldings faced was the Roman Catholic priesthood. For instance, J. A. Brouillett, a French Jesuit, wrote a pamphlet in 1853, entitled, Protestantism in Oregon. He snarled at the Whitmans and Spaldings in particular and “Protestant missionaries” in general. Brouillett exonerated the instigators of the massacre, and blamed the missionaries who were the victims! Forty thousand copies were distributed.
The missionaries were awake to the drift of affairs. Whitman braved the winter of 1842-43 to make an emergency trip across the continent to Washington, DC, and Boston. This would make him a hero in the state of Washington and give him a few paragraphs in the encyclopedia. William Barrows saw him on this trip: “Marcus Whitman was a man not to be forgotten. He was of medium height, more compact than spare, a stout shoulder, and large head not much above it, covered with stiff iron-gray hair…He carried himself awkwardly, though perhaps courteously enough for trappers, Indians, mules and grizzlies, his principal company for six years. There was nothing quick in his motion or speech, and no trace of a fanatic; but under control of a thorough knowledge of his business, and with deep, ardent convictions about it…He wore coarse fur garments with buckskin breeches…”
Henry Spalding says, in speaking of the immigration of 1843 that Whitman led back to Oregon:
“And through that whole summer, Dr. Whitman was everywhere present; the ministering angel to the sick, helping the weary, encouraging the wavering, cheering the tired mothers, setting broken bones and mending wagons…He was in the river hunting out fords through the quicksand; in the desert places looking for water and grass; among the mountains hunting for passes, never before trodden by white men; at noontide and at midnight he was on the alert as if the whole line was his own family…For all this he neither asked nor expected a dollar from any source…at the end, when, standing at his mission home, hundreds of his fellow pilgrims took him by the hand and thanked him with tears in their eyes for all that he had done.”
In 1847, a measles epidemic broke out among new settlers in Whitman’s community. Some of the Cayuse children died, and the superstitious fears of the Indians led to open insurrection. Some may have believed their children were poisoned. There is no evidence that white men directly instigated the massacre or took a part in its horrors. While there is evidence of a bitter animosity existing among the Jesuit priests toward the Protestant missionaries, the facts are not sufficient to lay the blame on them. Nor is it necessary to hold the officials of the Hudson Bay Company responsible. There are always those ready to do the villain’s work.
Cushing Eells says, “The day before the massacre, Istikus, a firm friend of Dr. Whitman, told him of the threats against his life, and advised him to ‘go away until my people have better hearts.’ He reached home …late that night, but visited his sick before retiring. Then he told Mrs. Whitman Istikus’ words. Knowing how true and courageous a friend Istikus was, they knew the situation was perilous…The doctor went about his work as usual, but told some of his associates that if it were possible to do so, he would remove all the family to a place of safety. It is the first time he ever seems to have been alarmed, or thought it possible that his Indians would attempt such a crime.”
The massacre was a cold-blooded atrocity. Those killed had spent the best years of their lives in the service of the murderers. Those who had received the largest favors and the most kindness from the doctor and his wife were active leaders in the crime.
Henry Spalding, in a letter to the parents of Narcissa Whitman, dated April 6, 1848, gave this account:
“They were inhumanly butchered by their own–up to the last moment–beloved Indians, for whom their warm Christian hearts had prayed for eleven years, and their unwearied hands had administered to their every want…They were, doubtless, urged on to the dreadful deed by foreign influences, which we have felt coming in upon us like a devastating flood for the last three or four years…The massacre took place on the fatal 29th of November last, commencing at half-past one. Fourteen persons were murdered…”
The murderers were not arrested until nearly two years after the crime.
In 1855, General Joel Palmer wrote, “Forty-five Cayuse and one thousand Nez Perce have kept up regular family and public worship, singing from the Nez Perce Hymn Book and reading the Gospel of Matthew, translated into Nez Perce, the work of Dr. and Mrs. Spalding.” Says General Barlow, “Many of them showed surprising evidences of piety, especially Timothy, who was their regular and faithful preacher during all these years.” Among the Cayuse, old Istikus, as long as he lived, rang his bell every Sunday and called a band together for worship. How much the work of the Oregon missionaries benefited the Indians eternity alone will reveal. They simply obeyed the call “to preach the gospel to every creature.”